IN THE SOMERSET LEVELS
by John Coles (Department of Archaeology, Cambridge.)
and Bryony Orme Department of History, Exeter.
T HE Somerset Levels, lying be tween the Quantocks and the Mendips, consist essentially of peat surrounding various islands of sand and rock, the whole covering an area of 200 square miles. Peat is being cut, for horticultural pur poses, only over part of the Levels,
particularly in the Brue Valley north of the Polden Hills. This is the area of the Glastonbury and Meare 'lake villages', still a source of some controversy over the interpretation of the physical remains, but without doubt of fundamental interest for the British Iron Age.
Map of the late 4th and 3rd millennium bc track network, plus spot finds of similar date. They concentrate in the southern half as this is where the modern peat extraction is taking place. A = Abbotts Way. S = Sweet Track.
The reason is of course the excellent preservative qualities of the peat, basically anaerobic, so that wood in particular survives intact. The earlier prehistory of the Levels was first brought to the attention of the archaeological world by the publications of Harry Godwin and Stephen Dewar in the Proc. Prehist. Soc. for 1960 and 1963. In these papers a palaeobotanical framework for the Levels was established, and the known wooden trackways and other stray finds uncovered by peat-cutters were described.
In 1964, one of us (Coles) first started work in the Levels; in 1967 Dr. Alan Hibbert, then of the SubDepartment of Quaternary Research, Cambridge, now of Liverpool Polytechnic, undertook the palaeobotanical aspect of the work, and in 1971 Orme joined as a second archaeologist. Local Somerset archaeological interest has been concentrated mainly in the work of Colin Clements, Taunton, who has made many discoveries in the peat. The extraction of peat is a continuous process in the Levels, and leads to discovery and eventual destruction of ancient remains, just like a motorway, but through the co-operation of the major concerns, the Eclipse Peat Works (Fisons Agrochemicals), and the aptlynamed E. J. Godwin (Peat Works)