Surveying for Saxons

By Michael Blakstad for Meon Matters, December 2014

In late Saxon times, East Meon was the centre of a minster parish, an important administrative centre; others nearby were Winchester, Bishop’s Waltham and Titchfield. 9thcentury charters describe the Hundred of Aet Meone, which stretched to the Sussex border. In the Domesday Book, seven mills were listed in the two East Meon manors belonging to Stigand, the Bishop of Winchester. So we know that Saxons were here…. But where?

Reconstruction of a Saxon Hall

It is assumed that The Court House was built on the site of a previous Saxon Hall, and All Saints on the foundations of an earlier church.  Most of our predecessors probably lived where the centre of village now stands, but people are unlikely to be keen on archaeological digs in their houses or gardens.

‘Saxons in the Meon Valley’ is a project led by the Friends of Corhampton Church (a Saxon building) and funded by several sources including the Lottery and the South Downs National Park.  Its research programme is led by Dr Nick Stoodley, an archaeologist at the University of Winchester.  Over two years, a variety of activities have been organised, designed to spread interest and increase our knowledge of our Saxon predecessors, including the re-enactment at our Open Day of the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings.

The main thrust of the programme has been a campaign of surveys along the Meon Valley, in the hope of establishing where and how our Saxon forebears lived.  Sites have included Meonstoke, Droxford, Corhampton and Exton. Nick Stoodley regards East Meon as a promising location, because early communities clustered near the sources of rivers and finds indicate that there were settlers in the area before the village was established. We were invited to participate in a geophysical survey of a site near the village where there might have been a settlement.

Geophysics is the science of detecting what is beneath the ground without digging. Resistivity and magnetometry detect objects or disturbances in the soil. Early Saxon buildings were made of wood and straw, which have decayed, so the only detectable traces of their buildings are pits, dug for posts, or trenches. Metal objects such as coins, buckles, weapons and ornaments were frequently lost.  Finding either kind of object could reveal the site of a Saxon settlement.

Surveying potential sites for the survey. Left to right, Guy Liardet, Chairman of Friends of Corhampton Church, Frank Moffatt, farmer, Michael Blakstad, EMHG. Nick Stoodley.

Nick Stoodley chose to reconnoitre land by the River Meon, from its source to Drayton bridge. He brought lists of Saxon objects previously found, mainly by metal detectors, at locations along its length, Michael and George Atkinson, Bill Tyrwhitt Drake and Frank Moffatt, kindly agreed to provide access to their land, (We are bound by confidentiality agreements not to reveal the chosen site … not all metal detectorists are honest!)

For two days in mid-September, History Group members and other villagers gathered to conduct the survey. Nick Stoodley led the exercise, and told the team why he had chosen the site; several Saxon objects had been found here, and its proximity to the village offered the possibility of finding a late Saxon settlement, a farmstead or a hamlet.

Our volunteers were coached by Carl Raven, a member of  the Liss Archaeology Group, in the techniques to be employed in the geophysical survey, whilst three other members of the Saxons team guided them in metal detection. To ensure that the area was completely scanned, and the same ground not covered twice, a very precise grid was first created. Carl then coached our volunteers in the use of an electrical resistance meter to record resistance in the ground to an electrical current; for example the contents of a midden or pit will have a higher moisture content and consequently a lower resistance, compared to the surrounding earth.

Next, Carl showed them how to use magnetometers, which measure variations in the earth’s magnetic field, reacting to metal and objects like brick and tiles which have had their magnetic properties altered by heat and record higher values than the surrounding earth.

Meanwhile, the metal detectors used GPS to note the location of any finds, which included Roman coins and a musket ball from the Civil War, but nothing from Saxon times.

The morning after … the scan shows no relevant traces.

Carl showed us printouts of the scans … ‘great images, but nothing is detected’. In his final report he notes several ‘anomalies’ in the soil, but nothing to indicate a Saxon settlement. We can report that several members now know a lot more about the application of geophysical techniques in archaeology and who want to do more. But the secrets of Saxon East Meon remain under the buildings of the village.