The Severn Estuary

Submerged forest c6000 BCThe University of Reading plays a leading role in field investigations in the intertidal zone of the Severn Estuary. The sedimentary framework has been established by Professor John Allen who, with Professor Michael Fulford, discovered extensive evidence for Romano-British drainage. Dr Martin Bell has conducted a survey of the prehistoric intertidal archaeology and has excavated Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements at Goldcliff and Redwick.

This research involves collaboration with a number of other universities and units under the umbrella of  The Severn Estuary Levels Research Committee which publishes an annual report on its activities.

Coastal erosion in this area exposes a complete sedimentary sequence of the last 10,000 years including former dry land, saltmarsh and peat bog environments. Within these sediment sequences is the richest coastal archaeological evidence yet located in Britain.

Early medieval fish trap at Redwick c 500 ADThe area provides exceptional preservation for waterlogged wood structures and a wide range of environmental evidence. Sites include a well preserved Mesolithic site, Iron Age and Bronze Age rectangular structures and roundhouses, trackways and fish traps of many periods. Footprints of people and animals provide a unique form of additional evidence. Activities attested include seasonal winter hunting of deer and pigs in the Mesolithic, ritual deposition of human skulls in the Bronze Age, spring and summer cattle husbandry in the Bronze and Iron Ages. In Romano-British and later periods the wetland was transformed to an agricultural landscape by drainage and sea defence construction.

Severn Estuary and Somerset Levels research update 2013-4

At the end of 2013 our book on The Bronze Age in the Severn Estuary was published by the Council for British Archaeology (Photo 1). It is available price £50 (plus 20% postage) from Central Books, 99 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN. This is the fourth monograph published on our longstanding research on the intertidal and coastal wetlands of the Severn Estuary. It includes reports on our excavation of a settlement of four middle Bronze Age rectangular buildings of seasonal animal herders at Redwick and on stream channels at Peterstone which contained wood structures and artefacts. Many Reading students have gained experience of working on these wetland sites over the years. The report includes studies of animal and human footprints, isotope evidence of animal husbandry and the vegetation history of the Severn Estuary region. These site reports are accompanied by a review of Bronze Age sites in the wider landscape which identifies how wetland and dryland sites were linked as part of an economy which included seasonal transhumance. arch-severnest-book

Discoveries continue to be made in the Severn Estuary. The intense storms in January and February 2014 mobilised mud which had obscured many areas of the foreshore in some areas for 20 years. The storms left clean peat surfaces with prehistoric wood structures clearly visible without any need for excavation. Finds included Mesolithic flints, bones and human footprints, a trackway which had previously been known only as a confusing jumble of wood was clearly revealed over a length of about 20m (Photo. 2), a group of wood stakes which may be the remains of a middle Bronze Age fishtrap and nearby a red deer antler (Photo 3). These latest discoveries, together with our current work on hunter-gatherers in the Somerset Levels (below) will feature in a popular book on the Prehistory of the Severn Estuary which Martin Bell is writing during 2014.

Hunter-gatherers in Somerset

The Somerset Levels have attracted a great deal of publicity over the winter 2014 because of the effects of severe flooding on this unique wetland environment. It is a landscape famous for its remarkable waterlogged archaeological sites of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age date. arch-severnest-antlerEarlier hunter-gatherer sites of the Mesolithic period were known, but had not generally been subject to detailed investigation. We are currently addressing this situation with a project on the environmental setting of Mesolithic hunter-gather sites on sandy islands of dry ground within the wetlands. Flint scatters have long been known on these islands, our project involves coring and the excavation of pits through peat at the island edge.

The project is being conducted for English Heritage, and is led by Reading University in partnership with colleagues at Somerset County Council, University of Winchester and the Natural History Museum, London. The project runs from April 2013 to December 2014. Our excavations have focused on three sites. At Shapwick there is a Mesolithic flint scatter very close to the southern terminal of the famous Sweet Track which was made at the very beginning of the Neolithic, so there are interesting issues here about how the landscape had been used previously. arch-severnest-chrisExcavations here in Summer 2013 revealed traces of Mesolithic activity on an old landsurface below peat. Within the peat there was a layer of beaver-gnawed wood (Photo 4). A second site at Chedzoy produced similar results with Mesolithic flints and bone in waterlogged sediments at the island edge. Our partner Dr Keith Wilkinson from Winchester University has been investigating the edge of an Island at Greylake where another flint scatter was known. Greylake is of particular interest because years ago the Greylake island produced both a flint scatter and some human skulls; these have recently been dated to the Mesolithic, leading to the identification of the only Mesolithic open cemetery in the British Isles. As part of the project, our partner Dr Tom Hill of the Natural History Museum has been looking at the environmental history of a peat sequence on Queen's Sedgemoor which extends back to the Mesolithic in a part of the Levels not previously investigated. Dr Richard Brunning of Somerset County Council has investigated the edges of several other sand islands in the Levels in a community project linked to this research and at several of these worked flints have been found. We are currently carrying out a dating programme on the sequences together with pollen analysis and the identification of plant remains and other environmental investigations. The project will produce information about the landscape setting and economy of sites only previously known in terms of flint scatters. It will identify a range of techniques which can be applied elsewhere, including on sites affected by building development, in order to investigate Mesolithic wetland edge sites. This will greatly enhance understanding of what has been the most neglected period in the archaeology of the British Isles. The final results of this project will be available at the end of 2014.

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