Prehistoric Greenwich (1) Cox’s Mount


Start of a new occasional series today, guys, delving into Greenwich before Greenwich. Paul has been talking to me about the really ancient prehistory of the area which, in his own words, is “pretty lush,” and virtually unknown outside archaeological circles.

He’s been doing a bit of his own research, too and making some calculations, measurements and digging (not always literally – anyone who watches Time Team – a controversial programme, we’re divided in our household – will know there’s nothing like a spot of geo-fizz) and has been coming to some interesting conclusions…

Cox’s Mount, at the Thames-end of the Maryon/Maryon-Wilson/Gilberts Pits group, was a vast Iron Age hill fort. I vaguely remember reading about it in Beryl Platt’s book (though of course, much as I loved that volume, and romantic as I am, I still felt a tad uneasy about some of her conclusions about mythical characters and fairy tale princes – you’ll find my entry on it on April 1st…) and it seems that Charlton was a big deal in the Iron Age. It’s hardly surprising – if you climb all the steps up to the top of the mount above Gilbert’s Gravel pit it’s a loooong way up – and that’s after the erosion caused by said pit.

Sadly the gravel pits, fascinating as they are in their own right (another day, another day…) are a large part of the reason why there’s virtually nothing left of the fort. We can only guess how big it actually was – excavations reveal it’s less than an eighth of its original size, though, and it was certainly big enough for the Romans to cast their beady eyes on it then move in themselves.

Paul’s had his metaphorical tape measure out, and though he’s still working on it, he has, as a by-product, cleared up a couple of questions I had about road names in the area. Rathmore (Road – where the benches are) means “Great Fort” and Troughton (Road, next door) means “Ditch” – but they are about 1000 metres away and Paul points out this is far too big for a single fort, so it was probably another one. I had wondered, since Paul also tells me that there were some excavations done around the turn of the last century, whether the Victorians named the roads for the dig but it seems that they were done in 1915 – too late, I suspect, for the buildings – so maybe the names are older.

During these excavations the remains of a couple of buildings were found, so it must have been an exciting time, but Paul reckons that most of the buildings wouldn’t have been on top anyway. Excavations at Danebury, a humungus fort in Hampshire, show that most people, including the chief, would have lived in the lower slopes as farmers, saving the long slog uphill for the times when they were under siege – probably from rival clans – or even Mafia-style protection rackets. We can only specualte as to what an Iron Age Don Corleone might have looked like…

They also found three Roman vases, including one that had been tossed away by the gravel extractors. Paul continues:
“A prehistoric hearth was found on top, indicated by burnt pebbles to the depth of 33 inches deep and 36 wide. So deep it was probably for smelting bronze and iron. It’s believed the two of the mounds at the highest part may be barrows. The site demonstrates 400 years of occupation from around 50bc.”

By the time the Romans arrived all that climbing had clearly got to most of the farmers of South-east England, and since numbers were increasing, they were turning more to walled towns. The tribal boundaries would have been miles away anyway by now. But no point in wasting a good fort, and the invading Romans were most interested in its possiblities, which would account for the buildings and vases found.

There don’t seem to be any of those fab ‘artist’s impressions’ of the fort itself (yeah, yeah, who didn’t buy that one of the Roman soldiers on the loo at Hadrian’s Wall as a kid? Ah. Just me, then…) but Paul has sent me a fascinating picture of the view from the fort in the very early 20th Century. A truly involving picture in so many ways. As usual, click on any image to make it larger.

The colour photos are of the ‘barrows,’ which he took when he nipped under the fence to get a closer look. If you do the same, take care – last time I was there a woman walking her dog nearly ended up in the bushes below…

Paul has an archaeological manufacturing business (exactly what it sounds – his little cottage industry makes stone axes – I have a wonderful image in my mind of him outside his wattle and daub hut in Charlton, knapping his flints by the fire, a blackened cauldron bubbling away merrily as he works…) Check him out here and here
More prehistoric fun another day, folks…

One Comment to “Prehistoric Greenwich (1) Cox’s Mount”

  1. matt says:

    I moved to charlton in january, and a few of my friends told me about the hanging wood. since then I’ve been wondering where the gallows were. do you know? also this blog entry is fascinating – I’ll have to investigate this hill fort myself