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Iron Age discovery could rewrite ancient story of the New Forest

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An aerial view of the ancient discovery at Matley Heath near Lyndhurst (Photo: New Forest National Park Authority)
An aerial view of the ancient discovery at Matley Heath near Lyndhurst (Photo: New Forest National Park Authority)

AN archaeological dig at Matley Heath in the New Forest has unearthed evidence of the first human settlements in the area.

Analysis of charcoal found in what was believed to be an Iron Age hillfort at Matley Heath near Lyndhurst has dated the monument much further back to the earlier Neolithic period.

Dating between 3347 and 3097 BC, the evidence, together with previous isolated finds in the New Forest, raises new questions around the history of settlements and land use within the national park and Hampshire.

The discovery was made during a programme of conservation and investigative works at the monument, undertaken by a team from Forestry England, the New Forest National Park Authority (NPA), archaeologists from Bournemouth University’s Archaeological Research Consultancy (BUARC), and local volunteers.

Lawrence Shaw, archaeological officer for the NPA, said: “This fascinating discovery has raised more questions than answers about this amazing site, and certainly increases the significance of the monument both locally and nationally.

“What is particularly great about this discovery is that it is a result of extensive partnership working by several different organisations.

“The monument itself has been on the at-risk register for a number of years, and this work has been one of many steps towards bringing the site back into favourable condition, so that it survives for many more thousands of years.”

Through a process of geophysical surveys and an archaeological excavation, the team was able to locate the charcoal deposits in buried soil deposits at the base of the large ditch of the monument.

These were removed and underwent specialist radiocarbon dating analysis to provide an objective age estimate.

Andrew Norris, planning officer for Forestry England, said: “This site has always been a bit of a mystery, referred to as an ancient hillfort but on very low ground, making it a curious location for this kind of feature.

"There is still much to find out about it but this investigation has given us a big piece of the puzzle.

“By dating the settlement much further back than we thought, it potentially resets the archaeological clock for when people first began settling here in the New Forest.

"Alongside the dig, we have conducted some important conservation activities at the site to protect it from further erosion and damage.

“Preserving the cultural heritage of the New Forest is an important part of Forestry England’s work, and we would like to thank all of the partner organisations and volunteers who supported this project.”

Jon Milward, senior archaeological consultant at BUARC, which led the fieldwork, said: “It has been a pleasure to have been involved in this project, which has been a great success.

“Taking the opportunity to undertake a controlled archaeological excavation alongside the repair and conservation works has provided a wealth of information that can be used to inform long-term conservation and management plans, and any future research projects.

“We now know a lot more about the characteristics of the earthworks around the feature and the nature of the buried archaeological remains, as well as having new dating evidence that defied expectations and proposes the monument is at least 2,500 years older than previously thought.”

The project at Matley Heath is part of Forestry England’s ongoing programme of monitoring and preserving 158 different ancient monuments in the New Forest.

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