Watch your step

5th February 1999 at 00:00
You see far more in the landscape when your ramble is guided by an archaeologist, discovers Frances Farrer

The most famous Iron Age oppidum (hill fort) in Oxfordshire is at Wittenham Clumps above Dorchester-on-Thames, and is known locally as Mother Dunch's Buttocks. A simple guided walk from the Clumps down to the valley with a school group of practically any age, investigating the landscape for archaeological clues, exercises the skills of observation and deduction needed in all science subjects.

Such a walk can be done in many parts of the country: barrows, stone circles and Roman remains are among the possible features to look out for.

The archaeological field trip is a near-necessity for several national curriculum topics and it can be an essential exercise in the interpretation of visual evidence. Skilled help is often available from local archaeological societies.

The Wittenham walk starts where two Saxon burial mounds were planted with clumps of trees in Victorian times by the lady of the manor, Lady Dunch, to create a landscape feature. The villagers supplied the nickname.

From this hilltop you can view corridors in the landscape going from the Thames estuary through to the Midlands, towards the Cotswolds and the West Country, and southwards direct towards the sea.

By noting the easy vista of the natural route ways through the hills you can see why this place was so useful to invaders. Your walk begins with a geological observation made from the view of folds of countryside formed when continental masses crashed and the fossilised shock waves created the patterns in the landscape, including the valleys which became the natural routes for trading as well as warfare.

If you have a group at this spot you may well have arrived at the top of the hill by coach and met a guide from the Oxfordshire Archaeological Unit. OAU director David Miles takes many groups himself, even as young as key stage 2, which he says he enjoys. "They're keener and they ask better questions," he says.

Exceptionally, an archaeological walk might be focused on your most accessible great house, where excavations can reveal the multi-layers of history as much as particular archaeological finds. At Dorchester-on-Thames, archaeologists use aerial photographs to point out the shadows of circles in the valley near the location of the Saxon settlement, and note that the meeting of the route ways made the valley a natural trading centre from earliest times.

Maps show the position of the Roman town close to the Abbey precinct. The current Abbey is on the site of one of the earliest Christian churches in the south of England. In AD637 St Birinus passed through the region on his way north, but found the West Saxons very pagan and stayed and founded not only a church but also the first English bishopric.

"It's a good landscape for a walk through time," says Mr Miles. "As you go down the path you can talk about animals, horses, the Ice Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. you can move on to the arrival of the first Christian people, who spoke Welsh. You're learning to be deductive. It's much more vivid like this."

Standing on top of Wittenham Clumps he asks pupils to examine the ground and comment on what they see. "There's plenty for them to look at, and I always bring some of my own flints and shards," he says. They pick up fossils and stones and are invited to try writing with them. When they find they have chalk in their hands they are asked why. "They say it must have been a sea bed," says David Miles. "It's surprising really, they get at it quite quickly."

The group look for clues to what may have gone on there, noticing the path of the river, wondering about migrations and the development of farming communities.

Since this is the best Neolithic site of the region, the origins of farming can be discussed. Mr Miles says very little is directly told to the members of school groups, instead they discover the information themselves by questioning and experiment.

FINDING YOUR BEARINGS

The Council for British Archaeology has information about sites and can usually put you in touch with guides.

Contact Don Henson, Education Officer, CBA, Bowes Morrell House, 111 Walmgate York YO1 9WA. Tel: 01904 671417.

Other sources include the local library, or the county archaeologist (though not all counties have one), for Local Sites and Monuments Records.

Three-videos from English Heritage, 'Archaeology at Work', deal with Excavation, Fieldwork, and Towns. The first two are packaged together and cost pound;15.95, the third costs pound;11.95, from Heritage Education Service, Portland House, Freepost WD214 London SW1E 5YY.

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