Our story begins in 2013, when what was initially just a small part of the Heritage Lottery-funded Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership (AMLP) Scheme set out to give volunteers practical experience of traditional building and craft techniques through creating archaeological reconstructions. Operating under the management of the South West Heritage Trust, early projects included recreating prehistoric wooden trackways on the nearby Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve, and making replicas of Iron Age dug-out canoes. By 2015, however, we were building on a more ambitious scale, with work beginning on reconstructions of a Saxon longhall and the dining room of a Roman villa. ‘Hands on Heritage’ volunteers worked one day a week to create the buildings and all their contents, and more than 110 people have been active contributors to this process, often bringing craft or artistic skills to the project as well as their enthusiasm. With guidance from archaeologists, the volunteers have learnt many techniques, from making oak shingles to cob walling, mosaic creation, fresco painting, and wood carving. This work continued for eight years, and although the original AMLP Scheme wrapped up in 2016, a further small grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2022 allowed the site – known as ‘Avalon Archaeology’– to open to the public earlier this year.
Archaeological detective work
Building the reconstructions has been an interesting exercise, drawing on archaeological research and highlighting where the gaps are in existing knowledge. The Saxon longhall, for example, is based on the one excavated by Philip Rahtz at nearby Cheddar, dating to the later 9th century. His investigation revealed the building’s size and shape; where the doors, internal posts, and hearth were; and the size and number of the main wall posts. Many questions remained unanswered, though, such as the composition of the walls that had stood between the main vertical posts. Wattle and daub was chosen as the cheapest option for our tiny budget, but on either side of the doors we used half-split oak, based on evidence from the famous 11th-century church at Greensted in Essex. Meanwhile, another church from that county, at Hadstock, and Westminster Abbey both provided examples of surviving doors of about the right date to inspire the designs for our building.
Window glass has been found from a small number of excavations of secular Anglo-Saxon settlements and, more frequently, from monastic sites, so it was decided to include two glass windows in the gable end of the hall, in addition to smaller shuttered openings on the long sides. The glazing followed a design from Jarrow, with the addition of a decorative leadwork strip from Monkwearmouth. As for the roof, we chose oak shingles because of their frequent depiction in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and on the Bayeux Tapestry. The shingles for the gable end were made by the volunteers, imitating the shape most often depicted in historical sources, with curved or pointed bottom ends producing a pleasing appearance rather like fish scales. Because we couldn’t face making the 15,000 shingles needed for the main roof, though, a commercial company supplied them in rectangular form – these were, however, still hand-made from radially split oak.
What about the interior? The almost complete lack of evidence for Anglo-Saxon furniture was a problem, although we knew from literature that such feasting halls should include benches, easily removable tables, and probably a raised dais for the hosts and honoured guests. In the bedroom at one end of the building, a solution came thanks to Scandinavian evidence from the same period. Norway’s Oseberg ship burial provided the designs for a bed and a small chair, and two finds from Sweden contributed a low table and a three-legged stool. It is intended to add replicas of the Mästermyr chest and the Oseberg tablet weaving loom to complete a Viking-themed room.
Bringing in the art
Some reconstructed archaeological buildings can appear rather plain and empty, almost as though interest was lost once the basic structure had been created, but the Anglo-Saxon period has such a wealth of decoration on metalwork, manuscripts, textiles, stone carvings, pottery, and bone that it seems inconceivable that a high-status feasting hall would not be full of similar embellishment. Accordingly, on the building’s exterior barge boards and the interior frames, the volunteers have created a rich diversity of art carved in wood, faithfully copying designs found on other materials such as metalwork, stone-cross bases, manuscripts, and ivory artefacts.
A yellow ochre limewash provides colour to the exterior, and red ochre mixed with linseed oil has brightened up the wall posts in the bedroom, while – to show the public the surprisingly surreal style of Anglo-Saxon manuscript art – a mural has been painted at one end of the interior. In a series of eight panels, it tells the story of King Alfred and his struggles against the Vikings, focusing on Somerset in AD 878, when the floodplain ‘islands’ of Athelney, Aller, and Wedmore were prominent in some of the most dramatic events in English history.
The volunteers who painted the mural found it challenging to replicate fully the idiosyncratic style of the Anglo-Saxon monks and embrace their lack of inhibitions about what colour anything should be. Their images are accompanied by some text from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, using lettering based on Alfred’s own handwriting from his letter prefacing Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.
Roman Fine Dining
Moving back in time, the Roman building represents the winter dining room from a typical 4th-century Somerset villa. The square shape of the triclinium, with two stub walls separating it from the smaller anteroom, has been found at several Somerset sites, sometimes, as in our reconstruction, boasting hypocaust underfloor heating.
For this period, we have very good evidence of wall foundations, hypocausts, and ceramic, stone, and tile roofing materials. There is even considerable evidence for furniture, and it has also been possible to base the wall frescoes on British examples, though the depictions of three Roman deities copy designs for Bacchus from Pompeii, Flora from Stabiae, and Diana from Rome. A Chi-Rho Christogram from Lullingstone villa in Dorset has been incorporated as well, to allow discussion of the significant religious change that occurred in 4th-century Britannia.
The mosaic floor is based on 4th-century designs from the nearby Hurcot and Bratton Seymour villas and uses four different colours of local stone, in addition to red derived from tile. Making the 140,000 tesserae for the mosaic floor has been one of the biggest tasks for the volunteers, but they were all done by hand, using a hammer and hardy. The reconstruction incorporates genuine Roman material, too: one side of its stone foundations have been made of sandstone rescued from a Roman villa excavated in advance of a local road scheme. Above the foundations, mass cob has been used to create the walls, partly because the materials could be obtained for free, but also to show that a variety of wall materials can be built on a stone foundation.
A wetland roundhouse
A third building, currently under construction, is a recreation of an Iron Age roundhouse based on the famous site of Glastonbury Lake Village, which lies less than four miles from our museum. This reconstruction benefits from excavations carried out by the South West Heritage Trust in 2014, which proved that the roundhouse walls were made of very small roundwood stakes, set to a shallow depth, and that the buildings only lasted for about a decade before they were rebuilt. Our version uses the same materials, with the woven structure providing the necessary strength of the building.
Those excavations also provided evidence for the daub covering of the wattlework walls, including one piece that had an ammonite fossil impression, which had presumably been incorporated into the structure as deliberate decoration. An ammonite of a different size was found too, suggesting that their collection and retention was not a one-off event and begging the intriguing question as to what Iron Age people thought the fossils were.
Archaeology gives us the size and shape of the roundhouse, the orientation of the porch, the material used for the walls and floor, and the presence of a hearth, small oven, and a host of everyday objects, including a huge array of wooden items preserved in the waterlogged peat. What is largely absent again, though, is the evidence for any form of furniture. There is also the vexed question of windows. Most roundhouse reconstructions do not use them, but there is no definitive reason why there could not have been any. The Lake Village produced a short oak plank with pivots at both ends. This could possibly have been the lid of a box but could just as easily have been a window shutter, so we are incorporating three shuttered windows into the design to see what difference they make.
The oldest excavation hut in the world?
Our site is home to rather more recent structures as well. It was two local archaeologists, Arthur Bulleid and Harold St George Gray, who excavated the Iron Age lake villages at Glastonbury and Meare, and, for their work at the latter site, in 1910 they purchased a hut to serve as their store and office. This building continued in use until 1956, when Gray, who was by then 83, finally decided to stop the excavation – and today it resides at Avalon Archaeology.
As to how the hut came to us, it was rediscovered by the Somerset Levels Project in 1982 during excavations at the site, and proved to be something of a time-capsule in its own right. It still contained tools and finds from Bulleid and Gray’s day, together with a pile of newspapers going back to 1890. As we think it is the oldest surviving excavation hut in the world, it has become part of the museum collection and is now displayed to the public; inside, we have recreated Gray’s office as it may have looked in the 1950s. Bulleid’s office (the pair maintained separate spaces as their lengthy relationship was not always cordial) now hosts a mini-cinema showing films about the local prehistoric landscape and archaeology. In between, the central room is used to display some of the beautiful reconstruction pictures of Glastonbury Lake Village that Amédée Forestier created for The Illustrated London News in 1911.
It is not only land-based discoveries that have been recreated for visitors. Our site is also home to a 1:1 replica of the Skudelev 3 coastal trading vessel that was deliberately sunk in Roskilde Fjord in Demark around AD 1040. This reconstruction was made not by our volunteers, but by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth, for a temporary exhibition. Named ‘the Walrus’, it now has a new life at Avalon Archaeology and is already proving extremely popular; its presence helps us to highlight the peaceful trading side of the Viking Age world that coexisted with their better-known raids.
The past is brought most vividly to life, however, by people, and we have been working with local groups to complement the recreated buildings and improve visitors’ experiences by letting them ‘encounter’ people from the periods represented. A local re-enactment group, Draca Beordor, have greatly assisted in this, demonstrating a wide range of Saxon and Viking craft techniques in special events, while the local group MAYA (Mick Aston’s Young Archaeologists, a Somerset branch of the CBA’s Young Archaeologists’ Club) has visited the site several times, making tesserae, helping to lay the mosaic floor, striking coins, and enjoying a story-telling session of Beowulf around the fire in the longhall. We hope our site can help to inspire the next generation of archaeologists.
Further information: For more information about Avalon Archaeology, including opening times, prices, events, and a free downloadable guide to the site, see https://swheritage.org.uk/avalon-archaeology.
All images: South West Heritage Trust, unless otherwise stated