The Original Excavation
The earliest known record of these structures is that of Robert Walker who discovered and excavated them in the 1890's. Walker was an ardent advocate of the theory of ancient Island tin trading. He published a booklet on this theory called Phoenicia in Freshwater [Newport Reference Library] and recorded his excavation of this site in the booklet on the assumption it had Phoenician associations. Whilst the record of his excavation must be of interest in any analysis, his interpretation of what he found is less reliable. The ancient tin trading theory is now generally discredited.
What he discovered were not structures as such but sculptured pits dug into the top of the bank with entrances through the front of the bank. There were no building materials used as the surrounding clay had fired itself into a secure terracotta wall. His enquiries revealed that, prior to earlier road widening, there were 2-3ft entrances. Following his excavation Walker built the concrete domes and bricked entrances to protect them from vandalism. Their final appearance was the result of some speculation on Walker's part as to the original shape. His findings can be summarised as follows:-
Any antiquarian examining these pits would have to consider the possibility they were lime kilns. Walker does so but rejects the idea at the outset by saying the vitreous internal surface was in too good a condition to represent a lime kiln. Thereafter he was at pains to dismiss any further evidence pointing to lime kilns. The workers who originally widened the road told him they found 'common lime' at the entrance to the kilns. He dismisses this as a misinterpretation due to their 'unscientific minds'.
The suggestion they are ice houses is based on their appearance today rather than their original state. Our own survey quickly established they are not ice houses: there is no drain and the entrance is too low (subsequent road building has raised the base level of the entrance). They are almost certainly kilns of some sort. The interior has a vitreous coating, presumably as a natural result of repeated firing. The sides have a slight bowl shape, narrowing at the top and towards a ledge surrounding a furnace at the base. The dimensions of the western kiln as follows:
Height from furnace to top (as originally discovered): 2.31 m
Diameter at widest point: 2.51 m
Diameter at base above ledge: 2.34 m
Diameter of bowl (furnace): 1.83 m
The eastern kiln has similar proportions but is approximately 18% larger all round.
The immediate impression is that of lime kilns.
Walker rejected this possibility on the grounds the condition of the vitreous surface was not typical of a lime kiln. This condition arises in kilns as salts are extracted from the walls and fired into a glaze. The glaze varies depending on the wall material and firing temperatures. It was a little presumptuous of Walker to reject a possibility simply because he hadn't experienced this particular condition before. As lime kilns they probably had some sort of raised level above the bank closing the top slightly. The curved pieces of terracotta wall found when excavating the pits could represent a concaved top, rather like the dome shape but with the top half cut off.
These kilns resemble the 'flare' type of lime kiln. A grid would have been place on the ledge at the base, arched upward at the entrance, and the chalk stacked up over this, loaded in from the top and up to the top. The fire would then have been ignited in the pit below this through the entrance (the draw hole). The draw hole may have been packed to control the draught and allow it to burn for four or five days.
The only material remaining in the kilns today is a deposit in the western kiln that is fused to the base below the ledge (see above photo). We had this chemically tested and it proved to be limestone - exactly as would be expected in a lime kiln.
There is no trace of the material Walker identifies as phosphate. Our enquiries with experts in chemical composition suggest there is no 'white waxy' material that could be identified as phosphate and cremated bone would not end up in that state. The most likely explanation is that, whatever the material was, it contained merely a trace of phosphate and this was misinterpreted.
In the absence of building materials or finds, dating them is not possible. Many local people were aware of Walker's excavations at the time yet apparently none could supply anecdotal explanation for the kilns. This would seem to put their latest possible date as the end of the 18th century or very early 19th century. Lime kiln design tells us little as such basic design remained unchanged for centuries. If they were created to provide field liming, rather than building material, they would be later rather than earlier. Farming lime kilns were not widespread until the 17th century. The earliest tithe map (1837) shows all the surrounding land to be arable farmland, suggesting a need for considerable liming.
The derivation of 'Moons Hill'
In the 13th century lands in Freshwater were held in the name of William le Mone. The use of the French definite article, le suggest this name refers to a professional or personal characteristic of a previous family member. If le Mone came from the French le Moine it thus translates as 'The Monk'. Monastic connections with the area are still evident from Monks Farm and Monks Lane between Norton and Colwell Bay and probably derive from lands acquired by Beaulieu abbey in the 13th century. Also Freshwater church was one of six Island churches granted to the Abbey of Lyre shortly after the Norman Conquest. Of course the monk in question must have abandoned his discipline to produce a family. Although the the Mone family name was no longer recorded in Freshwater after the 16th century, lands continued to carry the name, as in Mones, Mones Close and Mones Mead. By the end of the 18th century Mones had transmuted to 'Moons' or 'Moon', and Moon Lane eventually became Moons Hill.