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Whittlebury is one of 21 medieval villages and hamlets which have been the subject of intensive investigation as part of the Whittlewood Project since May 2000. The existence of an Iron Age hillfort was not suspected before this work began. Despite the "burh" element in the place name, this was presumed to refer to an earthwork enclosure of Anglo-Saxon origin, used as the meeting place of the royal council of 930 at which surviving legal documents were signed by King Aethelstan. Its location had proved equally elusive.

As part of a broader programme investigating the origins and development of the medieval settlement, a series of test pits was excavated across the modern village in 2001 and 2002. Test pits sunk 100m south-east of the church produced quantities of Iron Age pottery (in one instance over 50 sherds from a single 1m by 1m test pit) in association with features cut into the natural, together with evidence for a thick layer of redeposited clay interpreted as the degraded remains of a ploughed out bank. These discoveries prompted a re-analysis of aerial photographs which showed a parch mark, previously interpreted as a medieval headland running through the pasture field south east of the church. This appeared to represent a curvilinear feature which mirrored the curious loop followed by the present road to Silverstone around the eastern and northern sides of the churchyard. Together road and parch mark seemed to define one end of a large oval enclosure. Its return, however, was obscured by the farmhouse which lies to the west of the church, the church itself occupying the very centre of the enclosure.

In 2003, archaeological work was undertaken within the northern churchyard in advance of the sinking of a septic tank, together with the excavation of a number of further test pits along pipe trenches serving the new amenities within the church. These produced more Iron Age pottery, together with high quality late medieval wares. Over thirty individual skeletons were removed from the churchyard dating from the eleventh to fourteenth century. Lying below these, and truncated by them, were the remains of three grain silos, containing large amounts of carbonized grain and the odd sherd of Iron Age pottery. One, however, remained largely intact, producing a classic Iron Age structured deposit. Four complete vessels had been placed on the base of the abandoned silo. These had been covered by an inert layer of soil, on top of which had been set part of a human skull, positioned perhaps to form a bowl. Another deposit of clean soil had been topped with a layer of animal bones, including an articulated house leg, before the silo was capped with a thick layer of limestone cobbles.

Confirmation that the late prehistoric material from Whittlebury represents a hillfort came through geophysics carried out by members of staff from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Leicester.

Magnetometry survey of the SE quadrant of the Whittlebury Hillfort
Magnetometry survey of the south-eastern quadrant of Whittlebury Hillfort, showing curving bank and ditch, and footprints of roundhouses within the interior (east at top of plot).

The magnetometer survey revealed the same curvilinear feature seen on aerial photographs, and surviving as an ill-defined scarp on the ground, lying on the inner edge of what appears to be a ditch 6m in width. Hugging the interior of the bank, the footprints of at least fourteen roundhouses, ranging in size from 7-14m in diameter, with small and large structures apparently grouped together, were identified. Where entrances could be defined, these all faced towards the east. A second geophysical survey to the north-west of the church within a private garden undertaken in 2004 revealed a further two roundhouse outlines. Resistivity, by contrast, picked up the rectangular ground plans of four medieval buildings, set in a row on the eastern side of the track leading from the village centre to the church porch.

The Iron Age pottery assemblage is all undecorated, making it impossible to assess what links the hillfort at Whittlebury may have had with comparable sites in the vicinity - Hunsbury 14km to the north-east, Arbury 14 km to the north-west, and Rainsborough 21km to the south-east. However, the most spectacular find, an unprovenanced but complete Hunsbury-type beehive quern, being used as the base of a flower arrangement in the church and presumably found during grave digging, may suggest some contact with its Northampton neighbour.

Little is known about the interior arrangements of Iron Age hillforts in Northamptonshire, none having been excavated extensively. The geophysical survey at Whittlebury thus affords a view of this type of site previously unseen in the county. With the exception of the church and farmhouse, the rest of the interior remains under pasture, with every indication that little has been disturbed. The site clearly warrants major investigation, not just to recover its late prehistoric history, but for its afterlife. A number of coin finds and ceramics suggest that it was used into the Roman period. It is almost certainly the site of the royal witan of 930. And it was later colonized by the church and a set of what appear to be important medieval secular buildings. Finally, it might be noted that Whittlebury hillfort lies only 4km from the Roman town of Towcester (Lactodorum). Duro elements in Roman place names, particularly when used as the first element, are interpreted as referring either as early military centres or to hillforts. No early military station has been found at Towcester, and whilst it is the only English example of duro being used as a second element, the probability cannot be ruled out now with the discovery of the hillfort that this too refers to the earlier stronghold at Whittlebury. Was it the case that Towcester usurped the local functions of Whittlebury under regime change? If so, how much of the Iron Age territory of the hillfort was preserved in the pagus of the new town? It cannot escape notice that one man, real or legendary, Witela, lent his name not only to the settlement which grew up in the lee of the hillfort around the ninth century, but the much wider area of Whittlewood Forest, a construct of the post-Conquest period. Can we see in this naming convention a folkloric memory of a late prehistoric territorial arrangement, or an unbroken inheritance despite the movement of its central place?


Site report courtesy of Richard Jones, Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester.