The Case of the Redcliffe Bay Burial, Bristol

There is a National Trust property known as Redcliffe Bay near Portishead, Bristol. I was shown it once on a journey between Tyntesfield and Leigh Woods.

A small bay on the edge of the Severn Estuary. No archaeological sites were known there.

Until last year.. someone spotted a wasp’s nest in the cliff which turned out to be a skull.

The police were called and forensic archaeologists exhumed the skeleton.

When I heard of it I assumed that coastal erosion had revealed a prehistoric or Roman burial but the police phoned to say that the radiocarbon dates were back and although too old for them to follow up, the grave was still quite a recent event.

The body was carefully buried lying face up with arms folded across the pelvis and aligned east to west in a Christian tradition.

There were three peaks in the C14 graph.. within the 95% bracket of probability there was a 32% chance the date was between AD 1645-1685, 47% AD 1735-1810 and 16% AD 1930-1953. The person was most probably buried in the later 18th century. However, the dates bring the burial uncomfortably close to our own time and… why was it there?

Historic maps dating back to the 18th century show Redcliffe Bay as an empty section of coast with no buildings nearby (unlike today).

The forensic scientists examined and measured the skeleton and carried out DNA analysis.

This person was a boy of about 12 who had lived a hard life. He was small for his age with a bent back. His bones and teeth showed that he had been raised on a coarse diet of poor quality food. His lower legs were also damaged as though there had been a regular trauma, perhaps through ill treatment and/or the nature of his normal working life.

There were three finds, but only the nail was definitely from the grave filling. There was an iron buckle and a broken curving silver coated bar with a ball-shaped terminal.

This evidence of the boy’s hard life, death and burial raises many questions. There is not the time distance to give us separation from the facts of his poverty and exploitation.

The factories, back-streets, workhouses and ships of the Bristol docks would have employed many children in the 18th and 19th centuries… though.. he may have been a farm boy from a poor family with no money him properly ….and in the end, could only afford to place their loved one at the field edge, on the shore line… with a fine view out across the channel towards the coast of Wales.

Since writing this Gordon has let me know of Dorset examples of 18th century shore-line burials. It was the usual way that bodies were laid to rest when found washed up on the beach.

Books & Our Landscapes

Books transport us, take us beyond ourselves- but to a recognisable place. Often we are ambushed by the words, words that touch us and unlock our heart.


Blackmore Vale from Hambledon Hill, Dorset

We all view the world though our own unique experience and as an archaeologist I see the beauty of our countryside as the expression of the many generations that worked and shaped it, a precious jewel to be conserved. Writers evoke the many moods of places…places like Thomas Hardy’s Dorset or Winston Graham’s Cornwall .

09.12.11 Hod Hill 060

Hardy’s Cottage near Dorchester, Dorset: the birth place of Thomas Hardy

Through their writing, we are drawn to the locations that helped spark these authors into their creative genius – Hardy’s Cottage, Max Gate, Trerice. The buildings are the launch pad to their setting – the intricate majesty of the south west’s coast and countryside.


Gunwalloe. Cornwall

The first book I recommend is by W.G. Hoskins. In his introduction, he tells the book’s story: he had searched in vain for a book which unravelled the intricate history of the landscape -therefore, in frustration, he created this pivotal work. He writes: ‘The English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess. There are discoveries to be made in it for which no written documents exist, or have ever existed’ (The Making of the English Landscape).

At college, his book inspired me to go out and seek the myriad hidden stories held within ordinary farmsteads and fields.

However, landscape is far more than a museum of past lives: it is a work of artistry. The landscape has moods, light and shade, it constantly alters in weather and seasons, has memories.

How can our experience of it be captured? A book can guide us there, perhaps in a few pages describing an ordinary, though extraordinary, Mayday walk through fields to a village. ‘I seemed to capture everything together-medieval England, myself at ten, the summers of the past and the summer really coming….Dodie Smith writes a fabulous dream-like passage in ‘I capture the Castle’ such a surprising book… ‘Did anything as beautiful as this ever happen before?’

Our surroundings are so precious, internationally so. This was certainly the opinion of George Orwell who after escaping from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War wrote: ‘And then England – Southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way…to believe that anything is really happening anywhere’ (Homage to Catalonia).

Books grab us and encourage us to go and care for and experience our surroundings before it is too late. My last quote is from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Stephens, the butler, is given leave to escape his gilded cage, a great house in Oxfordshire (Dyrham in the film).


Dyrham, Gloucestershire

To take a journey across the south west to meet a love he cannot acknowledge. He stops in unfamiliar surroundings and an old man invites him to take a path ‘you won’t get a better view anywhere in England’. The incident is a metaphor for the book. Take your chances while you can. Stephens is persuaded to climb the steep and winding path…. and is not disappointed.

That evening in Salisbury he recalls the moment.


Marshwood Vale from Lambert’s Castle, Dorset

‘For it is true, when I stood on that high ledge this morning and viewed the land before me, I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling-the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness. We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify this lofty adjective’.

Open a book today, let it beckon you down a new path.



Hoskins, W.G., 1955, The Making of the English Landscape, Penguin Books, 14-15.

Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989,The Remains of the Day, Faber, 24-27.

Orwell, G., 1938, Homage to Catalonia, Penguin Books, Faber & Faber, 220-221.

Smith, D., 1949, I Capture the Castle, Random House, 177-185.

Return to the Priest’s House, Muchelney

Heading south-west out of Wiltshire, along the floor of the Deverill valley. . and at Kingston, climbing out of the greensand, up, up onto the high curvaceous chalkland. The icy gloom giving way to bright skies with a first chance to see the potential of the developing day.

Not until the road came to the brink of the escarpment was it possible to appreciate what was unfolding. Over the brow of the downs, the land dropped away and as far as the eye could see… were flat-lands overlain by undulating mists. Networks of hedgerows were translucently visible but the isolated, conical Duncliffe Hill broke out of the fading milkiness high into the blueing sky.

Below lay the border town of Mere and beyond lay Dorset and….


At Lytes Cary we took the road to Huish Episcopi.

I remembered to turn left at the church tower and onto  the level, hedge-lined road which led across the flats to Muchelney.

The winter of 92-3 was wet and my car had struggled here. The road was flooded. The builders had told me not to wait too long, the water was rising and the village was becoming an island again.  I did the archaeology and thankfully made it back to the mainland that night.


The Priest’s House in January 2018

Returning after a quarter of a century to this little hill with its church and ruined abbey, it seemed hardly to have changed. A few scattered cottages and there was the Priest’s House. Everything silvered grey with frost..the sun here still only a glowing orb above the mist.

The National Trust has owned this place since 1911. Rescued by the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings with work carried out by Ernest Barnsley, a master builder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

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The Priest’s House after work was completed in April 1993

At the end, I had left it with its fresh yellow thatch ..but knew it in my time mostly as a scaffolded canopy, the skeleton of medieval timbers exposed for repair.

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The medieval common rafters of the hall after removal of thatch. Looking through these you can see the horizontal timber known as the purlin which supports them and below and attached to the purlin can be seen the curving wind braces which demonstrate that the hall was open to the roof in medieval times as does the truss with its principal rafters which the purlin is supported on. This truss has an arch braced collar which was built to be seen as a decorative feature from the ground floor.

This was the early 14th century vicar’s house. The priest was a paid staff member of Muchelney Abbey and took the services in the parish church, serving the village community.

Quite a lowly cleric and the size of his house reflects his status… but he and his home survived Henry VIII’s religious upheavals of 1538-40. At that time most of the Abbey was demolished and the monks were pensioned off. The great Abbey church is just a pattern of stone footings now.


Muchelney parish church seen across the footings of the once much larger Abbey church. The Priest’s House lies just beyond. 

This priest’s house is too far from Ham Hill. This is the edge of blue lias country, the walls are of this grey slatey stone, only the windows and doors are of golden Ham stone.. though it has fenestration way above its pay-scale. I suppose, once the great Abbey had been pulled down there were plenty of opportunities to upgrade from the ruins.

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One of the large windows of the hall. Rather grand for such a small building.

One day the builders showed me 12th-13th century chunks of carved and painted stone they had found during the repairs. This was more re-cycled Abbey, reused as rubble to infill a redundant flight of stairs  up to the first floor.

The Priest’s House had been built with a cross-passage with opposing front and back doors.

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The medieval wattle and daub screen to the guest room under repair. This Tudor doorway was inserted into it when the the first floor was created over the hall.

Through the front door, on the right was a timber screen and beyond it the hall was  open to the roof  decorated with curving wind braces. Beyond the hall was the parlour with its moulded timber ceiling, a stair led to the solar or private room of the priest. Later, the hall was roofed to create a first floor above and a huge decorated stone fireplace was hauled into the room. Evidence of more of the Abbey salvaged from the ruins.

To the left of the cross-passage were the store rooms, the pantry for food and the buttery for drink and the now blocked stair which once led to a guest room above. The kitchen would have been a separate building. In medieval times it was thought sensible to keep the cooking fire from the main building in case of accident. In the builders’ trenches, I never saw evidence for this kitchen though it could have been a timber framed building which left little trace.

Examples of these medieval kitchens still stand at nearby NT places …Stoke Sub Hamdon Priory (‘Prayer for the Future’) and Treasurer’s House Martock (‘The Treasure beneath the Limewash’)… Their residents were grander than Muchelney’s vicar and could afford something more substantial.


Frosty Muchelney Abbey last week looking across the demolished cloisters towards the Abbot’s hall.

But it was now time to leave Muchelney. There were other places to visit.

We climbed back in the car and continued our journey south between melting frost-spangled fields and sleeping winter-bare orchards …deeper and deeper into cider country….Kingsbury Episcopi, Martock, Stoke Sub Hamdon..Montacute.


Space ….

The morning was sunny and frosty, the Black Redstart on his winter migration had appeared in the garden and as I drove to work, large flocks of Woodpigeon flew up from the fields with small groups of winter thrushes, as a Red Kite slowly glided across the valley.
I was on my way to continue setting up my new work space at Dinton, ten minutes further towards Salisbury from the office. I have new tables, heaters and shelving to unpack The boxes of finds needing cleaning, sorting, marking, recording and packing were already there waiting to be opened. I met Rosemary and we headed into the big space with mugs of tea and a mallet! There was shelving to put together as well as the boxes and equipment to sort out.

Lets get it sorted ready to clean the Roman painted plaster

We were getting on great, the heaters seemed to warm the space efficiently, the shelving was going together well with the help of the mallet, when bang my archaeologists back decided it was time to make itself known! Rosemary carried on and finished the shelving, then we had to abandon the day. I always think that an archaeologist just starting out would be a great long term study for a medical student to monitor the wear and tear on the joints!

Mushroom boxes, the ideal finds washing drying racks

So, dear readers, you will have to wait a little longer to see if we find any different designs on the Chedworth roman painted plaster.

Views From Hardy’s Monument

Last week I looked out and back from Hardy Monument consideration of someone pivotal… now gone.


The view south from the Hardy Monument to Weymouth and the Isle of Portland

Hardy’s is high up. The highest point of the vast Bronze Age cemetery of the South Dorset Ridgeway.

Looking distantly down onto a field… now, with dogs gathering sheep… but then, where my caravan was.

A September Sunday afternoon. After the excavation…. ordering the artefacts.

I was leftover. The vibrant dig community gone. A row of bleached grass rectangles. Just the finds supervisor’s tent against the Loscombe Copse.. two fields away.. and the HQ caravan, a little out of sight, beside the barrow …and the lone tree.

HQ was full ..of vegetarian beans, pulses and CND posters ‘do not walk gently…..’ With the blackberries and hazelnuts.. enough to keep me for a while.

From my window, rural Dorset, and just the tinny sound of Terry Wogan leaking from a battered transistor. All that it could manage.

On the table, a plastic bag containing one of the cremations from the barrow.

Each had a gift for the dead. One had a bronze dagger, another a stone archer’s wrist guard. But what of this one? The director had asked me to separate the bone from the charcoal.

That was my job.. on an isolated peaceful Sunday afternoon.

Soon, my survey contract would begin… me and my bicycle, visiting, measuring, researching every Ridgeway barrow… but the winter-let flat and marriage were still 2 weeks away.

So… place the contents carefully on the table and gradually separate the black from the grey-white while listening to the hits of 82.

As the hours passed…the necklace emerged.

The National Trust archaeologists have been to Sutton Hoo. Angus showed us the new visitor access route. How to evoke the wonder of the place from a few low mounds.. ringed with modern distractions? To reveal the very roots of the English…in a nice way.


The NT Archaeologists on the site of the Sutton Hoo ship burial

What a story ! Local skilled archaeologist Basil Brown asked to excavate a mound…. on the utter brink of WWII. Britain’s Tutankhamun, emerging as the tempest clouds of war gathered. A sand long boat. The decayed planks carefully revealed as a beautiful and curving ridged mould, spaced with clinker nails. That long last peaceful summer…it never rained.

Amazing gifts for a king, gathered in Suffolk from across the known world. The find so great that Brown is edged out by the posh academics from the BM. A poignant photo in the cafe as he respectfully watches the experts at work.

We gather in the wood above the riverside. We imagine the 7th century long boat dragged to its final resting place. Was this Raedwald, Bretwalda, king of the Anglo-Saxon kings? His people gathered around him and the gifts and treasure bestowed in honour of his greatness. Memories and stories. The holy men guided the congregation from life to death and a life beyond his passing.

I stand at the stone tower and look back to the caravan… and beside me a large Bronze Age barrow. The highest of the 600 or so scattered along the ridge between Dorchester and Weymouth…from Abbotsbury to Poxwell.


The plundered burial mound beside the Hardy Monument.

Presumably, the tomb of one the greatest Dorset barrow men but truncated and burrowed into long ago. Its contents taken without record. like so many of the barrows at Sutton Hoo… except Mr Brown’s wonderful discovery…

and mine in 1982…the amber and shale.. hidden but then emerging from the charcoal. Lozenges and cones, with holes drilled for the long rotted thread.

As the sun passed to late afternoon, his mini-van bumps across the field to meet me. I wait to show him.

Years before, the newly graduated Weymouth students had followed him to the shores of Poole Harbour and spent the summer easing a Roman pottery workers’ settlement from the stubble. We got food poisoning…the motorbike got a flat. His back gave out… but we tenderly carried him on the finds table to the trench edge. A battle stretcher but with cheesecloth and loons.

On a road to Emmaus, at his requiem mass, we gathered to honour him and remembered.

Look around you.

‘There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend’

Lifting Flags at Philipp’s House, Dinton

This is our local National Trust mansion. A Neo-Grecian country house built in 1816. Just 20 minutes up the road from the office at Tisbury, Wiltshire. Set within a tree-studded park, a good place to walk at lunch time as the seasons turn.


Philipp’s House set on a south facing slope with the chalk escarpment behind. In the trees at the top of the hill to the left is the Iron Age hillfort Wick Ball Camp. The NT only owns the southern edge of its rampart which is the property boundary. The line of the ha-ha wall and ditch can just be seen as a grey line across the centre of the photo. The whole point of a ha-ha was to create a boundary that kept the stock out of the garden but remained hidden from view and preserve the landscape aesthetic.

It was built to the design of the fashionable architect Jefry Wyatville for the owner William Wyndham. Presumably because he was a little tired of his old fashioned 17th century pile and had some cash to splash.

It was known as Dinton House then because the house and park lie beside the village of Dinton but, in 1916, it was bought from the Wyndham family by Bertram Philipps and he renamed the place after himself.

He gave it to the National Trust in 1943, making sure that it was leased to the YWCA.. and for the next 50 years it was.


The fine sweeping lines of the Wyatville Neo-Grecian staircase in the hall at Philipps House. Flagstones being lifted.

It became empty in 1993, which was the first time I went there during its refurbishment. I watched a service trench being dug across the park. Nothing much came up, just a couple of prehistoric flints and a sherd of medieval pottery.

The present house is lovely and made of finely dressed local Chilmark stone.. but what happened to the old one?

There is a mid 18th century map that shows an avenue of trees leading to the old place, and this seemed to indicate that it lay further west.

Later in the 90s ..I marked the area out with grids and with the help of Simon and Mike, the countryside rangers, did a resistivity survey where I thought the old house might be. A beautiful spring day with the foliage of the copper beech resplendent around us  …but no luck, the computer plot showed the data as random patches of dark and light. More geological than archaeological.

Then they cleared out the sunken ha-ha ditch that fronts the house and took away the revetment stones before rebuilding them. Behind the ha-ha wall, in the buried soil, deep down below the front lawn..was building debris including 17th and 18th century brick.

Then..later.. in the library below the decoration .. reused limewashed bricks there… Tends to be the case that if you are taking down a house to build a new one it would be a shame to waste the old stuff.  You can hide it in the new structure without affecting the shiny modern glow of the new residence.


Below the floorboards of the 1690s Dyrham, a reused Tudor timber presumably salvaged from the old place. One of many hidden in the present house. Here you can see the cut chamfered upper edge of a sill beam two mortise holes to hold posts once fixed by pegs driven into holes drilled into the sides of the mortise sockets and along the top a grove into which the planks were placed between the posts.. to create a division between two rooms,  once part of the old Dyrham House.

Look below the floorboards of Dyrham House near Bath and there’s all sorts of old wood there. Bits of Tudor chamfered joists and beams and last time I looked in January, part of a plank and muntin screen re-used as a girder.

So always worth grabbing new opportunities to see beneath the skin of a place.

A few weeks ago, Emma told us that some of the entrance hall flagstones needed re-setting as they were getting uneven.. so we went over and saw what lay beneath.

Some had been lifted more recently than others and several were sand on top of soil but, at the foot of the great staircase we found stone and brick beneath the paving…beneath the sand.. remains of a wall.


The buried limestone blocks and flanked by brick walls in front of the staircase. Evidence of an earlier structure here.

At first we thought it might be part of the cellar structure but the plans show that the cellars don’t come this far.

Perhaps the old house lies beneath the new, perhaps parts of it were built on the old footings… Then Meg texted me a map dated 1800 she had discovered on the web site of the National Library. Much more accurate than the 18th century one and…. there is the old house just where the 1816 house would be built.

Problem solved. Now we need to find out more about the designed landscape around the mansion.

This new 1800 map shows some interesting details. The park is much bigger now than it was then and there are avenues leading to a structure on a hill beside the house…


The view out into the designed park. The ornamental lake lies top left in this picture. Again, on this photo the ha-ha line is only visible as the tops of fence posts across the centre of the picture.

One of the nice things about being an archaeological curator for the National Trust is to work long-term with staff, volunteers and other researchers to gradually unravel the stories of a place .. we all know.. beyond the scope of history there is only archaeology.

The glass find – first thoughts

The glass when first found

Now we have recovered from the digging and back filling of the trenches at Chedworth Roman Villa, we can start on the post excavation work and find out more about what we found. The star find this year was a small fragment of glass that Pete found in room 27. Having contacted the main specialist on roman glass and sent lots of photographs, an e-mail returned asking for a very detailed description of where it was found, as they had not seen anything exactly like it before in Britain. They needed to see it in the flesh and as luck would have it we were both attending the Roman Finds Groups conference so I took it along. After looking at it from all angles the verdict was that it needed to be shared wider, to roman glass specialists, roman archaeologists and roman finds people beyond Britain. The only possible comparable piece Jennifer had ever seen was from near Iran! The post excavation work is like excavating again, in that you never know what you will find out about the objects you have found, discovering the story never ends. Once again Chedworth villa produces something unusual, watch this space for more updates on this wonderful fragment of glass.

The lovely colourful glass