By Manni Kirchner
The traditional story of Four Marks goes that the parish (which was created in 1932) had little going on prior to the late 1800s. With no more than around five farmsteads during the 1700s when it was a hamlet of Ropley was sparsely settled to say the least, which was due to a number of reasons. Being on a ridge between two watersheds meant water access was difficult leaving local agriculture reliant on small dewponds which often dried up. Stony and hilly fields meant ploughing was a chore and the fields weren’t the most fertile. These factors didn’t necessarily curse the area, it was more a matter of better soil and water access being available elsewhere and there were next to no redeeming qualities. This meant that the land of Four Marks was the common fields for the neighbouring four parishes, hence its name. Larger scale settlement didn’t occur until advances in water engineering in the 1900s.
However, this wasn’t always the case. About 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic- ‘New Stone Age’, Hampshire was full of hotspots of activity. Settlements dotted the banks of streams and rivers, deep mines provided the ever vital flint and the first agricultural fields and domesticated animals fed the neolithic dwellers. Although no archaeological evidence of houses has been found yet in Hampshire, finds of pottery and high concentrations of flints clearly show long term activity, i.e., settlement.
Four Marks and Ropley were one of those hotspots. The landscape of Europe, let alone Hampshire, looked very different 5,000 years ago. The local geography would have been covered mostly by woodland which were interspersed with meadows and man-made clearings. The wooded landscape would have been partially maintained through coppicing and sometimes with fire. Streams, which have long since run dry, flowed from Swelling Hill Pond, (then a spring) and fed east-running tributaries which joined to the river Wey near Alton. These streams not only provided plenty of water for humans but also for red deer, badgers and foxes. Although hunting and fishing was still part of the human diet, the importance of domesticated crops and animals was far more significant. We know as a matter of fact that was the case in neolithic Four Marks as a sickle and sickle related flint tools were found in the west of the parish in the last century. This may seem quite insignificant, but agriculture was the birth of civilisation and its spread across Europe from modern day Iran and Iraq along with other technologies was a revolution.
However over the years even older finds dating to over 200,000 years old have been found in Four Marks and Ropley from the earliest stone age; the lower paleolithic. One of these finds; an Acheulean handaxe was found in a back garden around 13 years ago and was kindly donated to the Ropley History Network and Archive (see right). Another handaxe, albeit just the tip was found in Four Marks earlier this year and marks the oldest known find from the parish. This period is so ancient that modern humans; Homo Sapiens had not yet evolved and migrated out of Africa, meaning this was made by a long gone homonid cousin, possibly Homo Neanderthal.
From the later middle stone age- Mesolithic (around 12,000 years ago) more finds have been found such as early forms of arrowheads known as microlithic points which show a hunting community in the area. After the Neolithic, when Four Marks and Ropley had most of its stone age activity, there is evidence of settlement in the early bronze age (3,500 years ago). This includes a number of burial mounds where people of significance were buried and some metal finds such as axeheads, additionally flint finds are also found from this period as flint knapping did not stop at the end of the stone age. This is because the newly invented bronze was still a very expensive material and technology.
These flint finds implicate Four Marks and Ropley as being settled and managed by prehistoric humans for hundreds of thousands of years. The finds range from crude scrapers (see below), made to clean animal hides and to carve wood (some were like the single use plastic knives of their time).
At the other end of the spectrum are highly valued objects like polished axe heads (found in Four Marks 1957), polished knives (found in Ropley 2021), and maces (found in Medstead 1961). Some of these status symbols suggest a ritualistic society as the items’ looks often outweigh their usefulness. They would have taken hours upon hours to create by slowly grinding down the unfinished stone on a rough surface into smooth and attractive tools. Another example of a polished flint tool; a “discoidal knife” was found in Ropley a few years ago (see below).
It is hard to say exactly how the settlement looked but we know that in these times rectangular wooden huts with thatched roofs were in vogue. Some of these huts may have stood near to the banks of one of the long since dried up streams and rivers- the immediate area littered with flint flakes, the biproduct of flintknapping. Thanks to the plentiful supply of water and the stoney soil (which back then was very much a blessing and not the hurdle it came to be later), of the area, it was an ideal location for these Stone Age people. The stoney soil provided flints for tools and rounded pebbles to be used as hammerstones needed to work or ‘knap’ the larger flint nodules to create tools.
Flint was such an important resource to the neolithic peoples that mines were opened so the flint could be extracted. There are a number of possible stone age flint mining sites in Four Marks. The first, recorded first in 19451 gives a good example of how this was carried out. A narrow shaft was dug down vertically, in this case over 4 meters deep, with picks made from hafted flint or a antler. An individual, (possibly a child), would then have dug into the seams of flints outwards creating an upside down “T” shape in cross section. Other evidence of these mines include several mining picks which have been found near to these old mines (see below).
These artefacts and features portray a vivid picture of our landscape several millennia ago as being busy with human settlement at the dawn of civilisation. It is a thought-provoking contradiction for some of the oldest archaeology in Hampshire to be found in one of its “youngest” villages.
If you would like to see a recording of the talk which Manni gave in the Parish Hall in August 2023 please click the U tube link here.
- W. H. Curtis/S. A. Warner, A Dene Hole at Four Marks, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society, Volume 16, Part 2, 1945, 192-3.
© Emmanuel La O Kirchner 2023