Wittenham Clumps: Ancient Earthworks Haunted by Gods Long Forgotten
A beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten, wrote the British poet Paul Nash upon seeing the Clumps, a distinctive set of peaks in the Thames Valley of Oxfordshire, England. Rising some 400 feet (122 meters) about the clay beds of the River Thames, the Clumps are made of chalk and covered with trees. They can be seen from miles away as the only peaks an otherwise lowland area; from the summits they afford a spectacular view of the surrounding environs. It is for this reason that they were selected to host local rulers from as far back as the Ice Age.
Wittenham Clumps atop Sinodun Hills (geography.org.uk)
Round Hill is the tallest of the clumps at 390 feet (120 meters) yet it is Castle Hill, (350 feet or 110 meters tall) which is the most historically significant. Excavations suggest that from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age, Castle Hill was the location of a regionally powerful hillfort. A hillfort is a series of earthworks designed to enhance the defense of a settlement built on the hill. Following the contours of the hill, several lines of earthen walls, stockades, and/or external ditches ring the settlement. As the town grew in population additional walls and ditches, some as deep as 25 feet (7.5 meters), were added. The fortifications enabled the townsfolk to safely raise relatively large herds of sheep and goats as well as smaller herds of cattle – taking them out to graze by day and bringing them into the shelter of the fort at night. The residents were also believed to have farmed wheat and barley in the surrounding fields of the Valley. Archaeologists have found ancient rubbish, such as potsherds and bones, throughout the surrounding valley suggesting that a once vibrant community thrived among the Wittehham Clumps. The inhabitants also ate a fair amount of fish and wild boar.
Round Hill, Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire, England (public domain)
For reasons unbeknownst to historians, Castle Hill was temporarily abandoned in the late Iron Age, perhaps around 300 B.C. The next inhabitants came a few hundred years later: the Romans. The invaders also inhabited nearby Round Hill where they constructed a large rectangular villa with mosaic-tiled floors and painted plaster walls nearly 10 feet (3 meters) high on top of the Clump. At this Romano-British house, a water storage tank can be seen, most likely filled from the nearby springs. A Roman Age road leads up the Clump and, based on archeological evidence and rubbish clusters, it is believed that family enclosures were erected along this main transportation artery.
Aerial view of Castle Hill, Wittenham Clumps (geograph.org.uk)
It was unusual for people living in the Iron Age to bury their dead. However, a number of graves, some containing several occupants, have been found in the Thames Valley. Most remarkable is the burial site of a large male who was found at the bottom of a deep pit, curled in the fetal position. A joint of meat was clutched under his arm and charred grain was placed at his feet. A thin carpet of earth was spread across him before the remains of a dismembered female body were placed on top of him. Again, there was a thin layer of earth, and then the body of a sheep was placed on top of her. All three were placed in the pit at the same time. Some theorize that this may be evidence of human sacrifice, a practice described by the Romans but not well supported by archeological evidence.
The Wittenham Clumps are popular today for the brisk walking trails and picturesque scenery they offer. The archeological finds do not pique much interest but several legends have been known to draw in tourists. One is the famous Poem Tree, an oak under which Victorian poet Matthew Prior is said to have written ‘Henry & Emma.’ Another legend speaks of the Money Pit where a vast, cursed treasure of ill-gotten gains was buried long ago. To this day it is said to be guarded by a large black raven. In a particular cluster of trees on Round Hill, known as the Cuckoo Pen, legend has it that if you could trap a cuckoo bird within its branches, summer would never end. Finally, the Wittenham Estate, formerly the Abingdon Abbey, was purchased with the winnings of notorious gambler William Dunch. He commemorated the purchase by adding a tower to the old church with the top most windows being shaped liked the Ace of Spades. Some time later, a descendent of William Dunch married Mary Cromwell, aunt of Oliver Cromwell.
The Poem Tree at Wittenham Clumps (Oxford Times)
Top image: Aerial view of Castle Hill, Wittenham Clumps (geograph.org.uk)
Ford, David Nash. "History of Little Wittenham, Berkshire (Oxfordshire)." Royal Berkshire History. Nash Ford Publishing, 2004. Web. 29 Sept. 2016. http://www.berkshirehistory.com/villages/littlewittenham.html.
Stone, David. "Wittenham Clumps: The Thames Valley." The Druid Network. The Druid Network, 2016. Web. 29 Sept. 2016. https://druidnetwork.org/what-is-druidry/beliefs-and-definitions/sacred-places/wittenham-clumps-thames-valley/.
Wessex Archaeology. Round Hill, Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire: An Archaeological Evaluation And An Assessment Of The Results. Rep. no. 52568.09. Wessex Archaeology, Mar. 2004. Web. http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/files/52568_Wittenham.pdf.