Why dig up Bradford?

In our last Newsletter we looked at some of the results of our first dig, located to the east of the Tithe Barn. We are planning more work starting Monday 11th August in the same area, and also in adjacent Victory Field if we can get permission. A good moment perhaps to discuss why we want to dig at all!

Early Bradford is a bit of a mystery. If you look for ancient settlements upstream along the banks of the Avon, there is plenty to find. The river runs through Wiltshire from Sherston past Malmesbury, Chippenham and Melksham. Along that route wide gravel terraces have formed and aerial survey reveals prehistoric and Roman activity all the way. See the photo of Iron Age hut sites close to the river between Melksham and Bradford (fig 1). So we might expect similar archaeology on our river bank in Bradford. Nothing so far but more on that later.

Fig 1 (click the image for a larger version)

The next part of this tale is the Roman villa found some years ago at St Laurence School. It’s not generally known that there is a lot more Roman archaeology on the high ground above the town, including Budbury, indicating a big zone of settlement activity. Now the Romans were efficient engineers and it’s unlikely that they simply ignored the River Avon and stuck to the high plateau. Yet the only evidence of Roman riverside activity is a small piece of sculpture portraying Celtic goddesses, found built into a wall in St Margaret’s Street. (fig 2)

 

Fig 2 (click the image for a larger version)

A third element of the mystery was outlined in a recent talk by Martyn Whittock. In essence there was activity here, both urban and ecclesiastical, through much of the Saxon period (AD 450 – 1066). We have an incredible survival in the form of St Laurence chapel, but note that it dates from the end of this time, around AD 1000, and it’s all we have. Not a sherd of Saxon pottery, not a coin.

It’s intriguing to look at the results of excavations carried out in Trowbridge before the Shires was built. The objective was to find the remains of Trowbridge Castle but the outcome revealed three phases of Anglo-Saxon settlement predating the building of the Anarchy Period [the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda] castle. Surely Bradford must have the same potential?

So what’s the problem? First we see very little new building in the town, for the obvious reason that most of its buildings are listed and valued. Therefore there is little opportunity for archaeological; excavation – or even holes in the ground to look down into!

Another factor is that interest has tended to focus on the area around Church Street and Holy Trinity, no doubt based on the location of our Saxon chapel. I have a problem with this and the crude topographic model (fig 3) brings it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 3 (click the image for a larger version)

Looking down stream from the town bridge, Church Street is on our right bank. If the Saxon activity was clustered on this side, they were clinging to the face of steep cliff, and certainly short on space for expansion.

Look over to the left bank and we have Barton Farm and the Tithe Barn located on a wide river terrace, just the sort of location that is favoured for settlement throughout prehistory and later periods. Had this terrace been arable land in recent time, producing cropmarks like the rest of the Avon valley, we might have some valuable insights into Bradford’s development. But is it by good fortune undeveloped, open ground on which we might conduct geophysics surveys and follow up with excavations. It’s an exciting opportunity – and we have started. If you are interested in digging, let me know!

Roy Canham
roycanham@btinternet.com 01225 866748

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