Archaeology

West Sussex Hillforts

The South Downs is littered with numerous signs of ancient settlement. Here in Arundel I am surrounded by four of them: Cissbury, Chanctonbury, Highdown and the Trundle. All have fabulous views of the sea and I am often reminded of the first ‘story’ in Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum. The Mesolithic hunter gatherers witness the formation of the English Channel, cutting this island off from Continental Europe.

We know early hominids had been in the area for half a million years. The remains of Boxgrove Man were first identified during excavations in 1982, near Chichester, believed to be an extinct species Homo heidelbergensis. Palaeolithic flint artefacts have also been found near the foot of the Trundle, the hill fort just north of Chichester.

During the Mesolithic, it is believed that these vantage points were used as look outs for migrating herds of game. There are no archaeological signs of activity from this period, but within what became Cissbury Ring, and on a nearby hill, are the remains of Neolithic flint mines. Nineteenth century excavations of these shafts contained prehistoric art and carved chalk blocks. The remains of a Neolithic enclosure have also been found within the Iron Age hillfort on top of the Trundle.

Most of what is now visible, and accessible, to visitors, dates from the Bronze Age (c1800 – 800 BC), Iron Age, Roman and later. All photos are shown at the beginning of my comments on each location.

Cissbury Ring, near Findon, is the largest hillfort in Sussex and the second largest in England (the largest being Maiden Castle in Dorset). There were Bronze Age burial mounds here and it seems that the site was a ritual burial ground. The Iron Age hilltop enclosure is believed to have been used for defence, with agricultural activity also identified within the fort. By the Roman period and later, there was settlement on the hill. Coinage finds also suggest that there was a mint here in the early 11th century. A fabulous site to explore with very limited parking nearby and parking in the village will upset the locals. Now owned and managed by the National Trust. Most of the centre is covered in gorse bushes, but there are spectacular views up here.

Just north of Cissbury is Chanctonbury Ring. Much smaller than Cissbury, also with Bronze Age burials. Interestingly there is no evidence of settlement and it may have been a religious shrine. There are the remains of two temples from the Roman period, and the Romans often chose sites that had earlier spiritual significance. It’s also worth noting that Roman Stane Street passed nearby, with considerable Roman activity throughout the area. A slightly bigger car park for this one with quite a steep climb through woodland on the northern approach. The South Downs Way passes the enclosure. The area within the embankment is planted with trees which, as with the gorse at Cissbury, probably discourages detectorists!

Excavations at Highdown, near Ferring, showed significant Bronze Age settlement, as well as an Iron Age encampment which pre-dates Cissbury. No signs of Roman activity, but there was a later Anglo-Saxon cemetery on the hill. Extensive car parking, this is very popular with dog walkers. The hill is a good spot for orchids and chalk downland wildlife. Just down the hill is Highdown Gardens, a hotel and popular cafe.

The Trundle is a hillfort on St Roche’s Hill. The Neolithic enclosure has been mentioned but there is little sign of Bronze Age activity. The Iron Age fort is fairly large with huge masts near the centre of the structure. I don’t mind OS triangulation pillars, but I do object to huge ugly masts at an archaeological site. Great views to Portsmouth and beyond and reasonable parking but the least ‘atmospheric’ of the four, in my opinion. It also overlooks Goodwood racecourse!

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