Whiteleaf Hill near Princes Risborough
Here it is! Our first featured site! We racked our brains trying to think which, out of all our fabulous sites, should be the first. Then we realised it had to be Whiteleaf Hill - and there are so many reasons why.
First of all, the site is so striking. The chalk-cut cross sitting on top of its mound looms over Monks and Princes Risborough and it has great local significance.
Secondly, the site is accessible to visitors. There's a nice little car park at the top of Peter's Lane and then a pleasant walk to the hillside with an amazing view over the Vale of Aylesbury - you can even see Didcot power station!
Finally, we have a lot of information about it. There was an excavation here in the 1930s and although that was interrupted by the Second World War, it was written up and published by 1954. There was a survey done in the 1990s before the site was turned into a local nature reserve, so that was useful. Finally, there was the investigation and conservation done by Buckinghamshire Council's former Countryside Initiatives Team, Oxford Archaeology and helped by local volunteers, mainly the Princes Risborough Countryside Group. Not only did that mean that we knew a lot about it - the work had won a British Archaeological Award (see picture below).
So, the last task was to delve into the evidence to try to build up a picture of the development of the hillside from earliest times to the present day....
Hunters and farmers
Before 4000 BC, Britons were hunters. Our cousins on the continent had been farming for generations, but we were stubborn and like to do things differently to other Europeans. Red deer, wild boar and cattle were stalked and killed for their tasty meat. Women gathered plants, fruit and nuts to cook or eat raw. There was little carbohydrate in the diet, so it was easy to stay slim. Weapons for hunting and tools for cutting vegetables were made from flint. Everyone would have had a rudimentary skill in knapping flint flakes and making them into tools, but some were able to make the smallest points that had ever been seen. They set them into a wooden shaft, stuck down by tree resin, and made arrows or saws. Some of these tiny flints were found on Whiteleaf Hill, perhaps left as not suitable for use by hunters watching for prey on the valley below. Others made tools and only occasionally did they get elegant flakes that were twice as long as they were wide and had parallel edges - and centuries later archaeologists would call these flakes blades. A blade just over 5cm long was found in the root of a tree in 1991 along the footpath to Whiteleaf Hill, picked up over 6000 years after it had been dropped or left on the ground or placed in a pit.
Then, around 4000 BC, there was a change. It was subtle, and it took several generations for it to really be felt, but it was real. In some places it happened before others. Perhaps someone, perhaps many people, had come from abroad and brought the new way of life with them. Perhaps a Briton had visited the continent and brought back stories to tell their family and friends. They may also have brought back presents - in this case, sheep.
Sheep had been tamed and then looked after in the Near East since about 10,000 BC, and had eventually made it to Britain. Dogs had been useful helpers when hunting and so were known long before. The Britons soon found out that it wasn’t just sheep and dogs that could be tamed, though, it was cattle and pigs, too. Deer were more difficult, and dangerous when rutting, so were left wild. Our European cousins grew their own plants, too, and the Britons tried it, and did it a bit, but it didn’t catch on as well as keeping your own animals had.
Something else came with the sheep, too. Perhaps it wasn’t a new way of thinking, perhaps it was just that a new way of doing things had been accepted into an old way of thinking, but it showed itself differently. Gathering places were now defined by a rough circle of unconnected ditches. Instead of being left out in the open when you died, your bones were eventually or immediately covered up. The earth was dug into, moved, mounded up, moulded to people’s needs and desires.
Around 3700 BC a man died. He had not been very old, but was no longer young and suffered from arthritis from an active life. His teeth were worn down with a lifetime of eating bread made with stone-ground flour (there were still tiny bits of stone left in the bread). He was special. Perhaps he was a leader, perhaps a religious man or perhaps there were just signs that he should be treated differently. A small clearing was made in the wood, and his body was laid out on top of the hill and covered by a mini wooden tent but essentially left to rot and be eaten by scavengers. After 50, 100, 150 years or so, people returned. Some bones were lost, others were still visible, and it was now decided to build a mound of earth to further protect the old man, now a legend. A feast was held in which the old man took part as his bones were passed around (only a foot was untouched), the pots smashed and incorporated into the earth that was dug with antler picks and mounded up with many pairs of hands and baskets. After another 300 years or so the local people, unsatisfied with the small barrow, enlarged it to prove their ancestor who was buried underneath it was a great man.
The place was remembered and visited often. Sometimes people left offerings, sometimes they went to take (though never too close to the old man). A mound at the tip of the hill was dug into for its flint. Flint was still the main material for tools, but now people were starting to get blasé about making them and they were squat and crude. The people just came, grubbed up the good flint nodules, knapped off the outer cortex, and left.
Many years later, when the changes that had taken place around 4000 BC had finally taken hold and the valley was planned into a series of farms and fields, the barrow still had visitors and tributes. Parents thought it fitting that their dead child be cremated, as was now the custom, and buried in a plain urn. But the urn wouldn’t be placed just anywhere, it was placed in the barrow of the old man, now almost a myth, except that his burial place was still so clear for all to see. Soon after, even the land and woods on the hill was carved up between rival farms for it was good grazing land.
Even after the Roman invaders brought their engineering and central heating and new gods, local people still took offerings to the hill and asked the old man to talk to the spirits, to bring a good harvest. The last few had not been good. What would one bring in exchange? A shiny bronze leaf, a suitable gift for a divinity, which would also remind the god of the favour he had been asked to grant.
5000 years after the old man was buried, he was finally forgotten. The mound was just one of several on top of the hill. It was still used as grazing land, but now it was shared. There was a small village down at the bottom of the hill and a larger one to the south. As the years went by they were known as Monks and Princes Risborough. The monks were actually priests from Christ Church, Canterbury, who owned the land, whereas the land in Princes Risborough was owned at one point by the Black Prince, son of King Edward III. The priests decided their village should have a windmill and wondered where the best place was for it to go. Whiteleaf Hill, said the villagers, there’s nowhere windier in the parish than the top of that hill!
A windmill was duly built. The cross-posts were sunk into the ground and the earth mounded on top of them to keep them in place. The windmill could be turned so that it faced into the wind, whichever direction it was blowing. But the wind was so strong up on the hill, and the climb to the top to take their grain to be ground and pick up the resulting flour was so steep, the villagers soon built another down in the valley and dismantled the one on the hill. It was soon forgotten.
Consecrated once again
Many years later the country was wracked by civil war; brother fought brother, father fought son. The whole country was divided by the actions of the king. In the end the king lost, and many people believed that consequently, God had won. Maybe it was now that the people of Monks and Princes Risborough cut a cross in the hillside on Whiteleaf Hill to represent the victory for religion. Soon the turf below the cross started to erode, undermined by the exposure of the chalk further up. The villagers and townsfolk had to cut away a semi-circle of turf below the cross to stop the cross transforming into an unrecognisable shape. Now it appeared as though a cross had been placed on top of a hill, a white hill smaller than the green hill it was part of. By the time the new antiquarians were recording ancient sites around the country, the knowledge of when and why the cross was cut was forgotten. Was it the Saxons or the Danes who had set it there to mark some victory or to consecrate the hill, which had a pagan burial mound on top of it.
Because, by this time, the old man’s barrow had been remembered. Nobody realised how old it was, but they knew there was a body underneath the mound somewhere. The reverend of St Dunstan’s decided to dig a trench into the east side of the barrow, to see what he could find, but there was nothing. They left it alone after that.
But the hill was still in use. It was wartime again. Troops were training at Halton and they needed to do field exercises somewhere. The war in France was being fought from trenches and there were regulations about digging them in the right way and using them the right way to prevent as many deaths as possible. So the troops went out in 1914 and dug some half-size trenches in the woods on Whiteleaf Hill. The zig-zag of the trenches gave a forward firing position and annexed trenches provided some relief from fighting. Recesses in the side of the trench provided space for stretchers. Before long the trenches were abandoned and the men went to war, many never to return.
Coming to light
The 1920s and 1930s were a time of renewed vigour in archaeological investigations. Sir Mortimer Wheeler was digging Maiden Castle in Dorset, Rosamund Cleal had excavated Windmill Hill in Wiltshire – a good excavation was needed for an academic to prove themselves. Sir William Lindsay Scott was one of these academics. He had dug a Neolithic cairn, Iron Age smelting site and hillfort and a Viking canal in Rudh an Dunain in Skye in 1932, and had published articles on the Bronze Age and Iron Age of Scotland and northern England and was set for a glittering career. This would be his first excavation in southern England and the site would be the oldest he had dug. He started digging the old man’s grave between 1934 and 1939 until the war broke out. He was disappointed when this barrow only turned out to have one occupant, rather than the many found in Maes Howe in Orkney in 1861 or in Hetty Pegler’s Tump in 1821 in the Cotswolds. But Whiteleaf Hill’s barrow was small, and built only of earth – there were no stone chambers under the mound.
When war broke out in 1939, excavation had to stop. The cross cut into the chalk was covered up to prevent it being used as a landmark by enemy bombers flying overhead – the excavations were abandoned. Sir Lindsay Scott came back after the war but now for very long. He published a few short reports on the excavations in the late 1940s and his last article, on the Scottish Iron Age, in 1951 before he died. His friends V. Gordon Childe and Isobel Smith took on the artefacts he had found and notes he had taken and published them in 1954. The old man’s bones were taken to the Natural History Museum. It was assumed that the two mounds, one just north of the barrow and the other at the northern tip of the hill, were both Bronze Age burial mounds, which were often built next to Neolithic barrows. But nobody had tried to prove it by excavating them. Until the 21st century.
In 2002 the first season of excavation took place. Oxford Archaeology, a professional company of archaeologists, was helped by locals, mainly the Princes Risborough Countryside Group, and schoolchildren, to work out what had happened on Whiteleaf Hill.
They found that Sir Lindsay Scott hadn’t finished his excavations and had left his spoilheap instead of rebuilding the barrow. They were able to date the old man’s bones to 3760-3640 BC and found that the barrow had first been built between 3660-3520 BC and then enlarged between 3370-3100 BC. They found that the two Bronze Age burial mounds had actually been a natural tump, where people had grubbed up and knapped flints, and a medieval windmill mound. They found that the bank and ditch cutting across the hill was probably Late Bronze Age and they found out from the locals when the practice trenches were dug.
One thing they couldn’t find out for certain is when the cross was cut. The first mention of it was by Francis Wise in 1742. The archaeologists excavated to try to find buried soils that could be scientifically dated to tell them when the cross was made, but they couldn’t find enough. Everyone has their own theory about the cross – what’s yours?
Try out the virtual excavation game based on Whiteleaf Hill.