NGR: ST 49286 40757. Near Backwear Farm (on Great Withy Drove) which is about 3 miles to the northwest of Glastonbury, Somerset, is the archaeological site of Glastonbury Lake Village, a late Iron-Age man-made island (crannog) that was constructed in the swampy land there, and which was still in existence during the Romano-British period. It was discovered in the late 19th century by the Glastonbury antiquarian, Arthur Bulleid, and was considered to be the best-preserved lake village in Britain. The excavated site of the village was close to where the River Brue originally used to flow, on the Somerset Levels, near Godney. The island cran-nog was raised up on wooden posts (stakes) that were dug deep into the swampy, marshy ground, and there was a jetty. A wooden palisade would have run around the sides of the crannog, and on the structure’s platform up to eighty roundhouses all built within the inner part of the raised island; the walls and floors of these wood-built houses became evident to the excavators between 1892-1908, and inside each roundhouse, a hearth for cooking. A dug-out canoe was excavated at the site. Finds from the crannog and its vicinity can be seen in the nearby Glastonbury Lake Village Museum in the High Street, and The Museum of Somerset in Taunton Castle. There was another Iron-Age village at Meare, 4 miles to the west, at OS Grid Ref ST 446423.
Jacquetta Hawkes (1975) says of the two Somerset lake villages – Meare and Glastonbury:- “If I am to remain true to my intention never to lead those who follow me to any of the faint and uncon-vincing marks of prehistoric life where either faith or expert knowledge are needed to find any signi-ficance to a few banks and hollows, I must not stay long at the lake villages. Nevertheless, just be-cause they were set among meres and not on hill-tops, these two villages have been able to show in unique detail the material background of the life of the Celtic Britons of the Iron Age, of a people related in varying degrees with the builders of the hill-forts which everywhere attract us with their striking architecture and fine positions. The reason for this is simply that the moisture and peat which formed over the deserted villages has preserved many of the possessions which elsewhere have perished. The excavators of Glastonbury (which lies about a mile north of the present town) found the logs and faggots which had formed the artificial island on which the huts were built, they found the stakes of the enclosing palisade, the floors of the round huts, some sixty in number, which had often been remade again and again as the foundations sank slowly in the underlying mire. They found complete hurdles, indistinguishable from those of to-day, fragments of well-built carts, dug-out canoes which the villagers used to come and go from their hand-made island. Where normally we recover only potsherds, Glastonbury and Meare yielded baskets and beautifully turned wooden bowls; where at best we expect to find only the metal parts of iron knives, saws, bill-hooks, these villages put them into our hands complete with their wooden hafts gracefully shaped and serviceable. Those who know how to let sentiment take command over reason may like to visit the uneven fields which to-day mark the sites of Glastonbury and Meare, but let everyone go to the Castle Museum at Taunton where all the finds are admirably displayed. Here they will see not only the perishable things which I have described, but the famous decorated pottery, and objects which prove the wide trading activities of the villagers—tin from Cornwall, lead from the Mendips, Dorset shale, glass beads and amber, and quantities of iron, thought to have been imported from the Forest of Dean. This iron was used not only for a great range of tools, but also for the clumsy iron currency bars which were the medium of exchange throughout south-western England before true coins came to displace them. Undoubtedly these villages were prosperous, but there is no reason to suppose that they were very exceptionally so; looking in the cases at Taunton may give a new idea of the very tolerable standard of living which had been achieved by the Britons at the end of prehistoric times. Glastonbury and Meare were probably established by about 150 B.C., and were still inhabited until just before the Roman Conquest.”
James Dyer (1973) tells us more about the site. He says: “Flat meadows, dykes and willows are all that remain at this classic site excavated at the beginning of the century. When the sun is low in the early morning or late evening a series of low mounds can be made out covering a triangular area of about 1·4 ha. A careful recent study of the Glastonbury excavation reports and finds has led Dr. E. K. Tratman to suggest that the village was of two quite distinct occupations by two different groups of people. The first built square or rectangular timber-framed houses in oak, supported on piles. They had walls of hurdle work, and the whole structure stood a few metres above the ground, or water, at the lake edge. The inhabitants were clearly excellent carpenters and constructed carefully-jointed looms and lathes, ploughs and carts. In spite of the lake there was sufficient dry ground nearby for cultivation. Possibly beginning about 150 B.C. the village was abandoned by 60 B.C. Shortly afterwards the empty houses were destroyed by newcomers who constructed crannogs, or artificial islands, made of layers of brushwood and clay. On these round huts of rather flimsy type were built, with walls of wattle and daub, and floors of clay with central hearths. Much pottery decorated with beautiful flowing linear patterns belong to this later village. The inhabitants found it necessary to defend their settlement with a palisade. After only about ten years the village was peacefully abandoned, perhaps due to flooding caused by a local rise in the water level, or even an outbreak of malaria, a disease still prevalent in the area a hundred years ago.”
Sources / References & Related Websites:-
Airne, C. W., The Story of Prehistoric & Roman Britain − Told In Pictures, Sankey, Hudson & Co. Ltd., Manchester.
Dyer, James, Southern England: An Archaeological Guide, Faber And Faber Limited, London, 1973.
Hawkes, Jacquetta, A Guide To The Prehistoric And Roman Monuments In England And Wales, Cardinal (Sphere Books Ltd.,), London, 1975.
Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2021.