Romano-British Lead Smelting Site at Priddy, Somerset

By Edmund. J. Mason.

A large quantity of lead was used in the construction of the Roman baths at Bath. (1). Pewter ewers have been found there and on the site of a Romano-British villa at Brislington, Bristol, (2) while two lead ewers were found in the River Axe in association with the Romano-British occupation of the Great Cave of Wookey Hole, Somerset.(3), There seems little doubt that the raw material came from the Mendip lead mines which were not only being worked in Romano-British times, but to some extent during the Early Iron Age, since 32 lead net sinkers were found at the Glastonbury Lake Village.

Lead "ingots" or "pigs" have been found in Mendip from time to time, including the largest British example weighing 223 lbs. (5), and the earliest dated example in the country.(6). The latter, belonging to A.D. 49, indicates that lead smelting in Mendip was well established six years after the Claudian invasion. Two pigs from the bank of the Frome, Wade Street, Bristol,(7) one from Sydney Place, Bath, (8) and one from Bossington, Hants.,(9) probably all came from Mendip, since it was the nearest lead smelting area in Romano-British times. The ore smelted was galena and there is no doubt that the method used was that of cupellation.

Most of the relics to date have been found in the Charterhouse area which was therefore the only locality in Mendip where evidence of Romano-British lead smelting activities could be established. Many relics including pottery and brooches were found during the collection of material from old waste heaps for re-smelting during the 19th century and although much work was done by the Rev. Skinner of Camerton, very little is known about the workings or the settlement. The latter appears to have been located principally in the fields known as Town Field and Rains Batch close to the Charterhouse cross-roads.(10)

It is possible that excavations now in progress at Priddy on Mendip may reveal a second lead smelting settlement and thus augment what little information there is available at Charterhouse. The site is at the western end of the 18 ½ acre field indicated on the 1/2500 Ordnance Sheet, Somerset XXVIII 9 as enclosure numbered 442. It is to the north of the road from Hillgrove to Priddy and about half a mile west of the Hunters’ Lodge Inn. The National Grid reference number is 31/542508. Attention was first drawn to the site by the discovery of a large number of shards of Samian and coarse Romano-British pottery during turf cutting in 1950. On closer examination it was found that pottery shards covered a very wide area of the field. An air photograph showed what appeared to be a small rectangle in the centre of a larger one. The outer rectangle, measuring approximately 250 ft. by 230 ft. was indicated by dark crop markings and is probably a ditch. The east and south side were very faint.

The central rectangle measuring approximately 8ft by 40 ft. was indicated by light crop marking. Both rectangles were pegged out on the site and although the outer enclosure was difficult to distinguish, the area enclosed by the inner rectangle was clearly defined by the growth of tall weeds due to water logging, caused by underlying foundations.

In 1951 excavation on the inner area was begun by the writer, assisted by members of the Bristol Exploration Club, who had originally drawn attention to the site and members of the Bristol Folk House Archaeological Club. Within an hour of the commencement of work, traces of the lower course of a very rough masonry wall without footings was found within a foot of the surface of the peat, which forms the top soil. The wall rested immediately on the clay underlying the peat. There would appear to be little doubt that the wall forms part of a Romano-British building, since pottery sherds of coarse Romano-British ware were abundant close to the wall and the crushed remains of a pottery vessel of Romano-British date rested against its inner face.

Further excavations revealed the corner of the building or room, but it is not possible at this stage to give any indication of the final plan. The corner exposed is the north eastern angle of a building or room with one wall running almost due west and the other due south. The angle formed has an error of ten degrees in excess of the right angle. The wall running towards the west has been exposed for 14 feet and the wall to the south for 12 feet. The average width of the former is 1’2" and the latter l’l0". Only the lowest course of stones remains and does not exceed 4" in depth. There is no visible opening in either wall in the lengths exposed. The course may have been below sill level, however. It is possible that the original building was mainly of wood with a low stone dwarf wall at the base, since it is difficult to imagine that a wall of such rough construction (some of the stones are waterworn boulders) could have been stable for more than a few feet.

The interior of the room or building had been levelled off with a surface of compressed clay. The impressions left on this surface indicates that the floor had been covered with straw. A thin line of charcoal was visible on the surface. Although much rough pottery of Romano-British coarse ware was found on this floor, so far there has been an almost total absence of either plain or decorated Samian ware which has been found elsewhere in the field. Other objects from the floor include fragments of glass vessels, fragments of worked flint and chert (core and flakes) and the following articles:-

a. A circular bone gaming counter 1.5 cms. in diameter decorated on one face with a central dot, surrounded by concentric circles.

b. A piece of lead, diameter 1.5 cms. almost spherical, but with one flattened face pierced by a hole in the centre.

c. A deep green glass gaming counter of lozenge shape flattened on under side. 2.0 cms. by 1.5 cms. and ,75 cms, in thickness,

d. A lead spindle whorl approx, 2.6 cms. in diameter and ,0.75 cms. thick.

e. A spindle whorl of similar diameter but made from a sherd of coarse ware pottery,

f. Part of a glass signet, incised design indecipherable.

g. A small piece of corroded iron, possible setting for f,

Shapeless pieces of smelted lead were frequent on the site and these with burnt-out galena indicates that the occupants of the site were engaged on lead smelting activities. Two fragments of lead were submitted to Dr. I.S. Loupekine, B.Sc., Department of Geology, University of Bristol, who has reported as follows:-

First Fragment

"It is interesting that a spectrograph of the lead showed no detectable silver, whereas comparison photographs showed an obvious content of silver. The other interesting feature is the white powder on the surface. It shows orange fluorescence and an X-ray powder photograph showed similarity with hydrocerussite (Pb3(0H)2(C03)2) which is a normal alteration product of galena of lead. My comparison photograph is of a hydrocerussite mineral collected elsewhere on the Mendip hills. The two photographs do not quite agree, but the differences are of a minor character, and we can definitely say that the material is a hydrated lead carbonate."

Second Fragment

"Fairly heavy, showing spots of orange fluorescence, thus suggesting the presence of lead and alteration products, A spectrograph confirms this. The white crystals were identified by X-ray methods as cerussite (PbCO3). The material is heterogeneous (the black particles may be carbonaceous, but I have not tested them) and appears to be a fragment connected with the smelting of lead ore."

The pottery and articles have not been dated pending further excavations during 1953.


1. Archaeologia 1924-5. pp. 1-18.

2. Clifton Antiq. Club. 1900 Vol.V. pp. 78-97.

5. Proceedings of Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. Vol. XCVI (1951) pp. 238-243.

4. The Glastonbury Lake Village. Bulleid and Gray. pp. 241-53.

5. The Mines of Mendip. Gough. (Oxford Press). ,930, p. 28.

6. Victoria County History. Somerset. p. 342.

Arch. Journ, XI (May 1854) p. 273.

Proc. Somerset Arch. Soc. VIII (1858)ii 16.

7. Victoria County History. Somerset.1. p. 342,

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid. Hants.1. pp. 323-4,

10. Ibid. Somerset.l. pp. 334-6.

Proceedings of. University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 1946-48. Vol.6. No.l.

E.J. Mason.

Recently I received from the Hon. Sec. a letter and a Life Membership Card, "as a token of thanks for your services, from Club members." This is one of those times when I am at a loss for words. All I can say is "Thank you" to all those who contributed and tell them how much I appreciate it. Since 1935 my chief interest in life has been the B.E.C, I have seen it grow from a small group of novices into one of the largest societies of its kind at the present day and I look forward to many more happy years spent in its service.


Letters to the Editor


Further to the dating of Archaeological Deposits. One important method of dating archaeological specimens, which was omitted in the recent correspondence in the BB ( nos. 64&65), was the method of taking a pollen count.

In this method, the pollen in the material adhering to the specimen is analysed, and hence the types and relative amounts of different flors contemporary with the specimen decided.

By comparison with a table of flora distribution for the area in which the specimen was found, the age of the specimen be determined.

An example of a typical pollen count may be seen in a paper on ”Inter-glacial Deposits from Cambridge" by Hollingworth and Godwin, published in Vol. CV part 4 of the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London.

"Yet Another Scientist".

Dear Sir,

Although much has recently been said about cave preservation, nothing constructive has yet been done by the B.E.C., although Wessex are organising "Tidying up" parties for some of the local caves. Perhaps the B.E.C. could assume responsibility for tidying up other caves in the area, What do you think?

Jack Waddon.

Ed.’s note.

An excellent idea, Jack. There is a certain class of caver that delights in scattering debris wherever he goes. I am reminded of the verse that used to adorn the litter bins in Burrington before the war and started "Resemble not the slimy snails, who by their filth reveal their trails" etc.. If each club member on each trip underground would remove or bury one bit of rubbish and not drop more himself, our caves would soon become clean once more.

Found, FOUND ,found. at the bottom of the entrance waterfall in Swildons Hole on 22.3,53, a metal telescopic tripod. Will the owner please communicate with Dr. Lloyd, Withey House, Withey Close West, Bristol.9. (Telephone 83229).

In answer to enquiry by P.A.E. Stewart in BB 67.

Dear fellow members, I crawl from under my stone to inform you about the church at West Wycombe.

1. The church was presented to the parish by an eccentric old man who had a slight mental streak.

2. It was built with a large sphere at the top of the tower so that when the vicar, his friends and cronies and so-called Satanists climbed up into it they were between heaven and earth and that therefore there was no restriction on their er! doings.

3. What they did!!

a. Swear !

b. Blaspheme !

c. Had Bottle parties!

d. Discussed the usual!

4. This all went on during divine service.

5. This is the story passed down. It is quite true.

6. I do not know what happened to end it. I presume that the parishioners objected.

7. Information about the tower and ball,

a. The ball is made of wood like a barrel.

b. It holds four people.

c. It sways like heck in the wind.

d. The iron ladder is slippery and swings like the ones in G.B.

e. The masonry of the tower is rotten.

f. And the stairs inside.

g. These are riddled by everything that knows how to riddle.

h. The area is beautiful in summer

8. The caves are a local invention, a Mausoleum was linked to the church by a tunnel, now lost.

Having crawled out from under my stone for the first time in 10 years, I now crawl back again, Hope I have satisfied hon. member,

A.J. Crawford.

Ed.’s note, Tony enclosed two postcards of the church and a sketch of the ball. There was one other reply to the request and this will be printed next month.

At great expense a real live "Auntie", Miss Prudence Brain, (Good old Ray!!) has agreed to take over the problem page. So, boys and girls, send in your problems to "Auntie Prudence" C/0 the Editor, 48, Novers Park Road, Bristol.4.

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