Water works unearth archaeological treasures in North Somerset
When water engineers decided to lay a four-mile long water main in North Somerset, they had little clue that as well as providing a better water supply to a village, they’d re-write its history in the process.
Workmen laying a £3.6 million water main between Banwell and Hutton unearthed what archaeologists say is an astonishing Roman cemetery, strangely positioned in a curving, water-filled ditch.
Now the finds, which include as many as 9,000 pieces of ancient pottery as well as jewellery and the remains of Banwell’s early inhabitants, are going on display at a special event where the village will get to hear about a new chapter in its history.
Work started this summer but kept being halted every time something new was found. Archaeologists from Border Archaeology soon had their hands full with one of the most important discoveries in the area for a century.
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“We are told that the finds rewrite the known interpretation of Roman Banwell and are of regional significance,” said Bristol Water spokesman Jeremy Williams. “The excavation has been described as potentially the most important for 100 years in North Somerset.”
“All the discoveries – including an estimated 9,000 pieces of pottery alone – have been carefully photographed, documented and preserved,” he added. “Full information about them is being shared with the landowners, local residents, archaeological groups and the relevant authorities.
“The archaeologists are very excited about their finds, which they have made despite bad weather turning the area into a sea of mud at times,” he said.
Archaeologists are trying to interpret the finds, and believe it could be the family cemetery of a significant Roman villa somewhere nearby.
“Several copper alloy brooches and a pin of Roman date have been recovered from other, broadly contemporary features,” said Neil Shurety, from Border Archaeology.
“The human remains themselves appear to date from the second phase of use – three ‘inhumation burials’ comprising remains of complete individuals. As such, they represent a shift in funerary practice throughout the Roman world from cremation to interment.
“All three inhumations were orientated north-south, with the head to the north, suggesting a pre-Christian burial practice.
“One of these individuals seems to lie within a partially preserved wooden coffin or shallow ‘bier’ constructed from timber planking, which was still clearly visible in places,” he said.
Generally, Roman cemeteries were situated outside settlements and away from areas of human habitation, often next to roads.
In this case, the cemetery is associated not with a town but with a villa site and it could thus represent a private site serving a wealthy landowner and his immediate family.
“The scale of the cemetery remains unknown but its limits as suggested by the curve of the ditch appear to extend well beyond the bounds of the excavation, although these have subsequently been extended along the line of direct engineering impact to ensure no human remains are lost,” he added.
Many of the finds will be on show soon at a special event hosted by Banwell Society of Archaeology at Banwell Village Hall on Monday, November 19. Border Archaeology will give a presentation at 7.30pm, all are welcome.