Excavating the CA Archive – Somerset Part II

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After last month’s rural rambles around the archaeology of central and south Somerset, I will now head north and east to consider urban concerns in and around Bristol, Bath, and their environs, then journey on to Frome in the south-east of the county.


At one point or another, virtually the entire history of Bristol has been explored in the pages of Current Archaeology, from its medieval origins to its later history as a port city with major links to the transatlantic slave industry, through to its 20th-century trials and tribulations. These complex histories have helped create the modern-day melting pot that makes Bristol such a vibrant community. The one surprise in all this is how long it took the magazine to pay a visit to the city. The first in-depth examination only came in CA 290 (May 2014), exploring the medieval settlement that flourished around the Dominican Friary on the site of what is now the Broadmead shopping area on the banks of the (hidden) River Frome to the north-east of the city centre, opposite the site of the castle. This area was, even by Bristol’s long history of counter-cultural connections, an unusual place from the start. Its archaeology shows repeated transformations as a neighbourhood: from one led by the Dominicans (one of the more socially radical of the monastic orders, both by the standards of the time and still to this day) in the medieval period, to the Quakers in the early modern era, and on into a diverse industrial community evolving across the 19th and 20th centuries until its post-war redevelopment and more recent 21st-century commercial reinterpretation.

CA 348 (March 2019) delved back into Bristol’s early medieval origins, thanks to a book published at this time entitled Bristol: an archaeological assessment. This demonstrated that large-scale planning in the 12th-13th centuries modified the local topography to such an extent that, in large part, it influenced all subsequent development of the city. For later periods, CA 305 (August 2015) then explored the wealth of late medieval hall houses that survive there, in which the deliberate use of archaic features from earlier centuries was a mark of pride and social status among the elites of the era. A quite different story of Bristol’s distinctive cultural history from more recent times then comes from CA 207 (January 2007). Here, the magazine explores the 18th-century industrial archaeology around Portwall Lane in Redcliffe in the south- east of the city centre. The works covered two-thirds of a 3,000 square metre area destined for redevelopment, representing an important piece in the history of Bristol’s industrial revolution. Such was their importance that the eventual design of the new building on this site was revised to enable the bulk of the archaeology to be preserved beneath carefully repositioned piles, a geo-textile membrane, and a layer of sand to warn future excavators of its significance.

A final and highly emotive part of the city’s history is then examined in CA 366 (September 2020), which visited the grave of Scipio Africanus, an enslaved teenager who died in the city in 1720 and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Henbury – a northern suburb of Bristol (and for many years part of Gloucestershire, the focus of next-month’s column). Sadly, his elaborate gravestone had been badly damaged by vandals (it is thought in response to the then-recent pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston during the Black Lives Matter protests), but a crowdfunding campaign set up by regular Current Archaeology contributor Richard Osgood raised more than £5,000 towards its restoration.

The entire history of Bristol has been covered by the magazine at some point. The city’s medieval origins were first explored in CA 290 and then again in CA 348, while the story of an enslaved teenager’s grave from the 18th century was highlighted in CA 366.

It will come as no surprise that the archaeology of Bath has featured regularly in the pages of CA. Encompassing an extraordinary array of sites and structures centred around the surviving, albeit much changed, Roman Baths themselves, this is one of the most famous historic locations in Britain and one of the top ten cities in terms of annual numbers of international visitors. Given its fame, the surprise about specifically Roman Bath is that it has featured regularly in snippets of notes and news, but only twice in detail: first in CA 10 (September 1968) and then not again until CA 249 (December 2010). On the first occasion, the visit was as part of a review of works across the city up to this point, led first by Ian Richmond in 1954-1964 and then by Barry Cunliffe from 1965 onwards; on the second occasion, the visit was made by Current Archaeology’s Editor-in-Chief Andrew Selkirk at the time of the reopening of the newly refurbished Roman Baths museum. What have the Romans ever done for us? Not enough in Bath, according to CA’s sparse coverage.

There is far more of the city’s later history in the magazine, though: for example, its splendid Saxon, medieval, and later abbey gets glorious coverage in CA 348 (March 2019), an article I would urge all readers to revisit – it is a reminder of just how special a site the abbey is (see also CA 394, January 2023). CA 366 (September 2020) then takes us from God to Mammon, visiting the stunningly well-preserved remains of a 17th-century Jacobean pub ceiling, studied by a Wessex Archaeology Project Archaeologist who had also been involved with the abbey excavations, demonstrating the remarkable architectural links between these two sites, and evidence of the master craftspeople at work across the city at this time. The later, Georgian history of the city is then explored in CA 271 (October 2012) and CA 363 (June 2020). The former digs deep beneath the city to explore the Combe Down mines, the source of the stone used to construct many of Bath’s fine buildings; the latter took the opportunity to visit excavations under way at this time along the city’s quaysides, which revealed the rapid highs and lows of the fast-developing city in a neighbourhood that went from high-class to red-light within a single lifetime. The most recent in-depth visit then came in CA 371 (February 2021), examining Bath’s 19th-century archaeology in the same area of Avon Street that had been examined in CA 363.

Before I leave Bath, it would be remiss of me not to flag one field trip worth making just outside the urban area: to Solsbury Hill, an Iron Age hillfort that lies to the north-east of the city centre. Made famous by Peter Gabriel’s 1977 song of the same name, the site, which is cared for by the National Trust, was visited by CA 292 (July 2014) at the time of its comprehensive resurvey by Bath and Camerton Archaeological Society (BACAS). To anyone unfamiliar with it, Solsbury Hill is – as Gabriel’s song suggests – a magical green place full of views, a perfect antidote to the urban excesses that it overlooks.

While Bath has had slightly less coverage than Bristol, CA 10 explored the famous Roman Baths, while CA 348 featured the city’s Saxon and medieval abbey, and CA 363 delved into its later, Georgian history.

For the final quarter of this column, I will head last of all to Frome, originally a bustling market town in the south-east of the county that in recent years has undergone a renaissance as a cultural and creative hub, with numerous shops and cafes, often housed in examples of its many fine listed buildings. In and around the town can be found some superb Roman and medieval sites, with a significant find from the former period including the famous Frome Roman hoard (the largest coin hoard found in Britain and the second largest Treasure hoard yet recorded); it featured in CA 246 (September 2010). I would also highlight Blacklands Roman villa, just to the south of the town, which appears in CA 201 (January 2006). And, for my personal pick of the medieval sites, I prompt you to open CA 148 (June 1996), which explored the remains of Witham’s Carthusian friary, a few miles to the south-west of Frome.

That, then, is it from Somerset. Next month I will head north into Gloucestershire, the last but one county on my archaeological pilgrimage around the British Isles, before heading east for a final reckoning in Wiltshire.

Joe Flatman

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on X: @joeflatman.

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