Highdown Hill
Map Ref : TQ093044

Subject ListArchaeology

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Name Derivation Name Derivation
From High (Modern), Dun (Saxon for Hill) and Hill (Modern)
Note: Note double use of Hill as Dun goes out of use and Hill is appended again
History History

Highdown Hill is a small hill 226 feet high that stands just north of Ferring on the West Sussex coast and is seperated from the main bulk of the South Downs to the north. It has had much use in Prehistoric times with a settlement in the Bronze age, fortification in the Iron age, a Roman bath house and a Saxon cemetary, allegedly the burial place of the Saxon King Ælla after the battle at Mount Badon with King Arthur in 516AD. The Fort lies near a crossroads of two ancient trackways. Just to the west of the camp is a trackway which runs from Ferring to the south to Sullington in the north, which has pre-conquest features. The other track, just to the south of the camp, runs from Lyminster through Poling and Angmering to the west past the camp to Tarring and Broadwater to the east.

Years of disuse passed since the Saxon burial ground fell out of use until the 18th century when a windmill was built on the western side of the camp, just inside the ramparts by the eccentric miller, John Olliver. After his death in 1793, a new Mill was built by a Mr. Frederick Luck who worked there until 1856 before moving to "The Old Mill" in Angmering. In 1892, trees were planted within the Iron Age enclosure by a Mr. Henty, a local landowner. During this planting the Saxon burial ground was found, traditionally the burial place for the Saxon Kings of Sussex. The site was made a scheduled ancient monument in 1930 before a radar station was built during the second world war within the fort. The station was surrounded by dugouts and machine gun posts, damaging some of the archaeology. The site is now owned by the National Trust and is a favourite spot for walking dogs. Its current use is relatively quiet compared to its busy past.

Archaeology Archaeology
  Bronze Age Settlement

The earliest archaeological evidence for use of the hill is during the Bronze-Age. In the 19th century, Colonel Lane Fox excavated a pit just inside the ramparts on the south side. The oblong pit, cut into the chalk, had steps leading into it and a smooth floor. The contents of the pit consisted of large quantities of animal bone, including dog, some bronze age pottery and a Bronze dagger placed pointing upright in one corner, with a bone pin nearby. The pit was cut into above by later burial, probably Saxon. The regularity of the cutting of the pit and the way in which the objects were placed may suggest a ritual deposit rather than a rubbish pit.

Later, during the 1939 excavations of the Iron-Age camp on the summit of the hill, remnants of Late Bronze-Age huts, two hearths and a cooking pit were found beneath the ramparts. One hut seems to have been built on the site of another, with a medley of postholes and two different floor levels, suggesting a long term use of the site during the Bronze-Age. All the pottery found in this area, including a large section of bucket pot, was from the Late Bronze Age though was of a mixture of types from that period, probably from the two different huts on the site. Some of the sherds found resemble those at the Bronze-Age Settlement site on Plumpton Plain. Other objects found were a spindle-whorl, a loom weight and part of a saddle-quern.

The Iron-Age Camp

It seems that the Iron-Age camp was built around the time of the first invasions from the continent. It is quite probable that the Bronze-Age settlement here was destroyed during this invasion and the ramparts erected by the invaders to defend the site, later being modified at other times in its history. It was originally thought by early antiquarians that the fort was an outlier of Cissbury Ring, though it has proved to be much older. Some pieces of Early Iron-Age pottery were found on the old turf line below the ramparts, perhaps indicating a period of settlement by the invaders before the ramparts were built. The first rampart consisted of a ditch 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep followed by a 10 foot wide berm (a level piece of ground between the ditch and the rampart) followed by the rampart itself which consisted of earth built up between a line of posts on the inside and a wall of chalk or flint blocks resting in a channel on the outside. Later in the Iron-Age the ditch was recut, the berm removed and a sloping bank constructed leading up to a line of posts with a walkway below and behind.

The Ramparts of the Fort

The inner and outer Ramparts at the South-East corner

The entrance to the camp is in the eastern bank and original gateway was supported by two very large posts, the postholes which held them having been preserved. During the first reconstruction of the camp, the original entranceway was covered by the bank and moved slightly south with a less grand gate judging by the lack of large postholes. The entrance in the south bank may be associated with the 18th century mill.

Plan of the Ramparts of Highdown Camp

Plan of the Ramparts of Highdown Camp

The first ditch cut was lined with clay, perhaps indicating the ditch was used as a moat, though no specific silting associated with the presence of water was noted. In the same ditch, on the south-east side of the camp, the skeleton of an Iron-Age man was found under a small cairn of chalk blocks.

Another bank and ditch, much smaller than the main one extend around the South and South-East of the camp. The exact period of construction in the Iron-Age is unknown, though it was used later by the Saxons as part of the burial ground, several graves being found dug along the top.

Later ditches than the first two cuttings of the main ditch were cut but the exact form of construction is not so easily discernable. There seems to have been some sort of reconstruction during the Marnian Invasion around 250BC after which the camp seems to have been abandoned until late Roman times.

The Bath House

On the west side of the hill, halfway down the slope, the remains of a Roman bath house was excavated in 1936 and 1938. Whether this bath house was linked to an undiscovered nearby Villa or one further away such as at Angmering is unknown. The bath house was built around the late first or early second century and had a cold bath and two hot rooms, only one of which is shown on the plan. Roman finds include pottery (Samian, Castor Ware and New Forest Ware), tesserae, window glass and various metal objects (nails, iron sandal studs, two bronze spoons, an iron ladle and an iron sickle blade). Pits found nearby contain pottery which indicated that the site was somehow in use during the Late Iron-Age.

Plan of the Bath House on the west side of Highdown Hill

Plan of the Bath House on the west side of Highdown Hill

Romano-British Use Of The Camp

At the end of the Roman period, during the time of the Saxon Invasions, the rampart was heightened, a palisade built and a wide, shallow ditch constructed. Perhaps the battle to capture the camp was particularly fierce or the Saxons thought the capture of the camp particularly important, as a Saxon burial ground of some note was constructed here.

The Saxon Burial Ground

In 1892 during the planting of trees on the summit of Highdown Hill, a Saxon burial ground was found by the owner of the land and 86 graves were excavated, which occupied most of the inside of the camp and a small area on the outside. There were no overlapping graves found, either indicating the site was in use for a very short space of time, or that there were some sort of grave markers, now lost. The burials included a mixture of inhumations and cremations placed in urns, indicating either burial at a different period in time or by a different clan or class. The bodies found inhumed were mostly males of around 6 feet tall, none of them at a particularly advanced age, perhaps indicating that this was a burial ground for warriors who died during the Saxon invasion, though many of the objects found would suggest that this wasn't the case. In the majority of cases, the bodies buried rather than cremated were laid out east-west with the head to the west. This is one of the earliest Saxon burial grounds found in Sussex, other fine examples can be found at Alfriston and Eastbourne. Whilst Highdown has a smaller number of graves than the burial ground at Alfriston, both have in common their position near the crossroads of two ancient trackways.

Iron Angon from the cemetary
Iron Angon from the cemetary

The artifact shown above is a rare type of spear known as an Angon. The head is barbed and the whole is around 30 inches long with a socket for a wooden shaft. Apart from this notable example, the more standard Saxon spear head was found in a tenth of the graves, the only other weapons found, not including the usual knives, being two swords leaving several of the male burials without weapons, perhaps discounting the invasion theory and suggesting either a more peaceful use of the site or a continued use into peaceful times. It should be noted that shield bosses are rare here and axes are absent. Artifacts found in the womens graves were restricted to beads made from coloured glass, amber and porcelain as well as other jewelery such as rings and brooches while the male burials also contained items such as tweezers, glass vessels, pottery (not cremation urns) and wooden objects. Items such as brooches, buckles and odd flattened bronze tubes were found in the graves of both sexes.

Belt Slide with Dragon like carvings at either end
Belt Slide with Dragon like carvings at either end
  Large Penannular Brooch
Large Penannular Brooch

The brooches were generally made of bronze with Iron pins and consisted of various styles including round, square, penannular, cruciform and zoomorphic forms such as a pair of bird brooches. Like the glassware, some of the brooches are of Saxon workmanship while others are derivative of late Roman work. Other non military metal objects found included what appeared to be a striking iron found with flints, three iron bands from a bucket and finger rings made of bronze, iron and silver.

Glass Goblet with Greek Inscription
Glass Goblet with
Greek Inscription
The glass objects found were particularly fine, mostly cups, bowls and conical drinking vessels found in male graves, the exception was an intricate glass vase or goblet in a grave where the sex of the occupant was not determined. Decorations include a hound chasing two hares and the inscription in Greek of the common Latin phrase "Utere Felix" meaning "Good Health", though it is thought to come from Alexandria in Egypt dating from the 4th or early 5th century. A chemical analysis of the contents indicated that it may have contained some sort of cosmetic. The rest of the glasswork is thought to be of a similar date to the decorated vase and many of them have Roman influence in their design, and the are thought to originate in northern Gaul. The Roman influence would fit with the date as the Saxon invasion of Sussex occured around 477, though is it not known whether these are Saxon works or booty from raids.

Bronze Head of Faun
Bronze Head of Faun

Other non Saxon and probably plundered items included the head of a Faun in the Roman style, though perhaps not Roman construction along with several Roman coins, including Domitian and Fausta, pierced for use as pendants. Two Roman brooches were also found, made from iron and with bronze pins. Examinations of some of the skulls found indicate that the South Saxons, found buried here at Highdown Hill were of a purer Teutonic stock than that of the West Saxon invaders. Most of the objects found are now at Worthing Museum.

Resistivity Survey

In 1991, a resistivity survey was carried by the Field Archaeology Unit out to the west of Highdown Hill before possible tree planting, to see if the archaeology continued further out past the hillfort. There was considerable variations in the underlying geology which made interpretation difficult, but an L shaped structure, possibly a foundation trench, could be seen quite clearly, along with a few amorphous pits that may be an extension of the Saxon cemetery. Certainly much may be buried in the area to the west of the hillfort, the Roman bath-house probably had an associated villa which has not yet been found.

Folklore Folklore
  Buried Treasure

Like many other hillforts in Sussex, Highdown has a piece of folklore connected to it relating to Buried Treasure. The item in question in this case is a Golden Calf, which can also be found at The Trundle to the west. While no golden calf was found, there certainly was plenty of treasure.

Ghosts Ghosts
  The Miller's Tomb

On the east side of Highdown Hill is the tomb of John Olliver, an eccentric 18th century miller who had the tomb built on the hill 30 (or 25) years before his death. He visited a shed he built on the site daily, supposedly to meditate, though some people think he was involved in smuggling and used the place as a look-out point and for signalling, with the tomb itself being used to hide contraband goods. He seemed to have plenty of money as when he died on April 22, 1793 at the age of 84, he had his coffin carried by girls dressed in white, a custom usually reserved for young (and therefore sinless) children.

The Tomb of John Olliver

The Tomb of John Olliver

According to legend, John Olliver had himself buried upside down so that at the day of the Last Judgement when the world turned upside down, he would be the only man facing the right way up. It is said that you can raise the ghost of John Olliver by running around his grave seven times, after which he will jump out and chase you. This method of summoning is also found at Chanctonbury Ring where running round the Ring will raise the Devil. Indeed it was believed by some local children that one of the inscriptions on the tomb said that if you ran around the tomb backwards 12 times at midnight, the Devil would come out and chase you, though there is no such verse. One of the legible verses left, under a carving of Time and Death (as a skeleton) says :

Why start you at that skeleton?
'Tis your own image that you shun;
Alive it did resemble thee,
And thou when dead like that shalt be.

Today the place is very peaceful and a favourite spot for deckchairs. The tomb itself is now surrounded by railings to protect it but that hasn't stopped people from putting flowers on top of the tomb.

Local Customs Local Customs
  Morris Dancing

Highdown Hill is the Midsummer Night haunt of Sompting Village Morris who dance the sun down within the earthworks on top of the hill. The public are asked to join in with a mass public dance at the end which usually results in mayhem.

Sompting Village Morris on Highdown Hill

Sompting Village Morris on Highdown Hill

Bibliography Bibliography
  Burstow, G.P. : The Celts in Sussex, SCM Vol. 14, No. 6 1940
Burstow, G.P. : Sussex in the Roman Occupation, SCM Vol. 14, No. 11 1940
Burstow, G.P. : The Prehistory of Highdown Hill, SCM Vol. 15, No. 3 1941
Clinch, George : Ancient Earthworks, VCH Vol. 1 (467) 1973
Curwen, E. Cecil : Prehistoric Sussex, Homeland Association Ltd. 1929
Fox, A.H.L. : Further Remarks on the Hill Forts of Sussex, Archaeologia 42
Glover, Judith : Sussex Place Names, Countryside Books 1997
Greig, Ian, M. : A Resistivity Survey..., Field Archaeology Unit 1991
Griffith, A.F. : Some Notes on Anglo-Saxon Antiquities..., SAC Vol. 66 (219-224) 1925
Harden, D.B. : The Highdown Hill Glass Goblet..., SAC Vol. 97 (3-20) 1959
Harden, D.B. : Saxon Glass From Sussex, SCM Vol. 25, No. 6 1951
Hopkins, Thurston : New Mill, Highdown Hill, SCM Vol. 4, p.1064 1930
Irving, G.V. : On the Camps at Cissbury, Sussex, Jrn. Brit. Arch. Assoc. 13
Keppel, B. : The Miller's Tomb, SCM Vol. 1, No. 11 1927
Read, C.H. On Excavations in a cemetary of South Saxons..., Archaeologia 54
Read, C.H. Further Excavations in a cemetary..., Archaeologia 55
Simpson, Jacqueline : The Folklore Of Sussex, B. T. Batsford Ltd. 1973
Smith, R.A. : Anglo-Saxon Remains, VCH Vol. 1 (340-345) 1973
Wales, Tony : Sussex Ghosts & Legends, Countryside Books 1992
Wilson, A.E. & Burstow, G.P. : A Roman Bath..., SAC Vol. 80 (62-87) 1939
Wilson, A.E. : Report on the Excavations..., SAC Vol. 81 (173-203) 1940
Wilson, A.E. : Excavations on Highdown Hill, 1947, SAC Vol. 89 (163-178) 1950
Wilson, A.E. : A Guide to the Anglo-Saxon Collection (2nd Ed), Worthing Museum

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