Wiltshire Places

Unexpected archaeological discovery in Westbury

on Tuesday, 10 September 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Wiltshire Places

Exciting and unexpected archaeological discoveries show how no evaluation process for sites is fool proof. What happens next shows how important cooperation and communication is, particularly for the County Archaeology Service, who are tasked with supporting development AND safeguarding heritage. The critical concept is “significance” – how important are the remains; what is their potential to inform us about the past? Rachel Foster, Assistant County Archaeologist reports:

In 2017 Wessex Archaeology excavated a new housing development north of Bitham Park in Westbury. I had requested this work as a condition of planning permission, based on limited evaluation results. Unexpected discoveries demonstrated the challenges faced by Planning Archaeologists in understanding the significance of archaeological sites based on the results of trial trench evaluation. 

The 2018 National Planning Policy Framework states that local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any “heritage asset” that may be affected by a proposal. In line with this advice, we often ask for sites to be investigated before the determination of a planning application, so that we have that information. Evaluation usually this consists of geophysical survey followed by trial trench evaluation. The Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Environment Record which contains detail on archaeological sites, buildings and finds, informs our decision making.

Archaeological evaluation can feel like a game of battleships. When geophysical survey goes well, and reveals features that look like potential archaeology, we ask for trenches to be dug and the features investigated by commercial archaeologists.  The aim is to understand the significance of the site by investigating features within the trenches, which is not always so easy:  if geophysical survey has not been carried out or is unsuccessful, then trenches are placed either systematically or randomly across a site and there is potential to miss remains. Today, the trenching is usually a 3-5% sample of the development site but in exceptional circumstances, up to 10% may be carried out.  That sample of trenching should find archaeological remains within a site and provide enough information to understand the importance, extent and significance of any remains.  Results of evaluation will then inform our advice to the planning officer on the impact of the development on archaeological remains. Remains considered to be of national significance are likely to be preserved in situ and not developed, but other remains are likely to be investigate. Early knowledge about archaeology and its potential effect helps the developers manage their risk and adequately budget for excavation costs, as well as post-excavation work and publication.  

The geophysical survey results at Bitham Park didn’t show much other than a few lines representing ridge and furrow remains across parts of the site and a few other possible linear features. This image gives an example of the greyscale plot of the geophysical survey results (magnetromotry).

© Wessex Archaeology

Geophysical survey isn’t always reliable, so I asked for trial trench evaluation prior to determination of the planning application: in some cases, later ridge and furrow can hide earlier remains. As the geophysical survey indicated, there were remains of medieval/post-medieval ridge and furrow cultivation; however, my assessment that there might be more archaeology was correct.  Archaeological features were discovered across several trenches, mostly concentrated in the western part of the site. They included ditches, gullies and pits containing small, worn pottery fragments from the early/middle Iron Age and Romano-British periods (150BC onwards). Nevertheless, the significance and extent of the remains could not be fully understood, so I asked for a second stage of evaluation to provide more data. The extra information would help me define an area for archaeological mitigation – the full excavation of important features.  The results confirmed prolonged and intensive agricultural use from the medieval period (1066- 1540). This had truncated and displaced features and artefacts from the earlier Iron Age and Romano-British periods; however, theses features included and arrangement of post holes representing a possible structure (see trench locations of two evaluation stages below).

© Wessex Archaeology

On the basis of the two evaluations I asked for an area of excavation within the vicinty of where the most significant archaeological features were recorded, in the western part of the site and along a north-south trajectory.

In advance of the housing development an initial area was stripped with contingency and here’s an aerial view of the site below, can you spot anything interesting?

© Wessex Archaeology and Thomson Environmental Consultants

A Bratton Wool Loft?

on Friday, 19 July 2019. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire Places

Wiltshire Buildings Record held its 40th AGM in Bratton on the 22nd June. The weather was beautiful and a miraculous interlude in a succession of grey, stuffy days that had come before. After the business meeting Mike Manson of the Bratton History Association gave us a Powerpoint presentation on the origins and development of Bratton, which was apparently once three separate settlements. The wealth of fine houses hidden down picturesque lanes were derived from the woollen industry in the 17th and 18th centuries.  West Wiltshire was dominated by a small group of entrepreneurs who controlled the woollen industry as landholders, buyers and employers. The most prominent family in Bratton and Westbury was the Whitakers; wool merchants whose impressive home was the Courthouse in Court Lane, dating from the medieval period and onwards. Iron replaced wool in the 19th century, as Dennis Gardner, another BHA member explained in a separate presentation. Reeves ironworks produced agricultural machinery and was the largest employer in Bratton until the early 20th century.  We went out, fuelled by much cake and tea, down a positive rabbit-warren of unexpected leafy lanes, guided by Mike. Owners of houses were moved to come out and investigate at the sight of a large bunch of strangers all staring steadily in their direction. All were friendly though, and a mine of information. Much of the timber-framing we saw appeared to be 17th century, or 17th century improvements of earlier buildings which in at least two cases included a chute at the front, possibly to load fleeces directly into a wool loft at the top of a house (as found in a WBR recording of Court Lane farmhouse a few years back).  There was much speculation over this, with the conclusion that many villages had their own peculiarity in building which was influenced by the prevailing economic activity, in Bratton’s case, its woollen industry in the 17th century and possibly later. As usual though, more research is needed to prove this link.

Dorothy Treasure

Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record

The Truth about Stonehenge*

on Wednesday, 19 June 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire Places

(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)

At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?

According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.

I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature: 

“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution.
‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back.
‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.”
 – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut


To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.

An Ancient Hall in Swindon

on Tuesday, 14 May 2019. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire Places

During a visit to Cricklade I was asked to pop in to see a cottage in Swindon. This cottage and another similar one nearby were all that were left of an ancient hamlet and were now surrounded by modern houses, giving a very suburban flavour to the area. The cottage had once been a prosperous farm but was subsequently divided into two cottages, a not unusual development for a farmhouse in the 19th century.

On the ground floor were two original rooms, the core of the cottage before it was extended. A heavy 17th century beam ran from the gable end fireplace to the cross wall and this immediately aroused my interest; when an open medieval hall with a central hearth is floored over, the beam supporting it often has one end lodged in the chimney breast, which is added at the same time.

By the time I got to the first floor I was excited to see the start of a heavily-plastered cruck blade with arched brace of what must have been a hall truss emerging from the stone wall, and disappearing through the ceiling. Crucks are a very distinctive form of timber-framing not seen in Wiltshire after about 1530: our dendrochronology project is collecting data on this very subject.  Barely containing myself, I arrived at the attic floor via a steep, winding stair to be confronted with the massive and heavily smoke-blackened top parts of a 14th century roof. There were two main frames complete with characteristically skinny wind-braces, some original chunky rafters, and smoke-blackened battens, though the thatch had been replaced.

Image: Apex of one of the cruck trusses

The timbers had been cut about to allow circulation within the attic space, but originally the impressive cruck frames would have been only viewed from the ground. To get some idea of what a medieval dwelling house would have been like when built, go into an old tithe barn such as that at Lacock or Bradford-on-Avon and be impressed by the sheer scale and size of the timbers and height to the roof.  A farmhouse would have been smaller, but still impressive. The hall truss over the open fire would have been the most decorative, with chamfered bracing, parts of which remain. In the 17th century the old hall was clad in stone, hiding or replacing the original timber-framing and its wattle-and-daub panels.  Houses like this had to change with the times to stay useful, or be replaced. I suspect there are many more hidden medieval halls out there just waiting to be discovered, even in the most unlikely places!

Dorothy Treasure, Wiltshire Buildings Record

Westbury Leigh Baptist Chapel

on Wednesday, 06 February 2019. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

Late last year Wiltshire Buildings Record was asked to look at Westbury Leigh Baptist Chapel. Now lying empty, this was the first of two Baptist chapels to be established in Westbury Leigh, an ancient village now within the town boundaries of Westbury. As there was no Anglican church until 1880, the Baptist church was the established church in the village, having a strong nonconformist tradition encouraged by the Baptist stronghold in Southwick.

Stephen Self, a clothier, allowed the use of a barn, called ‘Self’s Barn’ near his dwelling house in Leigh as a meeting place for Baptists after 1693. According to William Doel in his book, ‘Twenty Golden Candlesticks!' they continued to worship until 1714, when Mr Self converted the barn into a chapel, fitting it up with seats, galleries & c. This barn stood on part of the site of the present chapel, the freehold of which belonged to Granville Wheeler Esq.

By 1796 the congregation had so increased as to make it necessary to build a new Chapel. A meeting was held and a resolution passed to undertake the work, which was carried out at a total cost of £1,361. The new chapel was able to accommodate five hundred people, which gives an idea of the many devout souls in Westbury Leigh alone, not counting those in the main town of Westbury!

Weighty tomes and slim booklets: Using Directories

on Tuesday, 30 October 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

W.G. Hoskins, the great pioneer of English local history, wrote in his ground breaking book, ‘Local History in England’ (1959), “Directories … give us a good start for reconstructing the kind of community which existed over a period of about a hundred years from the 1830s to the 1930s”. Admittedly, he was writing when only two of the Victorian censuses were available to use for historic investigation; modern researchers are spoiled for choice in having easy accessibility to no less than eight census returns, spanning the period 1841-1911.

Even so, directories – published lists of people’s addresses and occupations – continue to supply much useful information for family and local history researchers. Although hardly ever listing those of humble status (don’t expect your servant or labourer forebears to be mentioned), directories provide information on a more frequent basis than the census. In the nineteenth century, and right up to the decades following the Second World War, detailed directories appeared encompassing the whole country. Some national publishers (like Slater and the better-known Kelly) covered whole counties every couple of years, while other smaller local printers might concentrate on a single city or town, sometimes also including villages in the vicinity.  As they were produced by competing firms, one year might see several different directories produced for a given place, and the following two or three years, nothing at all.

Whether they are weighty tomes, or slim booklets, directories provide useful, contemporary descriptions of Victorian and Edwardian parishes, towns and cities. They may give details of population and geography, agriculture and industry, schools, charities, public institutions, details of conveyances (coaches and trains) .… but most people use directories to search for people. They will not provide up-to-the-minute information; because of the delay between collecting information and publication, directories may include information that was a year or more out of date by the time the publication date was finally reached. Despite that limitation, a directory can give a flavour of a place, conveying a sense of what a town or district was like to live in at a particular time, and identifying the main property owners, naming the shopkeepers and listing the tradesmen who gave a place its unique character.

They generally listed people whom literate or reasonably well-off people might want to find – clergymen, gentry, nobility, professionals, farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen. Directories may give exact street numbers where census returns do not. The lists often appear in sections, sometimes using a threefold division into ‘Court’, ‘Commercial’ and ‘Trade’ – where Court listed private residents alphabetically, Commercial listed trade and business people alphabetically and Trade broke the commercial list down into constituent professions and trades.

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