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Multi-period site at Norsey Wood

A Scheduled Monument in Billericay, Essex

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Coordinates

Latitude: 51.6327 / 51°37'57"N

Longitude: 0.4364 / 0°26'11"E

OS Eastings: 568716.266911

OS Northings: 195460.525551

OS Grid: TQ687954

Mapcode National: GBR NKB.P4F

Mapcode Global: VHJKM.J727

Entry Name: Multi-period site at Norsey Wood

Scheduled Date: 26 June 1924

Last Amended: 26 January 2000

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1019485

English Heritage Legacy ID: 29428

County: Essex

Civil Parish: Billericay

Built-Up Area: Billericay

Traditional County: Essex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Essex

Church of England Parish: Billericay and Little Burstead

Church of England Diocese: Chelmsford

Details

The monument includes the perimeter earthworks and interior of Norsey Wood, an
area of mixed and coppice woodland located immediately to the east of
Billericay. The Wood contains one of the most remarkable collections of
archaeological features to be found anywhere in the region. These include
occupation areas and burial sites dating from prehistoric and Roman periods,
earthworks relating to continuous management of the woodland from the medieval
period onwards, and physical remains related to the military use of the Wood
in comparatively modern times.

The Wood is roughly triangular in plan, covering approximately 66ha and
dominated by a broad plateau of sands and gravels from which a number of
streams flow into a steep-sided marshy valley on the southern boundary. Until
the 1930s the Wood was almost completely enclosed by perimeter earthworks,
perpetuating a boundary unchanged since the Wood was first mapped in 1593.

These boundary earthworks still survive to the east and south east (along
Outwood Common Road and Break Egg Hill) and around the southern perimeter of
the Wood. However, the north western section (alongside Norsey Road) was
largely demolished to make way for a row of houses, and it is not included in
the scheduling. Although sections of the surviving boundary earthworks have
been termed `The Deerbank' they mostly appear to be woodbanks; designed to
prevent animals from entering and damaging the Wood and still typified by
pollard hornbeam hedgerows on the banks and external ditches running
alongside. The Wood is known to have been extensively coppiced between the
early 17th century and the late 19th century, and such banks would have been
maintained to prevent neighbouring stock (and wild animals) from grazing on
the vulnerable new shoots. The banks may, however, have still earlier
origins. The earliest recorded place-name for Norsey Wood (Nosseheye) dates
from the mid-13th century and includes the Anglo-Saxon term `haeg' or `hey'
which implies enclosure before the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Wood, attached
to the manor of Great Burstead, was acquired by Bishop Odo after the Conquest.
It later reverted to the Crown and, in about 1200, passed with the manor to
the Abbey of Stratford Langthorne. In 1280 the abbot received a royal license
to sell timber from Norsey Wood. This suggests coppice management and the
concomitant need for a substantial boundary to prevent animals (especially
deer) from straying into the wood from the Royal Forest, which then covered
most of southern Essex.

In a few places (especially alongside Outwood Common Road to the east) faint
traces of an internal ditch can be detected flanking the woodbank, hinting at
a period when the boundary served to keep stock out of the Wood. Evidence of
such a period is also apparent in the southern part of the Wood where three
sequential versions of the boundary extend in parallel across the narrow
valley. The innermost, perhaps the earliest in the sequence, is extremely
eroded, measuring barely 0.5m high. It is, however, accompanied by traces of a
broad internal ditch which does support the possibility of a short-lived abbey
deer park, as suggested by a single reference to Norsey as a `park' rather
than a wood in a document dated 1323. A large north-south oriented earthwork
set within the eastern part of the Wood may also relate to this period of use.
The bank here, although much altered in recent times, is still flanked by
ditches on either side, implying that it was used to contain animals from both
directions.

The enclosure of the woodland in the medieval period incidentally provided
protection for traces of far earlier activity, some aspects of which were
visible as earthworks whilst others remained unknown until disturbed by
gravel extraction in the 19th century. The Wood formerly contained two Bronze
Age burial mounds, or barrows. The surviving example is located on the gravel
plateau to the east of the valley, some 20m from the southern edge of the Wood
and the junction of Break Egg Hill and `Brackendale'. The barrow is circular
in plan with a low domed profile, measuring about 15m diameter and 1.5m high.

In 1865 the Rev E L Cutts supervised the excavation of a trench from the
western edge to the centre of the mound. Fragments of Roman pottery and an
indecipherable bronze coin were uncovered in the process, perhaps indicating
some disturbed later internments, but the central grave group of three large
inverted cinerary urns (vessels containing cremated human remains) clearly
points to a Middle Bronze Age origin. The second barrow no longer exists. This
lay on the opposite side of the wood alongside Norsey Road and was also
trenched by Cutts in 1865 when a central group of seven urns was found, only
one of which contained cremated remains. It was investigated once more in
1895, disrupted by residential developments in the 1950s and finally overlain
by a house and garage around 1965. This area is not therefore included in the
scheduling.

Occasional discoveries of later prehistoric burials are recorded from the
early 19th century onwards, and a large number of cinerary urns were
apparently kept at Thornton Hall (the home of the Petrie family, owners of the
Wood from 1600 to 1899) until this collection was lost in the fire which
destroyed the hall in 1878. Similar vessels were found in still greater
numbers as a result of gravel extraction in the Wood which began in earnest in
the 1850s. Between 1858 and 1880 an area of about 1.5ha was dug away towards
the western end of the Wood alongside Norsey Road. This western pit was re-
used to dump Billericay's rubbish until the early 1900s, after which it was
infilled and partly built over. A second quarry (the eastern quarry) was
opened around 1880 towards the centre of the Wood and expanded to nearly 2ha
before being abandoned around 1915.

In 1865, during the excavation of the western gravel quarry, a number of
cremation urns and related pottery assemblages were retrieved by J E K Cutts
(the son of the Rev E L Cutts). In all some 15 coarse-ware urns were recorded,
all wheel thrown and arranged either singly or in small groups of two or
three (one vessel in each group containing the cremated remains - the others
presumably containing burial offerings). A single un-urned cremation, without
vessels but associated with some corroded iron objects, was also found near
the other burial assemblages. In the published account these remains are
described as Roman, although the accompanying illustrations show that some at
least dated from the Late Iron Age (essentially the century preceding the
Roman invasion of AD 43). B R Branfill, writing in 1895, reported the
subsequent discovery of vessels similar to those recorded by Cutts. These were
found `in great numbers' during gravel extraction at both ends of the Wood,
often sealed with flanged tiles - a feature which does clearly indicate
continued use of the cemetery into the Roman period. One extremely elaborate
Romano-British cremation burial was reported by J A Sparvel-Bayly, who
monitored the gravel workings between 1874 and 1883. The burial pit was about
3m long and 2.4m wide, paved with stones and flanged tiles and containing an
enormous quantity of broken pottery vessels, including Samian ware (a high
quality import), in associated with cinders, ashes and burnt wood. The
location of this burial is uncertain, although it probably lay in the vicinity
of the eastern gravel quarry.

The earliest known evidence of occupation, as opposed to burial customs,
emerged from the excavation of a pit on the fringes of the western quarry area
in 1938. Day Kimball, investigating the area for the Ministry of Works,
recorded the discovery of fragments of coarse, hand made pottery which he
dated to the pre-Belgic (or Middle) Iron Age. J E K Cutts' report of 1865
includes a reference to an infilled ditch `about eight feet deep' found near
the western cremations. The ditch could relate to an enclosure around part of
the cemetery, although some 30 years later Branfill noted that infilled
ditches were widely encountered throughout both the eastern and western
quarries with the dark, mixed fills containing deposits of ash and fragments
of wheel-turned pottery and tile from the Late Iron Age or the Roman period.
Some ditches doubtless served as boundaries, but it is possible that others,
particularly the deeper examples, were dug to extract clay from beneath the
Bagshot gravels. A small pottery kiln was discovered by workmen within one
infilled trench in the eastern quarry area prior to 1895. This was reported to
be some 1.2m in diameter with a domed roof and to contain `a score or two' of
black pots still stacked for firing. The pots were destroyed by the workmen
without any accurate record being made. However, the kiln can still be dated
(albeit roughly) to the Roman period by the report of thin square tiles used
in its construction. Further evidence of small scale industry is provided by
Branfill's short description of a `primitive smelting furnace' also found by
workmen in the eastern quarry area. Again, the furnace was destroyed before
any details could be recorded, but Branfill did observe quantities of slag and
ash on the spot and a small piece of soft white metal, apparently the waste
from a lead casting, was recovered from the debris. Although there is no
direct evidence for substantial Romanised buildings within the wood, the
common occurrence of Roman tile (mentioned in every antiquarian report)
suggests this as a distinct possibility. Other evidence of occupation is
provided by a range of coins dating between the 1st and 4th centuries AD, and
chance discoveries of items of a more domestic nature, such as the upper stone
from a rotary quern recorded by Branfill in 1895.

Norsey Wood has been suggested as the site of the last stand of the Peasant's
Revolt, the last remnants of which were finally crushed near Billericay in
1381 by the Earl of Buckingham. Victorian theories regarding the woodbanks
as the peasants' battlements have no validity, however military earthworks of
a much later date do exist within the Wood. The large, double-ditched medieval
bank which extends through the eastern side of the Wood parallel with Outwood
Common Road was adapted during World War I to form a defensive position. The
northern section of the bank (to the north of the Information Centre) is
scored by a system of slit trenches over most of its 300m length, and the bank
itself seems to have been enlarged in the process. Although the trenches have
collapsed inwards over the years, the main components of the system can still
be seen: a denticulated forward position with firing steps (each about 5m in
length) facing east; a series of connecting passages, and a service trench
running along the rear (western) side of the bank. The precise function of the
trenches is uncertain. In his modern history of Norsey Wood, K G Cook states
that they were constructed by London Defence Volunteers as part of the inner
defence line for the capital. Such a line was envisaged during the War, but it
was never properly implemented, and the Norsey Wood earthworks may simply
have been dug as a training exercise. As with many Essex woods, Norsey Wood
was used for army manoeuvres and storage during World War II. About six
trenches were cut in the area immediately to the north of the eastern gravel
pits, covered with curved sections of corrugated iron and used for storing
ammunition. These features remain visible as a series of partly infilled
depressions. A much larger dugout, which required timber shoring and a
ventilated ceiling was constructed slightly further to the north and also
used for storing munitions. This too remains visible, having been filled with
rubbish and allowed to collapse after the War.

Woodland management (coppicing and hedging) continued through the early 20th
century and resumed, on a more restricted scale, after 1945. In 1976 the
Wood was acquired by Basildon District Council, and it has since been run as a
local nature reserve. The combination of varied soil and topography, together
with the long history of woodmanship, has produced a rich and varied flora
and fauna, recognised by the designation of the Wood as a Site of Special
Scientific Interest in 1979.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling, these are: all standing
structures, all fences, fenceposts and gates, the modern surfaces of all
driveways, car parks and rides, the foot bridges which span streams in the
southern valley, all litter and dog-waste bins, benches, information boards
and signposts, the ground beneath all these features is, however, included.

MAP EXTRACT
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

Norsey Wood contains a remarkable collection of visible and documented
archaeological features. It is notable not only for the presence of
individual features which are of national importance in their own right (such
as the Bronze Age bowl barrow, the Iron Age and Roman cemeteries and the
medieval deer bank) but also for the combination of evidence for prolonged
human activity which has culminated in the present appearance of the woodland.

Chance discoveries such as a Neolithic hand axe from the Wood and a Mesolithic
tranchet axe a short distance to the south, give some insights into early
human presence in the area. However, the earliest specific activities are
those represented by the southern burial mound investigated by J E K Cutts in
1865. Funerary monuments of this type, known as bowl barrows, date from the
Late Neolithic period to the Late Bronze Age, with most examples belonging to
the period 2400-1500 BC. They were generally constructed as earthen or rubble
mounds, sometimes ditched, covering either single or multiple burials.
Occurring in isolation or grouped together as cemeteries, they frequently
occupy prominent locations and form a major historic element in the modern
landscape. Bowl barrows are widespread across lowland Britain and, although
superficially similar, they exhibit regional variations in form and diversity
of burial practices. They provide important information on the diversity of
beliefs and social organisation amongst prehistoric communities, and a
substantial proportion of surviving examples are considered worthy of
protection.

Although the bowl barrow located within the southern part of Norsey Wood has
been somewhat disturbed by excavation, the mound is substantially intact and
will still contain valuable evidence relating to its construction and
subsequent use. Cutts' small scale investigation has provided some clues to
its origins. Modern archaeological techniques, however, are capable of
revealing far more about the date at which the barrow was built, the nature of
the funeral rituals employed and even the appearance of the surrounding
landscape at the time of its construction. As has been found to be the case
elsewhere, the Norsey Wood barrow may well have acted as the focus for burials
in later periods.

Middle Iron Age occupation is hinted at by discoveries of hand-made pottery
sherds found towards the northern side of the Wood in the 1930s, but it is not
until the later Iron Age that activity is known to have become widespread.
Victorian reports point to an extensive cremation cemetery, probably covering
much of the gravel plateau which underlies the northern part of the Wood, only
a relatively small part of which was disturbed by quarrying in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. Burial grounds such as this, which provide no clear
evidence of boundaries, are known as `unenclosed Iron Age urnfields': a form
of cemetery which marks the development of cremation as the dominant burial
rite in the Late Iron Age (the period from the mid-1st century BC to the Roman
invasion of AD 43). At the same time, the similarity of British urnfields to
contemporary examples on the continent, and the occasional presence of
imported, high status grave goods, provides evidence for the gradual
assimilation of south eastern Britain into the expanding Roman world. Most
sites of this kind contain less than ten cremation graves, although examples
with up to 455 cremations, and others containing occasional inhumation
burials, are known. The cremations were often placed in wheel-thrown pottery
vessels and deposited in graves dug into the soil or bedrock, and sometimes
grouped together in small ditched compounds which are thought to indicate
family groups or like status. In Britain such cemeteries are found exclusively
in south eastern England, and although only about 50 have been identified to
date, this is expected to be only a small fraction of the original number.
Iron Age monuments in general are rare, and urnfields therefore constitute an
important source of information about the social structure, beliefs and
economy of the time. All examples with surviving remains are considered to be
of national importance.

The 19th century discoveries from Norsey Wood demonstrate the existence of
further extensive burial areas, doubtless containing similar evidence of
elaborate burial practices. The urnfield described (if not fully understood)
by 19th century authors, appears to have originated in the mid-1st century BC
and to have expanded well into the Roman period - a significant indication of
social continuity before and after the Roman invasion. The duration of the
cemetery is also significant in terms of the development of the Romano-British
small town which occupied part of the area of modern Billericay, a kilometre
or so to the south west. Extensive systems of ditches encountered by Victorian
workmen, allied with traces of industrial activity and substantial buildings,
all point to the development of a small settlement alongside these cemeteries,
perhaps related in some specific way to the ceremonial practices associated
with burial of the dead.

The `Deerbank' and other woodbanks, whilst only supporting the possibility of
a medieval deer park in the Wood, clearly represent valuable archaeological
evidence for the history of woodland management from the medieval period to
the present day. In conjunction with documentary evidence for the ownership
and exploitation of the Wood (especially from the period as part of the Petre
estate) the system of boundary banks helps to explain the processes which led
to its present appearance and underlies its highly valued biodiversity.

Although comparatively recent, the pattern of trenches dating from World War I
is a particularly interesting survival. Entrenchments of this type were
commonly constructed during the training of units prior to their deployment
overseas, although local defence forces sometimes undertook similar activities
in preparation for the anticipated invasion. In most cases earthworks such as
these (with their unfortunate associations) were quickly backfilled after the
war and gradually forgotten. Well preserved and visible examples such as those
in Norsey Wood therefore serve as a rare and valuable reminder of the nature
of warfare in World War I, and of the activities of those who prepared for
conflict, either on the Western Front or at home.

Source: Historic England

Sources

Books and journals
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992), 15-16
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1991)
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992), 13
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992), 40
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992)
Cook, K C, The History of Norsey Wood, (1992)
Hull, M R, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1963), 49
Hull, M R, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1963), 49
Hull, M R, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1963), 49
Reamey, P H, The Place Names of Essex, (1938)
Reamey, P H, The Place Names of Essex, (1938)
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 226-36
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 226-36
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 229-30
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 228-229
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 230
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 226-29
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 228
Branfill, B R, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in Norsey Wood near Billericay, , Vol. 5, (1895), 226-36
Cutts, J E K, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (Old Series)' in Notes on Roman and British Remains found at Billericay in 1865, , Vol. 5, (1873), 214
Cutts, J E K, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (Old Series)' in Notes on Roman and British Remains found at Billericay in 1865, , Vol. 5, (1873), 212-14
Cutts, J E K, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (Old Series)' in Notes on Roman and British Remains found at Billericay in 1865, , Vol. 5, (1873), 212-4
Cutts, J E K, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (Old Series)' in Notes on Roman and British Remains found at Billericay in 1865, , Vol. 5, (1873), 214-17
Kimball, D, 'J Brit Arch (3rd series)' in Norsey Wood, Billericay, , Vol. 3, (1940)
Sparvel-Bayly, J, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in , , Vol. 2, (1884), 221
Sparvel-Bayly, S, 'Trans Essex Arch Soc (New Series)' in , , Vol. 2, (1884), 221
Other
Evidence to public inquiry (in SMR), Rackham, O, Norsey Wood, (1975)
Evidence to public inquiry (in SMR), Rackham, O, Norsey Wood, (1975)
Evidence to public inquiry (in SMR), Rackham, O, Norsey Wood, (1975)
Gilman, P, 5304 Norsey Wood, (1988)
Gilman, P, 5305 Norsey Wood, (1988)
in Essex Record Office, Ph1-105, (1593)
In Essex SMR (ref 5328), Ordnance Survey , TQ 69 NE 08 Ordnance Survey Record Card, (1938)
Information from park warden, Bennett, L, Woodbank hedges, (1998)
Map of Norsey Wood (Record Office), Ph1-105, (1593)
Medlycott, M, Billericay: Historic Towns Assessment Report, (1998)
Medlycott, M, Billericay: Historic Towns Assessment Report, (1998)
Notes for Public Inquiry (in SMR), Hedges, J, Norsey Wood, (1975)
Watching brief report (pipe trench), 16070 Norsey Wood, (1992)

Source: Historic England

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