The Historic Environment
The Severn Estuary has one of the most rich and varied archaeological landscapes in Europe. The Estuary and its surrounding levels have been a focus of human settlement for millennia and evidence of this can be found preserved in the archaeological record throughout the region. The Severn Estuary region demonstrates the greatest concentration of coastal archaeology in Britain and provides an irreplaceable record of historic importance1.
The historic landscape of the Estuary is far better preserved than many other sites around the UK. The permanently waterlogged conditions preserve organic remnants of past environments, such as wood, which otherwise degrade and break down.
Palaeolithic and Mesolithic – Before 4400BC
Palaeolithic hand axes, Mesolithic footprints and stone tool scatters recovered from the foreshore indicate the presence of hunter-gatherer groups present, before the introduction of farming. Just outside the Estuary, at Westward Ho! in the Bristol Channel, evidence of reed burning and tree burning close to settlements make it probable that humans were using fire to influence their environment, perhaps to encourage favourable grazing for their quarry.
Sea level has risen approximately 60 metres over the last 10,000 years, so the Estuary these people knew was very different to our own. Imagine Flat Holm Island as a hill, rising above a vast area of marshy land, our hunter-gather ancestors using it as a lookout to spot animals to hunt or as high ground to escape to in times of flood.
Campsites from these people are preserved in the alluvium and peat of the Estuary. Peat is especially fruitful, as it preserves wood and acts as a record of the changing environment over thousands of years. Most sites where historical items are recovered is in the intertidal zone, since this is where the silt that overlies the prehistoric landscape has been eroded away. Many more archaeological sites are likely to lie inland within peat but have not yet been exposed to the surface.
Neolithic – 4400 – 2300BC
Evidence of Neolithic tool making has been found at Oldbury-on-Severn and Hill in Bristol. The Oldbury site seems to be a large settlement, partly concealed beneath the modern meadows, and partly exposed on the eroding coast.
In Somerset and on the Gwent levels, evidence of trackways has been found, linking settlements on higher ground with the water’s edge, used to cross the marshy ground to get to the Estuary.
Bronze Age – 2300 – 700BC
During the Bronze Age settlements continued to grow around the Estuary, moving further inland as sea levels rose.
The use of coastal sand dunes is highlighted by the discovery of five Bronze Age settlements at Brean Down in Somerset. There is evidence that circular houses were used in the area, shown by remains of stone circles and pottery assemblages.
Roundhouses and pottery from this period have been exposed on the foreshore at Rumney, Cardiff and Magor in Monmouthshire and there is evidence of a Bronze Age boat at Caldicot.
Iron Age – 700BC – 43AD
Although the start of the Iron Age is marked by the advances in metallurgy, society and the way in which people used the land continued unbroken from the Bronze Age.
Remarkable clusters of prehistoric sites are associated with the peat shelves on the shore at Goldcliff and Redwick in Monmouthshire where the buildings are remarkably well preserved. Animal hoof prints have been found associated with the buildings, suggesting the seasonal grazing of livestock. A small bone assemblage found here has pointed to the raising of mainly cattle, but also the presence of horses and dogs, and access to sheep / goat meat. Human skulls have also been recovered.
Later in the Iron Age the well-known settlements of Glastonbury and Meare in Somerset rise to prominence.
Roman Rule – 43 – 410AD
The Romans brought great changes across the British Isles, and the Estuary was no different. The Twentieth Legion established itself in AD 49 in Gloucester and Roman vessels soon plied the Severn Estuary. The use of the Estuary for trade is shown by the development of ports on the Avon and Parrett. Smelting of iron ore at Woolaston (Gloucestershire) and Oldbury-on-Severn (Bristol) used ore shipped from the Forest of Dean. A Roman boat found close to the inland margin of the levels at Magor, Monmouthshire, from what was then a tidal creek, suggests the kinds of craft that worked the Estuary. The boat, of nailed planks, was originally about 12 metres long.
The Roman period saw the start of the draining of the land around the Estuary. Much of the great tidal marshes of Gloucestershire, Bristol and Monmouthshire were embanked and drained, starting the process of making today’s’ agricultural landscape. Evidence that construction teams from the Roman army worked on the levels is provided by an inscribed stone from Goldcliff. After the end of the Roman period marshy conditions returned and tidal silt buried some Roman settlements and field systems.
Early medieval – Saxon 410 – 1066AD
Saxon times led to the re-colonisation of the levels, starting in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The monks of Glastonbury Abbey drained and reshaped the wetlands for agriculture.
In Wales evidence for this period is difficult to identify but the Book of Llandaff includes a charter for an 8th century estate at Bishton. Later King Harold Godwinson had a hunting lodge at Portskewett.
Medieval AD 1066 – 1485AD
After the Norman Conquest the monastic communities at Goldcliff and Tintern played an important role in the re-colonisation and subsequent draining of the Gwent levels. The monks built flood defences and dug ditches, such as the raised waterway called Monk’s Ditch near Goldcliff. As the levels were reclaimed great open fields were established, divided into strips called ‘ridge and vurrow’ (furrow). However, fishing was also carried out alongside farming, fish traps in the Estuary being a favourite method.
The Estuary was increasingly a link to the wider world. The ‘Newport Ship’, discovered during the excavation for a new arts centre in Newport, is one of the most complete examples of a late medieval ship, believed to be built circa 1465. It illuminates a picture of a busy Estuary, with trading links to Spain and Portugal. Portuguese pottery and cork, stone cannon balls and engraved brass strips have been excavated. The great ports like Bristol, starting to spring up all around Britain, would have relied on ships such as this for commerce and for exploration.
The end of this period sees the vessel ‘Matthew’ leave Bristol bound for Newfoundland. It marks the beginning of the great voyages of discovery.
A selection of archaeological sites in the Severn Estuary
Sites that have been found around the Estuary include Mesolithic footprints, Bronze Age trackways, Iron Age villages, and fish traps from the medieval period2. The Estuary also has a rich heritage of maritime archaeology, with remains of vessels found at Newport, Barland’s Farm, and Caldicot3.
8,000-year-old human footprints from the Mesolithic era have been found in the intertidal zone along the Welsh side of the Estuary, across the Gwent Levels. Preserved in estuarine clays, fragile traces of human history like these footprints are scarce. The footprints are believed to be from a Mesolithic child, walking across a valley once situated where the Estuary is today.
Submerged forest, South Gloucestershire5
Many timbers of once large trees from the Mesolithic period can be found in the inter-tidal zone of both the English and Welsh sides of the Severn (see section on Geology).
The Sweet Track, Somerset6
The Sweet Track is one of over 40 prehistoric wooden trackways discovered in Somerset. It takes its name from Ray Sweet, a local peat cutter who discovered the site. In the 1970s, the Somerset Levels Project excavated the trackway, which was built as a raised plank walkway through the 2km of reed bed that separated the Polden Hills from the ‘island’ of Westhay (see Fig.1).
Caldicot Castle Park
Digging of an artificial lake in the late 1980s revealed Bronze Age activity including possible weirs and perhaps places to draw up boats, the remains of which were also found.
An intertidal prehistoric site was discovered by Derek Upton on a peat shelf close to the sea wall, near the village of Redwick near Newport. Between 1999 and 2001, four rectangular buildings (measuring 11m by 4m) were fully excavated; having been preserved in the peat. Footprints from cattle were found surrounding the buildings, suggesting that the site was a seasonal settlement for cattle herders in the wetland.
The Aust Goddess, South Gloucestershire5
Recovered from the foot of a cliff near Aust one hundred years ago, this small bronze statuette is thought to date back to Roman times. It is widely believed that the statuette represents the Roman fertility goddess Minerva and is of local origin. The find highlights the importance of the region in establishing historic trading links with Europe.
Roman Fortress, Caerleon5
The remains of the fortress garrisoned by the Second Augustan Legion include some of the best surviving barracks from the Roman world. Troops would have been supplied with wine and olive oil by boats from Europe travelling up the Severn, then following the River Usk, a tributary of the Severn. Pottery found at the site originated from Spain, Germany and France. The amphitheatre lies just outside the fortress and was used as a place for ceremonies and entertainment for the troops.
Pottery, South Gloucestershire5
Numerous Roman pottery finds have occurred from ‘fieldwalking’ in South Gloucestershire.
Barland’s Farm Romano-Celtic Boat5
This vessel which originally would have had a mast, was made of oak planks held together by iron nails. It was originally 11.1m in length and 2.6m wide and much of it still survived when it was discovered in the 1990s. It is likely that it is representative of a group of boats that plied their trade across the Estuary, potentially also making longer, sea-going journeys.
Fish traps, Stert Flats, Bridgwater Bay, Somerset13
Tree-ring and radiocarbon dating suggest that construction of the numerous fish weirs on Stert Flats, was within the last four centuries. A millennium of fish traps is represented in the area, with the earliest ‘V’ shaped structures dating back to the 10th century AD (see Fig.1).
The remains of this important masonry castle date from the early 13th and 14th centuries. The castle was developed as a stronghold in medieval times and was later restored as a Victorian family home.
Medieval Ship, Newport9
Discovered in 2002 during some development work for a new theatre, this Medieval vessel is one of the most well preserved and intact examples of a fifteenth century ship existing in Northern Europe. The vessel still contained items belonging to the crew, including Portuguese pottery and coins. The discovery of this vessel is one of the most significant finds of international importance.
Fish Traps, Monmouthshire10
Fish traps and baskets dating back to medieval times were unearthed near Sudbrook during a survey prior to the construction of the Second Severn Crossing in 1991. Artefacts found include post settings, trackways, and woven fish traps and baskets, illustrating the strong maritime history of the Estuary.
Magor Pill Boat, Monmouthshire11
The vessel was found in 1994 by Derek Upton; the subsequent Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust excavation was funded by Cadw. Only a portion (7m by 3.4m) of the original vessel was found in a complete condition (originally measuring 13.2-14.3m by 3.7m). Tree ring dating has shown the boat was built in 1240 AD.
Puxton, North Somerset12
Following extensive post-Roman flooding, Puxton was one of the first places on the North Somerset Levels to be recolonised; making the site a particularly fine example of a shrunken medieval settlement.
A find by fishermen in the Severn Estuary brought excitement during 2020’s lockdown. The lave net fishermen were inspecting an area near the M4 Prince of Wales Bridge and stumbled upon a 70cm cattle horn in the tidal muds. This ancient breed of cattle was called an auroch, which stood at 2m tall and grazed the lands within the Estuary. Dating the large horn revealed that the piece is around 5000 – 6000 years old and were common around Britain until going extinct 3,500 years ago13!
Remembering your safety, it is important to avoid walking on the exposed tidal flats. For more information about safety, visit the Safety on the Severn webpage.
Climate change and the future
There are a range of threats to the archaeological heritage of the Severn Estuary. With the changing climate comes rising sea levels. The rising seas and increase in storm events cause faster erosion of the coast, meaning archaeological items are washed away more frequently. There are also threats linked to coastal development, including establishment of transport links, renewable energy sources and housing developments, which may damage or destroy historical items.
For more information, visit:
The Severn Estuary is one of the largest estuaries in Britain and has the second highest tidal range in the world.