Archaeological features of Banstead Commons

Archaeological features of Banstead Commons 

As many areas of the Commons have had relatively little disturbance, a number of important ancient earthworks and their buried archaeology survive. These are now protected as Scheduled Ancient Monuments. However, a more general lack of archaeology probably results from the widespread stripping of topsoil from Banstead Downs in the 19th century and the extensive ploughing up of areas such as Banstead Heath for farming during the Second World War. What does remain suggests that the Commons were being settled and worked far back into prehistoric times, while Banstead Heath shows signs of iron smelting being attempted during the Roman occupation.

The area’s most important archaeological sites are the four Ancient Monuments on Banstead Downs known as the Gally Hills. These tumuli are rare examples of Anglo-Saxon hlaews (burial mounds or barrows), which may originally have been located here as territorial markers. However, the name Gally Hills dates from much later, as it is a corruption of ‘Gallowes Hills’, which is what the mounds were called in the late Middle Ages. An early 16th-century map indicates that they were the meeting point of four manors, with each being a site where the manor executed criminals and hung their bodies on public display in iron gibbets. 

Excavations have revealed not only the original Anglo-Saxon burial of a warrior or chieftain but also a later posthole where a gibbet had been inserted. There is evidence from one of the hlaews that the primary Anglo-Saxon burials were laid out on a circular platform of flint nodules, probably collected from the vicinity. The use of a platform of stones to support the body can be compared with a similar Anglo-Saxon burial in Ewell, which was laid out on a circle of Romano-British roof tiles, apparently taken from the ruins of a nearby villa. 

Banstead Heath’s other Ancient Monuments include two pairs of roughly rectangular enclosures whose date and function is uncertain. It has been suggested that they might be relics of a Roman military camp or positions for English Civil War gun batteries. However, the lack of artefacts supports the theory that they were medieval enclosures for livestock, possibly being driven from The Weald to market in London. A similar large stock enclosure formed part of the site of the nearby ruined manorial complex of Preston Hawe.

Banstead Heath’s earthworks suffered disruption during the Second World War when both the regular Army and the Home Guard used the Commons extensively for training. Some damage and alterations to the site are believed to be the result of troops being shown how to create foxholes, firing positions and dugouts. 

Elsewhere on the Commons are several small archaeological earthworks, including burial mounds, banks and ditches. Numerous pits were dug for the extraction of chalk, flint or gravel for building construction. Many were associated with the improvement of the nearby toll roads in the 19th century, but one of the largest and oldest of these features is a deep chalk pit on Park Downs, mentioned in 1425. An earthwork enclosure on Walton Heath, adjacent to Banstead Heath, is similar to medieval farmstead sites and may suggest that the Commons were more intensively managed during periods of food shortage than they were in the recent past.