Solsbury Hill and the Bath Skyline

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night…. Peter Gabriel 1978

Solsbury Hill on the north-east side of the World Heritage City of Bath may be particularly famous for this song (if you’re a Peter Gabriel and Genesis fan) but my job this week has been to write about its archaeology.

The NT are commissioning new guide books and Brean Down and Bath Skyline are on the go at the moment.

This land does what it says in the property title. It occupies the skyline to south, east and north of the city and has been acquired bit by bit over the years. It enables the National Trust to buffer development on the high ground and conserve views to and from Bath.

The view from the front o Ralph Allen's 18th century Neo-classical house looking north-west across is designed parkland landscape towards the city of Bath. The palladian bridge over the lakes can be seen in the middle distance

The view from the front of Ralph Allen’s 18th century Neo-Classical house looking north-west across its designed parkland landscape towards the city of Bath. The palladian bridge over the lakes can be seen in the middle distance

Anyway here is the draft for the guidebook. This bit gives a bit of an overview..

In the minds of our ancestors, Bath would appear as a rare, wonderful and magical place where hot water issued from the ground.

No wonder the god of the spring required worship, and prehistoric objects including Iron Age coins were cast into the hot water long before the Romans arrived. After the Conquest, the Romans created a monumental shrine complex to worship the celtic god Sulis which was then partnered with the Roman god Minerva. This place became a site of pilgrimage from far and wide.

The surrounding landscape had light limestone soils and were a magnet for early farmers; ideal for early cultivation using the primitive ploughs of the time. When the Romans arrived, they saw the qualities of the easily worked local beds of Bath freestone. The Saxons were less inclined to build in stone but Bath boasts great stone buildings from the medieval period to the present day. In the mid 18th century, Ralph Allen recognised the qualities of Bath stone and marketed it by building the great house and designed landscape of Prior Park as his shop window.

View of Ralph Allan's great house looking south from the middle lake of the designed landscape.

View of Ralph Allen’s great house looking south from the middle lake of the designed landscape with the palladian bridge in the foreground.

He helped develop the Georgian city which gives the place its World Heritage Site Status today.

There’s a bit about Bushey Norwood which has the earthworks of a prehistoric farm and a bit on Bathwick and Rainbow Wood once part of the Bishop of Bath’s deer park where the remains of Roman buildings survive.

Bushey Norwood prehistoric field system looking south west towards Bath

Bushey Norwood prehistoric field system looking south-west towards Bath

The main bit is on Solsbury Hill….

This is a stunning location, an ideal place to build an Iron Age hillfort.

Many centuries later, its abandoned earthworks were adapted into a medieval strip farming system. These narrow fields were marked by mere stones, each engraved with an allotment holder’s initials.

People have visited this place for thousands of years: stray finds dating to the later Neolithic (2600-2300 BC) and Bronze Age (2300-700BC) demonstrate this; but the key feature is the 8 hectare (18 acre) hillfort, a defended settlement occupied over 2000 years ago. A visit to Solsbury Hill will help you appreciate its strategic position overlooking the Avon valley: a near level hill-top protected by steep slopes with clear views in all directions.

Two pieces of archaeological work: one very recent and the other over 50 years old, help us to imagine the lives of the families that once lived on Solsbury.

Excavations from 1955-1958 revealed that the hill-top was surrounded by a carefully constructed stone faced rampart with an entrance on the north-west side. Within this was evidence for the warrior farmer community which once occupied this place. Their homes were round houses, each constructed of a ring of timber posts infilled with mud and woven branches with a thatched conical roof.

In 2012, a geophysical survey of the interior by the Bath and Camerton Archaeological Society, revealed the sites of over 50 round houses. These homes and store buildings show up clearly on the survey plan because each was surrounded by a distinctive circular drainage ditch.

The 1950s digs showed that the earliest houses were built before the hill-top was defended. Then the first rampart was built and then pulled down… perhaps after an attack. Then another wall was constructed but this time associated with a new form of pottery.

Does this suggest invaders and if so what happened to the original Solsbury dwellers? But perhaps they never left; just bought some more fashionable pottery and rebuilt their defences (the marvelous vagueness of archaeological evidence).

The dig director was W.A. Dowden of the Bristol University Spelaeological Society. He looked at the cooking pot fragments found in his trenches and concluded that the fort settlement had been occupied in the middle Iron Age c.300BC and had been abandoned at least 100 years before the Roman army conquered the area c.AD44.

The excavation revealed the farm produce from the surrounding countryside: quern stones, once used to grind the harvested grain into flour and the meat bones of their grazing animals; domestic cattle and sheep.

A bridle bit demonstrated that the wealthier occupants rode horses; two decorated weaving combs were a reminder that clothing was made here and two spearheads and sling stones demonstrated that the inhabitants were armed and ready to defend their homes.

Solsbury Hill Iron Age hillfort looking south-west towards Bath. The earthworks of the medieval and later strip farming system can be seen as earthworks hiding the earlier round houses.

Solsbury Hill Iron Age hillfort looking south-west towards Bath. The earthworks of the medieval and later strip farming system can be seen as earthworks hiding the earlier round houses.

As you stand on the hill top, imagine it crowded with Iron Age round houses and people, then sweep them away and see the ridges of long strip fields with medieval farmers trudging up and down behind ox teams, ploughing the settlement ruins buried below.

It still needs some editing… but next time you go to Bath, visit the Skyline and enjoy the archaeology and views of the City.

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