Hunters to Heroes
The history of any county might properly begin with its formation as a shire, but people have lived in what later came to be Somerset perhaps for 240,000 years, and have left behind them hand axes as evidence of their craftsmanship and industry. Man, hunting reindeer, horse, bison and smaller animals and birds in the tundra of the high Mendips, the scrub of the lower slopes and the sedge of the valleys, used caves at Cheddar and Burrington for shelter, occupying some of them regularly and others but rarely, places to live and places to bury their dead.
After the end of the last Ice Age mixed oak forests covered much of the countryside except the exposed higher ground of the Mendips, Exmoor, and the Quantocks, where open woodland and scrub could survive. The rising sea level during the 7th millennium B.C. caused much of the Levels to be waterlogged, creating areas of reed fen in the valley floors, with salt marsh and extensive mudflats on the seaward end of the valleys. The hunter could have rich pickings in these differing environments. Deer, wild cattle, wild pig, and smaller game were to be found in the forests, with deer in summer browsing in the open hill country. The Levels were rich in wildfowl, notably swans and various kinds of duck, and fish such as trout, roach, pike, and perhaps salmon. Edible plants, berries and fruit could be found in the drier areas.
People moved around the countryside according to the seasons, summer probably being spent on the highest ground. In consequence camp sites were always temporary, often found today by the discovery of concentrations of small flint points and barbs of arrows, all that remain of the bows and arrows, wooden spears and traps which must have been their basic weapons. Flint knives and scrapers are also found, relics of the preparation of animal skins for clothing, and working in wood and bone. The flints themselves, coming from north Devon, south Somerset and Wiltshire, are evidence of the range of their trading contacts.
Flint arrowheads, flint and stone axes and pottery, capable of a wide variety of uses, and sometimes originating from as far afield as the Lake District and Cornwall, indicate the gradual development of a greater sophistication of life. Mendip has so far produced most traces of Neolithic man, and some of his pottery may well have been made in east Somerset and exported to Wiltshire. Flint scrapers suggest a number of sites, but few have been excavated. Those certainly identified include South Cadbury, the area now under the Chew Valley lake, a spot beside the springs at Wells, and several of the Mendip caves. Burials are more easily recognised, the chambered long barrows mostly in the north-east of the county, of which the best preserved is at Stoney Littleton. Two other remarkable features of Neolithic life are the stone circles at Stanton Drew, four ‘henge’ monuments known as the Priddy Circle, and a more modest ‘henge’ monument at Gorsey Bigbury, all presumably involving some kind of religious ritual.
The second feature, nothing short of a major engineering enterprise, showed that Neolithic man was a practical planner and craftsman, and Somerset can claim the densest concentration of his surviving work. Farmers, succeeding the ever-moving hunters and gatherers, settled on the slopes of the Poldens above the swampy Levels, cleared the land, reared cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, cultivated cereals and exploited the riches of the marshes. The exploitation was made possible by the construction of wooden trackways to cross the swamp. The earliest known track in Europe, if not in the world, is the Sweet Track, dating from c. 4000 B.C. which linked the Poldens with the island of Westhay. It was built of ash, oak and hazel poles, felled on the slopes with fire and stone axes, pegged in place with hazel, holly, alder, ash, and elm, and reinforced with blocks of peat and bunches of reed, together forming the base for a planked walkway. Tools and weapons found beside its route attest to its regular use, and its survival is due to the water which finally overwhelmed it.
The later trackways of the Levels changed with changing conditions. By 3600 B.C. the swamps had become shallower and birch and alder thickets dominated the scene. Hunters could move about between the shallow pools, needing much less substantial tracks. One hunter at this time left his weapon, the oldest English longbow yet discovered. Well before 3000 B.C., however, the landscape was again altered by increased flooding due to higher rainfall and by the development of the raised peat bog. Man’s technology proved equal to the task, for he laid on the treacherous marsh a network of trackways, like the one found on Walton Heath, to provide a wide and strong passage for the movement of both men and cattle. Some of these trackways were built of hurdles, themselves the product of woodland management of coppiced hazel, and were made in exactly the same way as hurdles are made today.
Between 2000 B.C. and 650 B.C. the countryside was occupied by a people who used finer pottery than their predecessors, occupied river valleys, hill-top sites, and Mendip caves, and buried their dead in round barrows found in great numbers on the Mendips, the Quantocks, the Brendons and Exmoor. They continued to use flint and stone for their barbed and tangled arrowheads, daggers, scrapers, and axe hammers, perhaps importing polished axeheads from Wales, but they also introduced fine weapons and jewellery in bronze and occasionally in gold. Bronze axes, spearheads and daggers have been found beside ornamental torcs, bracelets and decorative pins. A hoard from Stogursey even contained scrap metal presumably on its way for re-casting. The hoard found at Norton Fitzwarren was within a defended enclosure which seems to have been an important focal point in the distribution of certain types of pottery and metal objects, and thus a place of some significance in the social and economic pattern of a wide area. Modern research, analysing the remains of the Bronze Age as never before, is suggesting the development of defined social strata, of farmers cultivating the river valleys, and of socially superior classes occupying and perhaps defending sites like Ham Hill and South Cadbury.
As bronze technology gave place to iron from c. 650 B.C., the picture of widespread farming, the exploitation of the Levels, and the re-occupation of the Mendip caves is broadened by the increase in bill-top settlement. Somerset’s particular contribution to this development are the so-called ‘lake villages’ of Meare and Glastonbury, the open settlements of Pagans Hill and Butcombe, and the great hillforts of South Cadbury, Brean Down, Little Solsbury, and, in the west, probably Norton Fitzwarren.
The settlements of Meare and Glastonbury, at the marshy edges of the peat bog, were peopled by farmers who grazed cattle and sheep, went hunting, fowling and fishing, and were skilled in working natural materials, bronze, iron, and glass. They clearly enjoyed something better than a purely subsistence economy, for they left behind them amber, shale and glass beads, shale bracelets, and rings and brooches of bronze. The Roman invasion was not the abrupt arrival of an alien culture, but the culmination of a movement which had brought increasing sophistication to society. The hillforts probably formed foci in a regional sense, possibly acting as centres for trade and administration within a tribal framework, in which Somerset was divided between the territories of the Dumnonii in the west, the Durotriges in the centre and south, and the Dobunni in the north and east. By the time the Romans came in A.D. 43 the Dobunni seem to have abandoned hillforts in favour of sites on trade routes, but the Durotriges still defended Cadbury and Ham Hill, and their resistance to Roman domination was based on the old hillforts: the massacre at South Cadbury took place at the time of the revolt of Boudicca against Nero in eastern England in A.D. 60-61.
In terms of chronology the rule of Rome was short, and scholars are now beginning to question how radical were the changes which Roman civilisation brought to the people of Somerset. Trade in Mendip, lead had brought links with the Mediterranean world since the 1st century B.C. The Fosse Way, in contrast, was an .innovation. It cut through the countryside by A.D. 49 with a chain of military forts probably at Bath, Camerton, Shepton Mallet, certainly at Ilchester, with outstations at Charterhouse on Mendip and at Wiveliscombe, and temporary garrisons at the old Durotrigian centres of South Cadbury and Ham Hill, either to demolish their defences or neutralise the threat they posed. Here was a statement of conquest.
The villa-farms so common in the rich valley of the Yeo around llchester also represent a new development, a new style of exploitation of the land, while the farming villages at Catsgore or Butcombe have more of the appearance of tradition. But the old ideas of villas as the homes of Gallic emigre’ landlords has been challenged. Enough is now known of both villas and farming hamlets and farmsteads like Butcombe to suggest the social organisation of their inhabitants. Hamlet and farmstead were the home of the kindred or extended family, like the Glastonbury ‘lake village’ of previous generations. Villas like those at Brislington, Littleton, Montacute, Pitney, Wadeford, and Wellow, and farmsteads like Bradley Hill suggest the continuation of a traditional joint proprietorship.
There was obvious continuity in farming, for the land and the climate were constants, the farms and villas around Ilchester producing cattle, with sheep on the higher ground around Somerton. The intensity of lead exploitation, the protection of the coastal plains from flooding and urban settlements were innovations. The amphitheatre at Charter-house, the only one in the county, is enough to indicate the importance of Mendip lead to the Roman world; the Roman farms on the formerly flooded land at Edingworth, Wemberham, and in the Upper Axe valley point clearly enough to the skill with which Roman engineers grappled with large-scale projects throughout the Empire.
Ports at Combwich and Crandon Bridge, and centres of trade like Camerton are further evidence of Somerset as part of a wider world, but the great curative centre at Bath, with its temple of Sul-Minerva, and the temple sites at South Cadbury, Pagans Hill, Lamyatt, and Brean Down show that native religion continued under a Roman veneer. Bath now attracted visitors from distant parts of the Empire seeking relief from the healing properties of its waters. Roman Ilchester, Lindinis, on the other hand, seems to have been entirely new, planted at a strategic road junction in the rich plain of the Yeo and later serving as a regional capital for the Durotriges in a political and commercial sense.
Continuity is now the theme of much archaeological research. Urban lichester perhaps lasted until the late 5th century if the Byzantine coins and pottery found there are sufficient indication, and its still unexplored cemetery may yet yield evidence of the earliest traces of Christianity in Somerset. Elsewhere there are signs of much earlier contraction, more easily explained in terms of population decline for reasons of plague and economic decline than the convenient withdrawal of Roman troops and the collapse of political systems. Archaeologists are looking to the revival of South Cadbury in the 5th and 6th centuries as a possible model for a return to a pre-Roman social and political pattern.
From the 16th century South Cadbury had other claims, and four centuries and more of tradition have established it as the Camelot of Arthurian Legend. Imported pottery from the eastern Meditteranean, North Africa, and southern France, and other signs of notable sophistication found at South Cadbury, Cadbury-Congresbury, and Glastonbury Tor in 5th- and 6th-century contexts, are seen by many as witness to the presence of Arthur, the dux bellorum, the greatest military hero the country had ever known. His last and greatest victory at Mount Badon, if not at Badbury Rings in Dorset, then at Bath and Little Solsbury, saved the Christian British of the south-west from the advancing pagan English and drove them back to occupy only a minor part of the country. Successor in the late 5th century to Ambrosius Aurelianus as military leader of the small British kingdoms which emerged from Roman Britain, Arthur is seen beyond the romantic legends of medieval England as a leader, even an emperor, whose exploits restored most of Britain to just Christian government. The rapid collapse of his ’empire’ after his death could not detract from the memory of a golden age.
Somerset’s place in the Arthur story is not entirely the product of a later age; the archaeological evidence from Glastonbury Tor fits with the tradition that it was the stronghold of Melwas, king of Somerset, who abducted Guinevere and kept Arthur at bay. The later claims of the monks of Glastonbury to possession of the mortal remains of Arthur and his queen are hardly compatible with the high romance of his passing, even if their commercial value was of the utmost significance in the rebuilding of the abbey. Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur, mortally wounded at Camlann, taken to the Isle of Avalon ‘so that his wounds might be attended to’. Sir Thomas Malory has a different tale, of Bedivere carrying the dying king to a barge at the seaside, which carried him away. Tennyson, with Bedivere, saw
the speck that bore the king
Down that long water opening on the deep,
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
Surviving Celtic place-names and church dedications may indicate, as does the Arthur tradition, the survival of native Christian culture. As yet there are barely discernible signs of Christianity in Roman Somerset, with the possible exception of an inscription at Bath which could allude to a Temple-wrecking incident there by local christians in the 4th century. Christian burials in a previously pagan cemetery at Cannington, deliberately arranged around the body of a youth, is suggestive of more than a remote survival in the post-Roman period. So, too, is the Caratacus stone on Winsford Hill, its Latin inscription, CARATACI NEPUS, indicating both literacy and Christianity. The stone, dating perhaps to the 5th or 6th century, records one who in his generation was proud to recall that he was a descendant, in blood or in spirit, of that Caratacus who, fighting against the Roman invader, had been a hero among his people.