A new chronology for Glastonbury Lake Village

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Part of the 2014 excavations revealed a series of eight collapsed palisade lines at the southern edge of the settlement. CREDIT: South West Heritage Trust

A new robust set of radiocarbon dates from the Glastonbury Lake Village in Somerset has allowed researchers to establish a more-precise chronology for how the site was used during the Iron Age. As the settlement contains so many well-preserved finds from this period, it is hoped that this new information will help to provide a better timeline for similar artefacts found across Britain and Ireland.

Since the site was first discovered in 1892, various different chronologies have been posited for the lake village – which is made up of at least 40 roundhouses and associated unenclosed working areas. After the initial excavations by Arthur Bulleid and Harold St George Gray in 1896-1897 (see CA 27), it was thought that the site was in use from 100 BC to AD 50, but this date has been revised six more times over the intervening years, including in the 1990s, when a series of radiocarbon samples gave a date range of 792 BC to AD 145. But this was thought to be inconsistent with the artefactual evidence, which suggested a likely time span of c.250-50 BC.

A new dating project has now been led by researchers from Historic England, the South West Heritage Trust, and the three top radiocarbon laboratories in the UK – Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford, Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) in East Kilbride, and the 14CHRONO Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. It was made possible by another keyhole excavation conducted in 2014, which was funded by Historic England and was part of the Heritage Lottery-funded Landscape Partnership Scheme for the Avalon Marshes to help preserve the site and keep it from drying out.

One of this initiative’s trenches reopened an area where wooden material was known to have been deliberately reburied after the 19thcentury excavations. Ten samples were taken from this spot for dendrochronological analysis (five of which ended up being usable) along with six from previously undisturbed deposits. Samples for radiocarbon dating were taken from structures that are thought to reflect different rebuilding episodes, totalling 65 from 15 different building groups.

The dates were subjected to Bayesian statistical analysis, and the resulting models suggest that the settlement was probably established in the first half of the 2nd century cal BC and that the final constructions most likely took place around the middle of the 1st century cal BC. This would provide a total timespan of the settlement of 185 to 20 cal BC – an estimate quite close to the chronology based on artefacts from the site.

Overall, the settlement appears to have grown quickly, with the main phase of occupation perhaps lasting for around 70-80 years. After this period, there was a slow decline before building finally stopped around 160 years after it began. Such a short lifespan is not unexpected and is in keeping with other marsh-based settlements. The combination of waterlogged conditions and unsubstantial wooden structures meant that most roundhouses built on the site probably did not last more than ten years before having to be rebuilt.

The full results of this project were recently published in Antiquity journal and can be read for free at https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.167. Artefacts from the lake village can be seen in the Museum of Somerset in Taunton.

This news article appears in issue 371 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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