Hengistbury Head is a peninsula 1.5km long on the south-east coast of Dorset. Exposed to the sea to the south, to the north it encloses a vast bay of Christchurch Harbour into which empty the rivers Stour and Avon. There is some evidence of Early Iron Age occupation. The ‘Double Dykes’ barring the neck of the headland are thought to be late Middle Iron Age in construction, but it is not known whether they are of more than one phase of construction. In the Late Iron Age, about 100 BC, the site emerges as a major port, maintaining trading links with Brittany and Normandy (Cunliffe 1987).

Excavation History of Hengistbury Head

The two major investigations that have ben undertaken to examine the Iron Age occupation of the site were those of J.P. Bushe-Fox 1911-1912 (Bushe-Fox 1915) and B.W. Cunliffe 1979-1984 (Cunliffe 1987). Unpublished excavations conducted by H.St George Gray 1918-1924 have left only a limited archive. Small-scale investigation by Dr.D. Peacock in 1970-1 on the shore of Christchurch harbour revealed well-stratified Iron Age and Roman occupation.

Defensive Earthworks at Hengistbury Head

The Double Dykes cut off the neck of the headland from north to south and comprise a larger inner earthwork, (originally 5m high and 14m wide with a ditch 5m deep), and a smaller outer earthwork (a bank 10m wide and 1.5m high, the ditch 7m wide and 2m deep). The outer ditch is now obscured by blown sand. The bank has an eastward recurve to the North. Early records (Grose 1779) show the southern end similarly curving along the sea front, but since the late 18th century, a substantial amount of land on the seaward side of the headland has been lost to coastal erosion. Only 290m now survives of the original 520m length. The ramparts are of simple dump construction. It is thought that a gap at the northern end used by the modern road is an original entrance.
200m behind the Double Dykes is a second line of defences, now concealed at the surface by blown sand but exposed in the beach section; in the first stage it comprises a dump rampart 5.5m wide with a flat-bottomed U-shaped ditch, being replaced by enlarged rampart with a shallower, wider ditch. No dating evidence is associated with this rampart, but based on the spread of eighth–sixth century BC occupation identified on the headland, Cunliffe has tentatively proposed late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age date (Cunliffe 1987).

The occupation of Hengistbury Head

The site has been in use since the Paleolithic. A large later Neolithic and early Bronze Age flint assemblage has been accumulated, with pottery from the same periods. At least 13 Bronze Age burial mounds are known, indicating that the headland was used as a cemetery in the first half of the second millennium BC. Excavations and general finds scatters attest intensive occupation in the Late Bronze Age/early Iron Age and from the late Iron Age into the Roman period, but the Middle Iron Age is poorly represented.
The modern excavations revealed dense traces of successive occupations characterised by ring ditches (penannular ditches and gullies), scatters of post holes and other gullies. The nature of the earlier first millennium BC occupation is not entirely clear, but might be characterised as a number of nucleated settlements, occupied over a period of time, separated by open areas (Cunliffe 1987). There appears to be a rupture in settlement 400-100 BC, possibly nuanced by a late Middle Iron Age occupation development circa 150 BC.

Late Iron Age 1 at Hengistbury Head

The late Iron Age occupation is divided into two periods: 100-50 BC and 50 BC-43 AD. Considerable evidence of levelling, land consolidation and construction activity is identified for the first period. The occupation, characterised by timber buildings, extended along a seashore roadway, from the Double Dykes for a distance of 1km. Evidence of possible harbour works are found at the two ‘inlets’ of Barnfield and Rushy Piece. Evidence for bronze and glass-working is found, and evidence for iron-working may be datable to this phase. Environmental evidence suggests the large-scale handling and processing of crops, and an unusual concentration of cattle on the site which may have been intended for slaughter and leather production. Coins and amphorae testify to exchange with the continent, with the import of wine, figs, coloured glass, metal, and Armorican pottery being attested. Despite the quantity of material recovered, Fitzpatrick (2001) has questioned whether the site was occupied all year round, suggesting instead that it may have been seasonally occupied by traders.

Late Iron Age 2 at Hengistbury Head

The occupation is now characterised by a series of palisaded enclosures along the shore-line road. Internal building activity is testified, but few structures can be identified from the evidence. The early harbour works are abandoned and overtaken by peat levels. The occupied and activity-associated areas appear to be more extensive than in phase one, and iron-working is positively attested. Long distance trade appears however to be much diminished. The decline of the seaport is connected (Cunliffe 1987) to the Roman conquest of Gaul deflecting the principal trade routes from the Roman entrepreneurs of southern Gaul via the Atlantic, to the Belgic area of Roman Gaul within easy reach of the the east coast of Britain.

Roman Remains at Hengistbury Head

Roman occupation continued on the site with no sign of a significant break through to the fourth century, the roadway being maintained throughout this period. Much of the headland was given over to arable farming. A gradual decline of occupation is detected through the late third and fourth centuries and the site is abandoned sometime in the late Roman period, until comparatively recently.

Sites near Hengistbury Head