The Quantock Hills of Somerset are justly famous for their natural heritage. In 1957 part of the area became the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England. However, as recently as 1997 a report by the AONB stated that "our understanding of how the cultural landscape within the Quantock Hills AONB has evolved is severely constrained by the absence of recent archaeological excavations or field surveys".
The Southern Quantock Archaeological Survey (SQAS) is a response to this lack of archaeological data. It investigates an area on the south side of the Quantock ridge that is both currently intensively cultivated and heavily used for recreational purposes. The project is a collaboration between the Department of Archaeology, University of Winchester and the Archaeology Group of Somerset County Council. It has comprised five years of fieldwork (2000, 2002-2005) and is currently in its post-excavation phase.
Initial work consisted of an examination of aerial photographs taken by Frances Griffith and Bill Horner of Devon County Council (on behalf of Somerset County Council) during the 1980's and 1990's. These revealed exactly 100 crop mark sites in the 14 x 5 km study area adopted by SQAS,none of which had been previously investigated and most of which appeared to comprise ring ditches, rectangular enclosures and linear features of probable later prehistoric and early historic date. Five sites of varied morphology were then selected for more detailed investigation: Stoneage Barton, Toulton (both investigated in 2000), Volis Hill (2002), Yarford (2003-2005) and Ivyton (2004-2005). In each case field fieldwork comprised a magnetometry survey (all of which can be downloaded by following the links in the right-hand side column) followed by open-area excavation.
The earliest archaeological evidence recorded by SQAS is Mesolithic and Neolithic flintwork from Stoneage Barton and Volis Hill. The latter site also contains a Beaker period pit, the earliest archaeological feature revealed by the survey. The Bronze Age is represented by ring ditches (barrows) at Ivyton and large sub-circular enclosures at Ivyton, Volis Hill and Stoneage Barton. These latter are too large to be barrows, while the interior of all three enclosures has been intensively eroded by ploughing so that no internal features survive. They are nevertheless most likely to be small farmsteads.
Further large sub-circular enclosures are associated with Iron Age activity at Toulton, Volis Hill, Ivyton and Yarford. In the case of the latter two sites the Iron Age ditches are 'V'-shaped and up to 2m in depth. These were probably much deeper originally, given the erosive impact of recent ploughing (see below), suggesting that construction was for defensive purposes. Evidence was found for roundhouses within the enclosures at Toulton and Ivyton, suggesting that these at least were small settlements, while pits filled with iron-working slag at Volis Hill suggest that this site is associated with metalworking.
Prior to the initiation of SQAS there were no Romano-British sites within our study area recorded on Somerset's Historic Environment Record. However, every site excavated by SQAS has produced evidence of activity in the 2nd to 4th centuries AD.
The most impressive site is undoubtedly Yarford, where a row-type late 3rd-century villa, complete with portico, mosaics and a possible bathhouse, was excavated during three field seasons. The villa seems to have succeeded a 2nd-century farmstead, although the presence of Samian ware and a penannular brooch suggests that people of high status might have occupied the latter.
Small Romano-British farmstead-type settlements were also found re-occupying Iron Age sites at Volis Hill and Toulton, a small Romano-British settlement was constructed adjacent to the Iron Age enclosure at Ivyton, and a new Romano-British settlement foundation was made at Stoneage Barton. Taken together, these data suggest that the southern side of the Quantock Hills was extensively exploited during the Romano-British period and that the unit of exploitation was the isolated farm rather than the village. The fact that only one Romano-British site is not associated with prior Iron Age activity suggests continuity of settlement and land use across the Iron Age/Romano-British transition.
In complete contrast to the intensity of activity throughout later prehistory and the Romano-British period is the almost complete absence of medieval and early post-medieval archaeological features or artefacts from the SQAS study area. This absence may be explained by the well known change towards a nucleated settlement pattern in the centuries immediately preceding the Norman Conquest. The implication is that medieval features and artefacts should be encountered in the present day villages or as 'halos' around those settlements. Nevertheless an important cemetery dated by radiocarbon to 595-675 cal. AD was found by SQAS at Stoneage Barton (Webster and Brunning 2004). This is the sub-Roman period, during which time this part of Somerset formed the British-Saxon 'frontier'.
The Recent Erosion of Archaeological Sites (REAS) Project
Between 2003 and 2005, an English Heritage-funded project (Recent Erosion of Archaeological Sites - REAS), which investigated the impact of ploughing on archaeological sites, ran alongside the archaeological surveys and excavations. REAS was undertaken jointly with Dr Andrew Tyler, Prof. Donald Davidson and Dr Ian Grieve of the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling. Its basis was a technique based on the measurement of caesium 137 concentration in soils from four of the five sites investigated by SQAS. Caesium 137 is a radioactive residue that is spread thinly across the world as a result of nuclear weapon testing, discharges from nuclear power stations and nuclear accidents. Low concentrations of caesium 137 in a soil, when compared to a control site where erosion is known not to have taken place, is indicative of soil loss at the sampled location, while high concentrations indicate sediment accumulation. Results from the REAS project suggest that average annual soil loss from above the SQAS sites ranges between 2 and 5mm each year, suggesting that ploughing is a major risk to archaeological sites in the Quantocks. To find out more about the REAS project and its findings, download the publication, Wilkinson et al. (2006), from the right-hand side column.
SQAS is currently deep into its post-excavation analytical phase of study. We anticipate the publication of the project in 2012.
We thank the following individuals and organisations for kindly giving us permission to work on their land: the Crown Estate, the Tetton Estate, Hugh Warmington, John Gill and Peter and Jane House.
Webster, C.J. and Brunning, R.A. (2004) A 7th-century AD cemetery at Stoneage Barton Farm, Bishop's Lydeard, Somerset and square-ditched burials in post-Roman Britain. Archaeological Journal 161, 54-81.
Wilkinson, K.N., Tyler, A., Davidson, D. and Grieve, I. (2006) Quantifying the threat to archaeological sites from the erosion of cultivated soil. Antiquity 80, 658-670.