The Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) lies to the south of Bristol and covers a total of 198 sq km. The central feature of the Mendip Hills is the gently undulating Carboniferous Limestone plateau which rises to over 300m. The majority of the plateau is agriculturally improved pasture supporting scattered farmsteads, with compact villages located along the spring line below the steep escarpment slopes.
English Heritage, in partnership with the Mendip Hills AONB and the relevant local authority heritage teams, have recently embarked on a landscape-based research project aimed at enhancing our understanding of the historic environment of the AONB. The multi-disciplinary project involves various teams from within English Heritage, including Archaeological Survey and Investigation, Architectural Investigation and Aerial Survey, as well as external organisations and individuals.
Through better understanding, and the existence of accurate baseline data, it is hoped that informed and sustainable management of the historic landscape can be achieved.
The final year of fieldwork has now been completed with the stimulating and diverse archaeology of the Mendip Hills AONB continuing to surprise and delight. In a final push the team has recorded a wide variety of sites, ranging from Neolithic long barrows and henge monuments to post-medieval gardens of the gentry. In conjunction with a student from the University of Worcester, a large-scale survey was undertaken of Priddy Circle 1, the southernmost circle in a linear group of four henge monuments which run across the high plateau.
The henge is unusual as it comprises a bank and outer ditch, the bank standing up to 0.9m high and defining a circular enclosure 165m in diameter. The survey has highlighted the strikingly circular form of the monument which demonstrates a precise degree of planning and control in its construction.
A more conventional henge monument, located to the east of Hunters Lodge Inn, was also recorded over the winter. In contrast to Priddy Circle 1, this site is only 51m in diameter and is defined by a ditch and outer bank, the central platform accessed by way of a causeway on its northern side. The earthwork has suffered greatly from plough damage in the past but the new survey has confirmed its status as a Neolithic ceremonial monument.
While still dusted in snow, the team undertook a large-scale survey of Banwell Camp - completing our work on late prehistoric hillforts. In hillfort terms we evidently saved the best till last with Banwell Camp revealing several phases of construction and development.
The earliest phase is defined by a modest sub-circular enclosure encircling the summit of the hill, with a second linear earthwork (possibly a contemporary outwork) lying approximately 45m to its west. These features both sit within a substantial bank and ditch, the bank standing over 4m high along its northern side. The outer enclosure would appear to have originally had a single entrance through its eastern side, the entrance elaborated with a series of banks and ditches.
At the other end of the spectrum, a survey of Rowberrow Camp - a late prehistoric hill-slope enclosure - was carried out in early spring. The enclosure measure no more than 66m in diameter and was constructed on the side of an incredibly steep valley. A forestry track now bisects the site and string of mining pits also cut through its centre, destroying any evidence for internal activity. The site lies very close to Longbottom Camp, both sites displaying strikingly similar form and dimensions, raising interesting questions about their relationship and use.
Work undertaken in the later periods has concentrated on post-medieval farms and farming. A group of four deserted farm sites in Chewton Mendip were recorded with the help of a student from the University of Bristol and a local volunteer. The abandonment of these sites forms part of a much larger process of estate re-ordering which took place in the first half on the 19th century. During this period farms were amalgamated, farmhouses were demolished and new ‘improvement’ farms were created.
This process was not unique to Chewton Mendip however, and can be seen occurring to varying degrees across Mendip. A deserted farm site at Ellick, near Burrington Combe, also formed the focus of a large scale survey which revealed the farm once consisted of at least four buildings arranged around a yard. The dimensions of the structures would suggest the farm continued in occupation into the post-medieval period, though its exact date of abandonment is unknown.
Work has now begun to bring all this information together in an English Heritage publication which should be published in 2010/11. If you would like more information about this project please telephone Elaine Jamieson on (01392) 824901 or Mark Bowden on (01793) 414766. Email firstname.lastname@example.org