Excavating the CA archive: Bryony and John Coles

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 4 October. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI344, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

In my archival ‘excavation’ of Doggerland (CA 342), I mentioned that it was Bryony Coles who coined the name of this site and led early research into its landscape, and that I planned to return to her work in a later column. Here I make good on my promise, for hers is a story well worth exploring. Beyond Doggerland, Bryony Coles is best known for her work on the Somerset Levels in the 1970s and 1980s. It was here that she and her collaborator (later husband) John Coles led many seasons of fieldwork on a range of prehistoric sites. In the process, they effectively invented the formal discipline of ‘wetland’ archaeology.


A comprehensive review of Bryony Orme (as she was then) and John Coles’ work in the Somerset Levels appeared in CA 38.

CA 38 (May 1973) first introduced the Coles’ work on the Somerset Levels with a comprehensive review of work undertaken under their leadership since John Coles’ initial forays from 1964 onwards. (Bryony Orme, as she was then, joined in 1971; an account of John’s solo work on the Abbot’s Way trackway came even earlier in CA 10, September 1968.) The article is an impressive survey of a range of work that makes the pair’s high standards and innovative approach clear from the outset. As CA explained, ‘the extraction of peat is a continuous process in the Levels, and leads to the discovery and eventual destruction of ancient remains, just like a motorway, but through the co-operation of the major [commercial] concerns… archaeologists have been able to investigate almost all of the prehistoric trackways and finds discovered during commercial operations. This co-operation is not mere silent, or sullen, willingness to let archaeologists work beside the machines; it involves the free loan of men and machinery, pumping away of ground water, and postponement of peat removal in some areas for up to three years. We venture to suggest that this is one of the better examples of industrial and archaeological liaison and joint interest.’ The latter part of the quotation (italicised, my emphasis) is understatement indeed: such commercial cooperation may be commonplace today, but in the early 1970s it was exceptionally unusual.

The Sweet Track strikes again, as it stars in CA 84’s article on public archaeology and the Somerset Levels Project.

The sites explored by the Coles at this time were focused around a series of 1st millennium BC trackways and other finds that later became known as the ‘Sweet Track’, named after its original discoverer, Ray Sweet. The article in CA 38 also demonstrates the Coles’ innovative approach, not only in terms of commercial partnerships but also the science, undertaking the extensive radiocarbon dating of sites at a time when this was not common practice. CA 38 and later CA 51 (July 1975) show that they were diligent in swiftly publishing their results too: CA 38 cites a recent paper in the Antiquaries Journal and CA 51 a self-published review of work on the Levels, offered for the very reasonable sum of £1.50 (around £12 in contemporary prices).

The Coles were back in CA 77 (May 1981), this time at Meare Iron Age lake village, which they investigated in 1979 when it became clear that the site was rapidly drying out due to local peat extraction. And CA 84 (October 1982) revealed another string to this team’s bow, with forays into ‘public’ archaeology through a reconstruction of the Abbot’s Way. The public were invited to walk along it and experience the pleasures – and muddy problems – of wetland archaeology.

CA interviewed Bryony and John Coles and Geoffrey Wainwright for the Wetlands Special Issue (CA 172), featuring excavation under way at the Somerset Levels on the cover.

Given all their hard work, it was only right that the Coles should be successful in the British Archaeological Awards that year, winning the annual book prize, as reported in CA 102 (November 1986). CA commented that ‘in [the book] Sweet Track to Glastonbury… the Coles offer a survey of the whole project; it is an ideal version of what such a book should be’. Having dug a copy out of the library, I can say that this is still true in 2018: it remains a great book – expert but absolutely accessible – over 30 years later, well worth (re)discovering. Three years later, CA 113 (February 1989) reported the Coles winning in the British Archaeological Awards once again – this time the Country Life Award for the best work by a professional team. This was also a fitting celebration of the formal end of the Somerset Levels Project, which was wound up in 1989 when commercial peat-digging ceased in the Levels and the remainder of the Sweet Track was declared a nature reserve (and, in sections, a scheduled monument too).

With the conclusion of work in Somerset, CA went quiet on the Coles’ work, although they were busy, writing up the results of their fieldwork as well as being involved in other projects. After more than a decade, the Somerset Levels and the Coles then came back with a (muddy) bang in CA 172 (February 2001), labelled a ‘Wetlands Special Issue’. By this time, CA was a full colour production, so the magazine is a feast for the senses with an all-star cast, including not only the Coles but also other CA favourites like Francis Pryor. The magazine’s wetland issue was the result of a special request from David Miles (at that time English Heritage’s Chief Archaeologist), timed to coincide with a conference on wetland landscapes held at the British Academy in February 2001. CA 172 includes interviews with both John and Bryony Coles, and also with Geoffrey Wainwright, who was an early supporter and crucially funder of wetland archaeology through his role at English Heritage. CA 172 is one of the truly ‘great’ issues of Current Archaeology in terms of its coverage, a fascinating snapshot of the social history of archaeology as well as a useful summary of the fieldwork undertaken in Somerset and elsewhere at this time.

In CA 210, Bryony shared
her work on the relationship between beavers and humans in
Britain’s past.

Bryony Coles’ most recent appearance came in CA 210 (July/August 2007), discussing the presence of beavers in the archaeological record. Mention of this topic is timely in mid-2018, given recent news of the reintroduction of beavers in England to assist wetland management. The Coles had identified, back in the 1970s, timbers on the Sweet Track that had unusual cut-marks, eventually discovering that these marks were made not by humans but by beavers. As CA reported, ‘this was the beginning of a research project that developed into a fascination with European beavers… taking John and Bryony to Canada, Poland, and France to study beavers in the wild, and to excavate and record recently abandoned beaver lodges for comparison with material found in the archaeological record’. The result was a fascinating book, Beavers in Britain’s Past, published in 2006. One can only hope that a copy of that book now sits with the appropriate authorities at the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, informing their management of our wetland landscapes in 2018 and beyond. And such environmental foresight and scientific diligence is surely a hallmark of the work of Bryony and John Coles, their legacies firmly in place within the extraordinary history of the Somerset Levels.


Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 4 October. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI344’

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