ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 51, February 2000


I blame the champagne

Mick Aston recalls the day he stumbled on a deserted medieval village

My favourite discovery took place in the summer of about 1976, when I was county archaeologist in Somerset. I was on my way back from Richard Bradley's wedding [he's now Professor of Archaeology at Reading University], and there were four of us in the car, the archaeologists Pete Leach and Ann Woodward, plus my wife.

The wedding had been great. There were lots of archaeologists and I remember drinking a lot of champagne. Anyway, at this stage in the journey I was desperate to relieve myself and we had to pull the car over.

It was a nice bright low-sun day, getting towards the evening. I climbed over the gate and was standing against the hedge, when I looked around and there was this amazing great sea of earthworks. One little walk out into it showed there was a holloway down the middle, and there were house platforms along each side. It was very, very clear. The cattle must have been in there and eaten all the grass down, otherwise it would have been overgrown.

What I'd found was the remains of Nether Adber, one of the best preserved deserted villages in Somerset. The village is mentioned in Domesday Book. The fact was, the thing was sitting there, in the middle of the Somerset countryside, totally unrecognised.

When I went to Somerset in 1974 not much had been done on deserted villages. I'd come from Oxfordshire where there were 15 PhDs on every deserted village. To come to a county where you could go out and find a top-class site still with house sites on it was mind-boggling.

Most deserted villages have holloways and roads on them. A lot have other hollows that indicate the platforms where the buildings stood. But a relatively small proportion, like Nether Adber, have got the outlines of the buildings visible, where you can actually see the houses and barns. Here also you've got the village boundary bank, and areas of ridge and furrow.

The field next door had a moat, a fishpond and a chapel site in it, but unfortunately the owner at the time had filled it all in. He was a very quiet hill-billy farmer. He was firebombed later on, right through his bedroom window. I have no idea why. Fortunately he wasn't in there at the time when it happened.

For a couple of years I used to take councillors out for a day trip, the idea being to show them that archaeology was interesting, and I took them to Nether Adber. Earthworks may look impressive to archaeologists, but I'm sure the councillors didn't know what the hell they were looking at.

Anyway, at the edge of the site was the owner's house, and a black dog came running out of it, straight across this field, straight to me, cocked his leg up on my trousers, pissed all over my trousers, and then ran back to the house. And of course the councillors thought that was absolutely hilarious. I think they were sold from then on, on the idea that archaeology was somehow a fun thing.

It's wonderful to find a site like Nether Adber. You are probably the first person who recognises it and knows what it is since the last person abandoned it 500 years ago. Farmers usually don't know what earthworks are, or they think they are something that they're not. Time and time again with deserted villages I've told the farmer, and they've said, 'oh no, it's quarrying', or 'it's clay pits' or something like that. Which is probably what they've been told - which means that the folk memory that there was a settlement there has completely gone.

As far as I remember on this occasion in 1976 I didn't summon the others from the car. Maybe they'd all had too much to drink or they were just desperate to get home.

Mick Aston is Professor of Archaeology at Bristol University

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