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S20 Ep1

Archaeology at Althorp

Premiere: 10/9/2022 | 00:00:32 | TV-PG | Closed Captioning Icon

Charles, Ninth Earl Spencer — best-selling author and brother to Diana, Princess of Wales — may be sitting on the greatest British archaeological find of the century. Searching Althorp, the Spencer family estate, for a medieval village, a team of British archaeologists find evidence of something far older.



About the Episode

Charles, Ninth Earl Spencer — best-selling author and brother to the late Diana, Princess of Wales — may be sitting on the greatest British archaeological find of the century. Searching Althorp, the Spencer family estate, for a medieval village, a team of British archaeologists find evidence of something far older.


♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] [ Detector beeping ] -I'm in my late 50s now, and this is a story that I learned probably 50 years ago from my grandfather.

For me, this has always been on my family to-do list, you know, to justify my grandfather's legend, which was handed down to him by previous generations, that, somewhere in the park, is the lost village.

♪♪ I think somewhere like this is a time capsule, and who knows what's underneath.

Nobody knows, actually, because we've never had an archeological dig here of any type at all.

♪♪ My grandfather said -- you know, the park's big here.

It's 500 acres.

But he always said, 'This is the bit.'

If there is this lost village, it has to be, I think, in this part of the park.

You know, you look at this landscape.

It's so unspoiled.

Nothing's disturbed this land for hundreds of years.

And that's what gives me hope that, if we find something, it should be intact.

I think this is where we'll strike gold if we strike it.

♪♪ ♪♪ -Sheltered from the modern world, Britain's great estates hold some of its most important historical secrets... ...few more so than Althorp, private home to the Spencer family for more than 500 years.

Their estate stretches across 13,000 acres of Northamptonshire countryside.

-My family started off as sheep farmers, and they did pretty well in the Midlands, and eventually they rented the land around here for their grazing in the 1400s.

And they liked it so much that they bought the property and built a house here in 1508.

We were essentially just very nouveau riche.

We were sheep farmers who had done well.

-At Althorp's heart is a 500-acre walled park and the Spencer family home.

♪♪ When his grandfather was in charge, Charles would play on the grounds with his sisters, including Diana, who would later become Princess of Wales.

♪♪ For three decades, Charles has held the title of 9th Earl Spencer.

-When you take over a place like this, you know you're not the owner.

You're just looking after it.

And that is brought home to you by the paintings on the wall, all of these people who I feel are sort of judging in a polite way.

I'm just realizing every time I see them that I am just a link in the chain.

-Within these walls, Charles has written several best-selling books about British history.

His latest took him 900 years into the past.

Now he wants to dig up Althorp's grounds to find a lost medieval settlement.

All he has to go on, though, is one reference in an ancient document, written almost 1,000 years ago.

It states there was a village here once.

A family legend, passed down by Charles' grandfather, places the village on a small hill, a few hundred yards west of the house.

-The secrets that this land holds have never been shared with anyone.

You know, they died with the last people who inhabited this area.

I'd love to learn about the people who lived here long before my family were lucky enough to make some money from sheep farming and buy this part of England.

I feel I would have paid my grandfather back for passing on the story.

♪♪ ♪♪ -For the first time in 500 years, the park's gates are being opened to an archeological dig.

♪♪ Leading the search for Althorp's lost village is Dr. Cat Jarman.

Cat has been looking through ancient documents for any mentions of Althorp that predate 1508... ...the year the Spencers bought the estate.

♪♪ -The first ever record of Althorp is one that I'm sure one you know quite a lot about already, and that's in the Domesday Book.

So this is the record that the Normans make, which is essentially a bit of a sort of tax-collection record around the country, and that lists who owns land at the time of the Norman Conquest.

If you look through it, we can find Althorp.

Here we go. -Oh, yes, 'Olletorp.'

-That's the first record of Althorp, in 1066.

It records that there are 10 households at the time.

♪♪ So it's not a big village, but it's a reasonable size.

-And probably a farming village, because that's what they all were.


We've got two landowners at the time.

One of them is an owner called Gytha.

This is the name of a woman. And you actually -- -Oh, wow. -Yeah, so you actually only really have a handful of female landowners.

They're very rare at the time.

-So how would she have been allowed to own land?

-It seems to be she was a widow at the time, so she got it through her husband.

He was called Ralph the Timid.

-How awful to be known to history as Ralph the Timid.

-[ Laughs ] Yes.

-It's not Alfred the Great, is it?

-No, that's right.

He was also the grandson of Ethelred the Unready, so the whole family is -- -A family gene of failure. -Yeah. Absolutely.

-Gytha disappears from the records after 1066.

But in another document, Cat's found evidence that a later owner of the humble village may have built a substantial house at Althorp.

-So this is a charter that records transfer of ownership of the manor of Althorp happening 1267 or 1268.

And so that means that there was a manor here already in the sort of 13th century.

-But a manor means a manor house, does it?

-Yeah, we think that actually does mean a house, because the same reference keeps coming up in some later charters as well.

-How extraordinary.

Well, I never knew any reference to a manor here before we built a house here in 1508.

I don't think anyone knew about this manor house.

I mean, I certainly didn't before all this, and I never heard about it from my grandfather or my father, so I think this is new information for my family.

-The medieval manor and the village both disappear from the historical records before Charles' ancestors arrive.

♪♪ The only way to learn more about who lived on the land where the Spencer estate now sits is to locate, and dig up, the settlement.

But among archeologists, villages of this period are notoriously difficult to find.

-We refer to the period more or less from 450 to 1066 as the Anglo-Saxon period.

It is really difficult to find the archeological remains of early medieval settlements.

And that's essentially because especially Anglo-Saxon England was very much a wooden world.

All the buildings were made of perishable materials -- wood, thatch, that sort of thing.

So, really, almost nothing remains after 1,000 years.

The village of Althorp is recorded as having had only 10 households, so we're not talking about a huge settlement.

We tend to think now of villages as being quite clustered along a street or around a green.

But you don't get that in the 9th, 10th, or even the earlier 11th centuries.

A village would have looked quite different then.

Each household was within its own enclosure or farmstead, because everyone really, essentially, was a farmer.

To find an Anglo-Saxon settlement, you need a certain amount of luck. [ Chuckles ] Sometimes they're found by accident.

People weren't expecting to find them.

But you also have to use a range of tools and clues, and those clues could be in the landscape.

They could be found by walking across a plowed field and identifying Anglo-Saxon pottery or other finds.

So it's a little bit like the needle in the proverbial haystack.

-The good news for Cat is that the estate's past inhabitants have left clues across the landscape.

-Believe it or not, this area here was a lake.

I'd loved to have seen it back as a lake, but I don't think it's what Lord Spencer thinks.

-Althorp's conservation officer, Adey Greeno, knows the lay of this land.

He wants to show Cat how it's been shaped by a medieval plowing technique called ridge and furrow.

-I've never quite seen such extensive ridges -It's been preserved well in the park here.


I feel like you can just imagine an ox pulling a plow up and down and creating these great, big ruts.

We can properly feel them when you're going over, can't you?

-Yeah, you wouldn't drive too quickly over it.

-No, although that might be quite fun, but... -Evidence of medieval plowing is often destroyed by modern agriculture.

Althorp's well-preserved ridge and furrow is within a stone's throw of the hill where legend places the lost village.

For Cat, that's a good sign.

-What's so exciting about it is that this was enclosed as a park about 500 years ago, which means that it's been more or less untouched by modern farming.

That's really, really quite rare.

But also, we are the first archeologists to come in here to investigate.

That means that if there really is a medieval village here, it could actually be essentially frozen in time and just there for us to find.

♪♪ I've got to make some decisions.

I've got a couple of weeks, and I've got a team.

I've got to work out where on earth on this hill to put in my first trench.

[ Equipment beeping ] There's a lot of stuff going on in the landscape, and it's really exciting to see that, because so much of this is clearly not natural.

We've got lots of lumps here.

We've got some really nice ridges, things that we just know aren't part of the natural landscape of Althorp.

-Nice lumps and bumps here. -Yeah.

-Oh, that's -- oh, is that good!

Ooh! Is that lovely!

-I think that's quite convincing, isn't it?

-That's something there. That's real.

-Joined by veteran archeologist Mark Horton, the team surveys undulations in the landscape from the ground... ...and from the air.

-I was using kites back in the 1980s, and you had to wait for the wind to blow, The whole thing was incredibly dangerous.

I've still got a cupboard full of banana-shaped cameras where the kites crashed into the ground.

[ Drone buzzing ] It's like sort of plowing a field.

It's going backwards and forwards at regular intervals, and as it's doing that it's taking multiple photographs.

We can then stitch all that together to create one highly accurate image of the whole site.

-All these blobs are basically where there's something interesting.

-Yes, and what does that tell you?

Just that there's something metallic down there?

-It can be metallic, but it could anything that's just essentially disturbed the magnetic field of the soil, is going to give a reading.

-I see. -So it means that there's some activity has happened there.

I really like the look of this one up here, so that's just over here in that field.

There's definitely something going on there, and that, to me, is a really promising place to start.


For me, this is all about trying to find the people who lived here in the distant past.

I've always found when I write about history, you know, humans don't change much.

They loved and they lived and they had disappointments and they had tragedies in their lives.

They had all sorts of things going on, just like we do.

The most exciting thing for me will be to connect with lives from the past.

That's what I hope we find -- remnants of real people.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -For the next two weeks, the archeologists will be living and working on this hill.

♪♪ But they're not alone.

Joining the camp for part of the dig is a team of historical re-enactors.

-[ Blows horn ] ♪♪ Their goal is to re-create life in the early medieval period as accurately as possible.

[ Indistinct conversations ] As experts in traditional crafts, they're on hand to help interpret any artifacts Cat's team might unearth and to then make copies of the original items.

♪♪ -Quite something, isn't that? -Yes. Yeah.

-That would go through an awful lot, wouldn't it?

-It did, yeah. I think this is the sort of thing that would pierce through chain mail as well.

-By re-creating it, it gives you a real sense of what people saw in their everyday lives, as opposed to what we've now been left with.

So, you know, it's really nice to sort of look at the object and imagine how their world might have looked to them, rather than the remains that we have.

-[ Plays flute ] -I've always quite liked the Anglo-Saxon period largely because it's a difficult period to study.

There is good archeology there and some historical sources, but much less so than, say, the Roman period.

So you find yourself with just enough mystery to keep it interesting.

It often gets called the Dark Ages, usually because of the lack of evidence for certain things.

But, actually, many things were bright, colorful.

Cloth was dyed in bright colors.

Items were made out of polished metal.

There was glassware.

So it would have been would have been a really spectacular place to visit, not the kind of dirty, dingy place that people often imagine.

[ Tools scraping ] -A few feet away, the archeologists have made their first discovery.

-You see this patch here of slightly lighter, quite limestoney stuff?

-Yeah. -It is making quite a nice line.

-It does, doesn't it?

I'm not gonna say the word 'wall,' but... -[ Laughs ] I know.

But it's looking very linear.

-Don't know what it is at the moment, but it looks very much like a wall.

That is genuinely very exciting, because we've got below the topsoil and possibly down to more something that could be medieval level.

So this is really promising.

-Could this be part of the legendary Anglo-Saxon village?

Archeologists can often date structures by finding other objects like pottery in the same layer of earth.

-So it's only one tiny, little piece of pottery, but this is definitely early. -Oh, fantastic.

-So it may well be early medieval or possibly Roman.

-Wow! Well, that's interesting. -Yeah.

-'Cause, of course, the Anglo-Saxons usually built on Roman ruins, didn't they, as well?

-Yeah, quite often you get that continuity, so you get the same sort of sites that are used in Roman times and then they continue to be used by the Anglo-Saxons as well.

-The Romans occupied Britain for almost 400 years.

After they left, the Anglo-Saxon period began... ...roughly 1,000 years before the Spencers made Althorp their home.

♪♪ A mile from Cat's dig site, there's evidence of a Roman building on the estate.

♪♪ These fields have been regularly plowed, which has brought numerous artifacts to the surface.

Adey's been finding bits and pieces here for decades.

-You've got something?

Oh, yeah, a nice piece of pottery there.

Oh, got one.

This one's nice. Look.

-Oh, that's nice, isn't it? -That's a really nice one.

Definitely Roman. -So would that be part of a pot?

-Yeah, I think this looks like it's a sort of quite shallow plate, almost.

Can you see? -Yes.

-You've got a nice base. -Yes.

-Very Roman. -Yes.

It's nice, isn't it?

Couple of more bits of the pottery.

-There's loads of it.

The Romans sort of just dropped things everywhere.

-Yes. -So really not much has happened in this field in the past 2,000 years.


It's, a very special place, isn't it?

-Wherever the Romans established settlements, the Anglo-Saxons often followed.

So to discover that Romans were living at Althorp bodes well.

But unlike the Romans, who built stone houses filled with pottery, the Anglo-Saxons lived more spartanly.

-Anglo-Saxon settlements, generally speaking, produce a lot less stuff than Roman settlements or later medieval settlements.

There was less mass-produced material culture.

People used less pottery, less coinage.

The buildings were almost entirely of timber and other perishable materials.

There is just less archeology from that period.

So they truly are quite elusive things to find for archeologists.

Really, you don't know until you've excavated whether or not, you know, 'X' marks the spot, whether or not you've really found the settlement proper.

♪♪ -Because Anglo-Saxon settlements are so hard to locate, archeologists rely on finding tiny domestic items to help identify them.

Some of the most common artifacts from the period are fragments of combs made from bone and antler.

Adam reconstructs what they would have looked like, using items found at archeological digs as his guide.

-This particular comb I'm making here was actually found only a few miles away in Northampton.

And it's a rather simple little one, but it also came within a case, and that would help protect the teeth when it wasn't being used.

I absolutely love making combs.

When they're all finished, they're sort of white and they're shiny and they're really attractive and they've got these decorative patterns cut into them.

So, you know, as well as combing your hair, they look absolutely fantastic and they're a way of showing off, for me as a re-enactor as well as people in the past.

♪♪ -So far, though, the archeologists have found no trace of people from the medieval past.

-It turns out that whoever was here was very, very tidy.

[ Laughter ] I am losing hope a little bit.

It's almost interesting that there's nothing at all.

-I mean, they must be here somewhere, right?

They can't -- They must have had some stuff that we can find.

-Although these sites don't have a lot of material and they are difficult -- notoriously difficult to find, we're really not getting much at all.

I really desperately wanted to have something to show Charles to confidently say 'We are on the right track.

This is, hopefully, your village.'

At the moment, I don't know if I really have very much to show him.

♪♪ -But Charles has something he wants to show the archeologists in the labyrinth of cellars underneath his house.

-How do you ever work out where you are?

-Well, I get lost.

I mean, it is a bit of a rabbit warren.

♪♪ I remember the first time going down to the cellars, I found it absolutely terrifying.

It has a sort of horror-film feel to it.

But at the same time, they're so historic, those spaces.

Some of them I haven't even been into, I don't think.

This is the one -- Hang on. I got the wrong one. -Wrong one.

[ Laughter ] -It all looks very unfamiliar.

[ Laughter ] -Charles brings Mark to a part of the cellars he thinks could be older than the rest.

After Cat found written evidence that there may once have been a medieval manor house at Althorp, Charles has been wondering if it could be underneath his own home.

-It always intrigued me, actually, why my family built a house here.

It's not on an obvious point, because normally they're on hills so you got a good view, whereas we're slightly in a dip.

And so it's fascinating to me to think that possibly a medieval manor house was here before this building was ever conceived.

I'll be fascinated to know if we chose to build on somebody else's foundations.

Well, there's some vaulted arches down here which seem to be very old with these old baths, but the vaulted ceilings -- beautifully made.

I don't think it's early.



But what's going on here?

Look at this poor wall that's really battered.

Can I move this screen?

-One, two, three. -Three. Ugh!

-Slightly heavier than it looks. -Ah!

-And where are we gonna put it?

-We don't want to -- Can we put it against the bath?

-Well, it's gonna break. [ Both laugh ] I've got it, I've got it. -You've got it there?

-Yeah. -So look.

This is an earlier foundation. -Oh, my goodness.

Yes, that's slightly different, isn't it?


So this wall must be part of an earlier building.

-Yes, pre-1508, you reckon?

-Pre-150-- could be earlier. I mean, you know, unfortunately, we archeologists can't date stone.

-No. -[ Laughs ] Could be 1508, or it could be late medieval. -Yeah. How fantastic.

Well, it does look considerably older than the bit above it, doesn't it?

-Could this remnant of ancient wall be part of the lost medieval manor?

It's not the only mystery in these cellars.

Mark is finding evidence that generations of Spencers have patched up their famous house in unexpected ways.

-What is that, Victorian or something?

-Well, early 19th century, I think.

-This is original, isn't it?

-Yeah, but look -- it's been built up.

-Oh, yeah.

-The whole thing is a wonderful hodgepodge.

-Yes, there's all sorts down here.

-And I think you could almost sneeze, and the house would fall down.

-Oh, don't tell my insurers. -No.

[ Both laugh ] -It's an ever-consuming process, trying to understand a house like this, because there's always something new to find out and that, in my 30 years of running this place, is the one lesson I know -- there's always a surprise round the corner.

[ Whimsical tune plays ] ♪♪ -On the hill, the team has begun digging in a second spot.

Here, their survey has revealed potential human activity across a large area.

But so far, they've only found building material from the last few hundred years.

-So, it's not quite a medieval village.


-We're getting this, so, we have -- -Is that slate, or...? -That's slate, so that's -- -Yeah.

-that's like roof slate.

And we're also getting a lot of this, so, sort of plaster.

Really quite nice plaster. -That's recent, isn't it?

-Yes. -Yeah, yeah.

-It's very recent and there's an awful lot of it.

-Does this look like a sort of dumping ground, then, for stuff?

-Basically, we pretty much have an entire house here.

We've got floor, we got walls, we got roof tiles.


I just can't believe they'd dump stuff in somewhere so beautiful, that's the thing.

-So I'm just hoping that -- that it is on top of something else, that it isn't all the entire landscape is just [ Laughing ] modern... -God, yeah, that would be very upsetting. -...building rubble.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] ♪♪ -But Mark's detective work suggests there could be a lot more rubble to come.

-This whole place looks timeless, but actually isn't as old as it seems.

Because, over the centuries, the Spencers transformed their buildings and their landscape to just keep up with the fashions.

-This painting shows the house round 1700.

What we see now is completely different.

Stone dressings and brick and these Actually, looking a lot nicer than the present house.

This process of transforming the house and the landscape creates -- building material, rubble.

And I just wonder whether all those humps and bumps up on the hill that the family have always believed to be the site of original medieval village are actually dumps of their own rubbish.

♪♪ And that kind of makes me a bit worried [ Laughing ] that maybe we're actually digging in completely the wrong place.

♪♪ [ Thunder rumbles ] [ Tender tune plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -After more than a week of digging, it's not looking good.

♪♪ So far, the only Anglo-Saxons at Althorp are the reenactors.

And, with no archaeological signs from the period, they're moving on.

Cat's team has painstakingly removed a line of compacted rubble, which initially looked like part of a wall.

But what lies beneath does and dates to a much more recent era.

-Oh, no. [ Laughs ] -Yeah, it's pretty bad news from this trench.

-[ Laughs ] -Yeah.

-Okay. -Yeah.

-Yeah, I think we can't really, um -- we can't really pretend that's anything else... -Yeah. -...than a pipe.

-Lovely PVC black plastic.

[ Laughter ] -Okay, well -- [ Laughter ] I think we can stop now. -Yeah.

[ Owl hooting ] [ Creature croaks ] [ Suspenseful music plays ] ♪♪ -The archaeologists are giving up.

Away from areas where they found rubble and modern plumbing, their geophysical survey has revealed magnetic disturbances under the soil which form mysterious shapes... ...including a long, well-defined strip, which Cat wants to investigate.

♪♪ -It looks really nice and straight, it's really clear.

It's running right up this hill, so, it could be some kind of a road or a pathway.

Roads are actually really, really interesting to find.

If people lose stuff or they drop coins and things fall off their clothes, something that tells us something about exactly who traveled up and down that road.

♪♪ -But, as they slice downwards, there are few signs of past travelers.

-So, they've been digging here for a few days and, as you can see, there's not -- there's not a lot.

-No, no, nothing at all or -- Have you found anything?

-We had this button come up... -Oh, yes? -...with some possible gold gilt on it, or something to that effect.

A button lost off someone's coat jacket.

-Yeah, someone riding by.

-This could be one of your grandparents or great-grandparents lost a button.

-Yes. Very good, Well, it's a start.

Let's find the rest of the coat. -Yeah.

[ Laughter ] -I'm not convinced that this is going to be the road that I was hoping it would be. -No.

-At the moment, my feeling is it looks quite natural, just a geological feature because -- -But it's very obvious, very linear, as a geological feature.

-Yeah, but they do happen.

-I have high hopes that this might turn into something.

-Have you? -We'll see.

-[ Laughs ] You'll buy me a drink if it does!

-Okay, I will. I promise.

♪♪ -As they continue investigating the puzzling feature... ♪♪ ...Cat decides to begin excavating a second unusual shape... ♪♪ ...which takes the form of two circles, one inside the other.

-Wait. So it's 9 meters there, so it's actually 20 meters across if it's a circle.

-Well, a bit less, yeah.

-That makes it... -Huge. -Really huge.

-Yeah. -I don't know what it would be, though, if this is a medieval village, because you don't really get circular features like that and buildings aren't circular.

And that over there... -This should be the middle. in the middle.

-Here. -Yeah, so that's sort of the size of the circle that we're looking at.

It's like a henge!

-I'd love to find a henge! That would be so cool!

-Althorp Henge! -[ Laughs ] -Just beneath the topsoil, the area inside the circles begins to yield fragments of manmade artifacts... [ Indistinct conversations ] -What have you got?

-Ooh, ooh! -They're modern, but -- -No, they're not. No, they're not!

No, they're not!

-What's this, then? Ooh!

-Ooh! No, they're not.

-What is that? -They're not modern at all.

That's stoneware.

-Is it? -Yeah.

Oh, it's nice. It's beautiful.

Date? -17th century.

-Is it?! -Yup.

-That's really nice. -1680, 1720-ish.

-Is it really? -Yeah, yeah.

-Excellent. That's the best of what we've had so far.

-Isn't that lovely?

-And it's literally just in the topsoil.

-Yes. Isn't that lovely?

-So, actually now we are getting closer towards the beginning of the Spencers' time on the estate.

-Reign. That's right. Yup.

-Excellent. -That's really a nice find.

-A few inches further down, signs of human settlement begin to emerge in the shape of tiny pieces of charcoal.

-There's more. -Yeah, there's one there and there's a bigger one there. -That one's really big isn't it?

That's really good. Charcoal is always going to be evidence of human activity.



-Like, that was quite difficult for me to break.

-So, there are some really big lumps coming out.

-So hopefully that's showing some human occupation.

-Are you sure this definitely charcoal?

-Yeah. It's this one I'm not sure about.

-That's not charcoal. -I just snapped that. Yeah.

-You know, that might actually be pottery.

-Oh... [ Laughter ] -That's the other half. [ Laughs ] Oh, dear!

-The inside of it looks very pottery-like to me.

And if it is, then this is something quite early.

It's possible it could be Iron Age.

♪♪ -I think what we're seeing is really that Althorp could well be a really very old landscape.

♪♪ At the moment, I'm really leaning towards thinking that this might be an Iron Age roundhouse.

♪♪ It's got the right shape, it's got the right size, and it's got the right type of finds coming out of it.

♪♪ -Could the archaeologists have entered the Iron Age, a period of British history that lasted 800 years?

People were beginning to live in settled communities made up of distinctive, circular buildings.

♪♪ -So, what I'm really hoping for, if you can help me find, is a roundhouse.

-Cool. Excellent. -We've got a few days left... and see if we can dig up something quite spectacular.

-Come on! -Yay!

[ Laughter ] ♪♪ -It's not the lost village they've been searching for, but this hint of far older archaeological evidence brings everyone to the trenches.

[ Indistinct conversations ] -So, hopefully, if this is part of a house, we could be starting to come down to a floor surface.

-I see.

It's lovely to have the roundhouse, if we do, in the park here, because it goes so far back and it puts everything in context.

You know, I sometimes think, 'Oh, we've been here 500 years.'

Well, when you see something like this, it's not very long, is it?

-No. Absolutely. -No.

-So it's interesting 'cause your eyes play tricks, don't they?

You think, 'Oh, I've just found something remarkable,' and then it disappears in the next scrape, doesn't it?

-Yeah. Exactly. [ Laughs ] -It gets quite exciting, and then you suddenly realize it's nothing.


What's that? -Don't know.

-Could well be a piece of pottery actually.

That's a piece of pottery.

-Hooray. My first piece of pottery.

-Yay! Well done.

-I don't want to be competitive, but... I haven't seen you get one recently, Lily.

[ Laughter ] -Yeah, you're doing pretty well.

[ Laughs ] -They're finding plenty of fragments of Iron Age pottery... ♪♪ ...but locating physical remains of a building from the period is much more difficult.

♪♪ No Iron Age roundhouses still stand in Britain.

♪♪ But there is a place where Cat can experience what they might have been like.

♪♪ At Butser in Hampshire, these roundhouses have been reconstructed according to archaeological footprints found in the soil.

♪♪ -So, this is a big building. It's one of the biggest that have been found in the Iron Age.

It's about 15 meters, or 50 feet, across.

And it's around about 9, 9.5 meters high, which is about 30 feet.

-That's really quite impressive, isn't it?

-It is. -I'm just trying to think of how I would see this in the ground.

And, actually, there's not very much that isn't organic.

So, you've got the wood and the thatch and, yeah, just the timbers, really, but there's actually not -- There's no metal, is there, at all?

-No, I don't believe there's ever been a single nail found in the British Iron Age.

So all of this house is -- As you say, it's put together with organic materials.

Very simple joints lashed with rope.

You'll probably see some little post holes, so there'll just be stones in the ground.

That'll tell you where the upright stakes that have helped to support the walls, where they go.

This is a big one, but 6 to 8 meters is really the typical size.

That's the most common size you find in Iron Age roundhouses.

-Well, that's good news because the shape that I've got is about that size, so that's good news to me definitely.

-It does sound like a roundhouse.

What you're finding is this sort of -- this poor ghost of what I think was a much richer culture.

The Iron Age didn't just vanish. It's stayed with us.

Welsh language, Irish language, Scots language -- a lot of that is almost certainly based on the language that was spoken, or the languages that were spoken, in the Iron Age in Britain.

So it's a rich culture that's actually very important to Britain and Ireland.

♪♪ -I could definitely imagine one or several of these right up there on the top of the hill in Althorp.

They would just blend into the landscape.

I quite like the idea of that really.

One, two, three.

♪♪ Yeah, so, this is about 7 meters or so, which is just perfect.

If you imagine all of that rotting away, then there's just nothing left in the ground to find, apart from the shadow of it.

♪♪ ♪♪ -And, over the next few days, a shadow begins to emerge at Althorp.

♪♪ -Looking at it from here, maybe this is wishful thinking, but we've actually got a series of darker round patches.

Do they look sort of post-holey?

♪♪ -So, have we found our roundhouse?

[ Laughter ] -I don't know if I'm wishing too hard.

I feel a bit sick, it's so exciting!

[ Laughter ] [ Tools scraping ] [ Indistinct conversations ] ♪♪ -Can you see the dark patch? -Yeah!

-So, I mean, it's the right size.

Right size, right shape.

We've got the right type of pottery.

It's doing exactly what I would expect it to do.

And it's curving down. -Yes.

-And that's perfect because -- -How does it fit in?

-It fits in absolutely beautifully with the geophysics.

This is where we are. -Just in that bit there?

-Just in the edge there.

And it clearly continues... -Back to about here... -Definitely to about here. -Yeah.

-It's clearly some kind of a wall or a ditch or something.

And then you've got a roundhouse in the middle.

-Absolutely classic. Late Iron Age.

-Yeah, it's perfect. It's perfect.

-You know, roundhouse in a stock enclosure.

-I can't see anything else it could be.

♪♪ ♪♪ -I love history, and to think of this landscape that I considered I knew so well having a completely different pre-life, that -- that's fantastic.

♪♪ Until the age of 11, Althorp was just somewhere I came to occasionally with my family because my grandfather lived here.

And it was an austere and rather oppressive place.

♪♪ It was only later that I realized that this was a repository, I guess, where history was.

But, also, such a beautiful setting.

The parkland is what it's all about to me.

Every time I drive into the park through the gates, I feel as though I'm going back into a different century.

♪♪ I take my role here as one as a custodian, really.

And what else am I looking after without knowing it?

What's under this soil that we've looked after for centuries?

♪♪ -The Iron Age roundhouse could be up to 3,000 years old.

♪♪ But Althorp hasn't finished giving up its ancient secrets.

♪♪ Just a few steps away, in the spot where they thought there might be a buried road, the archaeologists are finding signs of massive earthworks.

♪♪ -So, we've definitely got a ditch-like feature, haven't we?

-Yeah, that's increasingly what it looks like.

It looks this has been cut through, and this material in here has filled it up.

So quite a major bit of engineering.

-Absolutely. It's going to be a big thing.

I mean, this is really exciting!

Massive great big feature, tying in with the geophysics, going exactly where we want it to go.

-Yeah. Perfect. It's really -- -I know. It's the key.

-The key to what, though? -Ah!

[ Laughs ] In that cubic meterage of soil, there will be a find that will give us a date for it.

♪♪ -If this an ancient ditch, they need to find manmade artifacts to understand who dug it, when, and why.

♪♪ -Peta, do you think we're at the bottom there?

-That would be really nice if it was the bottom.

If this isn't a deep-enough ditch, I don't know what is.

♪♪ -They search the bottom layer of earth for artifacts they can date... ♪♪ ...and attempt to trace how far the ditch once stretched across the landscape.

♪♪ -Look at that! -Oh, goodness.

-There it is. -It's the same feature then.

-It's good, isn't it? -And look how it's curving!

-It cannot possibly be natural, because it goes up the hill.

It's perfect!

-This is a massive great big ditch, marching across the landscape.

♪♪ -As their dig draws to a close, the archaeologists have uncovered something no one expected to find at Althorp.

♪♪ -As you can see, we've gone down quite far.

Mark is just digging this one.

-Oh, my God. What's going on here?

-[ Laughs ] -Looks like a crime scene.

-Yeah. [ Laughs ] -It's got deeper and deeper and deeper.

-And? What is it? -Well... [ Laughter ] So, what we're finding in it... lots of this.

-Oh, wow. Flint. -Lots and lots of flint.

Now, this is basically raw material for making stone tools.

-Oh, how extraordinary! -And this is the rubbish.

-That they didn't -- didn't make the cut, as it were.

-Yeah, it didn't make the cut.

-This is half of a scraper.

-Oh, wow!

-So, you can see that really nice edge to it.

You can see where the smaller little chips have been taken off it. -Yes. Yes.

-Enough to make it into that shape.

And actually you can hold it. It's got a little sort of... -Oh, it's got -- Yes!

-Can you feel it? -Yeah. [ Chuckles ] -And then you'd use that to scrape things, to scrape, you know, animal skins or something like that. -Yes.

So that gives us a rough period, which is Neolithic.

-So give me -- What's the time on that? Neolithic?

-Well, that's 6,000 years old. -Oh, my goodness.

-So these are the first farmers. -Yes.

-First farmers are coming into this part of the world 4,000 BC.

♪♪ -In their search for a lost medieval village, the archaeologists hoped to find a thousand years of British history.

Now the ditch carries Althorp's story back to the New Stone Age... which began 6,000 years ago.

♪♪ -It's incredible, isn't it?

So that is eleven times longer than my family have lived here.

eleven times longer.

-[ Laughter ] -How amazing.

And, so, how far would you imagine this goes in every direction?

-Well, in our geo-phys, we've got 150 meters.

-Goodness. -But I suspect -- If we did the geophysics of the whole park... -Yeah -...we would find literally kilometers of this ditch work.

You know, this could be a massive Neolithic monument.

-You can see it continues across the landscape, and it goes all the way around up.

So it kind of curves around here.

So it does seem a bit like it's enclosing at the sort of top of the hill.

It's actually -- It's where we chose for our campsite.

-Yes! -[ Laughs ] -You're not the first. -No!

♪♪ So you can imagine that, you know, people... -Settlement.

-...several thousand years ago chose the same spot.

♪♪ -If the prehistoric ditch once encircled this hilltop, it may have been dug by Stone Age farmers to contain their livestock.

♪♪ But Mark has another theory.

-This ditch of this size, I mean, the best interpretation is it's ritual, some form of really elaborate complex ritual site here on top of this hill.

So, to put it in perspective, this belongs to the Stone Age.

It's probably a thousand years older than, say, Stonehenge.

But it's in the same idea.

It's a -- a ritual communal monument where people come and gather at particular times of year to celebrate festivals, to exchange goods, and so forth.

These Neolithic settlements are really quite rare.

There's about 90 of them known in Britain.

If I'm right, that really is an incredible discovery.

♪♪ -I can see people wanting to be on this piece of land, 'cause it has everything you need.

It's got beautiful fields, you know, for agriculture.

It's got water. It's got the views.

It's got some form of defense by being up high. I get that.

So whether it's ritual or agricultural, it's still wonderful.

-It's probably a little bit of everything, I think.

-Yes. -I think these sites are quite multifunctional.

-How incredible. Well, I'm thrilled.

That is really quite something, isn't it?

-Kind of exciting, really. -Well, yes!

♪♪ -It's just such a privilege to be able to spend a few weeks in a place like this.

It has been a little bit of a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, especially at the beginning when we realized that the place that we were digging were absolutely not the medieval village, but something entirely different.

But it's just a landscape that's extremely rich in history.

And if what's on top of that hill really is what we think it is, then that goes back at least 5,000 years of people living in this landscape, and that's something really quite special, to have been the ones to discover.

-Cheers! -Cheers!

[ Laughter ] ♪♪ -To think that there were people here 5,000 or 6,000 years ago enjoying the same setting that I've known all my life, it's really -- it's very humbling, actually.

I'm not remotely worried about finding the Saxon village, 'cause that's the one thing we know is here.

Somewhere in this property there is a Saxon village.

And one day I'll find it or somebody will find it.

But to find something so much more interesting, well, that's more than a bonus.

It's -- It's unbelievable.



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