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The Wandlebury Ring: Stapleford, Cambridgeshire: Iron Age Hill Fort of the Iceni tribe.

At a place known as The  Wandlebury Ring, four and a half miles south of Cambridge lies an Iron age hill fort of the Ancient Iceni tribe, the fort is circular, and the enclosed area covers some 15 acres.

Excavations in 1955-56 within the eastern side of the ring, by Cambridge University undergraduates and volunteers led by Brian Hartley and Professor J D Clark, produced many significant finds, and further evidence led experts to conclude this Iceni border fort was intensively occupied from the 3rd century BC , to around the 1ST or 2nd century  AD.

Wandlebury Hillfort stands on the highest point of a chalk ridge that controls both the Icknield Way and commands traffic into Cambridge - and access along the Cam river valley.

The Icknield Way is a prehistoric trackway which follows the natural chalk ridges all the way from the south and west of England, through, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Newmarket, Suffolk, right through to Norfolk where it disappears into the Wash not far from Hunstanton. On the other side of the Wash about ten miles away there is another much older Icknield Way, this ancient trackway heads north along the same “Norfolk Edge” natural chalk ridge to the Lincolnshire Wolds, where it then heads northwards to the Humber and Yorkshire.

The circular Iceni iron age hillfort at Wandlebury, ( c. 300 bc ) was enclosed by a rampart, making the occupants feel extremely safe and secure against would be attackers. The volume of spoil from the surrounding ditch 4.5 metres deep (14 feet 9 inches) and 5.5 metres wide (18 feet), with steep sides, would almost certainly have had an equally impressive rampart 4.5 metres (14ft 9ins) high, also faced by two rows of posts 4 metres (13 ft) apart.

Around the 1ST century AD, the defences were modified, a double ditch system was used,  probably due to several incidents of  local tribal warfare. Experts believe the defenders probably intended to use slings rather than hand to hand combat, and so it was an advantage to keep the enemy within their sights/range for as long as possible.

The material on the outer edge had been quarried to a depth of 4 metres (13ft), to create a steep outer slope, and a gentle inner one. Spoil was then thrown up on to the outside of the ditch creating a low counterscarp bank, these weathered remains are still visible to this day. The vertical faces of the rampart were eventually replaced, with more widely spaced timbers and a bank that was at least 30 centimetres wider.

Inside the the line of the rampart a V shaped ditch had been cut, 11.6 metres wide and 5.2 metres deep, inside this another timber faced rampart was erected. Assuming all of the ditch material was used, this sloping rampart, not revetted at the back, would  almost certainly have been around ten metres wide and five metres high.

Without a doubt this hillfort structure was a formidable line of defence, for the people of the Iceni tribe, creating a very relaxed society, and a relatively comfortable lifestyle within the enclosure, the evaluation reports following extensive archaeological investigations of the site are confirmation of this.




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© Sheshen Eceni

Finds at Wandlebury.

Some of the notable finds from the iron age hillfort at Wandlebury include an iron fibula, which was found under the site of the inner rampart, further excavations of the site produced a great number of smaller items, made from bone, bronze, along with some pieces of pottery, also many iron artefacts ( which was  widely available at the time) a few more of the objects recorded, are as follows: an iron ring-headed pin, an iron knife, a bronze torc-like brooch, a highly polished bone needle, a  bone cheek-piece of a bridle, a gouge from a sheep’s tibia, carding combs, a spindle whorl, and considerable amounts of  fragments of  triangular daub loom-weights, some of these finds were actually found within the 33 pits that were examined. Iron Age pottery was also discovered, including Roman pottery from the upper fillings of the ditches. A great number of sling-shot stones were also found scattered around a large area outside the fort itself, and in the 1980’s a group of field walkers found several axe heads in a neighbouring field.

The gales of winter 1976, brought several beech trees down, and many other species, amongst the tangled roots and stumps lay the remains of five male skeletons, in their shallow graves. All 5 bodies had their limbs mutilated, one skull had a sword cut to the chin, work done previously on the slope revealed what is thought to be a large cemetery - taking into consideration the vast quantities of bones unearthed at the site.

Excavations in 1955-56 found groups of two and four post holes, which are believed to have acted as supports for drying racks for the grain stored in granaries.The staple diet in ancient times, probably consisted of meat combined with grain.

Of the 33 pits dug, most it would seem were intended for either storage, or rubbish disposal, but the findings in six of the pits, point towards a more sinister purpose. There were three burials, and fragments of human bone, half a child’s skeleton with a bronze needle that may have been used to fasten the sack, containing the body before the burial. Based on the knowledge we have of Iron Age religions and practices; it’s quite likely that those unfortunate individuals were chosen or selected to become ceremonial ritual sacrifices to appease the tribal gods.

High status burials were for the wealthy, and people of importance.  Ordinary people were disposed of like rubbish in those days. A sizeable tumulus known as Wormwood Hill, to the south of Wandlebury estate, is a large burial mound that is believed to contain the remains of one or more of these high status individuals. 

As mentioned previously; human bones were discarded in rubbish pits. The foe; those that had been slain in battle were just thrown into shallow graves, and several skeletons lay side by side at awkward angles some face down.

Although what does the dismembered skeleton of a six year old boy found in a pit suggest? as it was just the torso with it's legs hacked off, a human sacrifice? Also what was the significance of the adult females 'drastically mutilated' body, it had multiple fractures, how did they occur? her head lay apart from her trunk, both femurs had been deliberately broken off a few centimetres below the pelvis, and then the pelvic girdle crushed by a huge block of flint. Was she a victim of  a ritualised fertility sacrifice?.

Who knows?… perhaps even Boudicca herself visited Wandlebury…on her way to Colchester - her forces possibly re-capturing the fort from the Romans in 60 AD….

This was once an formidable border fort of the Iceni tribe, and from the archaeological evidence - the site of many “a bloody battle”.  Following each battle there would have been great feasting, as the occupants would have celebrated their victories, dining on sheep, cow, pig, horse and even dog, as large amounts of these animal bones (all butchered) were found in the rubbish pits during excavations.



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© Sheshen Eceni

Cambridge’s Camelot.

Amongst the majestic and legendary rolling hills of Gog Magog, and the crown of Wandlebury, lies the “ Cambridge Camelot”, legend has it that was once upon a time, the ancient woodlands of Wandlebury was one of King Arthur’s domains. Stories of a knight on a black horse began with Gervase of Tilbury, who wrote his Otia Imperialia in 1211. He told of a place near Cambridge, called Wandlebiria, so named because of the Wandali, (Presumed to be a warlike pagan people) who cruelly destroyed the Christians and ravaged Britain from a camp like fort, with a gate type of entrance) placed upon a hill.

Gervase recounts that the ancient tradition that if any warrior sets foot on this level piece of ground and calls “Knight to Knight, come forth” he will be confronted by a warrior on horseback, ready to charge until he or the challenger is dismounted. This to take place by the light of the moon and at the dead of night, with the challenger entering the enclosure alone. Osbert son of Hugh, while visiting Cambridge, heard of the old story, and decided to put it to the test. He entered the chosen spot clad in full armour and alone, and, as foretold, the Knight appeared. Osbert managed to strike his opponent to the ground, and just as he started to lead away the horse of the felled knight, he threw his lance with great effort, and pierced Osbert’s thigh. He was so delighted by his victory that he hardly noticed the wound, and proudly left, to show his friends his prize, the magnificent horse with the fierce eyes, tethered for all to bear witness too, the mark of success. At cockcrow the horse suddenly vanished without trace never to be seen again. The wound that Osbert received in battle, appeared to have healed, only for it to re-open every year on the anniversary of the conflict.

 Gogmagog & the Nymph Re: “the twentieth song”

The legend of the  Giant “Old Gogmagog” of Cambridge as foretold in Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion,  “one and twentieth song” depicts  that “old Gogmagog” had fallen head over heels in love with the Nymph, but however hard he tried to woo her, by tempting her with goods,  even changing his looks, she still rejected him.

 It is not known for certain why  the hills became known as the Gog Magog hills, that still remains a mystery, although several theories have been put forward by scholars and the like. A hill  figure cut into the turf at Wandlebury, is thought to be “Old -Gogmagog” himself.

 The legendary giants Gog and Magog, are both mentioned in the Bible, and also the Koran, and in the medieval legends of Alexander, they feature too, in the Arthurian cycle and Spenser’s “Fairie Queen”, as Gogmagog  or Goemagot, and as the chief giants of Albion. Another story tells of how  Gog and Magog  were both taken prisoner, and then forced to work as porters at the Royal Palace, the site of the Guildhall, London. The statues are thought to have stood there from the reign of Henry V. The Great Fire of 1666, destroyed the original giant carvings, but eventually they were replaced with some new wooden ones, carved by Richard Saunders in 1708, they were 14 feet high. In 1940  a  German air raid caused a fire which destroyed these magnificent effigies, they were replaced by another set of figures in 1953.  It was traditional  during the Lord Mayors shows for giant wicker effigies of Gog and Magog to be carried through the streets of London.    


Michael Drayton’s (1563-1631)  Poly-olbion, “one and twentieth song”.

“ Old Gogmagog, a Hill of long and great renowne,

Which neer to Cambridge fet, o’rmlookes that learned Towne, 

Of Balfhams pleafant hilles, that by the name was knowne,

But with the monftrous times, he rude and barbarous growne,

A Gyant was become; for man he cared not,

And fo the fearefull name of Gogmagog had got:

Who long had borne good will to moft delicious Grant:

But doubting left fome god his greatneffe might fupplant.

For as that daintie Flood by Cambridge keepes her courfe,

He found the Mufes left their Old Beotian fource,

Reforting to her banks, and euery little fpace,

He faw bright Phoebus gaze vpon her Chriftall face,

And through th’exhaled Fogs, with anger looked red,

To leaue his loued Nymph, when he went downe to bed.

Wherefore this Hill with loue, being foully ouergone:

And one day as he found the louely Nymph alone,

Thus wooes her: Sweeting mine, if thou mine owne wilt be,

C’haue many a pretty gaud, I keepe in ftore for thee.

A neft of broad-fac’d Owles, and goodly Vrchins too:

“Nay Nymph take heed of me, when I begin to wooe:

And better yet than this, a Bulchin twa yeares old,

A curld-pate Calfe it is, and oft could haue beene fold:

And yet befide all this, c’haue goodly beare-whelps twa,

Full daintie for my Ioy, when fhee’s difpos’d to play,

And twenty sowes of Lead, to make our wedding Ring;

Bezides at Sturbridge Fayre, chill buy thee many a thing:

Chill zmouch thee euery morne, before the Sunne can rife,

And looke my manly face, in thy fweet glaring eyes.

Thus faid, he fmug’d his beard, and ftroked vp his hayre,

As one that for her loue he thought had offered fayre….


Iron Age fortifications in Cambridgeshire.

Did these six Iron Age fortifications separate the tribal territories of the Iceni, and the Catuvellauni’s?. Perhaps all 6 of these were constructed by the Iceni tribe acting as defensive outposts -guarding their important access routes and thereby controlling traffic within the rivers/ river valleys and the Fens (wetland regions) which we know they inhabited. This theory is quite a feasible one as boundaries from these times (if they existed at all) are extremely difficult to determine.


Defensive enclosures in Iron Age Cambridgeshire.

(1) Belsars Hill, Willingham, Cambs  (2) Arbury Camp, Impington, Cambs (3) Castle Hill, Cambridge.

(4) War Ditches, Cherry Hinton, Cambridge (5) Wandlebury, Stapleford, Cambs (6) Borough Mill, Sawston, Cambs












 Map © Sheshen Eceni Graphics


Circular defensive enclosures in Iron Age Cambridgeshire, con't.

The key defensive forts were situated at Belsars Hill - Willingham, Wandlebury -Stapleford, Arbury Camp - Impington, and Borough Mill – Sawston, Castle Hill – Cambridge, and War Ditches – Cherry Hinton, Cambridge. 

A line of defensive circular enclosures were constructed in Iron Age Cambridgeshire, each one of these controlled strategic points and became the tribal boundaries that separated the territories of the Iceni and the Catuvellauni. These tribes were often engaged in open warfare, conflicts arose due to their increasing populations, wealth, and status and also their political and social differences.

 Arbury Camp, Impington.

Arbury Camp is a large circular late Iron Age fortification, covering around 5 hectares, with a surrounding bank and deep ditch. This fort protected one of the approach routes into Cambridge.

The earthworks have been levelled by regular ploughing. Excavations of its defensive earthworks in 1990 revealed that a huge timber gateway once stood at the entrance to the site.  Archaeologists recovered about 200 fragments of leather which were preserved in the deep (and still) waterlogged ditch.

Belsars Hill, Willingham

Belsars Hill, is a circular Iron Age fortification at Willingham. The  earthwork consists of a near perfect circular bank and ditch 250 by 225 in diameter with a two metre high surviving bank complete with ditch of a maximum depth of 1m and a width of 8m. As Belsars hill lay in open fields - parts of it were semi-destroyed by ploughing. Built on a promontory and surrounded by marsh on three sides it was in a strong defensive position. Its  positioning at the head of the Aldreth Causeway, an artificial raised track (possibly Prehistoric in origins) provided access to the Isle of Ely. Belsars Hill blocks one of  the main approaches into South Cambridgeshire. So in terms of Military value this fortification was of considerable importance which also played a significant part in the control and establishment of trade in this area.

Borough Mill Iron Age Hillfort: Sawston,

Borough Mill: This large Iron Age fort of  8 hectares  lies on a promontory of chalk above an important ford crossing point over the River Cam en route through the Icknield Way. A double bank and ditch once surrounded the fort - though only one bank remains visible - the site has been destroyed by extensive ploughing and redevelopment of the area since medieval times.

Castle Hill: Cambridge:

The Castle Hill site excavations in Cambridge, revealed a major village with a defensive enclosure dating from the late Iron Age was in existence prior to the Roman re occupation and settlement of the area. This is believed to have covered an area of over seven hectares, which stretched from the river to the hilltop and beyond. Evidence of dense occupation of the site was found, this reveals a much larger settlement was once established here, on a greater scale than its Roman successor. 

The Iron Age village with its enclosures, surrounding banks and ditches and defended entrances controlled the major river crossing and all routes out; from the north and west of Cambridge. Founded in 1st century BC, archaeologists identified the pre-Romano settlement by its rectangular enclosure and the vertically sided storage pits.

The ditches were around 2m wide and 1.2 m deep, they had been recut many times - during extensive occupation by several generations. Five later circular enclosures contained the walls and hearths of dwellings.

At the final phase a great ditch was cut 2m deep and 3m wide astride the track which eventually became the Godmanchester road, the ditch was recut four times, a large gateway guarded the entrance flanked by huge deep-set timber posts.

Experts are uncertain as to whether or not the village was re-designed to lie within the defences, as it is identical in both size and strength with the forts at Arbury Camp and War ditches (Cherry Hinton). Or whether it was a local chieftains homestead, or part of an expanding village.

War Ditches: Cherry Hinton, Cambridge:

This Iron Age circular fortification known as “War Ditches” was positioned on a chalk ridge had a defensive bank and ditch –  the fort was placed at an important location for both defensive purposes and trade – as it commanded the broad Cam valley routes to the east, whilst overlooking the fens to the north. Unfortunately the site has been totally destroyed by quarrying.

Excavations by Archaeologists in 1894 revealed that the fort covered an area of about 5 acres, the defensive ditch was around 8 metres in width and 3.5 metres in depth, and the enclosed area was 55 metres in diameter. Discoveries from the site include Early Iron Age pottery sherds from the lower levels of the ditch and Later Iron Age pottery, from the upper layers. There was evidence of earlier Prehistoric settlement - plus artefacts - and further investigations seem to indicate re-use of the fort during the Roman and Saxon periods.  

This circular fortification (at Cherry Hinton)  to the east of Cambridge was situated between Arbury camp to the north of the region and Wandlebury to the south. War ditches seems to be one of a (crude) line of Iron Age forts in existence within the Cambridgeshire area. 

My theory is that all of these strategically based Iron Age forts were probably Iceni border or tribal boundary outposts/ defensive fortifications - guarding and controlling access and important trade routes within the Cam valley and Fenland areas. Iceni territory roughly consisted of the counties of both Norfolk, Suffolk, including the fenland region of what is now the modern day County of Cambridgeshire.

As ancient British tribal boundaries are difficult to determine, and considering the fact that Wandlebury hillfort at Stapleford, Cambs, was most definitely Iceni, the whole concept of my theory is perhaps a credible one.


 Stonea Camp: The Iron Age Ringwork: c. 50AD

The vast majority of Iron Age sites in Cambridgeshire are circular defended enclosures with a single ditch. The plans of this ringwork are similar to earlier Iron Age sites found at Thetford, Norfolk, and Essex. The much later construction of Stonea Camp – seems to indicate the expansionism of Icenian tribes into the Fenland areas. 

Stonea earthworks
click image to enlarge.
Copyright Gareth Monger.
Used with permission

Stonea Camp, Wimblington, Cambridgeshire.

The D shaped site at Stonea Camp at Wimblington, is believed to be an Iron Age ringwork, the ramparted D shaped enclosure consists of several banks - and covers an area of 10 hectares. The original Iron Age structure underwent several changes, one D inside another, though both had shared a common south-west side. Due to severe plough damage only parts of the inner curved ramparts survive to this day. Most of the site has been restored to natural farmland, and the site is open to the public for both archaeological and historical interpretation.

Investigations of one the western ramparts revealed that it was a single phase construction – with no timber supports. Significant finds from excavations include pottery sherds and a batch of Icenian coins which date the structure to 50 AD. The four undefended entrances of the final stages of the ringwork were never completed, indicating that the occupants had made a hurried departure. Further excavation work on several ditches uncovered the skull of a child with sword cuts, and two complete adult skeletons, and various other bones. There were hardly any finds from within the enclosure itself, and very few animal bones found, which is extremely unusual for a domestic Iron Age site such as this. Analysis of environmental deposits revealed no evidence of agricultural activity.


© Sheshen Eceni 2013



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