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Somerset Historic Environment Record

10739

Site Name: Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
SCHEDULED MONUMENT: Sections of the Sweet Track, the Post Track and associated remains 500m north east of Moorgate Farm [No:27978]
  Sections of the Sweet Track and Post Track, 650m east of Canada Farm [No:27979]
  Sections of the Sweet Track and Post Track, 250m ESE of Station House [No:27980]
  Sections of the Sweet Track and Post Track, 240m south west of Sunnyside Farm [No:27981]
Civil Parish: Meare, Shapwick
Comprises:
PRN 10740Post Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 11000Neolithic finds, Shapwick Heath, Shapwick
PRN 15711Evaluation (1993), N of Moorgate Farm, Shapwick
PRN 15864Watching brief (1988), Shapwick Burtle
PRN 17304Geophysical Survey (2001) Sweet Track, Shapwick
PRN 17305Evaluation and monitoring (1995), Sweet Track, Shapwick
PRN 28573Jadeite axe find, Sweet Track, Shapwick
PRN 28585Geophysical survey (2007), Sweet Track, Shapwick
PRN 29449Excavation (1970-1972) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29450Excavation (1977) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29451Excavation (1971-1975) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29452Excavation (1979) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29453Excavation (1980) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29454Excavation (1981-1982) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29455Excavation (1985) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29456Palaeoenvironmental analysis (1972) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29457Palaeoenvironmental analysis (1977) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29458Palaeoenvironmental analysis (1982) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29459Palaeoenvironmental analysis (1993) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 29460Palaeoenvironmental analysis (1995) Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 30212Preservation assessment and monitoring (2008-2010), the Sweet Track, Shapwick
PRN 31570Excavation and auger testing (2009), Sweet Track, Shapwick
PRN 31938Ground penetrating radar survey (2012), Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
PRN 32331Ground penetrating radar and core sampling (2013), Sweet Track, Shapwick Heath
Grid Ref: ST 4218 4020 (ST 44 SW) ST 4255 4105 (ST 44 SW) ST 4290 4178 (ST 44 SW)
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Image: Image of HER 10739 - Photo by Somerset County Council (15 September 1981)
  HER 10739 - Photo by Somerset County Council (15 September 1981)

Public access:

The public accessibility of this site is unknown or has not been checked. Please ask locally and do not visit without permission. [Information last updated on 21 May 2003]

Details:

The Sweet Track was first discovered in 1970 by Ray Sweet, a local peat-cutter, behind the old peat factory on Shapwick Heath.

The trackway construction consisted of long rails placed end-to-end on the marsh. Pairs/groups of pegs, spaced c1m apart, were driven obliquely into the peat on either side of the rails so that they crossed over to create V formations. On these formations planks were supported which were abutted end-to-end to form the walkway which was raised c40cm above the rails. Notches on the underside of the planks were cut to slot over the pegs in order to provide further stability. Occassionally a vertical peg was driven through a hole in a plank or beside a plank to provide further stability. The wood species used in the trackway construction were: oak, alder, elm, lime, hazel, ash, holly, willow, poplar, dogwood, ivy, birch, and apple. Oak was the preferred species for the walkway. The trackway was constructed to provide a raised path over the common reed swamp/marsh that contained pools of open water, small streams, and patches of moss and cotton grass. Dryland nearby was covered by deciduous forest. The trackway is believed to run, in a remarkably straight line, over a distance of 2km from Westhay island to the Polden Hill slopes. There was considerable variability in the condition of the trackway over the traced length of 1.8km.

The Sweet Track is an Early Neolithic structure. It is the oldest trackway in the Somerset Levels and Britain. The trackway provides superb evidence of fine woodmanship and ingenuity in the Early Neolithic.

Tree-ring analysis has created an oak mean curve 410 years long, which has been cross-matched with the ash mean curve. Most of the oak and ash found along the length of the trackway was felled in the same year, evidenced by the presence of sapwood, which could mean that the trackway was constructed in a single year. The evidence of repairs gives an indication that the period of use for the trackway was at least 10 years long (judged from the hazel repairs). The hazel also indicates a 7 year coppice cycle. The tree-ring analysis also revealed the differences between the woodland exploited to construct the southern end compared those used to construct the rest of the trackway. Large oaks up to 400 years old from the northern woodland were used for the length from the northern terminal to the southern edge of the Nature Reserve whilst immature oaks little over 100 years old from the southern woodland were used for the southern 200m of track. This could imply that 2 communities existed in the area, a northern and a southern group.

The Post Track (PRN 10740) is closely associated with the Sweet Track and is considered a predecessor of the Sweet Track. {1}

The Factory site was excavated between 1970-1972 and revealed at total of 56m of the trackway. The narrow walkway was only suitable for single-file traffic. The trimming of the trackway was conducted on site indicated by the presence of wood chips and chopped branches. In a few places the rails were stabilised by a transverse timber located underneath it. Occassionally more than one rail was used to consolidate the track. Most of the planks were in a poor condition. The trackway was almost level throughout (planks between 1.55-1.65m OD). There was a deliberate selection of wood for certain parts of the track and for certain functions.

The Burtle site was excavated between 1971-1972 and revealed a total of c12m of the trackway. The trackway level rises slightly as it approaches the Burtle sand bed. At one point along the site an oak tree was used as the foundation for the track. At another point a heap of felled timber constituted the track. The track was reinforced with clay in certain parts.The track was not seen in the dry sections.

The radiocarbon dates for the trackway are: Q-991 488790 BP 3950-3350 cal BC, Q-1103 5103100 BP 4250-3650 cal BC (peat packing), Q-967 510865 BP 4050-3710 cal BC (peat on plank), Q-1102 5140100 BP 4250-3700 cal BC (peat beneath rails), Q-962 515065 BP 4230-3770 cal BC, Q-966 515970 BP 4230-3780 cal BC, Q-963 521875 BP 4260-3800 cal BC, Q-968 522475 BP 4260-3800 cal BC (peat on plank). The radiocarbon dates for the trackway are in agreement with the stratigraphic position of the trackway in the peat. {2}

The Railway site was excavated from 1971-1975 and revealed a total of 131.5m of the trackway which was similar in construction to sections of the trackway seen previously. In a few places transverse timbers were situated below the rails, at right-angles, to provide further stability in wetter patches. In some places short vertical pegs were driven low into the peat and planks rested directly on them. Peat packing located between the planks and the rails provided further stability to the trackway. No bindings were found. Few planks were found in situ and many were rotten or collapsed. Small slivers, slats and chips of wood were found among the timbers and in the surrounding peat. A jadeite axe was found in the Railway site. {3}

The Drove site was excavated in 1977 which revealed 50m of the trackway. The trackway seen at this site was similar in construction to the sections of the trackway seen previously. There were limited amounts of trackway debris at this site. Sometimes bundles of apple, willow, alder and birch were used to make the rails. The rails were located between 1.15-1.45m OD and the planks between 1.3-1.57m OD.

The rails at the Factory site were located at c1.53m OD and the planks between 1.55-1.65m OD. The rails at the Railway site were located between 1.45-1.6m OD.

The amount of material and workmanship seen in the construction of the Sweet Track could suggest that the local Neolithic community attached particular importance to the establishment and continuation of the route of the trackway. {4}

Emergency excavation took place in 1979 at the South Drain site.

The line of the trackway was traced over a distance of c1.5km through small excavation and borings in 1980. The construction of the trackway along this distance was consistent with that seen in previous excavated sections of the trackway. {5}

Further excavations in 1981 and 1982 of the track revealed more information about the track. The height of the walkway enabled passage through the marsh whilst it was flood. The walkway was narrow, only 20-30cm wide. There was a consistency in the quantities of certain parts of the track (ie pegs, rails etc) but not in the species selected for use. Although oak was the dominant species for the planks. Peat packing between the planks and the rails was not seen in the other sites of the track, only at the Railway site. This suggests packing was not necessary in other areas. Very few planks were complete, and the upper surface of them was worn and decayed which indicates extreme wetness. The double and triple rails, and transverse timbers beneath the rails at TG (an area of the Turbary site), were there to strengthen the track because that area was a particularly wet patch. The location of rails, rail pegs and vertical pegs off the main trackway line could indicate either a passing place, a start of a new stretch that was abandoned, a relic of the Post Track, or discarded pieces. The planks beside the track could represent either Post Track planks not used for the Sweet Track, stockpiled planks along the construction line that were abandoned, or debris of broken or dislodged planks that were replaced. {6}

Further excavations in 1985 were conducted at the Factory site. {7}

In 1989 further exposures of the track were recorded. {8}

Further excavations in 1993 revealed a possible southern terminal of the track. Trench C revealed the most information. The construction of the track there was similar to that seen in the previous excavation on Shapwick Burtle - the reuse of a bog oak trunk and substantial timbers. This implies that these areas were drier thus having a simpler structure. The wetter areas had more substantial foundations to the track. Dendrochronology dates reveal that the material for the trackway was collected over winter of 3807/3806BC and that repairs were made as late as 3800BC. 20 samples for dendrochronology produced a 237 year long chronology from 4651-4415BC, and the good match in the samples suggests the samples were all from the same tree. The absense of a dendrochronology link means that it cannot be proven conclusively to be the southern terminal of the Sweet Track, it may be that this could be a different or earlier track taking the same route. {9}

An evaluation of the track was conducted in 1995 which revealed more information. The track was interpreted as a communication route and enabled the exploitation of wetland resources. Excavations revealed the remains of the Sweet and Post Tracks; 2 trenches out of 4 had dessication cracks, and Trench 4 (GR) had a complicated substructure underneath the rails which consisted of 2 layers of planks resting on 3 roundwood poles at right angles to the track. This implies that the track here was crossing a particularly wet patch. The section of the track in Trench 3 had the worst preservation despite high water levels which implies that the conditions were dry at its construction.

Microbial analysis revealed that bacteria and ancient fungal hyphae were present in the timbers. All of the wood was highly decayed as the moisture content was more than 400%. {10}

The initial construction phase of trackway has been dated to 3807/6 BC by dendrochronology. Timbers felled after this date (3804-3800 BC) are likely to represent repairs. {11}

Tree-ring analysis from samples taken at the Railway site and some from the Factory site revealed that green wood was used in the construction because many pegs were warped and buckled. It also revealed that sapwood was trimmed off which implies a high standard of wood technology. {12}

Tree-ring analysis on samples of wood from the Drove site were compared to those conducted previously at the Railway site. The analysis revealed that the material used for the trackway construction at the Drove site was very different to the material used at the Railway site. Some sapwood was present. The analysis also revealed phases of repair to the trackway and felling of trees. {13}

A reconstruction of the Sweet Track was carried out by John Coles and Bryony Orme in 1983. This revealed more information about the trackway's construction. It was revealed that the Sweet Track had a simple but effective construction that could be built speedily. In order for the walkway to be level the correct angle and same size pairs of pegs needed to be selected. {14}

Samples were taken to analyse decay and microbial activity on some of the trackway timbers. The analysis revealed that fungus and bacteria were the main agents of decay to the timbers. It also revealed that the timbers had already begun decomposing before the trackway was covered by peat, and that the trackway was not exposed for a long time before it was covered. {15}

The preservation of the monument is giving cause for concern as water table in the peat is lowering and desiccation is occurring. A programme of evaluation and attempts at maintaining water levels in the Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve involves Nature Conservancy Council, Department of the Environment, and the Somerset Levels Project. {16}

Both scheduled areas, 27980 and 27981, are in good condition under permanent wet pasture. {17}

The Scheduled area 27978 was considerably revised with a new national number (was Somerset 399) on 13 June 1996. {47}

Scheduled Monument 27978: Larger northern part of monument is stable under permanent grass, for grazing. Now part of nature reserve. The southern part of monument, south of large rhyne which divides site is arable with root crop. Not known whether it has been ploughed.

Scheduled Monument 27979: Ownership change; now owned by English Nature. Monument lies within Shapwick National Nature Reserve, in a controlled hydrological environment. All appears stable and there is a periodic cutting of undergrowth. {48}

Scheduled area 27979 was revised with new national number (was Somerset 400) on 22 April 1996. {49}

Between 2008-2010, a three year research project was undertaken in order to assess in situ preservation at the southern section of the Sweet Track (see PRN 30212). {50}

References:

1 Description - Coles, JM and Coles, BJ. Sweet Track to Glastonbury: The Somerset Levels in Prehistory.  (1986), 41-64.
2 Excavation report - Coles, JM, Hibbert, FA and Orme, BJ. Prehistoric Roads and Tracks in Somerset England: 3. The Sweet Track. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.  39 (1973), 256-293
3 Excavation report - Coles, JM and Orme, BJ. The Sweet Track Railway Site. Somerset Levels Papers.  2 (1976), 34-65
4 Excavation report - Coles, JM and Orme, BJ. The Sweet Track: Drove Site. Somerset Levels Papers.  5 (1979), 43-64
5 Excavation report - Coles, JM and Orme, BJ. The Sweet Track 1980. Somerset Levels Papers.  7 (1981), 6-12
6 Excavation report - Coles, JM and Orme, BJ. Ten Excavations along the Sweet Track. Somerset Levels Papers.  10 (1984), 5-45
7 Mention - Coles, JM and Loxton, SD. Archaeology in the Somerset Levels 1985. Somerset Levels Papers.  12 (1986), 4-6 [page 5]
8 Description - Horner, WS. The Somerset Levels 1989. In Bradbury, J and Croft, RA. Somerset Archaeology 1989. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History133 (1989), 157-185 at 167-68
9 Excavation report - Wells, J, Weir, D and Brunning, R. Excavation of a possible terminal of the Sweet Track and pollen analysis of associated mid-Holocene peat (SWA 93), Somerset.  (1999) Unpublished typescript. Location: HER file 15711.
10 Excavation report - Brunning, R, Hogan, D, Jones, J, Jones, M, Maltby, E, Robinson, M and Straker, V. Saving the Sweet Track: The In Situ Preservation of a Neolithic ... Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites.  4 (2000), 3-20
11 Description - Hillam, J, Groves, CM, Brown, DM, Baillie, MGL, Coles, JM, and Coles, BJ. Dendrochronology of the English Neolithic. Antiquity.  64 (1990), 210-220 [page 211, 213, 214-219]
12 Description - Morgan, RA. Tree-Ring Studies in the Somerset Levels: The Sweet Track. Somerset Levels Papers.  2 (1976), 66-77
13 Description - Morgan, RA. Tree-Ring Studies in the Somerset Levels: The Drove Site of the Sweet Track. Somerset Levels Papers.  5 (1979), 65-75
14 Description - Coles, JM and Orme, BJ. A Reconstruction of the Sweet Track. Somerset Levels Papers.  10 (1984), 107-109
15 Description - Carruthers, SM. Examination of Timbers from the Sweet Track for Evidence of Decay and Microbial Activity. Somerset Levels Papers.  5 (1979), 94-97
16 Correspondence - Burrow, I [Ian] Somerset County Council to John Coles, Cambridge University. (3/2/1981) Location: HER files
17 Site visit report - Graham, A [Alan]. English Heritage Field Monument Warden. (11/5/2000) Report location: HER files
18 Mention - Morgan, R. Tree-Ring Studies in the Somerset Levels: Floating Oak Tree-Ring Chronologies from the Trackways. Somerset Levels Papers.  5 (1979), 98-99 [page 98]
19 Mention - Morris, G. Microwear and Organic Residue Studies in Sweet Track Flints. Somerset Levels Papers.  10 (1984), 97-106
20 Description - Girling, MA. Bird Pellets from a Somerset Levels Neolithic trackway. Naturalist.  102 (1977), 49-52
21 Description - Coles, JM. The Preservation of Archaeological sites by environmental intervention. In Hodges, H (ed). In Situ Archaeological Conservation.  (1987) at 2-55.
22 Excavation report - Brunning, R. Sweet Track: Assessment: An Interim Report. Archaeology in the Severn Estuary.  6 (1995), 3-8
23 Excavation report - Coles, JM and Orme, BJ. The Sweet Track, 1980.  (not dated) unpublished typescript. Location: HER files
24 Description - Morgan, RA. Tree ring studies in the Somerset Levels: The Sweet Track 1979-82. Somerset Levels Papers.  10 (1984), 46-64 [page 46-64]
25 Description - Caseldine, AE. Palaeobotanical Investigations at the Sweet Track. Somerset Levels Papers.  10 (1984), 65-78 [page 65-78]
26 Description - Girling, MA. Investigations of a second Insect Assemblage from the Sweet Track. Somerset Levels Papers.  10 (1984), 79-91 [page 79-91]
27 Description - Boddy, L and Ainsworth, AM. Decomposition of the Neolithic Wood from the Sweet Track. Somerset Levels Papers.  10 (1984), 92-96 [page 92-96]
28 Description - Horner, WS. Fieldwork in the Somerset Levels 1989.  (not dated) Unpublished typescript for "Somerset Archaeology 1989" with site list and map. Location: HER files under PRN 17992.
29 Mention - Beckett, SC. The Environmental Setting of the Sweet Track, Drove Site. Somerset Levels Papers.  5 (1979), 75-83
30 Mention - Girling, MA. Fossil Insects from the Sweet Track. Somerset Levels Papers.  5 (1979), 84-93
31 Detailed records - Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division record card. Record ID: ST 44 SW 38 (1978) Location: HER files under PRN 11000.
32 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 16, 5-6 Location: Somerset County Museum.
33 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 74.10, 74.67-8 Location: Somerset County Museum.
34 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 78.3-4, 78.35 Location: Somerset County Museum.
35 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 80.3, 80.6-10, 80.21, 80.25, 80.30, 80.31 Location: Somerset County Museum.
36 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 82.24 Location: Somerset County Museum.
37 Museum accession number - TTNCM 130.1986.1-93, 99, 104-107, 156-9, 167-72, 1 in Somerset County Museum.
38 Museum accession number - TTNCM 130.1986.784-5, 795-9, 812-55, 865, 868-72, in Somerset County Museum.
39 Museum accession number - TTNCM 130.1986.1631-33, 1637-44, 1724-27, 1736, 17 in Somerset County Museum.
40 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 73.24, 73.16 Location: Somerset County Museum.
41 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 79.90 Location: Somerset County Museum at Somerset Heritage Centre.
42 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: B.84.145 Location: Somerset County Museum.
43 Museum accession number - TTNCM 130.1986.1297-1303, 1320-1453, 1460-73, 1550 in Somerset County Museum.
44 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 75.65 Location: Somerset County Museum.
45 Museum accession number - TTNCM 130.1986.355-7, 360, 403-19, 438, 461-98, 54 in Somerset County Museum.
46 Detailed records - Somerset Levels Project finds sheet. Record ID: 81.21, 81.30-33 Location: Somerset County Museum.
47 Correspondence - English Heritage to Somerset County Council. (2/7/1996) Location: HER files
48 Site visit report - Graham, A [Alan]. English Heritage Field Monument Warden. (24/11/1999) Report location: HER files
49 Correspondence - English Heritage to Somerset County Council. (2/7/1996) Location: HER files
50 Detailed records - Jones, L. In Situ Preservation Research and Monitoring in the Somerset Levels: An Interim Report. Archaeology in the Severn Estuary  20 (2009), 65-79 Copy available in HER files under PRN 30211.

Record created in September 1982

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