Into Silbury Hill

I saw it once by moonlight. Returning on the Marlborough Road, in the dark, surrounded by the silver-washed, gently curving chalkland. Then dreaming..forgetting…and a little before the Avebury turning… it reared up from the right, huge and impossible. Surely too big to be made, a conical flat-topped mass. A passing Neolithic shock.

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I remembered 1968, my mum calling me to the TV. Live archaeology and Professor Atkinson driving his tunnel to the centre. I had no idea what Silbury was then. I never saw it until I was 18.

Then in the 90s, after moving to Wiltshire, sitting in Devizes Museum at the WAC meeting. At the end, we drank coffee and Gill and Andrew said: ‘yes, we were there with Atkinson.We walked with him to the centre’. Wow! What a thing!

The National Trust have never owned Silbury but have managed it as part of their Avebury Estate.

In May 2000, we were excavating the Lacock Rockworks. Rosie, the Avebury archaeologist ranger, arrived late. She had been called to the top of Silbury with Chris, the NT property manager. ‘There’s a hole!’ she said, ‘a vertical shaft right down to the centre of Silbury’.

English Heritage fenced it off and considered the options. The Hill was not as stable as might be imagined.

For many generations visitors had wondered. Was this the tomb of a great king? Something so huge had surely been raised in honour of someone exceptional and his grave must be furnished with fabulous treasure. So, in 1776, Edward Drax, with some support from Hugh Percy duke of Northumberland, directed a group of miners to sink a vertical shaft to the centre. They were disappointed, no tomb was found. Silbury was further disturbed in 1849, by Rev John Merewether, who organised the digging of a new horizontal tunnel, no finds for him either except his report of preserved organic remains near the centre. Then a pause for a century plus and Professor Atkinson, famed for his work at Stonehenge, directed the campaign I had seen on TV as a child. Another horizontal tunnel with branches.

The experts shook their heads. Something must be done. A conference was called and the players assembled at Devizes Corn Exchange. I sat and heard the debate and remembered Professor Bradley strongly advocating the solution. Reopen Atkinson’s shaft, assemble a crack team and employ the very best archaeological techniques that the 21st century can offer. Create a new exceptional record and then backfill with packed chalk…and seal for all time.

And so it came to pass. The tunnel was opened, the section through the hill was scanned, drawn and photographed in great detail. Samples were taken and analysed…..and then, the invitations went out.

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In the autumn of 2007, we assembled at the portacabins for the health and safety talk. David Attenborough, almost 40 years later, had just returned again from the centre… and now it was our turn.

Along a track…Silbury looming over us…we circled the perimeter of the artificial mountain, to arrive at a concrete portal at its base. The worn green door had a futuristic S on the front, not superman.. Silbury of course, and above it on the lintel ..1968.

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Jim Leary, the English Heritage site director, gave an introductory talk on the threshold,…then the door was opened and we were allowed to enter. ‘we few, we happy few’.

A line of steel ‘U’ frames ran into the distance illuminated by rigged strip lights a network of wires and ribbed ventilation tubing but amongst it all and between the frames the stratigraphy of the mound. ‘Here is the trampled chalk’ Jim pointed. The ancients had worked here compressing the chalk rubble with their feet as they built their mountain.

Further in and the frames were bent and twisted. The torch illuminated a void sloping upwards. Was this where Professor Atkinson cut Rev Merewether’s tunnel?

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Deep below the mound and far from the entrance, the white chalk walls turned brown. We had crossed the inner ditch and here were the beginnings of the construction. Silbury had been built in successive phases but the C14 dates tell us that all the work took place over a short period, c.2400-2300 BC. They started small, heaping gravel from the nearby river and then cutting the turf and topsoil and heaping it into a mound.

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We reached the far end and here was the treasure where we stopped. The famous turf stack where the 1960s diggers had told their stories of green grass and beetles’ wings. Extraordinary environmental survival, sealed within the earth. Many more samples were taken and the list of plants and invertebrates grew and told of a landscape of chalkland pasture. Though we do not know the exact year, the insects tell us that this organised and presumably vast community of farmers cut this turf in the summer. Some of the creatures that were found, only emerge from their larvae in August.

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They didn’t stop. They kept building. What drove them on? They dug deep into the chalk creating a massive moat that  still fills with water after heavy rain in winter. They heaped the chalk higher and higher. A monument to the very end of the Neolithic..as if to say. ‘See! This is what we can do with bone and wood and stone’. That was before the strangers came with their clever rocks from far away. Rocks that could be melted and mixed and beaten to create sharp blades and shiny ornaments.

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Nancy and I retraced our steps, back down the tunnel and out into the light. Best to go to the Avebury Henge, to walk beside the megaliths and then to take tea in the Stones restaurant beside the tithe barn.

To savour the electricity of the moment.

Finding Killerton’s 1776 House 2

To make sense of this you will need to read the first post which describes how a grand 18th century house designed by a famous architect was never completed. This is on the Killerton Estate near Exeter, Devon where the mansion house is…well.. it’s a little disappointing.

The many thousands of acres both at Killerton and on the Holnicote Estate in west Somerset were given to the National Trust in the 1940s by the Acland family.

It’s been 18 months since the first discoveries and things have moved on.

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Killerton House with its roof covered in scaffolding. There is limited access for visitors while the repairs are taking place. The roof archaeology is being recorded and fragments of 19th-century wall paper and early 20th century photos of the Acland family have been found amongst the rafters. 

The present Killerton House is having its roof repaired and the 1776 house has been cleared of undergrowth.

We wondered whether the LiDAR survey had see the cellars of the abandoned house under the trees of Columbjohn wood. Now that we can see ground beneath the vegetation there are heaps of bricks everywhere.

The workers charged with salvaging the building materials had left the broken bricks behind.

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The scrub has been cleared in what we think was the main cellar of the 1776 house and the remains of its demolition and salvage have been found:  lots of broken bricks scattered in piles in the hollow.

Project manager Fi has co-ordinated a series of events which will enable visitors to explore Killerton’s historic landscape. This will happen during the CBA Archaeology Festival later this month. A team of National Trust Heritage Archaeology Rangers have been trained and Bryn from South West Archaeology is supervising the investigation of the lost house of Killerton .

A couple of weeks ago they mapped the earthworks and these fit with the architect’s plans for great house. At the end of July, they will dig some evaluation trenches to ‘ground-truth’ the remains.

Visitors will be very welcome and the mock-up of an 18th century doorway has been erected amongst trees as an entrance to the excavations.

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The newly erected doorway based on the original architect’s drawings of the house that never was. Visit and pass through the doorway to see the excavations in a couple of weeks….

I will spend a couple of days at the folly on the hill-top working out what remains of the ‘white tower’. This folly is shown on an 18th century painting . At this stage we don’t understand quite what the building looked like. It had been demolished long before any photos had been taken.

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The new National Trust HART ranger team for Killerton. Practicing making condition monitoring records of the 18th-century folly site on the conical hill top across the valley from Wyatt’s lost house. We will take off the turf on July 27th and see what lies beneath.

The Cottage next to 516

Another trip into south-east Dorset.

The building surveyor met me in Kingston Lacy car park and drove me to 516 Little Pamphill. It was being refurbished.

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516 Little Pamphill, the original thatched cob cottage is on the left. Gable end to the road behind the hedge.

The best and original part was beside the lane. This was a ‘cob’ building built with local earth, some straw and other bits and pieces thrown in and packed between wood shuttering. Once dried and set, the shuttering was taken away and the building was roofed and thatched.

Interesting…..516 had a cob chimney, capped off with three courses of brick.

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The cob chimney and to the right the junction of the cob wall with the early 20th century brick extension.

A light was shone through a small hatch to reveal that the thatched roof was supported by cut poles of ash. Grown locally and coppiced when grown to the right size. Not a sophisticated building. A small cottage thrown up about 250 years ago. The historic building survey described it as a ‘squatter’s cottage’

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A well preserved roof made of rough cut ash poles. Looks unchanged since 18th century which is an unusual survival for such a low status cottage if true.

A brick extension was added about 100 years ago and later still an annexe and a breeze block bathroom.

The cob chimney and ash pole roof were the best bits and would be cared for during the refurbishment..any other significant features had been modernised away before the NT acquired the place in the 1980s.

But! there was an open service trench, dug to take a gas supply pipe.. Leading from the back door for 30m.

That’s what archaeologists do…. they mostly look at holes in the ground.

I had some time…so I followed it, just to see if any secrets might be revealed. For the first 15 paces the soil was dark and mixed. Organic dug garden soil, a local sandy loam mixed with fragments of white and blue 19th-20th century pottery and the usual random black flake of prehistoric flint. Just grass now but this had been a vegetable garden once.

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The trench soil changes from dark garden material to stony building debris. Greensand foundation stone middle left.

Then, as the trench passed behind the building contractor’s portacabin, the spoil heap changed to orange brown clay and heaps of rubble..sandstone, brick and lumps of flint. I jumped down into the trench where the change took place.

The garden soil was heaped against the remains of a stone wall and in the bottom of the trench, a large foundation block of greensand.  Beyond this, looking into the cut sides of the trench section… there was a jumbled sea of building debris mixed with lime mortar and the same orangy earth similar to that which had been used for the cob of 516.

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The 17th-18th century pottery from the building rubble and a few random prehistoric flints.

I pulled out 4 pieces of earthenware pot, all with the same yellow mustard glaze. A mixing bowl, a jar, a dish and a plate. 17th-18th century. Nothing very modern in the jumble.

Martin had finished his meeting with the structural engineer. There’s a nasty crack in the cob that needs some remedial work. I got a lift back to my car and drove back to the office to look at the maps.

Let’s go back in time. Always good to start with the Ordnance Survey 25 inch to the mile maps.  The 1924 edition shows the plan of 516 much as it is today. The 1901 map just shows the old cob part .. as does the 1888 first edition. Nothing to give a clue that there had been another cottage nearby.

OK, so lets look at the Wimborne Minster tithe map surveyed in 1846. 516 is clear but nothing else.

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A tracing of the 1846 tithe map. 516 is on the left side of plot 2198 but nothing in plot 2199 where the trench revealed rubble. The names in red are the tenants in 1773 and in black those of 1846.

There was one more option. William Woodward’s survey of Kingston Lacy commissioned by the then owner Henry Bankes in 1773.

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Woodward’s survey of 1773 and 516 is shown in plot 52 but look in plot 53. There are two buildings still standing at this time.

Jackpot! There was my building standing just where the trench had passed through and with a second building a little to the south.

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Woodward’s record of who rented each plot. Plot 52 (516) was leased to William Cox but either William Eaton or Margaret Lawrence had the copyhold tenancy of plot 53. In brackets are the older lease and copy names that can be traced back to the 1591 survey of the manor.

A smallholding it seems but why was it demolished? Woodward gives a clue.. he was unsure who the tenant was.. perhaps it was abandoned by this time, fell into disrepair and was knocked down. By 1846, it was part of someone else’s tenancy. Forgotten until I bumped into it again last week.

 

 

 

Stourhead and Sir Richard’s Archaeologists

 

Before I go any further, I wanted to check whether you know who Sir Richard Colt Hoare was? Here’s a couple of clues via famous quotes.

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‘We speak from Facts not Theory’ at the start and end of his great book

and concerning Stonehenge…

‘How Grand, How Wonderful, How Incomprehensible’…no change there then.

Between 1810 and 1821 Sir Richard wrote and published ‘Ancient Wiltshire’, the first detailed survey and description of the county’s archaeology. This is an internationally important publication because it forms a key stepping stone in the development of archaeology as a science.

Some time ago I was asked to give a talk on Sir Richard. The talk was to be part of a conference …organised by the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty team.

Sir Richard owned Stourhead between 1785-1838 and in 1944, the Hoare family kindly gave his home to the National Trust.

Exciting! As the National Trust’s archaeologist responsible for Stourhead, I seemed the obvious choice to give the talk. There was a problem however… just a small one. I’d never taken the time to find out much about him.

One of those things which could be dealt with in due course.

But as May approached and the allotted Saturday loomed…correcting my ignorance became urgent. Time to walk into the Tisbury NT library to see what books had drifted onto the shelves over the decades.

One was a half finished manuscript about Sir Richard’s life and another was a transcript of his Stourhead Annals….

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The white seated statue of Sir Richard in the library he built at Stourhead.

Sir Richard Colt Hoare always wanted to grasp and record time and when his grandfather gave him Stourhead he realised that he did not have a record of the history of its development…so he started a book he named ‘The Annals’, making sure that any changes to the Estate were recorded each year. Writing in 1792, he appealed to future owners to maintain his Stourhead record. On the front cover he wrote.. I have begun this record and those who follow ‘do thou likewise!’.

The next thing in my education was to drive up the road from Warminster to Heytesbury.

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Where William Cunnington planned his excavations with his digging team John and Stephen Parker.

Here….once lived a wool merchant named William Cunnington. Sir Richard wrote that William’s doctor was concerned for his health and advised him to ride out into the landscape and breath in the Wiltshire air.

And so he did. William decided to study and excavate the strange ancient humps and bumps that covered the chalk downs surrounding the village.

I drove to Heytesbury’s Angel pub. This was where William met his digging team John and Samuel Parker and together they planned their investigations. Between 1798 and 1810, they dug well over 300 burial mounds together.

I then looked for his house beside Heytesbury Park. He met Laetitia, the lady of the manor , who introduced him to her brother Henry Wyndham of Salisbury who agreed to fund his researches. William and Laetitia’s monuments are in Heytesbury church.

His next sponsor was Rev Cox, who was rector of Stourton church and through him, in 1801, he met Sir Richard Colt Hoare. They were a similar age, Richard 4 years younger, and they got on well. Soon they were working together to try to understand the ancient evidence of past lives visible within the countryside that surrounded them.

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Stourton Church and Sir Richard’s memorial (left) and in the distance the Stourhead lake and Pantheon in the background.

I drove to Stourton Church and found Sir Richard’s mausoleum in the churchyard overlooking Stourhead’s internationally famous landscape garden.

Time to walk to Stourhead House where I had an appointment with ‘Ancient Wiltshire’. The reception hall is overlooked by a large portrait of Sir Richard with his young son Henry. The artist, Samuel Woodforde, thought that he seemed shy on first meeting but was considerate and loyal to his friends and acquaintances.

Down a corridor to Sir Richard’s library…little changed since he worked there, writing about his archaeological research… and I was shown into a side room with a view to the obelisk and park.

The first volume, South Wiltshire was kindly brought to me and opened.

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‘Ancient Wiltshire’ was begun in 1810 but this was too late for his friend William Cunnington who had died a few months earlier. Richard laments the loss of his friend and fellow time traveller. The introduction and the conclusion to volume two ‘North Wiltshire’, written in 1821, states clearly these volumes would never have been possible without William’s inspiration. It is his friend’s portrait on volume I and his own on volume II.

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As I turned the pages in that little room…written just a few feet from where I stood…it was the illustrations that particularly amazed me. At the bottom left of each .. was the name P. Crocker.

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Crocker’s plan of the Oakley Down barrow group. Number 9 is where they sheltered from the storm (read on)

He was the other key individual in the archaeology team. Philip learnt his mapping skills from the newly formed Ordnance Survey. Was it William or Richard who first engaged  him to make plans of the archaeological sites they were discovering?

Philip mapped and numbered groups of burial mounds and marked the routes of Roman Roads. His art included landscapes paintings, reconstruction drawings of monuments, most notably his drawings of Stonehenge and Avebury, and he also drew the artefacts discovered during the barrow excavations.

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One of Philip Crocker’s drawings of finds from a barrow part of the Winterbourne Stoke group near Stonehenge

Bottom right of each drawing is the name J. Basire. James engraved each of Crocker’s illustrations to enable them to be printed using the newly invented lithographic process.

‘Ancient Wiltshire’ grapples with the problem of understanding the chronology of British prehistory at a time when there were no dating techniques. William and Richard noted the way roads and earthworks altered their course or cut or avoided one another demonstrating a sequence of events. They noted different types of finds and that burials with iron were always found above burials with bronze.. though they did not coin the terms Iron Age and Bronze Age. The Danish archaeologist Thomsen did that in 1836.

There are discovery stories in ‘Ancient Wiltshire’. Colt Hoare aimed for scientific enquiry though this was the time of gothic romance. The excavation of the Bush Barrow in 1808 within the Normanton Group of barrows south of Stonehenge is of particular significance. Here, Cunnington and the Parkers recorded the golden, bronze and stone grave goods surrounding the burial of an important man but it is the account of another excavation which captures the mood of the time.

This excavation was just across the border in Dorset. Here, a large barrow group was drawn by Crocker cut across by the later Ackling Dyke Roman Road. Digging into the large mound ‘9’ (see illustration above) they found a burial near the surface but below this a heap of flints. Sir Richard rightly surmised that the primary inhumation lay deeper. They began to shift the rocks and a thunderstorm broke out across the exposed downland. Swept with intense rain, the team clustered for shelter in the burial pit leaving their iron tools on the mound summit above them. A clap of thunder and the tools drew a direct hit by a lightning bolt that sent a landslide of debris down upon them forcing them out into the storm. One of Sir Richard’s companions Rev William Bowles was so moved by the experience that he wrote a poem which is included in the book. It captures the romance of the time reminiscent of contemporary novels such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

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Crocker’s painting of Cunnington and Colt Hoare watching the Parkers? digging.

I closed the second book and walked out into the park and then back into the undecroft below Colt Hoare’s picture gallery on the north end of the house. It is empty now but was once the exhibition space for the finds from the excavations. The books and archive were sold in 1883 when the family was strapped for cash. Fortunately, Devizes Museum stepped in and saved Cunnington and Colt Hoare’s collection and you should go there to see what they discovered.

After ‘Ancient Wiltshire’ Sir Richard began ‘Modern Wiltshire’ he knew that he did not have enough time left to finish it and so relied on friends and colleagues to achieve that.

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The coins struck with Richard Colt Hoare’s initials on, placed in excavations before backfilling to show to future diggers that he had been there and the canvas back he carried them in.

I’ll finish by turning back to Sir Richard’s ‘Annals. There are fewer entries during the 1830s and in 1838 ‘at a quarter past six of the morning on the 19th of May at Stourhead died Sir Richard Colt Hoare’

His loyalty to his team is perhaps reflected in an entry two years later…On the 24th April died Mr Philip Crocker, for 30 years Land Steward for the property.

I had enough information for the talk but so much more to discover.

 

 

 

The Lost Villa of Bath Skyline

Last week we tested the evidence for a lost Roman villa.

It lies in a hidden, rarely visited field… full of earthworks and stones poking through the grass.

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Starting the excavation: we resurveyed the site with a resistivity meter (bottom left). Cutting the turf  at the lower end  (right) where a corridor? (continuing beyond the two groups of figures on the left side of the tree) gave access to rooms. Terraces at the upper end (left), a series of rooms beside the corridor?

On Monday, with the Volkswagon Golf bulging with tools, the farmer directed me across the farm.. through rough terrain and rutted gateways.

I needed to avoid the more direct route because it was full of new lambs with their mums.

Rob shook his head. ‘Are you sure you want to risk your car out there….We could transfer the equipment into a 4×4’.

‘No, that’s fine’ I said confidently ‘Coaxing inappropriate cars through rough terrain has become a mission. I once got a Vauxhall Nova up Golden Cap… well almost’.

Dodgy gates and a moonscape of deep ruts but the weather has been very dry so nothing untoward occurred during my outbound journey ..and I entered the field which was full of  wonderfully intriguing humps and bumps.

So this was exciting.

Full of archaeological potential.

Stones and walls jutted from terraces and banks. We were on the edge of the Roman city of Bath and this place had a fabulous view out over the Bathampton valley. A spring gurgled in a cutting a few metres downslope. This had every chance of  becoming a previously unrecognised Roman villa.

A home for one of the wealthy people associated with the sacred temple complex surrounding Bath’s magical hot springs.

The NT Bath Skyline team had set up their shepherd’s hut tea room with all the facilities. Luxury. Staff and volunteers were ready to become archaeologists. We all were.

The evidence for the villa seemed good, perhaps too good. Where were the shaped blocks of stone reused in the boundary walls….There were reports of Roman pottery in neighbouring fields but nothing of that date from this particular field. But it was all grass and without mole hills..how would it make itself known.

I introduced the site. Inspired by what we might find. Stories of collapsed walls, partly robbed in medieval times before the site was forgotten. Under this a fallen roof..a sea of tiles (limestone or clay). Then below this mortar and a layer of highly decorated painted plaster (which must be very carefully planned and lifted). Now perhaps we would find small rodent bones (owl pellets dropped when the grand villa had been abandoned, the birds flying in at night through broken windows to roost in the decaying rafters. Below this, of course, a splendid mosaic or mosaics. One must hope that they had not collapsed into the under floor heating system…classical scenes finely worked in cubes of stone and tile.

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Cleaning back the site following the removal of turf defining the corridor? and room? levels.

A trench was marked out to cross what appeared to be a corridor and a large room. The turf was peeled back. The team formed a line and we trowelled and uncovered the stonework.

At this point we expected fragments of baked clay, much mortar and blocks of cut stone, a scatter of oyster shell and animal bone and lots of Roman pottery….

We found a couple of pieces of 19th century glass and a nail.

The stonework was a heap of  unworked chunks of local limestone piled up to form a terrace.

Most disappointing.

The next day, I walked back towards the field edge to check out the fragments of wall we could just see sticking out of the grass. These were proper two sided stone walls.

Dave cut a trench across one section and I hacked into a hawthorn bush and made a space to investigate the footings of another wall heading under the 18th century field boundary wall,

Dave found .22  cartridge cases and  I found fragments of a white ware jar. The 1902 OS map showed a Boer War army camp in the next door field. Perhaps they’d chucked their rubbish over the wall (just like the army tipped their broken crockery over Durrington Walls during WWI).

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The mortared stone walls of the building looking back towards our first trench, the trees marking the corridor that turned into a trackway and in the middle distance the rooms that turned into stone faced field lynchets for small ‘celtic’ prehistoric? fields. Top left of the wall in the foreground is a massive stone that formed the door jamb. This was cut into to fit the timber door frame and a level horizontal area had a hole drilled for the door pivot. The wall continues to the right and the width of one of the rooms of the building is seen as it turns (top right) to run parallel with the wall in the foreground.

All still modern and not a fragment of anything Roman in sight, we strung out tapes from both walls and where they coincided we opened another trench to find the corner of the building.

The big trench was abandoned. Carol had found a bone fragment and a tiny piece of Roman grey ware (“that’s not really enough is it”). We concluded that our earthworks were part of a prehistoric field system, terraces levelled into a slope and faced with limestone rubble with a track defining their lower edge.

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Looking back towards the walls in the last photo. Top left of this trench had a flagstone in place, the key and the pitchfork were found here.

The team on the new trench found a flagstone on a mortar surface, a square section nail, an impressive looking pitchfork and a door key. The surface modern pottery gave way to fragments of tobacco pipe. In Dave and Fay’s trench we found a doorway with a pivot hole in it.

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The pitchfork and square sectioned hand made nail from trench C,

The maps show nothing here in the last 150 years. There are less detailed 18th century maps which also show a blank.

This field was enclosed from the Bishop of Bath’s deer park, in use from the 12th century. It does not seem to have been ploughed since then..but these mortared stone walls and finds are not as old as that… A cottage and/or outhouse in use from late 17th to early 19th century? We need to look at the tithe map and do some more documentary research.

In the end, as we all worked together to backfill the trenches and replace the turf…we agreed that…although we lost our dream of rediscovering a lost Roman villa, it had been good to work there together…

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amongst the sparking leaves and flowers in the cool April sunshine.

 

It’s all in a name .. UPDATE

With some fresh eyes and a consensus of Mitchell 🙂 I found an Isaac Mitchell on the 1841 and subsequent censuses in Shapwick (good work Carol you spotted him as well )

Isaac (54 years old) is listed as a carpenter on all the census I looked at and on the 1851 one, which was clearer to read, he is married to a lady called Love (52 years old) and his son Dennis (23 years old) is also listed as a carpenter. It is interesting to see his mother-in-law,  called Hester Jefferies,  also lived with them  and is an amazing 95 years old!

The Dunster Castle Mosaics

Dunster Castle in west Somerset, is one of three Wessex Norman motte and bailey castles now owned by the National Trust. Their 11th century designers all used natural hills. Each was a strategic location but history changed them.. only Dunster has remained a residence through 1000 years.. a grand mansion house, impressive in scale and outline, high above the road into Exmoor.

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1754 painting of Dunster’s dramatic setting on display in the Castle

In south Somerset, Montacute Castle, on St Michael’s Hill , is now only visible as earthworks under trees. It ended its military life in the 12th century when the land was given to Montacute Priory.

Corfe Castle thrived as a royal castle, particularly in the 13th century, but had become old fashioned by Tudor times. Elizabeth I sold Corfe and it became a rich family’s trophy house.. They backed the King (the losing side) and so in 1646 it was made uninhabitable. Now it’s a craggy ruin.

Dunster is different.. It survived the turbulent years of the English Civil War. It progressed.. and was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries.. complete with stables, outbuildings designed parkland, gardens and summerhouses.

And so it was… that last August I took the long and winding road from Taunton to Minehead in search of a Dunster mosaic.

Don’t get me wrong… these are pebble mosaics not Roman ones .. but they are intricate designs, hidden and poorly understood.

The thing about Dunster Tor is that it’s got unstable slopes. The paths and access road, spiraling up the steep hill to the Castle’s front door, keep slipping away.

I arrived at the right time, morning tea-break in the bothy, and then Robin the Head Gardener guided me up the hill with drawing board, camera, notebook and measuring tapes.

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Starting to clear the overgown path below the Castle. 

A busy summer day, many visitors enjoying the sunshine but I was shown down a lost path. Closed because of health and safety. It doesn’t go anywhere now. After about 30m, it stops abruptly at a steep slope, where the old route has tumbled down the hill.

Robin found the spot and pulled some creeper plants which had grown across the abandoned path. There, was a pattern of pebbles set in a hard white mortar.

He wished me well and left me to it ..and that was my home for the day.. shaded by the bushes and tall plants and all around me the voices of happy holiday people walking along other paths. Nearby but out of sight.

The path had been cut into the hillside. On the uphill side, I pulled back the greenery and found the red sandstone blocks of the revetment wall. Where the path met the wall there was a heap of soil and roots. I moved the vegetation… and just above the mosaic surface were fragments of plaster and pieces of brick and slate.

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The pebble mosaic running under the revetment wall.

There were also two blocks of stone joined together and forming an 120 degree angle as though they once formed the corner of a polygonal building. The revetment wall had been built above this corner and the mosaic ran up to it….The archaeological sequence .. first the stone corner, then the pebble floor built against it and then, at a later date, the revetment wall for the path built above them.

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Now it was time to clean back from the wall and reveal the pattern of the white pebbles. It was edged with a curving fan of long, pitched, red-brown stones. Then there were zig-zag patterns of long grey stones among the white pebbles. In the centre of each zig and zag, was a rosette of long stones with a pebble in the middle. Beyond that and further downslope there were interlocking arcs of grey stones dividing up the white pebbles…but then I ran out of path.

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The stone rosettes 

Slabs of the mosaic had  fractured and tipped down slope and then had been covered and resurfaced in the 1970s to repair the path and make it horizontal again.

Really good mortar… it held the pebbles fast as the floor cracked and slipped away down the hill.

By the end of the day I’d uncovered about half the surviving semi-circular design. Originally, it must have been about 5m in diameter but ….how old was it and what period in the Castle’s long history did it belong to?

I’ve been writing up the report and the answers are not easy to find.. definitely 18th or 19th century but surely we can do better than that.

There are two known Dunster mosaics. The other one, on the north side of the castle, was built against the 15th century gatehouse. This floor design is a series of concentric pebble petals and was carefully uncovered and drawn in the 1990s. Robert the excavator concluded that the mortar used in the floor was a kind of ‘Roman’ cement and was therefore at least earlier 19th century in date.

The one I had revealed was on the south side of the Castle and although it had a different design, the mortar and types of stone were similar. There is no reason to doubt that they are contemporary and part of the same period of garden design.

Dunster Castle has such a dramatic scenic profile: it has been drawn, painted and mapped many times since the early 18th century.

Changes usually take place when there is money and the Luttrell family (the owner occupiers of Dunster from the 1404-1976) didn’t always have large amounts of spare money.

In the early 18th century, Dorothy Luttrell had cash to spend and used it to redesign the gardens. A drawing of Dunster in 1735 shows a white building in the area where I drew the mosaic. There is a painting dated 1754 which also shows the building. Is this the building which covered the mosaic. There’s no similar structure for the north pebble floor and the the type of mortar doesn’t work for such an early date. ‘Roman cement’ was invented by James Parker in 1798 and is unlikely to have been used at Dunster until the early 19th century.

18th century

The early 18th century painting at Dunster showing a little white building on the left side of the Castle in the area of the pebble floor.

Henry Fownes Luttrell 1747-1780 had money and lived at Dunster much of the time as did his son John 1780-1816 but the next owners lived mainly in London and the Castle went into decline.  Then, in 1867, George Luttrell inherited and took the place in hand. He commissioned fashionable architect, Anthony Salvin, to design a gothic revamp for the place.

The surviving later 19th century photos maps and plans give no hint that the mosaics were created at this time.

However, they may have been designed and seen for just a few years and any covering pavilion or summer house building may have been a light timber framed structure quickly removed.

My best bet… given the type of mortar …and the occupation history of the Luttrell family, is that the floors were commissioned by John Luttrell before 1816… can’t prove it though.

Unfortunately William Turner’s painting of 1811 shows nothing and neither does the tithe map of 1840. But they were  not created to show garden detail….

1840 Dunster

Dunster’s Tithe Map 1840

so I must hope for a future researcher who one day.. at Taunton.. at a table in the Somerset County Record Office…working through deep pile of papers in the Dunster Archive, will suddenly alight on the conclusive document ….I hope he or she spots it.