A Somerset village reviews its Roman past

Banwell is the next village to Locking, where my parents lived, so I read this piece with interest. I was disappointed when I reached the end and found it was a reprinted article from the 1960s, but still a nice example of what can be discovered about your home town. I have even read a book that suggests the St Patrick was born in Banwell.

From the Weston Mercury

Banwell has some interesting links with Roman occupations, in particular the discovery of the Winthill bowl, which is now in the Ashmolean Museum.

The Romans occupied this country for nearly 400 years. They were not here to bring enlightenment to the people and raise standards of living. They came to plunder, and though they made fine roads and achieved much for the country’s improvement, this was largely incidental. Their chief consideration was to extract wealth, not only to pay for the cost of their occupying legions, but also to send riches back to Rome.

Here in Somerset they conquered the people of the Dumnonii tribe who occupied such hill camps as Worlebury, Dolbury, and Banwell. For a time the Romans’ Second Legion, which first overran the South West, had its base near Gloucester, but by AD75 it had moved to Caerleon, near Newport, where it remained for 200 years.

There was every reason why the Romans should be especially interested in this part of the country. There were the rich mineral resources, including iron in the Forest of Dean and lead in the Mendip Hills, and the famous spa they developed – Bath – with its healing waters.

The Romans lost no time in getting to work on extracting the lead from the Mendips. The mines were being run by them by AD 49, this being within six years of the conquest. To begin with slave or convict labour would have been employed, and the military supervision necessary would have been provided from the base Caerleon.

The Romans were also interested in making the most of the rich agricultural resources of Somerset, so that it is clear their occupation and control must have been heavily concentrated in these parts.

It is a strange thing that no great amount of evidence of Roman Occupation of this district has been uncovered. This led some authorities to discount the view that there was a Roman road across the Mendips from the great lead mining centre at Charterhouse to the port of Uphill. In recent years the discovery of the Roman temple of Brean Down has made clear that the Uphill locality was at one time in concentrated Roman occupation.

Charterhouse was a principal centre of lead mining activities by the Romans. There they constructed an amphitheatre, and many links with them have been unearthed from time to time.

The Romans were not the first to mine lead on Mendip. Leaden objects, used as net-sinkers, were found at the Meare Lake villages, which date back to at least 300 BC.

We may depend upon it that they were especially keen to exploit mines close to their road system across Mendip. The historian Rutter tells us that Banwell hill “abounds with ochre, calamine, and lead, which have been worked for ages”.

The Banwell lead mines were certainly some of the earliest in the district to be worked out, and from this one assumes that this hillside was among the first areas on Mendip to be tapped for its mineral resources. It was through the operations of miners towards the end of the Banwell lead mining days that the famous bone caves were discovered.

Many Roman coins have been found in and around Banwell, and the most interesting links with the Roman occupation have been unearthed on a villa site just the other side of the hill at Winthill. Winthill, which is gloriously situated, commanding fine views of the Winscombe Vale, is historically one of the most exciting spots in the whole district.

In his History of Somerset Collinson declares that the ‘hundred’ of Winterstoke “had its name from the ancient but now depopulated village of Winterstoke; as that had derived from a remarkable spot called Winthill in the parish of Banwell where, according to tradition, a blood battle was fought between the Saxons and the Danes.

Antiquarians have been interested in the spot for nearly 200 years, and it has been suggested that Banwell was once concentrated on the sunny side of the hill at Winthill, until possibly the need for a better water supply led to its establishment around the source of the Banwell River.

It is also held by some that the original Banwell monastery of King Alfred’s time stood at Winthill, but that after it had been sacked by the Danes it was rebuilt on the other side of the hill on or about the site of the church.

The most interesting finds at Winthill have been in the fields named Chapel Leaze and Chapel Close. Antiquarians were concentrating on Winthill way back in 1800, and George Bennett and Thomas Castle built up collections of Roman coins. The foundations of old buildings were apparent, and since 1902 Ordnance Survey maps have recorded the existence of a Roman Villa on the spot.

In 1821 Sir Richard Colt Hoare mapped the Roman road from Charterhouse to Old Sarum, and also from Charterhouse to Uphill. Doubts have since been cast on the accuracy of the lanes and tracks he claimed to have established as leading from Charterhouse to Uphill, but Professor E H Tratman in Some Ideas on Roman Roads on Bristol and North Somerset (1962) points out that the large Roman villa sites previously known at Star and Winthill, coupled with the more recent discoveries of a Roman building at Locking and the Roman temple at Brean Down and also Roman sites at Weston, clearly indicate that this road existed.

For the interesting Winthill finds of latter years we are indebted to the Banwell Society of Archaeology, and the Axbridge Caving Group and Archaeological society.

There is a curious Banwell earthwork, the Cross, situated just east of the castle near the hill fort.

Mr J W Hunt, of Banwell, in an article published in the Axbridge Society’s Journal, refers to the possibility of it having been the work of agrimensores (professional land surveyors) in connection with the allocation of land and other purposes bound up with Roman law.

He added that it might also have been “an inclined sighting table for Caerleon”.

The famous Winthill bowl and accompanying beaker were found by members of Axbridge Society in November, 1956. The story of its discovery was told to me by Ian Tabrett, who was working on the villa site at the time with Jim Hunt.

“It was getting late and we were about to finish, when I came on a few remains of glass,” he said. “I scratched around and found some more. At first I did not attach much importance to the discovery, but as Mr Hunt and I worked on we began to piece the bowl together. The design was not much in evidence, and we had no idea that it would provide the beautiful thing achieved when it was cleaned and put together.”

The bowl has been described by D B Harden, director of London Museum, in the Axbridge Society’s Journal. He says it is greenish glass and carries a finely engraved design of a hare hunt. The bowl was formed by blowing a spherical bulb of glass and ‘knocking off’ the bottom segment for use. The technique employed to produce the hare hunt scene was free-hand engraving with a burin of flint or other hard stone.

The design is wholly on the exterior, but it is meant to be viewed through the glass, as is shown by the inscription being written retrograde.

“At the bottom two hounds, smooth-haired but with shaggy ruffs, are in full cry,” says Mr Harden, “driving a hare to the right into a long, trellised net which appears to stand without support, but was probably fixed by stakes to the ground. Above the hare and hounds a galloping horseman rides to the right with a spear in this outstretched hand, between two fair-sized bushes and grass-tufts. The horseman’s spear is of curious shape with an S-bend in the middle, but it is certainly a spear, for similar weapons occur on many of these hunt bowls, and on one of them which depicts a stag-hunt the weapon has been thrown and is seen lodged in the stag’s back.

“The huntsman wears a close-fitting tunic and billowing cloak, garments which can be paralleled on similar bowls from continental finds. The pelts of all the animals are delineated by short jabs, and the decorations on the man’s tunic by circlets. All the animals have shaded lines beneath their feet to indicate the ground, and the outlines of all the figures are accentuated within by similar shading of sloping jabs.

“Around the design runs an inscription in easily legible serifed capitals which reads: Vivas Cum Tvis Pies. The first three words are in Latin and may be translated ‘May you live with yours’, i.e. ‘Long life to you and yours’. The next four letters are Greek written in Roman characters and signify ‘Drink and you will live’. Such mottoes occur frequently on glass and pottery of the period.”

The beaker, Mr Harden says, is a truncated cone of greenish glass. Both beaker and glass have been proved to belong to the 4th century AD.

One wonders in what circumstances the bowl came to be broken in those far off days at the Roman Villa, and what family lived there. Was it the home of an overseer at lead mines on Banwell hill, or of someone who had charge of an agricultural estate?

There was a lead mine quite near the Roman villa, but whether it was of Roman date or later is not known. Jim Emerson, one of a team of excavators, had a narrow escape when his pick dislodged a rock and he was nearly precipitated into a 40 feet shaft.

The Winthill area has yielded more than 60 skeletons. How did it happen, one wonders, that Winthill – the centre of a community – was wiped out? It may be that its end came, as the legend says, with the sacking of its Saxon monastery by Danish pirates. Collinson has referred to ‘a bloody battle’. Did it become a place of such dreadful memories that people would not live there any more?

Before the Romans left this country there was an increasing threat to their dominion, especially in this district by the ruthless pirates who worked their way around the coast from Ireland.

There are many legends of their raids along the Somerset coast.

There is evidence that the Romans left some places in a hurry.

Treasure was buried, and not dug up again until found by chance centuries later – the Harptree ‘hoard’ for instance.

Maybe the Winthill bowl was broken on a day when death and destruction came to the pleasant villa standing on the slopes of Winthill.

* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on November 1, 1963

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