Beacon Wood contains an important group of archaeological remains, spanning some 4,000 years, whose preservation owes much to the presence of the wood itself. Conservation and management of the wood’s environment is now the priority, of which its historical use is no less a part. To assist in this process and gain further insights into the archaeological legacy surviving here a programme of investigations have been undertaken over the past two years or so, with the support of LHI grants obtained through the Woodland Trust.
Beacon Hill probably lost its original woodland cover in the Neolithic period, 5-6000 years ago. By the Bronze Age, around 4000 years ago the hill was open downland, along with much of the Mendip plateau. Even then, however, Beacon Hill was a special place, chosen by the local people as a place of burial and ritual. A line of at least a dozen round barrows crown the ridge, most now preserved within the wood, while others are visible in the open field to the west. These barrows contain cremated human remains and funerary pottery of the early 2nd millennium BC.
Centuries later, in the Iron Age, the pebbly sandstone on the hilltop was quarried to make querns and millstones, which were used in local settlements such as the Glastonbury Lake Villages or South Cadbury Castle. The sandstone and volcanic rocks were also utilised as a source of grit tempering, used to make distinctively decorated Iron Age pottery at Glastonbury in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.
In Roman times Beacon Hill was probably at its busiest. Two main roads – The Fosse Way and a road from the Mendip lead mines to Southampton – intersected on the hill top, though little of their original construction is visible today. More apparent are the rakes, quarry pits and working platforms in the wood, that represent a considerable expansion of the stone extraction industry. The querns and millstones that continued to be produced here have been found at Roman settlements like Ilchester, Shepton Mallet or Camerton, as well as at villas and farms in the region. The sandstone was also used as metalling for surfacing the Fosse Way at Shepton Mallet at least.
Continuing research, through surveys (Corney et. al. 2003) and exploratory excavations (see page), particularly of the quarrying and ancient roads, is shedding new light upon Beacon Wood’s rich archaeological heritage.