Monday, 8 April 2013

The Lead and Silver Mines of the Mendips

One of the major drivers for the Roman conquest of Britain was to gain access to its famed natural resources of metal ores including iron, tin, copper and, of particular relevance to our area, lead and silver.

Throughout the late Iron Age, a steady supply of lead and silver mined on the Mendips had been exported to the continent via trading centres such as that at Hengistbury Head near Christchurch on the Dorset/Hampshire border.

The mined lead and silver would almost certainly have been transported along river routes such as the Bristol Avon and the Somerset Frome and then via a short land portage to either the Wiltshire Avon or Wylye to then be carried downstream by river again to Hengistbury Head for shipment across the channel.

When the Romans expanded their conquest of Britain into what is now modern day Somerset they quickly established direct control of the lead and silver mines on the Mendips both for the lead itself (in ever greater demand to line the aqueducts and water pipes of Rome and other Imperial cities) and also for its high silver content (increasingly needed to exchange for silks and other goods from the Orient). 

The Imperial mines on the Mendips exported the lead in ingots, and a number of these ingots have been found on the continent, at Hengistbury Head, on the Mendips themselves, and even in London such as the three pictured below found in a Roman warehouse building on the banks of the River Thames during excavations in 1995.

The three ingots shown above are about 2 Roman feet in length (60cm) and weigh just over 80kg.

The ingots have markings on the top which say IMP VESPASIAN AVG or IMP VESPASIANI AVG which indicates they were produced under the authority of the EMPEROR VESPASIAN AUGUSTUS who ruled from AD69-79.  On their side, the ingots are further marked BRIT EX ARG VEB which means they are British lead, from which the silver content has been extracted, produced by the imperial mines at Veb… or Ueb… (U and V are interchangeable on Roman inscriptions as you can see from the AVG for Augustus in the previous inscription). 

Rivet and Smith have suggested that the full name of Veb… (or Ueb…) might be something like Vebriacum (or Uebriacum).

The ingots were created by casting molten lead into moulds which would also produce the inscriptions.  It is possible to match the moulds used to create at least two of the ingots above with the very same moulds used to create ingots that have been found at the lead-silver mines at Charterhouse-on-Mendip.

Immediately to the north of Charterhouse is the parish of Ubley which still contains the remains of the Ubley Wood, presumably left in place  after the Anglo-Saxons planted a farming settlement in a clearing (“leagh”)  of the large wood near the Roman mines at Ueb[riacum].  Over time, Ueb[riacum]-leagh became Ubley.

But what have Roman lead ingots from the Mendips found in London and Anglo-Saxons naming their farming settlements after Roman mining operations got to do with a Roman settlement at Bedminster?

Well part of the answer lies in the following extract from the Victoria County History for Somerset noting a Victorian discovery in Bristol;
“Two pigs of lead found in 1865 in Bristol, in making excavations on the old bank of the river Frome, in Wade Street. One measuring on its inscribed face, 19 by 2¾ inches and weighing 76 lb., is in the British Museum. The other, weighing 89 lb., was at first in the collection of Mr. Edkins and is now in the Bristol Museum. Both pigs are imperfect in the first half of the name Antoninus, and probably came from the same mould.”
From: 'Romano-British Somerset: Part 3, Other Locations', A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 1 (1906), pp. 289-356.

A drawing of one of the lead ingots found in the Bristol Frome is shown above. The inscription says;


Which refers to 'Emperor Caesar Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country' who reigned AD139–161.  In 1873, another lead ingot with the inscription IMP CAES ANTONINI AVG PII P P was found near Charterhouse-on-Mendip.

If we seek to answer the question of how two lead ingots from the Roman lead-silver mines on the Mendips managed to find their way into central Bristol, that might help us to understand the transport network that existed in 2nd century Roman Britain and what role Bedminster may have played in it.

The Roman Road from Bath to Sea Mills and the Traiectus at Bitton

We know that the Romans built a road connecting Bath with the Roman sea-port at Sea Mills. Our understanding of the exact course of this Roman road is, however, limited.

Part of the road has been excavated on the Downs whilst an Anglo-Saxon charter for Stoke Bishop dated AD984 refers to the ealdan hearpathe (old military road) which appears to be a reference to the Roman road as it leaves the Roman port at Abona (Sea Mills).

Meanwhile to the east of Bristol, it is believed that the road roughly followed the line of the modern A431 between Bitton and St George.  Bitton is usually assumed to be the Trajectus or “crossing” referred to in the Antonine Itinerary, a document originally created in the 3rd century AD (although the earliest surviving copy was produced in the 13th century).

Extract from the Antonine intinerary with English translation

Item alio itinere ab Isca Calleva                -              -              -              mpm ciii sic

(An alternate route from Caerleon to Silchester 103,000 paces thus)

Venta Silurum (Caerwent)-         -              -              -              mpm viiii  (9,000 paces or 9 Roman miles)

Abone  (Sea Mills)-         -              -              -              -              mpm xiiii  (14 Roman miles)

Traiectus (Bitton?)-        -              -              -              -              mpm viiii  (9 Roman miles)

Aquis Solis (Bath)-          -              -              -              -              mpm vi  (6 Roman miles)

Verlucione (Sandy Lane, Wilts) -              -              -              mpm xv  (15 Roman miles)

Cunetione (Mildenhall, Wilts)   -              -              -              mpm xx  (20 Roman miles)

Spinis (Speen, Berks)     -              -              -              -              mpm xv  (15 Roman miles)

Calleva (Silchester)-       -              -              -              -              mpm xv  (15 Roman miles)


William Coxe, the churchman and historian, wrote in 1801 of the road continuing from Bitton to St George  and on to Durdham Down by way of south of Redland Down.  It is usually assumed that the road runs close to the line of Elm Lane-Lower Redland Road-Redland Road.

The finding of the lead ingots in the river Frome near Wade Street led to the belief that the Roman road from Bath crossed the Frome at, or near, the modern Wade Street bridge via a now lost Roman bridge, although no archaeological evidence of a Roman bridge has been found to date.

However, if the lead ingots were being transported by road along the Bath to Sea Mills road when some unknown accident caused them to be tipped over the bridge into the river below, this still doesn’t answer the question of how the lead ingots were transported from the Mendips and across the Avon to be on the Bath to Sea Mills Roman road in the first place.

The obvious assumption is that the lead ingots had reached the Bath to Sea Mills road having being transported across the Avon via the Trajectus at Bitton. 

Obviously this also assumes that the Trajectus at Bitton does not simply refer to a crossing of the River Boyd, a minor tributary of the Avon, but instead refers to a crossing of the Avon itself.

 As a Trajectus can also mean a ferry crossing not just a bridge, this does not constitute a major problem. The natural place for a terminus on the southern side of the Avon would be at Keynsham, where the river Chew joins the Avon. 

Indeed there is evidence of Roman settlement in the Keynsham era with villa complexes at Somerford and Durley Hill – the latter being one of the most impressive in the country.  There was also once a ford across the Avon.

This however is only part of the journey for the lead ingots. There is still some distance to be travelled between the lead mines on the Mendips and a projected Trajectus at Keynsham – almost 14 Roman miles in fact.

Let’s start at the beginning of the journey – the lead mines themselves.

Ueb-leagh and the Herepathe(Military Road) on the Mendips.

The possibility of a Roman road running from the lead-silver mines on the Mendips down its northern slope into the Chew Valley was first recognised back in 1906;

A fragment of Roman road—not, I think, hitherto noticed—can be traced on the north side of Mendip. It is only three or four miles long, and runs north-east and south-west, dividing the parishes of West Harptree and Compton Martin. It is attested by its straightness, its coincidence with parish boundaries, and the name Stratford Bridge. It was, I imagine, connected in some way with the Mendip lead mines.”

From: 'Romano-British Somerset: Part 3, Other Locations', A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 1 (1906), pp. 289-356.

The road follows a straight boundary between the later parishes of Compton Martin and West Harptree. In fact, Compton Martin and West Harptree themselves appear to be part of a much larger early estate that may well have its origins in the Roman settlement of the area.

It is worth remembering that the Anglo-Saxons don’t appear to have taken control of what would later become Somerset until, at the earliest, the middle of the 7th century.   Whatever may have happened in terms of population replacement in the east of Britain, it certainly appears that the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the Somerset area may have much more akin to the later Norman Conquest.

In other words, from the point of view of the majority of the population, new elites speaking a foreign language (Old English) largely replaced existing elites speaking the same language (Old Cornish). 

Romano-British estate owners had evolved into Post-Roman lords only to be replaced by Anglo-Saxon lords in the 7th century just as Norman lords would, in turn replace the Anglo-Saxons in the 11th.

As with the Norman Conquest, many of the existing land units may have been retained – meanwhile the bulk of the population continued as before, eking out a subsistence living as best as they could.  

Leach, writing in 1982, suggests that some Somerset parishes represent estates reordered under an emerging “villa” system towards the end of the first century AD, and that there is also considerable evidence of continuity into the medieval period.

Meanwhile the conquest of new territories offered those at the very top (William the Conqueror in the 11th century, the Saxon kings of Wessex in the 7th century), an opportunity to assess or reassess land values and thus the taxes that should be paid by the new landholders.

In the Anglo-Saxon period this involved assessing the arable land on each estate in terms of hides (sometimes Latinised as mansi or cassati in land charters) which in turn determined the amount of tax to be paid.

When it came to the hidation of landholdings in north Somerset, there appears to have been a large “estate” stretching from the mineworking area on the top of the Mendips northwards and down the slope into the valley of the River Chew. It’s western end appears to be the same Ueb-leagh (Ubley) mentioned previously, with the rest of the estate stretching east along the Roman road, the Ad Axium, that ran along the crest of the Mendips from Charterhouse east towards the Salisbury area. 

As mentioned earlier, the Roman road at Sea Mills was referred to in an Anglo-Saxon charter as the old “hearepathe” or old military road.  A similar such reference may comprise the root of the placename Harptree, given that East Harptree forms the eastern end of this proposed estate and that both it and West Harptree abut the Roman road or “hearepathe”.

The estate, which may have been a pre-existing Romano-British creation designed to serve the mining operations nearby, had been sub-divided by the time of Domesday into several separate holdings each neatly divided into units of five hides. 

These holdings comprise the modern settlements of Ubley, Compton Martin, Moreton plus two five hide units in each of West Harptree and East Harptree, altogether creating a 35 hide block of land.

Frances Neale has pointed out that the subsequent four parishes of Ubley, Compton Martin, West Harptree and East Harptree form a classic block of “strip” layout familiar in the Saxon period. Neale also notes that four of the five parish boundaries down the hillside utilise stream gullies on the lower slope.

The fifth parish boundary, the central one of the group, follows the Stratford Lane Roman Road.  This will be the topic of the next article.

To read about the Stratford Lane Roman Road click here;

No comments:

Post a Comment