10th February 2015

M5 Archaeology

Chris Richards has a detailed knowledge of the local area acquired over years of constant enquiry and exploration. In this talk he took us back some 45 years to the building of the M5, when he had been an enterprising young volunteer on the archaeological work associated with the construction.

Under the direction of Professor Peter Fowler, the route was divided into sections. The one that Chris was involved with ran from St Georges to the River Axe. This was further subdivided into four (sections 8 to 11): St Georges to Wolvershill Manor; then on to Hillend; from Hillend to the Lox Yeo River; and finally down to the River Axe.

The agreement was to carry out an archaeological survey along a corridor a quarter of a mile wide following the length of the motorway. In places with the co-operation of the developers this was extended to half a mile.

Section 8 included Banwell Moor, where there are a number of standing stones, all unexplained. One of these was the subject of a legend that it had been set up "years ago" to commemorate two ploughmen who had been struck by lightning and killed. In 1969 this stone and the surrounding area were fully excavated. Nothing of archaeological interest was found so the legend could well be true!

In Section 9 the M5 cut through the Mendip ridge dramatically exposing the geology. Mendip is composed of a kaleidoscope of sedimentary rocks: marls red green and gray, black shale and blue lias. The latter is commonly used throughout large parts of Somerset as a building stone.

The settlement of Hillend was associated with the RAF and, though much of it has now gone, a little is left in the form of a somewhat truncated industrial estate. But its history is rather older. It was known as Panteshead in medieval times and Romano-British pottery has been found there.

On the other side of what was to be the motorway Flagstaff Hill was surveyed. This revealed medieval strip lynchets overlying earlier square field systems. The lynchets are still clearly visible as you drive south down the motorway. Other earthworks in this area included possible animal enclosures, a possible Bronze Age barrow and the small Iron Age Hillfort known as Tinkers Batch.

Perhaps the most exciting site of all was the Iron Age settlement near Christon known as Dibble's Farm. On a footpath leading from Christon to Banwell a deep trench had been dug and was reported to the archaeological team. This was an opportunity not to be missed and Chris went in to explore. What he found was a number of deep pits that had been revealed in section by the cutting of the trench. The contractor was very co-operative and a thorough excavation of the area ensued.

The surface was scraped and a total of 67 pits were revealed. They were considered to be similar in design and function to the celebrated examples on Worlebury. The contents were fascinating and included a total of 21 human skeletons. One, the "Running Lady", was in fact a crouched burial and had almost certainly been bound. A man with an iron armlet still in place had just been thrown in. Another man was buried with a dog. Unlike those found on Worlebury none of the bones found showed signs of violence, but Chris reminded us that this does not totally rule out a violent cause of death.

No evidence of roundhouses was found at the site, but the numerous postholes suggested that there might have been stockades.

After some three months of excavation the site was completely destroyed by the construction work, the finds having all been lifted and taken to Weston Museum, where many of them have been on display.

Not only is the site now lost, but so it seems are all the log books and other records, though fortunately it has been fully written up and published in SANHS Proceedings 132, 1988 by Elaine Morris.

Chris's elegy for the lost world of the Lox Yeo Valley was well portrayed in a photo of the valley that included a derelict ox house. Although its original purpose had been outlived it still offered shelter to occasional livestock. It lay by a small stream at the end of a hollow way leading nowhere and had probably served this purpose for centuries. Surveyed and recorded by Russell Clarke the site now lies directly beneath the motorway.

As a bonus Chris briefly discussed sites outside the area where he had been working. Going north, there was the famous coin hoard at Clapton-in-Gordano and at Tickenham a Bronze Age round barrow which, when excavated, revealed a burial with a later burial intruding on it.

Going south, at Bawdrip just north of Bridgwater was a site which caused much public interest. Ten large Romano-British buildings were excavated, aligned north to south. Believed to be warehouses they were probably evidence of quite a large settlement. However, time to investigate was severely limited and, like so much else of interest, soon disappeared beneath the advancing motorway.

Many of the speakers we enjoy at WANHS are noteworthy for their enthusiasm. Few have as great a gift as Chris for sharing their personal involvement in their subject.

Peter Johnson