Continuity of settlement over centuries was a feature of growing importance in Ancient Britain but some sites have evidence of settlement over thousands of years. Hengistbury Head is a headland jutting into the English Channel between Bournemouth and Milford on Sea in Dorset. The promontory has witnessed a long sequence of human occupation but is most famous as a fortified Iron Age mercantile centre playing an important role in cross-Channel trade between Britain and Gaul.
The site was occupied during the Upper Palaeolithic and may have been on the route taken by migrating animals moving south from Britain to the Continent. There is evidence of an open settlement of the Creswellian culture on the hill in the middle of the headland dating to around 10,500 BC. At the time, this hill would have overlooked a large river valley that was to become the English Channel. Later, once the sea had inundated the surrounding valley, Mesolithic hunter gatherers exploited the site and Neolithic stone tools have been found in the campy at Warren Hill but it was not until the Bronze Age that visible traces of the site’s occupation are apparent.
There are eleven Bronze Age round barrows on the promontory with two more a little further inland that were first excavated by J. P. Bushe-Fox between 1911 and 1912 and then by Harold St George Gray immediately after the First World War. Numerous finds including Early Bronze Age axes, along with amber and gold jewelry were recovered from these monuments. Pottery found nearby to the barrows also indicates visitation during 1700-1400BC. In around 700 BC, a small settlement to the very north of the headland was established; also around this time, the headland was cut off from the mainland by the construction of two banks and ditches. These earthworks turned Hengistbury Head into a fortified settlement area that appears to have grown over succeeding centuries until it became an important port and promontory fort and some historians have argued that this was Britain’s first town. Most of our knowledge of the site comes from Barry Cunliffe’s work there between 1979 and 1984.
One side of the Head is defended by large earthworks, called the ‘double dykes’, similar to those found at Maiden Castle. These date to approximately 700BC. Due to the high concentration of iron ore in the area, this location became a significant trading port, trading worked metal especially iron, silver and bronze with Gaul and the Mediterranean in exchange for wine, tools and pottery. Many coins have been found from this period and it one of the few areas in pre-Roman Britain to use coins, including examples of what seem to be ancient forgeries, with a bronze core dipped in silver. The port had several advantages. It was protected by the headland but also had convenient access by the rivers Avon and Stour into the densely occupied and rich farmland of Wessex. It also lay at the centre of a highly productive region close to high-grade ironstone, salt from the Isle of Purbeck, Kimmeridge shale favoured for armlets and good potting clay.
Under the Romans, Hengistbury Head was initially left alone, possibly as a result of its distance from Roman centres of power. However, as Roman rule expanded, trade was moved away from the Head to other Roman ports, a process of decline that predates the Roman occupation and may be linked to local power struggles and political readjustments following Caesar’s interventions and by declining trade with Roman-controlled Gaul. By about the time the Roman administration left in the early fifth century, the area was abandoned.