High Angle Fire

Panoramic view of the Mark I HAF gun carriage emplacement. Photo by Hugh Corley.

Panoramic view of the Mark I HAF gun carriage emplacement. Photo by Hugh Corley.

Warning – this contains a lot about big guns and concrete.

A small part of my job with English Heritage is running occasional tours of Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, the remarkable coastal fortification where our team is based. Up until 1974 it was occupied by the Royal Marines, and traces of their occupation and work remain everywhere around us. I’ve been here so long that I’ve absorbed some knowledge of the Fort, its history and development. Hence my role as a part-time guide.

We will shortly be running a tour for the Palmerston Forts Society, and in September we will be hosting Heritage Open Days, so in preparation for these events we thought we should add interest to the tours by clearing the long-abandoned High Angle Fire battery. This is a small battery located outside the main body of the Fort; the gun pits had become almost entirely engulfed by bramble growth, to the extent that nearly all of their details were hidden. This would be the first chance that we’ve ever had to see them properly exposed. The overgrown emplacement for the Mark I HAF gun carriage

We know a lot about the battery thanks to the work of David Moore, an historian who runs the excellent Victorian Forts and Artillery website. He has uncovered the history of the battery, showing that it was built from 1890 to 1894, using older 9-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns (from the 1860s) on special high angle mountings. The theory was that shells fired from such guns could plunge onto the relatively lightly-armoured decks of attacking ships, which would have to anchor to bombard the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard effectively. A small number of trial carriages were built to test the idea, and two of these, the Mark I and Mark II, were then installed in the purpose-built concrete emplacements at Fort Cumberland. Only one of each carriage was ever made, so our emplacements are unique, and the differences in carriage designs is reflected in the differences between the two emplacements. An example of the Mark IV carriage, which was used in a small number of batteries, can be seen on the Victorian Forts and Artillery website.
Rapid advances in the design of naval ships and artillery during this period meant that the battery was obsolete by 1905, and disarmed by 1907.

Access to the battery was by means of a tunnel built under the counterscarp defences of the Fort. Built into the side of the tunnel were the magazines for powder and shells, and there was also storage space for the larger pieces of cannon maintenance and cleaning equipment. The entrance to the HAF battery from the counterscarp wall of the Fort

The eastern emplacement for the Mark 1 carriage retains one of the two derricks used to lift shells to the top of the emplacement, and rails for the trolley which was used to move the shells to the muzzle of the gun. The racer and pivot on which the gun sat had been removed as part of the construction of a later building. The top of the emplacement for the Mark I HAF gun carriage.

The western Mark II emplacement is simpler, as the shell-loading mechanism was built on to the carriage. Emplacement for the Mark II HAF gun carriage.

In the Mark II emplacement, the pivot and racer on which the gun sat survive, partially concealed by the floor and foundations of a later structure. Racer and pivot for Mark II HAF gun carriage

Common to both emplacements are recesses for storing the fuses used to fire the guns, and dial recesses, where information on direction, elevation and charge were displayed, having been transmitted by wire from a Fire Control point on the ramparts of the Fort. There was also a bunker-like telephone shelter built into the concrete wall between the emplacements, along with cartridge recesses, where small quantities of gunpowder could be safely stored close to the guns. Cartridge recess and traces of rifle rack

Behind the guns was a brick building with a reinforced concrete roof, marked on the drawings as the artillery group store. The building is derelict but survives reasonably well. Artillery Group Store

There is plenty of evidence for later activity on the site; at some point after the removal of the guns, structures have been built into both emplacements, and other buildings were added to what had become, by the 1970s, a works compound for the Property Services Agency which maintained government and military buildings in the Portsmouth area. This continued into the 1980s, after which the site of the battery was locked and abandoned, although it is now home to birds, lizards and a large family of foxes.

By clearing a very small proportion of the rampant vegetation we have shown that the remains of the battery are relatively well-preserved, and their significance is enhanced by the documentary information provided by David Moore. We were lucky to have David visit us yesterday when I was giving a tour of the battery to my colleagues based at the Fort, and he was able to answer all the difficult questions that would have stumped me.

I’ve enjoyed showing colleagues around the last day or so, and look forward to showing this battery to visitors on Heritage Open Days. We can ensure that it is included in the new condition survey that is due to be carried out later this year. In the meantime, back to the day job and the overdue book chapters that really aren’t writing themselves.

Piers Dixon (RCAHMS) – South Lanarkshire

South Lanarkshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

South Lanarkshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Early Stone Castles of South Lanarkshire

I have been working as an Archaeological Investigator for RCAHMS since 1989 and currently as an Operations Manager in Survey and Recording. As a medievalist I have long been interested in castles in all their variety wherever they occur from Scotland to Greece, but opportunities for me to record and research them for RCAHMS only became available in 2000 with the Donside survey that led to the publication of In the Shadow of Bennachie (2007). This showed me that we have a lot to learn about the origin and development of castles, with a rash of motte-like structures, including the dramatic castle of Invernochty, Strathdon, with its ‘later’ stone curtain wall built by the ‘native’ earl of Mar, not all of which were medieval castles at all. Baileys, usually part and parcel of the castle earthwork, were absent, except at the Bass of Inverurie, but the mottes were often big enough to take a range of structures. More worrying was the absence of identifiable elite structures of the immediately preceding period.

View of Crawford castle from the air, showing the later stone castle on top of the motte. Copyright RCAHMS (DP153534)

View of Crawford castle from the air, showing the later stone castle on top of the motte. Copyright RCAHMS (DP153534)

The origins of castles in Scotland are generally assumed to derive from the influx of Anglo-French followers of King David and his successors bringing with them their notions of what was necessary for the centre of power of a lordship. Raising an earthwork or modifying a natural mound to make a place of strength was the quickest way of achieving this. South Lanarkshire provides a good test bed for this thesis since the documentation tells us that it was settled in the 12th century by Flemish knights, some of whom established themselves by building castles based on mottes or earthworks that defy easy definition. Some like Coulter motte in the care of Historic Scotland, or Crawford castle, a motte with a later stone tower, appear to have been typical conical mounded structures, but others like the earthwork at Castle Qua just outside Lanark, or that at Cadzow, not far from the later stone castle, take the form of promontories defended by earthworks with broad external ditches.  These were sites that were rejected as prehistoric settlement enclosures by the Royal Commission investigators in the 1970s, although a Roman coin found during excavations by Lanarkshire Archaeology Society of the Cadzow earthwork suggest a late Iron Age or Dark Age date.

Cadzow earthwork, showing the mound and south ditch. The old oak trees have been dated by dendrochronology to the 15th century when the site lay within a hunting park. Copyright Piers Dixon

Cadzow earthwork, showing the mound and south ditch. The old oak trees have been dated by dendrochronology to the 15th century when the site lay within a hunting park. Copyright Piers Dixon

Further investigation of these sites is clearly needed. That at Castle Qua has been the focus of some interest locally and the Commission has reviewed the possibility of further survey work at the site with Addyman Archaeology for the Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership.  The site itself is a dramatic one with a cliff on one side dropping down to the Mouse Water more than 100 feet below. A substantial earthwork that displays traces of stone facings lies within broad ditch enclosing an area some 30m across with traces of structures near the cliff edge. A second ditch suggests the possibility of a bailey.

Plan of Castle Qua showing the suggested line of the outer ditch as an overlay on the RCAHMS plan. (Addyman Archaeology overlay and RCAHMS DP152072)

Plan of Castle Qua showing the suggested line of the outer ditch as an overlay on the RCAHMS plan. (Addyman Archaeology overlay and RCAHMS DP152072)

Archaeology has also thrown up spanners in the dating of mottes, for example, excavations by Chris Tabraham at Roberton motte in the 1970s produced a sherd of imported pottery from France dated to the 14th century from the base of the mound. This contradicts the established wisdom of dating the construction of mottes and other earthwork castles to the 12th and 13th centuries by incoming Flemish lords. Although there is a good correlation between the documented Flemish incomers and the eponymous villages of Roberton, Thankerton, Symington, Covington, Lamington and Wiston, for example, all settlements of potentially medieval origin,  earthwork castles have yet to be located at all of them.  There is clearly much work to be done here in understanding the development of castles and this area provides an excellent location for doing just that.

Castle Qua earthwork and ditch, much overgrown. Copyright Piers Dixon

Castle Qua earthwork and ditch, much overgrown. Copyright Piers Dixon



This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.





Waterlogged Day, Waterlogged Wood….

My name is Anne Crone and I am a post-excavation project manager at AOC Archaeology Group, working in their Loanhead office in Scotland. I am currently managing a number of large post-excavation projects, the most important of which is the Cults Landscape Project – important to me because I also carried out the fieldwork in partnership with my colleague, Graeme Cavers, and because it has enabled me to ‘indulge’ many of my research interests, in crannogs, waterlogged wood and dendrochronology.


The Cults Loch crannog under excavation


The fieldwork project has involved the excavation of a number of sites in and around Cults Loch, a small kettlehole loch at Castle Kennedy, near Stranraer in south-west Scotland. The project arose out of the initiative of the Scottish Wetland Archaeology Programme, the aim of which was to more fully integrate wetland archaeology into more mainstream ‘dryland’ archaeology. So we selected a landscape in which the archaeological sites appear to cluster around the loch and within which there were two crannogs – these are man-made islands found only in Scotland and Ireland and which are repositories of all sorts of waterlogged organic goodies!  We have excavated one of the crannogs which sits on a little man-made promontory jutting out into the loch, the promontory fort that lies on the other side of the loch, overlooking the crannog, and one of the palisaded enclosures that lies on the grassland around the loch.

And now we are halfway through the post-excavation programme.  We know that this is a later prehistoric landscape because we have 1st millennium BC radiocarbon dates from the promontory fort and crannog. But more exciting – I have been able to dendro-date some of the oak timbers from the crannog and we now know that most of the building activity took place in the 2nd and 3rd decades of the 5th century BC, and that there was refurbishment of the causeway in 193 BC – for me these more specific dates bring the occupants more clearly into focus…

Today – well, it started off with a 3 mile walk to work – usually a great start when I can think through my schedule for the day – but today the heavens opened and I was soaked by the time I arrived at the office! After drying out I settled down at my desk to read the report on the soil micromorphology from the crannog which my colleague Lynne Roy has just finished. As project manager I need to edit and check each report before it is sent out to the client, in this case Historic Scotland, but as the archaeologist I also want to read it for the insights it will give me into the taphonomy of the deposits on the crannog. And it is really fascinating! We found large patches of laminated plant litter, interspersed with gravel and sand layers which we interpreted as floor coverings that had been repeatedly renewed. Lynne’s analysis has revealed that the occupants probably cleaned away as much as possible of the dirty floor coverings before scattering over a sand and gravel subfloor and then laying down fresh plant litter. She can tell which surfaces were exposed for a length of time while others were covered almost immediately. And her work on the hearth debris indicates that peat turves were probably the main form of fuel on the site.


Recording timbers in the warehouse


Like many archaeologists the majority of my time is spent at my desk, writing reports, editing reports, filling in/updating spreadsheets, and dealing with emails. So it is a pleasure to be able to don my lab coat and spend some time in our warehouse handling waterlogged wood. I am currently writing the report on the structural timbers from the crannog. The majority of the timbers were undressed logs or roundwood stakes, mostly of alder and oak, so most of the recording and sampling was done on the crannog. Samples for dendro and species identification were brought back to the lab but we only brought back complete timbers which displayed interesting carpentry details and were worthy of conservation. I have been completing the recording of these timbers and deciding which ones should be illustrated for the final report. There are some interesting timbers in the assemblage –large horizontal timbers with square mortises, presumably to take vertical posts, but what is the function of the horizontal timbers which have very narrow notches cut diagonally across them? Next week I will be off to the library to look for comparanda and to find explanations for some of the more unusual aspects of the assemblage

Read more about Cults Loch here


A brief visit to South Cadbury

Whilst working at Ham Hill in Somerset it would be a crime not to visit any of the other archaeology in the area so today I went on a brief visit with some of the students to South Cadbury. 

A cool site, very dramatic, as hillforts tend to be, and relativly easy to see and understand.  Its just pasture on top with some wooded areas on a limited area of the ramparts, making for good preservation and easy access. 

It is a shame that there is limited interpretation on site, with just one small scratched panel in the car park.   The local pub however have made us of this and have a small but good display all along one wall!  Heritage can bring in business!


Musketballs, Mortars and Matchlocks

What do you think of when you think of archaeology? For the majority of people the answer is simple- ‘musketballs’. If that wasn’t the first thing in your head, there’s no need to fret; ‘fragmented portion of a 17th century grenade’ is also a perfectly acceptable answer. Ok, none of the above is true. But for me it is objects such as these that make up my Day of Archaeology.

I work as Operations Manager for a commercial company, Headland Archaeology (Ireland) Ltd. The majority of my work involves overseeing all the projects we undertake and making sure they run smoothly, are carried out to a high standard and progress as efficiently as possible.  However, I also specialise in ‘Conflict Archaeology’, a field of study which explores evidence for the forms and effects of conflict on past populations. Today is a ‘Conflict Archaeology’ day.

The material I work with the most relates to conflict in 16th and 17th century Ireland. This was an exceptionally bloody period in Irish history. The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland took place in the second half of the 16th century, while the 1640s witnessed eleven years of war, culminating in the Cromwellian intervention on the island. Later still the War of the Two Kings was fought between William III and James II’s forces. The conflict artefacts and conflict architecture left behind on sites from this period can tell us much about the personal experience of individuals during these troubled times. What was it like to be a soldier in one of these armies? How did they operate? What affect did the wars have on the civilian populace?

Today I am working on an assemblage of military artefacts from a Castle site which was besieged in 1653, when Parliamentarian forces bombarded the site and forced the Irish defenders’ surrender. Although there are some historical accounts of the siege, many details of the engagement remain unknown. This is where the artefacts come in. It becomes quickly apparent to me as I trawl through nearly 200 iron ball fragments that the castle was extremely heavily bombarded. The sheer number of fragments is unusual in Irish archaeology- it is the highest concentration of artillery projectiles from a conflict site I have yet come across in the country.

What can they tell us? They are all heavily damaged, with only one complete spherical ball surviving. This suggests that the projectiles shattered as they struck masonry, or split into deadly shrapnel as they exploded. Their form tells us that the Parliamentarians used at least two main types of projectile; solid iron balls and mortars. The solid shot was intended to break down the walls of the castle, while the mortars (hollow iron spheres filled with powder) would explode and fragment as they rained down on the defenders.

I am currently analysing the size of the fragments to try and tell what type of artillery piece fired them. Although most iron balls are today usually called ‘cannonballs’, in the 17th century a ‘Cannon’ was a specific type of gun which fired a particular size of ball. Many other types existed, with names like ‘Culverins’ ‘Sakers’ and ‘Falcons’. These fired different sizes of ball over varying distances. Identifying the type of gun can help us identify how far away the besiegers may have been from the castle, and also tell us how difficult it was to get them into position. For example, some of these guns required dozens of oxen to haul them around the countryside.

'17th century grenade and lead shot'

And what of the defenders? The majority survived this siege and were able to surrender, but the castle was destroyed in the bombardment. Among the military artefacts that relate to them are lead musketballs (also called lead shot) and weapon fragments recovered from the rubble. The size, shape and weight of the musketballs can tell us what types of gun they were used in, provide information about how they were manufactured and also suggest if they have been fired or not. The examples from this site appear unfired, so they may have been dropped or lost by the defenders. This site is unusual in that it has also produced part of the firing mechanisms from some of the defender’s weapons, most likely destroyed during the bombardment. These fragments are from matchlock muskets, a type of gun that used a lit piece of cord to fire the musketball.

When I have finished the technical analysis of the material (a process which will take a few days) it will be possible to build a picture of the siege. I will be addressing what types of artillery the Parliamentarians brought with them, how this was used and transported and where it might have been fired from. From the defenders viewpoint it should be possible to suggest how the bombardment was experienced by the men within the castle, as well as talk about how they were prepared to meet the onslaught. This is all in the future, however, and for now I am immersed in the technical analysis of each of the artefacts.

So, this is how I am spending my Day of Archaeology, 29th July 2011! Every object I am handling was deposited over a handful of days 358 years ago, in what must have been an extremely dramatic and traumatic event in the lives of all those who were present. For some these objects represent their final moments.  It is an honour and privilege to deal with these artefacts, as by doing so you are literally ‘touching history’; the results of the analysis itself helps bring this history to life. It is certainly one of the most fascinating ways to spend a day that I can think of!

Lunch eaten… More PhD stuff!

Unfortunately the camera has died on me, I’m an idiot for forgetting the charger so no more pictures or videos :(.  So here is a bit of improvisation instead…

This is a digitised version of Broxmouth, the excavation archive I am working on.  There were three entrances, two visible on cropmarks but a third was discovered in the west, having been blocked up after a short period of use.  Seven houses were identified in the interior however there are the remains of several structures both underlying and overlying the inner ditch in the west.  There are also structures overying the infilled south-west entrance ditches as well as more ephemeral postholes, pits etc scattered between the houses.  There is also a cemetery to the north containing ten individuals to nine graves.  This is unusual for an Iron Age site and it was found by accident when a trench was initially put on the north side to investigate the ditches on that side.  The project is currently awaiting radiocarbon dates to help flesh out the stratigraphic sequence of the site but we have occupation evidence tentatively going back to the early Iron Age, if not the late Bronze Age and the latest date we have so far is post 400AD which shows this site has a long history!


Back to my actual day… In typical fashion I have moved onto something slightly different.  It is quite easy when you are this close to handing in for PhD fatigue to set in so to prevent too much procrastination and boredom, I am currently re-assessing my area size analysis.  I have a specific study area in East Lothian to investigate the later prehistoric settlement in the area, broadly contemporary with Broxmouth.  I measured all the internal areas of the enclosed sites (note: I don’t believe in the hillfort/enclosure division, not in this particular area!) and analysed the varying sizes according to their shape and number of ditches to see if there are any notable patterns.  Right now I am pondering over whether large single ditched enclosed sites could be comparable to the Wessex examples.  The Wessex Hillforts Project found that large, single ditched sites tended to be devoid of internal features (seen from geophysical surveys) therefore may have been meeting places or ceremonial sites as opposed to settlements.  However care has to be taken in comparing two wildly disparate geopraphical areas, and also the Wessex examples are several hectares in size.  My sites are no larger than a hectare (with the exeption of Traprain Law).  However, it could be a useful analogy!

Introduction to a day of ‘post-ex’, research and education

I’m taking part in the Day of Archaeology to demonstrate that there’s more to archaeology than digging. I’m current involved in archaeological  research, although I also teach archaeology (primarily within the Adult Education sector, but I have taught workshops in schools). At present, I am preparing to teach a workshop on Derbyshire in the Roman period and early Middle Ages, writing up research I undertook whilst at the University of Sheffield, and completing post-excavation analysis on the late pre-Roman Iron Age (LPRIA), Roman, and early medieval activity at Crickley Hill, Gloucestershire, in order to write volume 6 in the series of site reports in this series. For more information on this work, I’ve started a website, but I’ve provided a summary of the site here.