Brean Down

Volunteers undertaking on the Nissan Hut bases at Brean Down, July 2016
Volunteers undertaking on the Nissan Hut bases at Brean Down, July 2016

The site has a complex and extensive archaeological history with the first known occupation during the Beaker period (Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age), the site had subsequent intermittent use until World War II. It is currently within the ownership of the National Trust and is fully accessible to the public.

The significance of the archaeology has been noted at Brean Down for over a century with archaeologists first noting human remains eroding out of Sandcliff in 1902 (Bell 1990; 3). During the 1950s investigations were undertaken on the Romano-Celtic Temple which identified the temple layout and an additional two buildings (ApSimon 1959). The first culmination of the archaeology and stratigraphy was published in 1961 (ApSimon, Donovan and Taylor 1961). Subsequent investigations were undertaken on the possible Roman fort on the east side of the Brean Down promontory, however the bank and ditch identified were proved to be part of an Iron Age promontory fort (Burrow 1976; 141). A hiatus in investigations was terminated by the discovery of two Bronze Age gold bracelets, in situ in 1983 by Keith Crabtree of Bristol University. This prompted a 4 year field work investigation on the Sandcliff between 1983 and 1987 and were published in 1990 (Bell 1990 7)..

The following phases of archaeology can be found on Brean Down;

  • Intertidal Peat dating to 4450 (cal BC) has also been noted on the foreshore by Sandcliff south of the limestone promontory. 
  • Beaker period (Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age) occupation
  • Early Middle Bronze Age settlement and industry (textile and salt production)
  • Late Bronze Age occupation and possible settlement
  • Bronze Age Barrows and/or cairns
  • Iron Age promontory fort
  • Romano-Celtic Temple and associated living structures
  • Celtic-Medieval Field System
  • Post Roman cemetery 
  • Victorian Palmerston Fort
  • WWII reuse and re-fortification of the Victorian Fort
  • WWII search light battery
  • Wreck of a small vessel, unknown date
  • Possible wreck of a Portuguese ship?
  • Numerous fish weirs, unknown date
Location of archaeological sites on Brean Down ©GOOGLE EARTH
Location of archaeological sites on Brean Down ©GOOGLE EARTH

Occupation of the site began in the Beaker period (Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age), evidence is supported by a paleosol and sand deposits which are considered to date to the Beaker period of Bronze Age occupation (Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age), evidence to support this is identified in the form of a gully, pottery and worked flint artefacts (Bell 1990; 26). This occupation then is succeeded by stone structures of the Middle Bronze Age period, evidence of a complex settlement system, houses of stone with walls up to 1.6m in thickness were also identified during investigations. These contained artefacts of textile, pottery and metal work which would suggest that this was a residential and industrial area which produced metal work and salt (Bell 1990; 31). The later Bronze age period provides evidence of occupation but little evidence of permanent settlement, this period is represented by pits and gullies. However it was clear during the investigations of the late 80s that an unquantified amount of the site had already been eroded away, it is possible that the foci of the later Bronze Age occupation was in this area, and sadly evidence no longer exists.

The Bronze age nucleated open settlement was succeeded in the Iron Age by a general move towards enclosed and defendable settlements. Brean down is no exception, on the east of the Brean down promontory an Iron Age Promontory Fort (cliff castle) has been investigated and recorded. Today limited amounts remains as intense quarrying has occurred on the site since the Roman period but it is considered that during the Post Medieval most of the destruction to the Fort occurred as it was recorded as being square, whilst today all that remains is an L shaped bank and ditch. During excavations the ditches were sectioned and they were measured at 4.5m in width and 2m in depth and enclosed a probable area of 0.5ha (size of 1 football pitch).

Once the Romans invaded there was a gradual shift once again, this time from defended settlements to more open settlements on lower ground. However there is a continuation of hillfort use during this period, many hillforts are superseded by Roman Temples and this is the case at Brean Down. Excavations were carried out on the temple by ApSimon between 1956-58, there appear to be two phases of Roman use, the first is demonstrated by a Temple and associated ‘Priests House’ (1950s interpretation), once this fell into disrepair it would appear that a second structure was built partially using the ruined stones of the temple during the late Roman period.

Reconstructions of the Roman temple on Brean Down taken from © ApSimon (1965)
Reconstructions of the Roman temple on Brean Down taken from © ApSimon (1965)

Artefacts have allowed us to identify a proposed date construction and subsequent abandonment, it is suggested that the temple was built c. 340AD, additions to the temple were made in c. 378 and was out of use by c.390, the majority of the coins identified in the excavations dated to the late 4th century (AD 370s-90s) (ApSimon 1965; 195 and Boon 1965; 239-248). This is interesting in its own right, at the end of the Roman occupation of Britain many sites undergo a significant period of abandonment from the late 3rd century. The site continued to be utilised and in the 5th century a small domestic building was constructed to the south of the temple site, it is considered that stones from the temple were used in its construction and fell into disrepair during the 5th century AD (ApSimon 1965; 224).

Site plan illustrating the relationship between the temple and the later southern domestic dwelling taken from © ApSimon (1965; 225)
Site plan illustrating the relationship between the temple and the later southern domestic dwelling taken from © ApSimon (1965; 225)

Use of Brean Down again continues into the post Roman period. Human remains are recorded as being eroding out of sandcliff (the junction between Brean Beach and the promontory) as early as 1902 (see above). This area was looked at as part of the investigations directed by Bell in the 1980s and a total of 8 skeletons were recorded, some of which had already been truncated by erosion (Bell 1990; 80). They mainly date to the seventh century and it is unclear as to their association with the site, no evidence of a post Roman settlement has been identified on the down. It can therefore be assumed that a settlement of this period is located nearby on the flats but evidence of settlement during this period is scarce.

From the evidence it would then appear that a hiatus in occupation occurs at Brean Down, however remnants of a Celtic to Medieval field system on the down and Medieval field systems around the Down infers that the area was still utilised and some foci of occupation (perhaps similar to that of the Early Medieval period) was still in use.

The history of Brean down then moves on to the construction of the Victorian Palmerston form at the end of the 1.5km promontory, one of four forts built to defend the Severn Estuary against the threat of the French.

Bronze Age site sealed by sand dune deposits, five phases of activity from Beaker period to late Bronze Age, settlement, burial, cultivation, animal husbandry, fishing, fowling and shellfish collection (Murphy, 2014: 59).

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ApSimon et al 1961. The stratigraphy and archaeology of the late glacial and postglacial deposits at Brean Down, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society

Van Der Bijl, N. 2000. Brean Down Fort Its History and the Defence of the Bristol Channel. Hawk Editions: Taunton