The Astons through the ages

Neolithic to Bronze Age

The occasional flint arrow head or stone knife has been unearthed in the villages showing some evidence of early Neolithic activity in the area. The top of Blewburton Hill is known, from archaeological finds, to have been occupied in Neolithic times.

The well respected English archaeologist  L.V Grinshaw in his journal  from 1935 -  Part I - An Analysis and List of Berkshire Barrows, makes interesting reference to a disc-barrow on Aston Upthorpe Downs. Disc barrows are a relatively rare kind of Bronze Age burial mound which are often referred to as a type of tumulus or round barrow.

“a fine example in a plantation on Aston Upthorpe Downs has a small mound and an outer bank”.

In 2014, some late Bronze Age (about 800 BC) artefacts were found in one of two chalk lined wells in Aston Upthorpe.  One of these wells is now preserved under glass within the garden of a home in Aston Upthorpe. See the photo below.

 Old drovers road leading towards Lowbury Hill

   The lynchets of Blewburton Hill

Bronze Age well in Aston Upthorpe. Image credit: Mike Moore

Iron age fortification on Blewburton Hill

Iron Age - Blewburton Hill 

Blewburton Hill is a high outcrop to the west of the villages which lies within the parish of Aston Upthorpe, and parish of Blewbury (see parish boundary line in black below).  In geological terminology, it is referred to as “an outlier of Lower Chalk” separated from the rest of its “kin” to the south by the A 417. Its isolation is the result of natural weathering perhaps helped by fractures occurring in the chalk which left it separated from the rest of the Downs to the south.

From the old English BLEO (variegated) BYRIG (fort) and DUN (hill). It is thought the “variegated” may refer to the different colours of white and dark thrown up by the chalk which can show through when the soil was ploughed.

The inhabitants of the Astons’ like to call it “our hill”. It has featured prominently in the history and folklore of the villages. Not only does it protect the villages from the south westerly weather currents but it even creates its own micro climate where it can rain in Blewbury but not in the Astons’. 

Evidence of early occupation in this area is clear. When the surrounding lower land may have been boggy and waterlogged, Blewburton Hill would have been an island. The evidence of the lynchets on the west bank show that the hill was being utilised for agriculture, making the most of every bit of available flat land to grow crops. A lynchet is generally a term used for a bank, or banks of earth that builds up on the downslope of a steep field ploughed over a long period of time. The disturbed soil slips down the hillside to create a lynchet. They are also referred to as strip lynchets. Dating these particular lynchets on Blewburton Hill are difficult. The general consensus is they were probably not created by ploughing alone as they are too large, too steep sided and too uniform in shape. 

The hill may have been occupied from the 4th century BC to the 1st century BC and probably replaced a small settlement which is estimated to have been built in the 5th or 6th century BC. The hill could have had a timber palisade which would have surrounded the settlement dating to about 550 BC. This would have been replaced in the 4th century BC by the first version of the hillfort with a single rampart and shallow ditch. After a period of abandonment, the hillfort must have been refortified around 100 BC, and the ditch was deepened. 

There is strong evidence of some major incident which took place here around the 1st century AD when the settlement on top of the hill was attacked and burnt down. There were many burnt artefacts found including the remnants of defensive wooden posts and some graves showing the bodies had been killed in a violent way. There were at least 2 human skeletons unearthed plus one of a dog and another of a horse. These remains are now held in Oxford. 

In times when trouble threatened through to the middle of the 15th century, villagers would hastily retreat to its ramparts protected behind deep ditches and a heavy wooden palisade, along with their families and livestock and wait until danger had passed. It makes it all the more likely that Blewburton Hill played a significant role in the protection of the inhabitants of settlements near by. 

Archaeological drawing showing where some excavations were carried out in the 20th century.

Reconstruction of Blewburton Hill Fort showing a defensive ditch outside with a strong wooden palisade in front of a high chalk wall, ramp and fortified gate.                           

Sarsen (Marker) Stones

If you walk around our villages you will see many 'marker stones' at the edge of roads or at crossways. There is only one still standing, believed to be an old sarsen marker stone, which you can see at the edge of Spring Lane and Thorpe Street in Aston Upthorpe. We don’t know its age but it’s a significant size. There are many others but all of them have fallen or been pushed into the ground, especially around Aston Upthorpe. Some are more modern (see the ones around the War Memorial which were placed there in the 1980’s by Commander Morgan) and others are recent additions by property owners to protect verges and driveways. The village history group are keen to research and document some of the older ones before they are damaged and lost for ever.

   Original article by Daniel Secker. © Oxoniensia 2006. Published by the Oxfordshire Architecural and Historical Society.

   The large Sarsen stone in Thorpe Street 

   A fallen Sarsen stone in Aston Upthorpe

     Another fallen Sarsen stone in Aston Upthorpe

Roman to Saxon Period

Lowbury Hill

Lowbury Hill lies just north of the Ridgeway and occupies the extreme south of Aston Upthorpe Parish. The hill’s name comes from old English hlaw-burgh, meaning ‘barrow by the enclosure’.

It’s one of the highest points on the Berkshire Downs with fantastic views across the Thames Valley. The hilltop is covered with earthworks, the most prominent of which are a rectangular enclosure (the Roman Temple) and a circular barrow (Anglo Saxon). Both of these are Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

In 1887 it was one of the chain of beacons to mark Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

In 2017 The Oxfordshire Museum at Woodstock created a new, permanent exhibition on Anglo Saxon Oxfordshire, which highlighted the special significance of Lowbury Hill.

Saxon Barrow

The barrow was first excavated in 1859, when 'Roman coins and ashes' were found and it was re-investigated in 1914. Roman finds were found to be abundant, particularly coins. A male skeleton was found - a complete ‘Vatcher’ type warrior - lying in an extended position to the north-south. 

The grave consisted of a knife, spear, sword, shield, decorated bronze hanging-bowl, and a bone comb in a wooden leather-covered case. A flat rectangular plate of bone, pierced at each end, was found on the left shoulder, and a small bronze buckle at the right-hand waist. Under the back bone were a small pair of shears, and another iron object, possibly a buckle. Various other small iron objects were found scattered throughout the grave. The burial was dated to between the mid-6th and the mid-7th century.

(left, Lowbury Hill by Anna Dillon. The Ridgeway Series. 2012/13)

The conclusion from the 1992 excavations show that Lowbury Hill was the site of a Romano-Celtic temple from the 2nd century A.D. Evidence was obtained for the continued use of the enclosure and surrounding area up to, if not beyond, the extraordinarily thorough demolition, or eradication of Roman pagan structures  of about the date of the Anglo-Saxon burial (first half of 7th century). Why this site was chosen for a large Roman Temple we may never fully understand but it’s proximity to the Roman cities of Silchester and Dorchester and its elevated position on the Downs, may provide us with some clues. There is no evidence of Roman occupation of the Astons but there are many Roman Roads in the area.

Acknowledgements:, A Re-Assessment of the Probable Romano-Celtic Temple and the Anglo-Saxon Barrow By M.G. FuLFORD and S.]. RIPPON

Roman Temple

Back in the 1900's, the hill was known locally as 'Oyster Hill' due to the large number of oyster shells found scattered around its surface. 

Donald Atkinson, then a Research Fellow in Roman Archaeology at the University College of Reading, dug some narrow trenches to look for Roman civilisation. 

His discoveries included pottery, coins, late Roman coins (after A.D. 360) and small finds as well as the skeleton of a middle-aged woman (at the time, interpreted as a foundation burial).

The Saxons versus the Danes: the Battle of Ascendune (Ashdown)

The village of Aston Upthorpe boasts an enduring oral testimony of a story that King Etheldred camped on Blewburton Hill the day before the Battle of Ascendune (Ashdown) which was fought against the Danes on 8th January 871 on the Berkshire Downs near Lowbury Hill. 

You can read more about the Battle of Ashdown here.