Forest of Dean Archaeology by Jon Hoyle

Hidden Landscapes in the Forest of Dean

By John Hoyle

Meeting of 12 March 2020

The earliest finds from the Forest are chance finds and dated to the Palaeolithic (900,000-10,000 BC) by comparing them to finds elsewhere; the earliest is the Newent hand axe (around 400,000 BC). The only settlement know from this period is King Arthur’s Cave (around 12,000 BC) which was used as a hunting camp as the thaw was beginning after the last Ice Age. There were probably more settlements out in the open, but cave sites survive much better.

The evidence for the Mesolithic (10,000-4,000 BC) is concentrated around Eastbach and the Burse. The Goldcliffe camp by the river is probably one of the settlements from where hunting and gathering groups set off; with another closer to the Bicknor area.

From the Neolithic (4,000-2,500 BC) there are none of the typical long barrows. A lovely hand axe found in Coleford was quarried in Cornwall, and shows people were in this area and trading over long distances; but perhaps without settling.

There are many ritual sites by the Bronze Age (2,500-700 BC), with standing stones (Long Stone, Staunton and Queen’s Stone, Huntsham), barrows and cairns. Tidenham Chase has many sites, such as Soldier’s Tump round barrow, whose grave goods include a tiny bronze dagger, and the recently identified ring cairn. Tidenham may have been a special ritual place with great connections to the main transport routes of the time – rivers. The settlement evidence is mostly from chance finds or field-walking – like the English Bicknor tanged-and-barbed arrowhead.

With all this evidence, there must have been people living in the Forest. There are four hillforts in the area. The earlier forms (around 1,000 BC) are banks (the remains of substantial stone walls) and a ditch, and are clearly defensive. By this time the climate was worsening and there was less agricultural land, so defending your land would have become more necessary. They would have been like a small town, probably were the elite lived, with storage, markets and so on whilst the rest lived in enclosures outside.

Welshbury hillfort has three concentric ramparts and (possibly) was built over a Bronze Age field system with a settlement to the south – so is an area in use over a long time period. Lydney Park Roman Temple is inside a hillfort. Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations uncovered enough evidence to show that fairly wealthy people lived in the hillfort.

Symonds Yat is a promontory hillfort, with the promontory cut off by five ramparts. Probably it overlooked agricultural land in the river loop below as there are crop marks and lots of grain pits (which were for winter storage). Lancaut is the same as Symonds Yat but with two ramparts.

There are good Iron Age field systems around Sallowvalets and Welshbury and Soudley Camp is probably a settlement with field systems. The Hewelsfield and Madgetts area have early cropmarks and Offa’s Dyke cuts across a Madgetts linear works, so they must be earlier than the Dyke (late 8th century). There is plenty of evidence of iron working.

Hillforts are not easy to defend, and are not designed for sieges (many did not have easy access to water) and those still in use were no match for the Roman military when it came.

Before Lidar the Forest of Dean was a blank canvas, now there are many questions to answer about our early landscape and people.