May 05 2019

Wooston Castle’s secrets revealed

on 24th April it was exactly a year since a team of archaeologists and volunteers set out quite literally, to unearth the secrets of Wooston Castle, one of three Iron Age Hill Forts built along the Teign Valley. With commanding views across the river; the people who lived in or used these sites would have been able to see each other’s fires and had easy access to the rich resources of the River Teign and surrounding woods. Their presence pushes occupation back 2,500 years ago.

Estimated to have been built in the Middle to late Iron Age (1st – 2nd Century BC), using only hand-made tools and hard physical labour; Hill Forts have been interpreted as having several uses including stock enclosures, market centres, places of refuge, as well as permanent settlements. Whatever the exact or combined use was, the construction involved collaborative effort, planning and organisation and perhaps these are some of the reasons why their eroded banks and ditches continue to fascinate us.

Archaeologists and volunteers excavating the hillfort in April 2018


The commanding view from the hillfort in Spring

Aligned east-west along a mid-slope plateau on the south side of the River Teign, Wooston Castle enjoys commanding views across the valley. Whilst Hill Forts come in different sizes and shapes, they can be broadly grouped into two types. The one we most commonly think of is the contour fort; where a series of banks and ditches have been dug along the contour lines of an area of high ground such as Cadbury Castle in Somerset. Nearby Cranbrook Castle also follows this pattern.

The second type, which Wooston Castle falls into, is the promontory fort. These are Hill Forts that have been built on a spur of land that provides natural defences, and the excavations show that the people who built Wooston Castle took advantage of the lie of the land to create a site that was both defensible and clearly visible from the valley

A plan of Wooston Castle earthworks with the location of the excavation areas shown.

The location of Wooston Castle within Fingle Woods
Before excavating Wooston Castle, a team of horses helped clear the site of the felled wood. It was an enormous task. At the bottom of the trenches on the original soil surface, AC Archaeology found pollen samples and whilst only small amounts survived; it was enough to show the area had been covered in ferns that grow in semi shade, as well as grasses, bracken, alder, birch and oak. All of which suggests a mixed woodland and pasture environment. Can you imagine the effort to clear that before you even start to make your ramparts!

The heavy horses up at the hillfort. From left to right – William, Jens and Beano with their handlers Will, John and Alex.

Approaching the site from the south, the first outwork you reach is a 150m long cross bank, which appears to be a later unfinished construction. The second defensive structure is a 65m long bank and ditch with in-turned edges and a central entrance to a hollow way (sunken lane), which curves up the slope for 150m. The hollow way was dug down to an average depth of 2m with steep slopes on either side. At the entrance it is V-shaped for additional defence and becomes progressively flat bottomed as it nears the enclosure, where it averages 2-3m wide. Further up the hollow way lies another set of in-turned ramparts. This large 220m long structure has 2 central gaps that the modern tracks pass through and appears to be an original feature. Finally, at the north of the site is an oval enclosure that covers approximately 2.2 hectares. This, along with the hollow way, is the earliest part of the site and was later reinforced by a shallow bank to the west, and a substantial rampart and ditch to the east which extends to the natural slope.

When you look at the ditches and embankments at Wooston Castle today some parts seem relatively shallow and unlikely to offer any real deterrent or defence. The excavations revealed that this wasn’t always the case and that some of the ditches were back filled and others have been slowly filled by soil build up. One of the ditches measured 7.25m wide and based on projected original ground level would have been 3.9m deep. Imagine trying to get through that! Another was only 1.1m wide and 0.8m deep. The banks also vary in size from 6.2m wide and 2.25m high, another huge effort for an attacker to overcome, to one that was only 0.68m high. It suggests several possibilities including defence or as a statement of power, with the largest ramparts being clearly visible to anyone approaching the site.

A cross section showing the difference between today’s surface level and the Iron Age ditch

             The same cross section of the ditch today.

Although the Hill Fort was built at different stages, the layout implies it was designed as a cohesive plan. Archaeology can’t give an exact date for each phase, but the trench profiles show how different phases of construction cut into or across earlier features. Cross sections of the trenches also showed that the substantial ramparts around the enclosure were built using gang or section construction. Sometimes they didn’t get it right, and the enlarged defence work meets at two slightly different alignments!

Here we leave archaeological fact and enter the world of educated theories and speculation. We can say that the Hill Fort construction was organised, which implies forward planning and a strategy, but we can’t say what type of person oversaw it. We can say it was built in phases and by different groups; what we can’t say is whether it was built by members of extended and interlinked families; or whether they were unrelated families who followed a person who had demonstrated their prowess and leadership in skills that were valuable in the Iron Age. We can see that they didn’t always get the building right, but we can’t say what type of social punishment or penalty if any, might have been imposed on the group who didn’t align the rampart properly! We can only guess at the family ties, beliefs and alliances that bound this group of people together and what level of influence and power the person who planned and oversaw it must have had. These are some of the secrets that Wooston Castle will keep.

The view down the ditch we excavated

The area we excavated is still visible but nature is re-claiming it.t looks today

Close to Wooston Castle, and throughout Fingle Woods, round earthworks have been found and identified as charcoal platforms. The estimated dates for these sites have ranged from the Medieval period up until the 20th Century and as part of last year’s excavations we wanted to find out how long this valuable product has been produced.

The excavations showed that the charcoal platform had been made by digging a terrace up to 0.4m deep into the hillslope, and then raising up the lower slope with re-deposited soil to create a level surface. The platform, which was c.9m diameter, was of a modest size, indicating small scale burns and was covered by a series of charcoal rich deposits separated by silty-clay. It shows that the clamp had been used at regular intervals separated by periods of inactivity, which could reflect the cyclical nature of coppicing wood. Analysis of the charcoal pushes this activity back to 1160-1225 AD and as it was made up entirely of oak it suggests that even in the Medieval period Fingle Woods was a well-managed woodland resource.

The two charcoal deposits seperated by a thin layer of soil.

Samples of the charcoal bagged up and ready to be analysed.

Intriguingly, one artefact was found. A prehistoric worked flint that most likely dates to the Neolithic period. The flint appears to be the central section of a broken blade and at some stage someone had retouched both lateral edges. It shows it was a valuable tool that was worthy of repair because of the effort and skill it must have taken to make it. We won’t know whether it was lost, and the person went home irritated, or whether they simply threw it away when it couldn’t be repaired any more. It’s another secret that Wooston Castle will keep.

As the days are getting longer why not take some time out to visit this site? It is easily accessible from both Sawmill and Hill Fort Castle carparks and you’ll be rewarded with wonderful views over the Teign Valley. You’ll also be able to look out for buzzards and the wide range of butterflies that are beginning to emerge; or indulge in my personal favourite, walking around the banks and ditches and trying to imagine what it must have been like to build and live in this place.

By Jane Halliday


Further information on the archaeological excavations and historic listings can be found at:

DEVON. Results of archaeological investigations 2018

Fox, A, 1996, Prehistoric Hillforts in Devon. Devon Books 

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