EIGHTY years ago ancient burial mounds were discovered at a beauty spot. But nothing has been dug up – until now. Archaeologists, with the help of local volunteers, are now uncovering what lies beneath and why a cemetery might be there. Jeff Travis went to meet the people behind the project.
There’s an excitement building up in the town.
It’s not about a new shop being built or a festival being held, but something far more enduring and earthy.
Until recently for many people, Petersfield Heath was just a place to walk the dog or take the children to play.
The big mounds were a convenient place to sleigh in the snow and made for a great golf course at one time.
But beneath the grass could be a treasure trove of artefacts – and even human remains – that will reveal for the first time the secrets of ancient tribes who lived in Hampshire some 3,500 years ago or even further back in pre-history.
Archaeologists, with the help of volunteers, have started to excavate the heath. Since the 1930s, experts knew of at least 21 Bronze Age barrows, or burial mounds.
Despite being recognised a Scheduled Ancient Monument, nothing had been dug up.
But during the last three weeks of September, the four-year project began in earnest, with 18 volunteers from across the area working alongside archaeologists George Anelay and Dr Stuart Needham.
Within days they had hit the jackpot.
In the centre of one mound were traces of a wooden coffin and a collection of important grave goods, including fragments of a dagger and a sharpening stone.
On a flat section, a dug-up trench revealed evidence of an enclosure.
To the west of a local nursery was a huge assemblage of flint, probably dating back to 6,000 BC.
Archaeologists know they have probably just scratched the surface of what might be found at the site, which has been compared to Stonehenge in terms of its importance.
Such is the enthusiasm that the phone has not stopped ringing at Petersfield Museum, which has spearheaded the ‘People of The Heath’ project.
‘It’s been there for 3,500 years,’ says Wayne Robertson, a museum trustee who is overseeing the project.
‘And virtually nothing is known about it – and yet it’s one of the most important archaeological features for a very long way around.
‘This is not just big for Hampshire, it’s big for the whole area.
‘The South Downs area was there long before Hampshire and West Sussex were. It’s the biggest barrow cemetery for a very long way around.
‘And it was bigger.
‘It’s known there were other barrows where they are now housing estates.’
It is speculated the people buried at the heath would have been high-ranking figures and tribes probably lived there, at least for part of the year.
‘It’s not unreasonable to assume there are 21 definite barrows and each one would have at least one burial,’ says Wayne.
‘The amount of work that goes into making a barrow – it’s a great big thing.
‘It would have taken a long time.
‘So it presupposes they were very well-fed and there was an organised society.’
Kathrin Pieren, curator of the museum, is a regular jogger at the heath and is very excited about what might be found and the prospect of putting the artefacts on display.
She says: ‘The size and diversity of the heath complex invites comparison with better known barrow cemeteries in Wessex, for example, those well-preserved around Stonehenge.
‘This begs a host of questions about why the locality became important in this period and the extent to which it was influenced by developments in other regions.’
She explained the project is not just about finding human remains.
‘The project is more generally about the people of the Heath,’ she says.
‘Those who designed, constructed and venerated these lasting monuments; it is about how the barrows were built, in what sequence, and what they meant to the community.
‘It is about where the people lived, what food they grew, how they utilised their environment and what impact they had on it.’
Five more digs are planned and radiocarbon testing will take place to work out an exact age of the finds.
Experts from Reading University are planning to analyse ancient pollen in the ground to decipher what the landscape was like thousands of years ago.
The ambition is to have a guided trail on the heath, exhibitions, a booklet, as well as archaeological publications and a conference.
Wayne says he believes the finds will put Petersfield on the map and make the heath a tourist destination within the South Downs National Park.
The lasting legacy will be understanding more about why this corner of Hampshire was such a desirable place to live for ancient peoples.
Education is a key part of the project and already 195 children from six local schools have visited the excavations and taken part in workshops.
Amanda Harwood, education and outreach officer at the museum, says: ‘We have had enormous interest.
‘We have a waiting list of schools.
‘The project will help people realise the burial mounds are there.
‘Some teachers were saying they used to bring their children and they would slope down the hill.
‘Then I would say that’s a burial mound and they had absolutely no idea.
‘You might not have this great interest in history, but while you walk your dog or take your children to the park, you will know there is this history literally under your feet.’
So there’s lots to look forward to over the coming years as the secrets of the heath are finally unshrouded.
‘We have got a way to go yet, but the first indications are incredibly exciting,’ says Wayne.
And the project is proving that archaeology really does capture the imagination, whatever your age or background.
‘It’s human nature to be inquisitive about your remote history,’ explains Wayne.
‘When you dig something up and are the first person to hold a flint implement that somebody made 4,000 years ago – there’s this visceral connection with the distant past and I think a lot of people feel that.’
Funding has been key
THE excavations and education programme have been made possible thanks to several grants.
Some £100,000 was awarded by Heritage Lottery Fund, while the South Downs National Park authority donated £20,000.
East Hampshire District Council gave a grant of £500 towards the cost of providing more information boards at the heath.
The project, which is due to finish in 2018, will not be possible without the army of volunteers who are signing up to help.
Among the other supporters of the scheme are: Chichester District Council Archaeological Service, English Heritage, Friends of Petersfield Heath, Hampshire County Council Archaeological Service, Hampshire County Council Museums Service, Petersfield Area Historical Society, Petersfield Tomorrow and Petersfield Town Council.
An exhibition about the history of the heath runs until the end of November at Petersfield Museum, at The Old Courthouse, St Peter’s Road.
For information about the education programme contact Amanda Harwood on (01730) 260756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For all other enquiries call (01730) 262601 or email email@example.com.