Climb a hill to meet a warlord and a lady
As the highest point on the Berkshire Downs (189m) providing 360 degree views encompassing seven counties, Lowbury Hill has been a special place for centuries, at least as far back as the Roman period. The trig point is the most obvious feature on the hilltop but archaeologists have revealed that there is also interest in the ground.
Banner image: Aerial photo by Hedley Thorne.
On the hilltop, a slight ridge runs the perimeter of a Roman rectangular enclosure and, nearby, there is the small mound of a round barrow constructed later in the Anglo-Saxon period. In the barrow, a male skeleton was found with striking items – a pattern-welded sword, shield, enameled spearhead, knife, shears, a bronze hanging bowl and a bone comb. This impressed Atkinson, the archaeologist who found him in 1913-14, and so he called him an ‘Anglo-Saxon warlord’. Today, his bones and grave goods can be seen on permanent display in the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.
The ‘Lowbury Warlord’ was buried between 610-685AD. Analysis of his bones suggest he died aged over 50 years old and lived in Cornwall or Western Ireland during his childhood. Whilst current thinking continues to view the male as a highly respected individual, it is thought that his ‘warrior’ burial indicates status rather than his actual occupation. It is clear that by the time he died, he had arthritis and a poorly healed broken collar bone which would have made it painful to wield a spear or sword.
In contrast, the ‘Lowbury Lady’ was buried around 550 to 650 AD without any grave goods in a wall of the Roman enclosure. Recent research by Summer Courts suggests she died aged between her mid-thirties to mid-forties. She was strong and relatively healthy and would have stood between 166-169 cm tall. She had lost quite a few teeth before she died and had the beginnings of arthritis in her lower back and neck and a leg injury.
Atkinson also studied the Roman enclosure in 1913-14 and reported that locals called the hill Oyster Hill because so many shells were found. Other items found from the Roman period include coins, spearheads, brooches, rings, ear scoops (!) and ox goads – take a look at a few in this virtual exhibition by Oxfordshire Museum Service. These items have led to various interpretations over the years of what the enclosure might be, ranging from an upland farmstead to a cattle enclosure, a Roman camp and more recently a Romano-Celtic temple.
New research is proposing the Roman spearheads are a crucial clue. The spearheads are decorative and not functional since the tips are blunted by small beads of metal or their edges clipped with small metal hoops. Summer Courts sees them as ‘spears of power’ with ceremonial, symbolic purpose similar to those seen elsewhere in Europe. They were used by members of Roman military on special duty as a ‘badge of office’ allowing them to carry out tax collection and law enforcement.