Sunday 31 August 2014

Toote Hill and Cun Hu Hill: two lost pre-Viking sites near Grimsby

I thought I would share the following map, which was drawn by the Rev. W. Smith and published as the frontispiece to Oliver's Monumental Antiquities of Great Grimsby (Hull, 1825):

A plan of the Grimsby area and its 'Ancient British Monuments', published as the frontispiece to Oliver's Monumental Antiquities of Great Grimsby in 1825; click for a larger version.

The map depicts the higher ground, 'islands' and marshy areas in and around early Grimsby, highlighting a number of what are described as 'Ancient British Monuments'. Although irritatingly orientated, so that north is in the bottom right corner, the map has many points of interest: the ones I want to particularly drawn attention to today are in the top right of this depiction, however, namely two features labelled 'Toote Hill' and 'Cun Hu Hill':

Toote Hill and Cun Hu Hill, near Grimsby, as depicted on Smith's plan of 1825. The plan is orientated so that south-west is where north would normally be.

The name 'Toote Hill' is particularly interesting, reflecting Old English tōt-hyll, 'a look-out hill', suggesting that we probably have here a feature associated with Anglo-Saxon-era coastal defence, perhaps as a beacon site, based on the general usage of this term. The hill itself was said by Oliver to have stood 100 feet (30 metres) high in his time, although late nineteenth-century OS maps only put it at half that height, and it was completely quarried away over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The partially-excavated hill was visited in 1903 by Walter Johnson, who described it in 1912 as:
a huge mound with an irregular ground plan, but the upper portion has an elliptical contour. It is composed chiefly of sand and sandy clays, which seem to belong to the late Glacial Period. A sand pit which was being worked at the base of one side of the hill, yielded broken and comminuted specimens of Ostrea, Tellina, and other marine shells. Towards the summit, however, there were undoubted signs of man's work. A slight fall of snow had rendered discernible a shallow trench which encompassed the hill slope... A few small flint flakes were detected on a bare patch of turf. One suspects that this hill served both as a beacon and a watch-tower when the Humber and the North Sea were nearer the spot, and when Grimsby was represented by a string of islets lying amid the waters of a lagoon... Bones and earthenware were found at, or near, this spot a century ago, and soon after the visit just described skeletons were dug up in the sand pit. The ultimate fate of these skeletons, and their determinations, could not be ascertained.
The destruction of Toote Hill. A photograph taken in 1903, showing the hill in the process of being quarried away (image from Walter Johnson's Byways in British Archaeology, 1912).

Cun Hu Hill appears to be equally interesting, being represented on Smith's map as an oval earthen fortification with a ditch and rampart. This fortification has been discussed at length in 1995–6 by Barrie Cox, who identifies the name as probably consisting of a reduced form of Old Danish kunung, 'a king', combined either with a reflex of Scandinavian haugr, 'a burial mound, a hill'—which might fit with the depiction of a burial mound within Cun Hu Hill on Smith's map—or Old English hōh, a promontory, which would work topographically for the immediate vicinity of both Cun Hu Hill and Toote Hill in the early medieval era, this probably representing a promontory of dry ground stretching out into the early medieval coastal marshes (see map below). If the latter element of the name is indeed OE hōh, then this might in turn suggest that ODan kunung was a replacement for Old English cyning, 'a king', paralleling the situation seen at the various Conistons across England, with the name as a whole perhaps applying originally to the whole promontory and indicating some sort of pre-Viking, royal Mercian control over this, the Toote Hill, and the earthen fortification. With regard to the pre-Viking-era name of the fort itself, Cox observes that the neighbouring district to the area of Cun Hu Hill—as determined from Smith's map and the still-surviving name 'Toot Hill'—is nowadays called Yarborough, as can be seen on the map below. 'Yarborough' derives from Old English eorð-burh, 'earthen fortification', a fortification-name and place-name that recurs several times within Lincolnshire and the East Midlands and refers specifically to pre-Anglo-Saxon earthen fortifications. In this light, Cox suggests that the presence of this district name close to the site of Cun Hu Hill may be more than a coincidence and that the modern district-name does not simply derive from the Earls of Yarborough, but instead preserves a memory of the original name of Cun Hu Hill.

As to the shape and location of the fortification here, Cox visited its site in the 1990s, this now being part of Grimsby Golf Course. He reported that the heavy landscaping demands of the golf course had largely destroyed or obliterated the enclosing ramparts, but that he was able to still locate what he identified as the easterly bank and dry ditch of the Cun Hu fort in roughly the area that Smith's plan placed it in relation to Toote Hill (note, this feature also appears to be visible on the Environment Agency's Lidar survey of the area). However, Cox also observes that the line of the surviving rampart ran straight rather than curved, as it appears on Smith's very stylised plan, implying a rectilinear fortification rather than an oval one—perhaps originally similar, he suggests, to Yarborough Camp, which Kevin Leahy has argued was probably fortified/refortified in the fourth or fifth century AD. Cox indicates that he considers a very late Roman date may be appropriate for Cun Hu Hill too, with it and Yarborough Camp potentially both being part of the late Roman defensive arrangements for the Lincoln region.

The suggested locations of Toote Hill and Cun Hu Hill against a modern street map of Grimsby/Little Coates, based on Barrie Cox's 1995–6 article; click the image to see a larger version. Also shown is the main 5m contour line for this area, adjusted to take account of the levelling of Toote Hill, with land below 5m OD tinted blue and that above tinted green; it should be noted here that eastern Lincolnshire saw a significant marine transgression in the late/post-Roman period—see my post on the Lincolnshire Marshes in the Anglo-Saxon period—and the 5m contour represents a reasonable approximation of the boundary between dry land and low-lying marshland/the coastal zone in that era. Cox's research indicates that Cun Hu Hill had straight ramparts, rather than curved as Smith's stylised plan shows them, although Smith's drawing is retained for illustration purposes here; the position of Cun Hu Hill is also very slightly adjusted from Smith's plan, as per Cox. The scale included on Smith's 1825 plan was used to adjust the features to their correct size on the modern map, with the proviso that this assumes that Smith was reasonably accurate in his drafting (Image created by C. R. Green. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2014).

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