Ongoing excavations at Chewton Mendip
Report of a talk given by Pip Osborne on
Tuesday 12 February 2013
Pip's work on Mendip is becoming increasingly well known. Last year we heard the intriguing story of Green Ore (see Natural History report)and this year Pip reported on her excavations at Chewton Mendip, which are still ongoing. The context is medieval and Pip treated us to a clear exposition of the issues involved.
Chewton Mendip is a very large parish with a long history and where grazing was important in medieval times. Originally the trackways traversing the village were widely spaced to accommodate the droving of livestock but over time they became less used. This can be seen in the nineteenth century OS map which reveals cottages grown up on the verges.
The church is an enigma and has been much altered with some Norman features that appear to have been added to a later structure.
At Domesday Chewton Mendip was a large secular manor with a sizeable population, 5 mills and 800 sheep. The Lord's demesne consisted of 18 hides, the villagers having 11 hides cultivated jointly in open fields. The Church held l/2 hrde. Pip reminded us that the hide was not strictly a measure of land but rather a taxable unit. It is known that there was a church there in Saxon times as it is stated in Domesday. Furthermore it is known to have been attached to the Benedictine Abbey of Jumieges in France. A Charter of Henry the Second dated 1172 confirms their ownership. It also confirms their responsibility for 6 chapels in the surrounding area. The present church incorporates no Saxon feahres, which poses the question of where the Saxon church was located. The site might lie directly beneath the present church or it may lie elsewhere. In which case one could be looking for either a stone- or timber built building. It is also likely that there would have been other Buildings associated with the church. Taking the argument a step fudher Pip suggested that Chewton Mendip was very likely to have been a minster.Citing John Blair, a leading authority on Saxon minsters, she spelled out the four typical characteristics of a minster: that it served a defined area, that it was associated with a royal estate, that it was located by a river or spring and that it had a precinct boundary Chewton Mendip is clearly defined in Domesday as being held by the King and it is located close to the source of the River Chew. Careful study of historic maps and current field boundaries and building alignments reveals that the church is located in the middle of a circular feature.
With plenty of questions to answer and theories to test out Pip was fortunate in being able to gain access to a privately-held field just north of the church, and within the "precinct". Geophysics revealed linear features suggestive of a building line and permission was given to dig.
The first tench revealed a massive old wall and a fine cobbled surface. A second tench produced further substantial wall forming the southwest corner of a building. More cobbles appeared, this time including a section carefully laid to form a splayed effect round the comer of the building. Finds included a horseshoe of Norman design and a fine copper-alloy dress pin with a distinctive design of similar date. More trenches were dug and all yielded finds of pottery, mostly dating to
the l3th and 14th centuries and of somewhat crude design. Pip made special mention of two items: an eleventh century tripod pitcher and a thirteenth century glazed jug of Bristol ware. The significance of these was that they strongly suggested habitation rather than just casual cooking So far no finds of Saxon date have been made but it seems certain that
there would have been Saxon occupation. Perhaps successive re-buildings by the priests of Jumieges obliterated the earlier work. More work at Chewton Mendip is planned for this year. We hope Pip finds her evidence and look forward to hearing about the laGst developments.
To find out more it is worth visiting the website of Pip's group CAMP(Community Archaeology on the Mendip Plateau) at
www.camplat.btck.co.uk. (see link below)
Pip's recommendation for further reading about Saxon minsters is
John Blair's "The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society"