|From Rodney Legg's Mysterious Dorset.
"Dr William Sydenham of Wynford Eagle, near Maiden Newton, is one of Dorset's earliest recorded barrow diggers but what makes him unique is his remarkable description of supernatural heat emanating from the centre of an ancient burial mound. Whether or not you can believe it, the description is clear enough but it's location has been misplaced by field archaeologist Leslie Grinsell in his Dorset Barrows. Grinsell places it at Wynford Eagle but Sydenham's original letter about the discovery, which I transcribed for the first edition of John Aubrey's Monumenta Britannica, says the barrow was "nigh the sheephouse in the road going to Bridport".
This suggests the high sheep pastures, where isolated sheephouses were erected, on the upper downs to the south-west of Wynford Eagle. The road from Wynford Eagle to Bridport crosses the great sheep-runs at Eggardon hill, where there are barrows which must have been prominent landmarks on the open uplands (such as that which lies in Powerstock parish at O.S.ref SY546946).
Sydenham writes that he had already dug a barrow near his house - which he thought roman, though we would now describe as bronze age - but found only "black cinders like smith's coal" so he had promised a cousin from Devon that he would "try twenty more ere I found something to satisfy her curosity".
The remainder of this description is in Sydenham's own words, in a letter of 19 November 1675 to his uncle, Dr Thomas Sydenham, who was in London. Only the spellings have been modernised and my amplifications are parenthesised in brackets:
"some of my workmen advised me to dig up the barrow in the ground, if you remember it, called Ferndown nigh the sheephouse in the road going to Bridport and my men offered me that if there was nothing in it they would loose their day's hire (forgo their wages), which I agreed to; and on they go, and on they go, and when theyhad cast away the earth it was full of great flints. At length we came to a place perfectly like an oven curiously clayed round, and in the middest of it a very fair urn full of bones very firm and the urn not rotten, and black ashes a great quantity under the urn, which is like a butter pot, made of potters' earth, but I must not omit the chiefest thing that at the first opening of this oven one of my servants thrust in his hand and pulling it quickly back again, I on demanding the reason of him, he told me it was very hot. I did also put in my hand and it was warm enough to have baked bread. Several others did the like, who can all testify to the truth of it. This urn stood in the middle of this oven which I preserve with the bones but it is since fallen asunder, and digging further I found sixteen urns more, but not in ovens, and in the middle, one with ears (lugs) to it falling to pieces, being all full of sound bones and black ashes. I think it would puzzle the Royal Society to give a reason of the heat of the oven being fifteen hundred years old."
Although the text places this not at Wynford Eagle exactly, but just over the hill I thought it interesting enough, and strange enough to include here.
Posted by formicaant
14th May 2007ce
Edited 25th April 2010ce