Victorian archaeological explorations at Cissbury Ring

Site of Lane Fox's cross-ditch excavations at Cissbury Ring

From the earliest recorded excavation on Cissbury Ring by George Irving in 1857 to the campaigns conducted by Augustus Lane Fox in the 1870s, the Victorian archaeologists were adding to our knowledge. Not only did these investigations tell us a lot about the hill fort itself they also furthered the science of archaeology with new techniques being developed as part of this work.

The first exploration

In 1857 George Irving investigated an isolated hollow on the south-east side of the hill fort and nine pits in the area of the flint mines. In one of these he found charcoal, oyster shells, animal bones and pottery including Roman and 16th century material. His only other find was a William III half-penny.

Locations of archaeological explorations
Locations of archaeological explorations
Locations of archaeological explorations

The 1860s

Colonel Augustus Lane Fox and Canon William Greenwell excavated 30 pits in two campaigns: September 1867 and January 1868. All the pits were excavated to a depth of two metres when a solid chalk layer interpreted as bedrock was reached.

They found large numbers of flint axes and other tools, more animal bones and teeth, charcoal, shells and pieces of Neolithic pottery. The discoveries led Augustus Lane Fox to interpret the pits as the result of flint extraction.

He also noticed the pits outside the rampart on the southern side and dug a ten-metre-long trench to investigate the hill fort ditch. He found worked flints buried at its base and this led him to date the hill fort as contemporary with the flint workings.

He also investigated some small enclosures away from the mines area finding more axe heads and some pieces of Roman pottery.

The 1870s

Work in Belgium and at Grime’s Graves in Norfolk (which was first excavated in 1870) led archaeologists to believe that the shallow depth ascribed to the Cissbury pits was based on a misinterpretation of the densely-packed chalk rubble fill as bedrock.

Ernest Willett reopened one of Lane Fox’s earlier pits in 1873 and removed the fill to a depth of 4.2 metres. Here he discovered a shaft with a number of galleries radiating from it and several ox shoulder blades which he believed had been used as shovels.

An ox shoulder blade unearthed at Cissbury Ring
An ox shoulder blade unearthed at Cissbury Ring
An ox shoulder blade unearthed at Cissbury Ring

Plumpton Tindall opened a further shaft a year later excavating to a depth of 12 metres and found worked flints and the bones of cattle and wild boar. He died before he could make a proper record but communicated enough details to Lane Fox and Willett.

Willett returned the same year and after examining a further shaft to a depth of six metres concluded that the flint workings were earlier than the fort defences which appeared to sever the workings.

Augustus Lane Fox returned to Cissbury in 1875 and 1876. Freely admitting his earlier mistake he wanted to prove the relative dates of the fort and the shafts.

His first 6-metre-long trench dug across the ditch proved nothing but he persevered, selecting another location for a twelve-metre-long trench this time. He realised that the ditch had been cut through the upper fill of two flint shafts, a crucial discovery that he illustrated with a section drawing, a pioneering act for his time. He found galleries extending beneath the rampart and he found the skeleton of a woman in the mine workings.

The last archaeological digs of the Victorian era were conducted by J. Park Harrison between 1875 and 1887. He explored a further three shafts and galleries and unearthed a crouched male skeleton.

A change of name

Augustus Lane Fox was required to change his name to Pitt Rivers in 1880 as a condition for inheriting his great-uncle’s estate on Cranbourne Chase, Dorset. It is by this name that he is more-commonly known today.