Two thousand years of farming in the Severn Vale

Middle Bronze Age to Roman remains at Cleevelands, Bishop’s Cleeve

Bishop’s Cleeve, a popular village near Cheltenham, has expanded rapidly since the 1990s, providing opportunities for archaeologists to investigate the underlying remains. It occupies low-lying ground within the Severn Vale, with the Cotswold uplands nearby. Although much of the vale lies above clays, Bishop’s Cleeve sits on well-drained sandy gravels, and this probably attracted the Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and later people whose traces have been recorded during previous investigations. When Persimmon South Midlands decided to develop land north-west of Bishop’s Cleeve for housing, Cotswold Archaeology were called in to investigate the archaeology.

The site, looking east towards Bishop’s Cleeve, with the Cotswold hills in the distance
The site, looking east towards Bishop’s Cleeve, with the Cotswold hills in the distance

The earliest remains were a few flint tools spanning the long duration (10,000–3000BC) of the Mesolithic to Early Neolithic and dropped by hunter-gatherers visiting the valley floor.

Log ladder
Log ladder

Longer term settlement was established during the Middle Bronze Age (1500–1100BC), by which time the site occupied an established agricultural landscape, with grazing, arable fields, hedgerows and woodland patches. Within the site, a single roundhouse and ancillary building were built. Some 85m away, a small cemetery contained the cremated remains of seven individuals, perhaps the former inhabitants of this family sized farm which would have been one of many within this well managed landscape. Several large pits were found 200m from the roundhouse, within what was then damp ground alongside woodland or a hedgerow. These deep pits had been lined with wood, but their functions are uncertain: they are unlikely to have been waterholes or quarries, and one possibility is that they were shafts used for ritual purposes, such as communing with underworld deities.

scutching knife
Scutching knife

One of the pits contained the remains of a log ladder, hewn from a single piece of oak, as well as a tankard-sized vessel made from stitched bark, and a wooden implement used for processing plant fibres. The ladder had been used to access the pit floor, but the bark vessel, wooden implement and other items (antlers, a gold strip, a flint arrowhead, pottery and animal bone) were probably cast into the pits as offerings.

Middle Bronze Age pit with log ladder in situ
Middle Bronze Age pit with log ladder in situ

 

The site was re-occupied during the Early to Middle Iron Age (700–100BC) when several roundhouses were built across what continued to be an agricultural landscape. Enclosures on drier sandy gravels in the southern part of the site were probably for penning cattle and sheep/goats that were grazed on open clay land alongside the Dean Brook. Several grain storage pits suggest that this farmstead also had an arable element.

This pattern of enclosures on the drier sands/gravels and open grazing to the north persisted beyond the Roman invasion. Isotope analysis of sheep and cattle bones from the site indicates that most of the farm’s animals were reared there; the exception may have been brought in from the Cotswold uplands, although whether this points to transhumance or the importation of breeding stock is unknown. A smithy within the farm had been used to repair and recycle tools and jewellery.

Arable production intensified from the 2nd/3rd centuries AD. An unusually high number of millstones suggests proximity to a watermill, whilst the remains of portable clay ovens reflect the provision of hot food to agricultural labourers during harvesting or sowing. Harvested crops would have been winnowed in the fields then dried within ovens to prevent spoilage when stored. One such oven contained charred cereals from a subsequent stage of processing, where the grains taken from storage are heated to harden them to facilitate milling.

The implications are that during the later Roman period, grain was milled at a central mill and labourers worked the fields; this suggests intensification and centralisation, perhaps indicating that the farm had become part of a villa estate. Indeed, Roman roof and flue tiles from the site do suggest proximity to a Romanised building. As part of the wider economy, the farm could have supplied nearby Glevum (Gloucester), accessible within a day’s travel.

A small number of these farmers were buried within the site. They were robust, having lived long enough to display diseases associated with ageing and to show signs of their farm labouring. They had adopted elements of Roman culture, seen for example in their choice of pottery for food storage, preparation and serving, and in their use of brooches to fasten clothing. They also retained Iron Age traditions, burying a neonate and cow in ditches, burying some adults in crouched positions and enjoying an Iron Age-style diet rich in meat, dairy and emmer wheat. They probably viewed themselves primarily as farmers, rather than ‘Roman’, although no doubt they interacted in different ways with different people depending on context. The range and quality of the finds is typical for a farmstead of this period, and these farmers’ wealth would have been invested largely in their livestock and crops. They were able to trade for jewellery, pottery and, presumably, perishables, but were frugal, recycling and repairing when possible, whilst depositing material within pits and ditches as propitiatory acts to ensure future productivity.

What effect the development of a villa nearby would have had on their lives and attitudes is unknown but there are hints that during the mid/later Roman period they were integrated into a villa estate, the owner of which may have had more Romanised aspirations. Burials from these centuries were placed in the extended body position typical of Romano-British traditions and the impression is that engagement with a Romanised market economy went hand in hand with greater acceptance of Roman cultural expressions. 

Early post-Roman remains were sparse, but settlements of this date can be difficult to detect and are under-represented in the archaeological record. The latest dated cremation grave at Cleevelands dates to the 5th/6th centuries AD, whilst Anglo-Saxon organic-tempered pottery from a pit dates to the 5th–8th centuries.

A full report can be downloaded from the Reports Online page of this website https://reports.cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/ (report 18495).

Author: Jon Hart

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