Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud.

Emerging new ideas about the Development of Bristol and its hinterland.

Report of a talk given by Bob Jones at the meeting of WANHS on 12 October 2010

Bob Jones, the City Archaeologist for Bristol, was our guest on the 12 October, in place of the hospitalized George Nash, to whom we wished a speedy recovery. Our programme secretary had once again excelled herself by engaging a speaker of such quality at short notice.

Bob chose to speak on the matter of mud, a substance not unfamiliar to Westonians, although Bob chose to focus on the Bristolian variety.

Bob’s archaeological career began in cold and wet conditions in Lincoln and it was there that the find of a medieval ship started his long appreciation of the value of mud. Its preservative qualities, particularly with regard to wooden and other organic objects, are what make it so exciting to the archaeologist.

Before discussing Bristol itself Bob reminded us of the interesting finds made in the mud up and down the Severn estuary. At Hallen Marsh in Avonmouth developments from 1988 onwards had revealed both Iron Age finds and some Bronze Age seasonal sites consisting of organic patches, burnt material and scatters of potsherds. A protective layer of desiccated alluvium had sealed the remains at one metre down.

Turning to Bristol Bob gave us a detailed account of the development of the City as it is currently understood and followed with a description of some of the major recent excavations and finds. A current English Heritage-funded project is looking at producing a summary of all the recent work in the City.

The name of Bristol, or Brigstowe, comes from the bridge over its principal river, the Avon, the present bridge being a nineteenth century construction overlying an eighteenth century predecessor, with the probable remains of a Saxon structure beneath that. The other river which was a vital feature in the development of Bristol was the Frome. Both have been significantly altered over the years to serve the needs of the inhabitants. The Frome, which originally joined the Avon a little way downstream from Bristol Bridge was first altered to form a tighter bend enclosing the castle area of the City, and then in the thirteenth century a new line of town walls was built and the river was changed to its present course along St. Augustine’s Reach, creating a major new harbour. This was a major engineering project for the time and represented a considerable investment, enabling Medieval and early Modern Bristol to establish itself as one of the busiest ports in the land.

Eventually, as ships grew in size, new facilities were required and the Floating Harbour was constructed. From the late nineteenth century the Frome was gradually culverted and built over, with the Centre finally being covered in 1938.

New industries had been steadily developing, including copper working, lead smelting and glassmaking, and their effluent added to the sewage draining into the river made it a pretty unwholesome place. The effect was exacerbated by the building in the early nineteenth century of the New Cut and the Floating Harbour which effectively reduced the natural scouring effect of the tide. Studies of the diatom populations in the mud show that the sewage/nutrient rich muds had caused a seven or eightfold increase in the microorganism count.

Turning to recent excavations, Bob showed how the extension of the river bank and reclamation of the muddy foreshore could be traced along the line of Redcliff Street. A succession of buildings and revetments had gradually been built out into the river mud, culminating in the splendid towered house of the wealthy fifteenth century merchant William Canynge. Successive muddy deposits had preserved old reused ship’s timbers, wattle fences and planks. It also yielded insights into contemporary diets in the shape of well-preserved finds of nuts, shells and other waste products. In a phrase which might have served as an alternative subtitle to his talk, Bob informed us that “there was a lot of cess around”. Evidence of riverside industries was also revealed, including dyeing, weaving, metal working and cutlery production.

Also on the south side of the river excavations had been carried out in the area of the old George’s Brewery, and Roger Leech of Southampton University was working on research for English Heritage into the medieval layout of street patterns and industries. This whole area was producing some very interesting evidence of late Saxon occupation, including a possible boundary ditch relating to a property intriguingly known as Arthur’s Acre. Finds had include a beautifully preserved wellhead made of two barrels set one on top of the other and a wooden bridge from a medieval stringed instrument known as a rebec.

In short the muddy deposits of Bristol’s tidal riverside location had greatly influenced the development of the city, dictating its economy and preserving earlier features for later generations to uncover. Indeed the history of Bristol is being pushed even further back by a new project which is conducting research into a deep investigation of the muddy blanket lying over the solid geology of the area. Glorious mud, indeed!

Further reading: Bob Jones recommends the ”New Pevsner” Guide to Bristol:

Bristol (Pevsner Architectural Guides: City Guides) by Andrew Foyle. Yale University Press 2004. ISBN 9780300104424

Also look out for Bob’s own book of walks round Bristol, a project he has promised himself for his retirement!

Peter Johnson

Xmas steps
Xmas steps