'Banjo' Enclosure, Micheldever Wood, 1973 - 1979
‘Banjo’ enclosures are identified by their shape – a more or less circular enclosure, with outer bank, and parallel ditches leading away from a single entrance. The name was bestowed by B T Perry, when he was studying different forms of Wessex earthworks in the 1960s. He selected Bramdean, east of Winchester, as a typical example and excavated there in 1965 & 66, in the 1970s and in the 1980s. By this time the initial recognition of the type-site, i.e. the ‘banjo’ (O==) had been replaced by the realisation that they often formed part of a larger complex or ‘syndrome’.
Micheldever Wood, an aerial view: the ditch sections of the ‘banjo’ enclosure can be seen curving round in the middle of the clearing – outer ditches (the ‘syndrome’) show as faint lines in the corn field.
Perry’s 1960’s excavations were comparatively limited and ten years later the opportunity arose to investigate another example, although under quite different and difficult circumstances. The route of the M3 motorway, from Basingstoke to Twyford Down, sliced through Micheldever Wood and, although archaeological surveys had taken place, the Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees formed an impenetrable mass across the area concerned. It was not until a huge geological test-pit was dug that the enclosure ditch and Iron Age pottery came to light. Further survey work showed that an extensive occupation site lay under the line of the proposed motorway.
The main excavation, led by Peter Fasham, took place from August 1975 to March 1976, with follow ups in mid-winter 1977-78 and 1979. Because of other commitments to M3 archaeological work, post-excavation analysis took a while – and publication was in 1987.
The main period of occupation at the Micheldever ‘banjo’ took place in the last two centuries BC (Iron Age). The evidence suggests that the enclosure was surrounded at that time by both arable and pasture fields, as well as woodland. Within the settlement were at least 14 pits, many of which could have been used for grain storage, and the animal bones recovered showed that cattle, sheep and pigs were present. Pig bones occurred more often in the ditch than those of sheep, and this appears to have been a deliberate, chosen method of disposal.
Eighteen human burials were found, eleven of which were of infants. They included a double grave of ‘unique closeness’ – presumably twins. One of the adults was of Romano-British date. He had been buried in hobnailed boots. His skeleton had extensive indications of arthritis, particularly in his shoulders and back, with a healed fracture to a leg (tibia) which had developed osteitis. His skull displayed evidence of severe infections in both jaw and sinuses and, to cap it all, his scalp as well. It must have been a hard life.
Other finds from the Iron Age use of the site included pottery and briquetage (salt trays), clay loomweights and spindle whorls and a number of metal objects, including socketed sickles.
Following the excavation at Micheldever Wood, archaeologists were prepared to accept ‘banjos’ as settlements but, in 1993, Barry Cunliffe excavated such a site at Nettlebank Copse, near Danebury. Far from clarifying the use of these enigmatic enclosures, his work showed that an ‘open’ settlement of pre 300 BC was surrounded by the ‘banjo’ ditch around the time of its abandonment.
The site may then have lain mainly dormant, apart from the quarrying of chalk, until the 1st century BC, when it was used for specialised purposes such as feasting, but not occupation.
The other feature of ‘banjos’ is that with the increase in aerial reconnaissance, particularly the use of Lidar, the number of known examples continues to grow. Twenty four were listed for Hampshire in the 1960s, whereas the number on the county AHBR is now 124!
Image: Micheldever Wood, an aerial view: the ditch sections of the ‘banjo’ enclosure can be seen curving round in the middle of the clearing – outer ditches (the ‘syndrome’) show as faint lines in the corn field.
Cunliffe B & Poole C (2000) Nettlebank Copse, Wherwell, 1993, English Heritage & OUCA Monog 49, Vol 2 part 5.
Fasham, P (1987) A Banjo Enclosure at Micheldever Wood, Hampshire, Hants Field Club & Archaeol Soc, Monog 5.
Perry, B Excavations at Bramdean, Hampshire 1983 & 1984, with some further discussions of the Banjo syndrome. Proc Hants Field Club & Archaeol Soc 42, 35-42
Archive held as A1978.15 (R 27) by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Series by: Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone