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Last updated: Tue 21 Jan 2014

The mystery of Green Pits Lane

A field on which Barratt Homes hopes to build up to 100 new homes could reveal secrets of Nunney’s past.

circle1

A mysterious circle can be seen at the top left of the Green Pits Lane site

Barratt Homes submitted an application for outline planning permission to Mendip District Council‘s planning officers that consisted of 25 documents.

These reports show that there could be traces of a long barrow or roundhouse on the site between Glebelands and Green Pits Lane.

The desk-based archaeological survey dismisses the field as of moderate interest. It completely misses the point a number of times and seems to have been thrown together in a hurry.

Roman coins

It refers to Roman pot shards found at Westdown Farm, at the far end of Horn Street, as a sign of a possible Roman villa. But it fails to mention that a pot containing 250 Roman coins was found on the same site in 1860, in just six inches to a foot of clay – similar to the depth of clay at Green Pits Lane.

coin

One of the Roman coins found in Nunney as recently as 2010

The archaeological report does not mention either the Roman villa found at Whatley in 1837 (now within the Nunney parish borders), traces of a Roman army camp found in Nunney or Roman coins discovered in Nunney with a metal detector as recent as 2010.

The latter are on listed on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database and hard to miss for anyone doing serious desk-based research into local archaeology.

As no exact location is given on the database for where in Nunney these coins where found, it may well have been in this particular field for all we know. But the report is adamant: “Based on the current evidence a low archaeological potential is considered to exist for the Roman period at the site.”

The bodies under the patio

Geological survey

Geological survey map of the Glebelands / Green Pits Lane site (click to enlarge)

A number of undated burials were discovered during the construction of the Fromefield and Glebelands housing estates, immediately to the north of the site. The discovery was made during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The skeletons are recorded as being ‘immediately replaced’ and no report was made.

In other words, the bodies are still under the patio as far as Fromefield and Glebelands are concerned. There could be more human remains on the proposed building site, the report concludes. If there are, we may find out when the burials took place.

It was said at the time that ‘older persons’ in the village knew this area as the site of a battle. There is no archaeological or documented evidence to support this. The only recorded battle in or around Nunney is the surrender of Nunney Castle (September 1645) during the Civil War without loss of life.

Basically, because no one has seriously investigated the site and there is no visible history (such as, say, a moated castle), the conclusion is that there is hardly any chance of finding something of interest at Glebelands / Green Pits Lane:

“Based on the lack of archaeological evidence a very limited potential is identified for remains of the Saxon period to be present at the site. Evidence for the medieval period in the surrounding area appears to be mainly related to the castle, and the organisation of the surrounding rural landscape which has produced little artefactual evidence. Accordingly a low potential is identified for the medieval period at the site where, if present, remains are likely to comprise evidence of agricultural activity of land division and drainage.”

In other words, there could be some medieval ploughing patterns or ditches. If you think Nunney’s medieval archeology begins and ends with Nunney Castle, think again. Some of our heritage is right under our feet, showing up as medieval ditches and earthworks in aerial photography.

Archeologists have identified possible medieval fields, cattle settlements and water meadows that were part of an agricultural system in and around Nunney.

Ploughing patterns

Historical ploughing patterns and boundaries found in Nunney

Such patterns and ditches can still be found all over Nunney from medieval, Roman and even pre-Roman times but only where no one else has ploughed since. Clearly the Green Pits Lane site has been intensively cultivated for centuries.

The report concludes: “The site is considered to have a moderate archaeological potential for as yet to be discovered undated evidence which could comprise human remains. For all the general archaeological periods the site is considered to have a low archaeological potential for further as yet to be discovered below ground archaeological assets. Based on current evidence if any remains are present at the site, they would be considered of no more than local significance.”

Local significance would do nicely, in our view, thank you.

Roundhouse

Iron Age roundhouse

Could the Glebelands site yield traces of an Iron Age roundhouse?

The desk-based archaeological survey does recommend conducting a geological survey of the field. This geological survey, conducted by Wessex Archaeology, is also part of the 25 documents submitted by Barratt Homes.

It tells a very different story, potentially.

Using specialist equipment the team was able to map any traces of possible archaeological interest left in the field. Obviously, there are still many stones in the ground. Until the middle of the 19th century there were limestone quarries at Green Pits Lane that provided stone for the road from Nunney to Frome.

Clusters of stones in the ground could indicate where a hole in the ground gradually filled with stones. Such a hole could be left behind after a wooden post rots away.

Archaeologists focus mainly on patterns to find traces of former occupation. Even a line of former posts could, of course, just be an old field boundary.

But one particular area near Glebelands grabbed the attention of the team conducting the geological survey. Towards the north side of the field a semi-circular pattern is visible.

According to the report: “It is around 9 metres in diameter, making it consistent a small barrow or roundhouse with an apparent break towards the southeastern quadrant; its interrupted form makes the interpretation less conclusive however.”

Iron Age roundhouse

Reconstruction of an Iron Age roundhouse

In other words, it’s not a full circle. As the report says, the idea that this could have been a small barrow (burial mound) or roundhouse (Iron Age settlement) is mainly based on its shape. “There is no clear evidence for an enclosure or other associated archaeological features,” the report adds.

The location of the semi-circle is roughly consistent with where the skeletons were found just further on when the estate was built. There is no evidence (yet?) that the two are linked, and the equipment is not normally able to show whether further burials are still in the ground.

Steve Membery, Historic Environment Officer, was one of the experts asked by Mendip’s planning officers to comment on Barratt Homes’ outline planning application.

barrow

The site could be a lost barrow or burial mount, similar to this one in Hampshire

He points out further research is needed to avoid a site of potential archaeological interest being destroyed forever by construction.

“The proposal is likely to impact on a heritage asset and most likely human remains. However, without trial trenching it is not possible to assess the significance of these archaeological remains or the impacts of the development on them as required by the National Planning Policy Framework (para 128).”

He calls for trial trenches to be dug on the locations spotted by the geological survey to try and establish whether there are further bodies or a possible barrow or roundhouse.

Trackways

trackwayWe know very little about who lived in the Nunney valley before the Saxons. The whole valley was a swamp and forest, difficult to penetrate. People lived on the higher ground, in fortified settlements on wind-swept hills.

They had to trade with other settlements, because they didn’t have everything they needed. A network of primitive roads was created to connect the settlements.

Before Nunney became a village, there were several important roads – or trackways – that crossed each other just nearby. You can still recognise their routes now when you look at a map. Some of these roads were not much more than lots of large pieces of wood across the swamp.

The hamlet of Ridgeway, on the edge of Nunney, was one of these trackways, which came down from the direction of Frome, left Nunney to the north and ran towards Wanstrow and on to Bruton. It was already described as “the olden wei” (‘the old road’) in a Saxon charter written more than 1,000 years ago.

Green Pits Lane

Barratt Homes plans to build up to 100 houses on this field near Glebelands and Green Pits Lane

Another road, later repaved by the Romans, came up from the south-east, crossed the Ridgeway in Cloford and continued to the Mendip lead mines.

During the Bronze Age and Iron Age there were Celtic invasions from the Continent. The last of these was that of the Brytonic Celts – or Britons – around the time of the Roman invasion in 43 AD. They were farmers and traders. Some of them may have settled along the Ridgeway, although we don’t really know.

The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD and headed straight for the lead mines of the Mendips. Although there are many signs that they settled in Somerset, surprisingly few Roman buildings have actually been found. A Roman villa was found in 1837 at Whatley, just inside the modern boundary of the parish of Nunney.

Anglo-Saxon Nunney

Anglo Saxon NunneyAfter the Romans left in the 5th century, there was only a short interval before the first of the Saxon invasions. The West Saxons gained an important victory in the battle of Bradford on Avon in 652, followed in 658 by another important victory for the Saxon King Cenwealh over the Britons. The result of these victories was that a large area around Frome was now safe for peaceful settlements.

In 688 Ine became the Saxon King of Wessex. He was keen to live in peace with the native Britons. His great friend and adviser was the Abbott of Malmesbury and later fi rst Bishop of Sherborne credited as the founder of Frome – St Aldhelm.

We think that this is roughly the time that Nunney first became a little settlement. The Saxons began to the clear the dense forest that was still around on all sides. They married into native families and later accepted Christianity.

Many of the settlements around Frome have names derived from the names of people:

Beckington – the ‘tun’ or settlement of Becca’s people
Lullington – the tun of Lulla and his people
Babington – the tun of Babba and his people
Hemington – the tun of Hemma and his people
Hardington – the tun of Hearda and his people
Nunney – the island of Nunna and his people
Wanstrow – Waendel’s tree
Witham – the ‘ham’ or settlement of Witta and his people

The Saxon chief Nunna is also found near Wiveliscombe at Nunnington, which means the settlement of Nunna’s people.

We will have to wait until trial trenches are dug before we will know more of the mysterious site at Green Pits Lane. An Iron Age settlement would certainly add significant new information to the local history of Nunney.

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