Early Neolithic 4000 BC -> 3300 BC
Atop Whitehawk Hill in Brighton, overlooking the city, the racecourse and the South Downs, is the Neolithic causewayed enclosure formerly known as Whitehawk Camp (OS grid reference TQ330048). It’s easy to find once you know where it is (it took me longer this time than the previous occasion when I visited the site and had a pair of local archaeology enthusiasts with me). Fortunately, the recently-added concrete bollards on Manor Hill, which were put in place to solve a traveller trespass problem, also serve as effective location markers.
Unlike the causewayed enclosure at the Trundle, near Chichester, (see earlier entry) which occupies a fairly idyllic location surrounded by fields and downland with views of aesthetically pleasing villages and Goodwood racecourse, Whitehawk’s locality has a much more urban feel to it. Alongside the racecourse itself and the nearby allotment gardens, the site overlooks the sprawling Whitehawk housing estate to the east, has residential roads around it and is surprisingly close to the centre of Brighton itself. It is therefore a bit more difficult to picture the site as it would have been during the Neolithic when it must have dominated the landscape. Having said all that, there are some great views over the South Downs on the other side and the surviving sections of the enclosure in evidence today indicate the impressive size of the monument and with a little imagination its former glory can still be envisaged and marvelled at.
The archaeology bit
Excavated in the 1920s and 30s by Cecil Curwen, ‘Whitehawk Camp’ was so-called because these mysterious monuments were often interpreted as camps or settlement sites in those days, hence the original nomenclature, but this has since been superseded by the more descriptive ’causewayed enclosure’, leaving the actual function or functions very much open to debate. Whitehawk comprises a maximum of five interrupted circular rings of ditches enclosing up to 7 hectares of land between the transmitter mast to the south and the racecourse to the north. We know that Whitehawk causewayed enclosure and its Sussex contemporaries were built around 5600 years ago, more than 1000 years earlier than the stone circle enclosures of Stonehenge and Avebury. Thanks to the recent Gathering Time early Neolithic dating project conducted by Cardiff University and English Heritage, we now know that Whitehawk itself was probably built between the middle of the 37th century and the end of the 36th century cal BC with the major period of construction likely to have taken place in the second half of the 37th century cal BC. Its main phase of use has been identified as having lasted for between 75 and 260 years. Following the Mesolithic era typified by nomadic hunter gatherer people, Whitehawk would have been part of the probable first wave of British Neolithicisation which began in the south-east of England around 4050 cal BC, from likely origins in continental Europe, and spread throughout the rest of the British Isles over the following two and a half centuries or so as Neolithic practices and culture, such as farming and the construction of monumental structures, were adopted by British people.
Only a very small proportion of Whitehawk has been excavated so far and, apart from the original excavations over three seasons in 1929, 1932-3 and 1935, there has only been some small scale investigation carried out in the 1990s since. The 1920s/30s excavations resulted in a sizeable archive of archaelogical evidence comprising large numbers of flint tools, pottery, bones of ox, cattle, sheep/goat, pig and deer, and the complete skeleton of a roe deer deposited at the base of a pit. My personal interest in Whitehawk centres around the human remains found there, which include a number of disarticulated bones, including skull fragments, and four complete burials including an eight year old boy and a young woman buried alongside her newborn baby. Rather grimly intriguing also is Curwen’s account of a hearth in one of the ditches containing human brain-pans in amongst the animal bones and pottery vessels. ‘Brain-pan’ incidentally is not a name you hear very often these days; it’s more usual for ‘cranium’ to be used now, more’s the pity. Anyway, given the volume of finds from the little area that has been excavated so far it is very exciting to think what could potentially be recovered in the future and what this could tell us about the enclosure itself and the people who used it and those who were buried there. I was therefore delighted to hear that Heritage Lottery funding has been granted to the sum of nearly £100,000 to carry out further work on the Whitehawk archive and at the site itself this year.
Bayliss, A., Healy, F. & Whittle, A., 2011 Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland, Vol 1, Oxford, Oxbow
Curwen, E.C. 1934 ‘Excavations in Whitehawk Neolithic Camp, Brighton, 1932-3’ in The Antiquaries Journal 14, 124-128
Curwen, E.C. 1936 ‘Excavations in Whitehawk Camp, Brighton, third season, 1935’ in Sussex Archaeological Collections 77, 59-92
Ross Williamson, R.P. 1930 ‘Excavations in Whitehawk Neolithic Camp, near Brighton’ in Sussex Archaeological Collections 71, 57-96