Reprinted from Newsletter 128, dated 2009 April

The lake villages in context

Adrian Pearse

A talk by Nancy Hollinrake

How do the lake villages fit into the Iron Age settlement system? Nancy Hollinrake in her talk to the Antiquarian Society on October 31 set out her considerations regarding the Glastonbury and Meare lake villages in their local and regional context, using the surviving material evidence together with the results of research into Iron Age settlement and society in Britain and Ireland.

Their position was significant. The Glastonbury village lay close to the river Brue, which at that time meandered north to join the Axe. The Meare village lay a mile west. Both were at the edges of lakes within an alluvial peat swamp, with higher agricultural land to the east.

Their construction was sophisticated. At Glastonbury house platforms were of timber beams held in place by piles, with imported clay layers above. Pottery recovered included Dobunnic wares (from north Somerset or Gloucestershire) but no Durotrigian examples (south Somerset or Dorset) and also local Glastonbury wares as well as pottery from Armorica (Brittany) and Normandy. There was also a large range of wooden items often of intricate design, tools, weaving equipment, whetstones, personal effects, horse harness, chariot parts and special finds such as the bronze bowl, giving an exceptional insight into Iron Age material culture not found on other sites of the period.

At Glastonbury lake village metal working, bone usage, textile manufacture, chariot making and food preparation were carried out; and at the Meare village, which appears to have been occupied only during summer, there was evidence for working shale and bronze and making glass beads.

In a wider context, the lake villages were positioned between three or four tribal territories: the Silures in south Wales, the Dobunni to the north and Durotriges to the south, and the Dumnonii to the west in Devon. Examination of the hillfort locations and allocation of their respective territories suggested that the lake villages were at the edge of the territory of the Compton Dundon hillfort. Inter-tribal market sites were often on the boundaries between the tribal areas but it is unlikely the lake villages performed this function. Although having a defensive position and being secular and of high status, they were dependent on the adjoining agricultural hinterland.

Despite the larger number of dwellings at the Glastonbury lake village, there are clear comparisons to Irish crannogs. These appear to be largely of Dark Age construction but may derive from Iron Age predecessors. Documentary evidence in the Irish law codes also raises the possibility that they had a direct Irish connection — an intriguing line for future research.