Somerset is a county of different landscapes, including the boggy areas of the Levels and the hills of the Mendips or Quantocks, Exmoor National Park as well as having a stretch of coastline. There are also many caves, which preserve remains from many periods. It has some very interesting archaeology from all periods, into the Roman period at the city of Bath and medieval occupation at Glastonbury Tor.
Some of the main sites in chronological order are:
Cheddar Gorge – there is evidence of cannibalism from Gough’s Cave in the late Upper Palaeolithic, about 14,700 BP. Three skulls, one of a three-year-old child, were turned into cups and some bones were clearly butchered. It is unknown whether this was done out of desperation or for ritual purposes (Bello et al 2011). There’s also a possible engraving of a mammoth in Gough’s Cave (Mullan et al 2006). Cheddar Man, also buried in Gough’s Cave, is later in date (7150 BC – in the Mesolithic) and was not cannibalised. Remarkably, his DNA was sequenced and a descendant was found teaching in a local secondary school!
- Aveline’s Hole – near Burrington Combe on the north side of the Mendips is a series of caves, and Aveline’s Hole may have the remains of Mesolithic engravings on its walls (Mullan & Wilson 2004). It certainly did have the remains of maybe 50 Mesolithic people buried there (Schulting & Wysocki 2002), which is an exceptionally rare thing in Britain.
- The Sweet Track in the Somerset Levels was constructed in the winter of 3807 or the spring of 3806 BC. This precise date comes from the tree-ring dating sequence of the timbers used to construct the track that were preserved in the boggy earth (Hillam et al 1990). It seems to have been underlain by and be a replacement of another track, known as the Post Track, at 3838 BC.
A number of stone circles at Stanton Drew probably date to the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. There are three stone circles, the Great Circle second only in diameter to Avebury, an Avenue to the river Chew and a number of outlying standing stones, including a Cove, similar to Avebury and overlying an earlier burial chamber. Geophysical survey has shown there were many timber circles there, similar to Woodhenge and the Sanctuary in Wiltshire (Oswin & Richards 2011).
- Standing stones are also known from Exmoor, as well as the remains of stone walls of circular houses from the Neolithic and Bronze Age.
- Earlier Bronze Age round barrows covering burials are found in many places in Somerset, for instance on the Brean Down peninsula south of Weston-super-Mare. A hillfort was also constructed on this peninsula in the Iron Age (Bell 1990).
- Glastonbury Lake Village was an artificial island, often called a crannog, in the Somerset Levels and was occupied around 250 BC with up to 18 houses and possibly about 200 people.
- The largest hillfort in Britain is in Somerset at Ham Hill. Recent excavations revealed the bodies of hundreds of people who had possibly been slaughtered and defleshed around the time of the Roman invasion.
Some museums and other places to visit in Somerset include:
- Cheddar Gorge where you can explore the gorge and caves where Palaeolithic cannibals lived.
- Weston Museum in Weston-super-Mare is currently closed for refurbishment but should be open soon and will have plenty of evidence from prehistoric west Somerset.
- The Museum of Somerset in Taunton also has some good prehistory collections.
- The Glastonbury Tribunal, a fifteenth century building, houses the Glastonbury Lake Village Museum.
- Stanton Drew is on private land but there is public access.
- You are free to roam Exmoor National Park and the national park also has an education team to help facilitate a visit.
- Brean Down is National Trust land and so can be easily explored.
- The Mendips are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with many prehistoric sites to visit.
ApSimon, A.M, Donovan, D.T, Taylor, H, 1961. The Stratigraph and Archaeology of the Late Glacial and Post-Glacial Deposits at Brean Down, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 9 (2), pp67-136.
Bell, M 1990. Brean Down excavations 1983-1987. London, English Heritage.
Bello, S.M, Parfitt, S.A, Stringer, C.B 2011. Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLOS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017026.
Hillam, J, Groves, C.M, Brown, D.M, Baillie, M.G.L, Coles, J.M & Coles, B.J 1990. Dendrochronology of the English Neolithic. Antiquity 64 (243, pp 210-220.
Meiklejohn, C, Schulting, R, Musgrave, J, Babb, J, Higham, T, Richards, D & Mullan, G 2012. The Aveline’s Hole 9 cranium: a partial solution to a long-standing enigma. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 25 (3), pp 275-294.
Mullan, G.J & Wilson, L.J 2004. A possible Mesolithic engraving in Aveline’s Hole, Burrington Coombe, North Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 23 (2), p75.
Mullan, G.J, Wilson, L.J, Farrant, A.R, Devlin, K 2006. A possible engraving of a mammoth in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 24 (1), pp 37-47.
Oswin J & Richards, J 2011. Stanton Drew 2010. Geophysical survey and other archaeological investigations. Bath and Camerton Archaeological Society.
Schulting, R & Wysocki, M, 2002. The Mesolithic human skeletal collection from Aveline’s Hole: a preliminary note. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 22 (3), pp 255-268.