Sometimes, it is obvious that a landscape has some history attached. At other times, history leaves little trace and has to be gleaned from secondary sources. Such a place is Barkhale Camp.
In the photo above, it is just about possible to discern the line of an embankment curving into the distance. Originally, this would have been part of a huge embankment, oval in shape, and enclosing an area of land 215 metres by 145 metres. The embankment would have been surrounded by a ditch, and broken at several points by causeways, giving access to the area inside the embankment. It is easier to see the shape of the enclosure from the aerial view on Google maps: it covers most of the sheep field in the view below, and extends into the wood to the south.
The track across the lower half of the enclosure is a public bridleway (part of the South Downs Way) and probably dates from the early nineteenth century. Two small rises in this path signify where it crosses the Neolithic embankment (one is a few metres behind Midge in the photograph below).
When was it built?
There have been several excavations on Barkhale Camp, in 1929, 1958-61, and 1978. Large amounts of flint were discovered, including arrowheads and scrapers (for scraping animal hides). These discoveries would be consistent with an early Neolithic date. Excavations and radiocarbon dating at similar causewayed enclosures in southern Britain suggest they were built between 3700 BC and 3300 BC.
Why was it built?
At least 80 similar causewayed enclosures have been identified, mostly in the south east of Britain. Similar structures exist in continental Europe, and appear to have spread rapidly through Germany, France, and into Britain.
The causeways through the embankments are a common theme, and it is unlikely that the enclosures were primarily defensive. Excavations have revealed that enclosures typically contain a scattering of pits and post holes, and were probably not permanently inhabited. Archaeological finds suggest that they were places where disparate groups would meet periodically and engage in activities such as feasting, crafts, and death-rituals.
Like many such enclosures, Barkhale is near the summit of a hill but, unlike most ancient forts, it is sited on the slopes rather than at the summit. This is typical of causewayed enclosures, and would have made them visible over a wide area of low-lying land. Barkhale Camp, cut into the bright chalk hillside, would have seemed like a beacon to large numbers of farmsteads scattered across the Sussex downland. Perhaps these enclosures were meeting-places where groups could gather, on neutral ground, to reaffirm their sense of community. The causewayed enclosures may well have helped meld these scattered farming families into tribal groups.
Why is Barkhale Camp significant?
Although it is one of the larger Neolithic causewayed enclosures in Britain, Barkhale is no more significant than other such enclosures. Indeed, there are more visually impressive examples elsewhere.
However, it is the ordinariness of Barkhale, and the lack of ostentation, that is one of its attractions. Unlike other Neolithic enclosures, such as at Hambledon Hill and Maiden Castle, Barkhale Camp did not become the foundation for later Bronze and Iron Age structures. It was largely ignored, and it is surprising, after centuries of ploughing and erosion, that it is still visible today. I find it astonishing that the undulations on the hillside, and the ridges in the footpath, have been there for some 55 centuries. They are all that is left of a structure that was built more than a thousand years before the first pyramid in Egypt, and several centuries before the first stone was erected at Stonehenge.
Barkhale Camp is situated high on Bignor Hill, close to where the Monarch’s Way crosses the South Downs Way. This is an area of beautiful downland walking in the middle of the South Downs National Park.
Barkdale Camp lies close to the Roman villa at Bignor, and just south of the Stane Street, the Roman road between Chichester and London. It is also close to the historic town of Arundel.
Take the A27 between Chichester and Arundel. At Fontmell, take the A29 north for six miles to the village of Bury. Turn left at Bury and continue for two miles to Bignor. Turn left along a minor road to reach the car park at Glatting Beacon.