Human Environment


Fig. 1: A selection of archaeological sites around the Severn Estuary. Source: SEP

The Historic Environment

The Severn Estuary has one of the most rich and varied archaeological landscapes in Europe. The Estuary and its surrounding levels have been a focus of human settlement for millennia and evidence can be found preserved in the archaeological record throughout the region. The Severn Estuary region demonstrates the greatest concentration of coastal archaeology in Britain and provides an irreplaceable record of historic importance1.

The historic landscape of the Estuary is far better preserved than most sites around the UK, owing to the permanently waterlogged conditions which assists the excellent preservation of organic remnants of past environments, such as wood which would otherwise degrade and eventually disappear.


Palaeolithic and Mesolithic - Before 4400BC
Palaeolithic hand axes, Mesolithic footprints and stone tool scatters recovered from the foreshore indicate the presence hunter-gatherer groups present before the introduction of farming. Just outside the estuary, at Westward Ho! in the Bristol Channel evidence of reed burning and tree burning close to settlements make it probable that humans were using fire to influence their environment, perhaps to encourage favourable grazing for their quarry.

Sea level rise has been 60 metres in the last 10,000 years, so the estuary these people knew was very different to our own. Imagine Flat Holm Island as a hill, rising up above a vast area of marshy land, our hunter-gather ancestors using it as a lookout to spot animals to hunt or as high ground to escape to in times of flood.

Campsites from these people are preserved in the alluvium and peat. Peat is especially fruitful, as it preserves wood as well as a record of the changing environment over thousands of years. The distribution of such sites shows a marked bias towards the intertidal zone, since this is where the alluvium that overlies the prehistoric landscape has been eroded away. Many more archaeological sites are likely to lie inland in the peat, but lie undiscovered.

Neolithic - 4400 - 2300BC
Evidence of Neolithic tool making has been found at Oldbury-on-Severn and Hill in Avon. The Oldbury site seems to be a large settlement, partly concealed beneath the modern meadows and partly exposed on the eroding coast.

In Somerset and on the Gwent levels, evidence of trackways have been found, linking settlements on higher ground with the water’s edge, used to cross the marshy ground to get to the estuary.

Bronze Age - 2300 - 700BC
During the Bronze Age settlements continued to grow around the estuary, moving further inland as sea levels rose.

The use of coastal sand dunes are highlighted by the discovery of five Bronze Age settlements at Brean Down in Somerset. Evidence that circular houses were used along with the oldest evidence from Western Europe for extracting sea salt.

Roundhouses and pottery from this period have been exposed on the foreshore at Rumney and Magor in Gwent and there is evidence of a Bronze Age boat at Caldicot.

Iron Age - 700BC - 43AD
Although the start of the Iron Age is marked by the advances in metallurgy, society and the way in which people used the land continued unbroken from the Bronze Age.

Remarkable clusters of prehistoric sites are associated with the peat shelves on the shore at Goldcliff and Redwick in Gwent where the buildings are remarkably well preserved. Animal hoof prints have been found associated with the buildings, suggesting the seasonal grazing of livestock. A small bone assemblage found here has pointed to the raising of mainly cattle, but also the presence of horses and dogs, and access to sheep / goat meat. Human skulls have also been recovered.

Later in the Iron Age the well-known settlements of Glastonbury and Meare in Somerset rise to prominence.

Roman Rule - 43 - 410AD
The Romans brought great changes across the British Isles, and the estuary was no different. The Twentieth Legion established itself in AD 49 in Gloucester and Roman vessels soon plied the river, estuary and Bristol Channel. The use of the estuary for trade is shown by the development of ports on the Avon and Parrot. Smelting of iron ore at Woolaston (Gloucestershire) and Oldbury-on-Severn (Avon) used ore shipped from the Forest of Dean. A Roman boat recently found close to the inland margin of the levels at Magor, Gwent, from what was then a tidal creek, suggests the kinds of craft that worked the estuary. The boat, of nailed planks was originally of about 12 metres long.

The Roman period saw the start of the draining of the land around the estuary. Much of the great tidal marshes of Gloucestershire, Avon and Gwent were embanked and drained, starting the process of making today’s’ agricultural landscape. Evidence that construction teams from the Roman army worked on the levels is provided by an inscribed stone from Goldcliff. After the end of the Roman period marshy conditions returned and tidal silt buried some Roman settlements and field systems.

Early medieval – Saxon 410 - 1066AD
Saxon times led to the re-colonisation of the levels, starting in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The monks of Glastonbury Abbey drained and exploited the wetlands.

In Wales evidence for this period is difficult to identify but the Book of Llandaff includes a charter for an 8th century estate at Bishton. Later King Harold Godwinson had a hunting lodge at Portskewett.

Medieval AD 1066 - 1485AD
After the Norman Conquest the monastic communities at Goldcliff and Tintern played an important role in the re-colonisation and subsequent draining of the Gwent levels. The monks built flood defences and dug ditches, such as the raised waterway called Monk’s Ditch near Goldcliff. As the levels were reclaimed great open fields were established, divided into strips- the ‘ridge and vurrow' (furrow). However fishing was also carried out along side farming, fish traps in the estuary being a favourite method.

The estuary was increasingly a link to the wider world. The ‘Newport Ship’, discovered during the excavation for a new arts centre in Newport, is one of the most complete examples of a late medieval ship, believed to be built circa 1465. It illuminates a picture of a busy estuary, with trading links to Spain and Portugal. Portuguese pottery and cork, stone cannon balls and engraved brass strips have been excavated. The great ports like Bristol, starting to spring up all around Britain, would have relied on ships such as this for commerce and for exploration.

The end of this period sees the vessel ‘Matthew’ leave Bristol bound for Newfoundland. It marks the beginning of the great voyages of discovery.

Industrial AD 1600 - Present
Daniel Defoe, c1720 described Bristol as “…the greatest, richest and best port of the trade in Great Britain, London only excepted.”

The “trade” was the Africa Trade, - goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to the New World, and the return to Bristol with sugar, rum and tobacco. Bristol gained great wealth from its lucrative trade triangle and rose to prominence as a major seaport. After the terrible trade was banned, Bristol continued to develop, and it was joined as a major seaport in the C19th by the South Wales ports of Cardiff, Newport and Barry, burgeoning from the exploitation of coal from the South Wales Valleys. The estuary was busy with vessels of all sizes in probably one of the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world. Incoming vessels would be met by the pilots, who sailed in fast and seaworthy Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters. The pilots would sail westward in search of ships heading for ports along the channel, before setting a pilot on board and being sailed back to port by an young apprentice. Also growing in size was the port of Gloucester, due to its important inland canal links, and the industrialisation of the midlands. Smuggling in the estuary became rife, with several famous smugglers and smuggling stories coming from the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Alongside this development, the population around the estuary continued to increase, and development created many towns, villages and communities around the estuary. The estuary also started becoming popular for holidays by the sea, peaking in Victorian times in seaside resorts such as Weston-super-Mare, Burnham, Severn Beach and Penarth.

The C20th has seen huge changes to the estuary, including the industrialisation of farming practices on the levels, commercial dredging of marine aggregates, and the building of new factories, motorways, and housing estates in the technological age. Perhaps the greatest testament to the way the estuary has changed is by our method of crossing it, and the time that it takes. The two Severn bridges offer a quick easy route across the treacherous channel, taking just a few minutes to cross.

A selection of archaeological sites in the Severn Estuary

Sites that have been found around the Estuary include Mesolithic foot prints, Bronze Age track ways, Iron Age villages, and fish traps from the medieval period2. The Estuary also has a rich heritage of maritime archaeology, with remains of vessels found at Newport, Barland’s Farm, and Caldicot3.

Footprints, Gwent4
8,000 year old human footprints from the Mesolithic era have been found in the intertidal zone along the Welsh side of the Estuary, across the Gwent Levels. Preserved in estuarine clays, fragile traces of human history like these footprints are scarce. The footprints are believed to be from a Mesolithic child, walking across a valley once situated where the estuary is today.

Submerged forest, South Gloucestershire5
Many timbers of once large trees from the Mesolithic period can be found in the inter-tidal zone of both the English and Welsh sides of the Severn (see section on Geology).

The Sweet Track, Somerset6
The Sweet Track is one of over 40 prehistoric wooden track-ways known from Somerset. It takes its name from Ray Sweet, a local peat cutter who discovered the site. In the 1970s, the Somerset Levels Project excavated the track-way, which was built as a raised plank walkway through the 2km of reed bed that separated the Polden Hills from the ‘island’ of Westhay (see Fig.1).

Bronze Age
Caldicot Castle Park
Digging of an artificial lake in the late 1980s revealed Bronze Age activity including possible weirs and perhaps places to draw up boats, the remains of which were also found.

Iron Age
Redwick Settlement8
An intertidal prehistoric site was discovered by Derek Upton on a peat shelf close to the sea wall, 1.2km south east of the medieval to modern village of Redwick in Gwent. Between 1999 and 2001, four rectangular buildings (measuring 11m by 4m) were fully excavated; having been preserved in the peat. Footprints from cattle were found surrounding the buildings, suggesting that the site was a seasonal settlement for cattle herders in the wetland.

The Aust Goddess, South Gloucestershire5
Recovered from the foot of a cliff near Aust one hundred years ago, this small bronze statuette is thought to date back to the late Iron Age or Roman times. It is widely believed that the statuette represents the Roman fertility goddess-Minerva and is of local origin. The find highlights the importance of the region in establishing historic trading links with Europe.

Roman Fortress, Caerleon5
The remains of the fortress garrisoned by the Second Augustan Legion include some of the best surviving barracks from the Roman world. Troops would have been supplied with wine and olive oil by boats from Europe travelling up the Severn, then following the River Usk, a tributary of the Severn. Pottery found at the site originated from Spain, Germany and France. The amphitheatre lies just outside the fortress and was used as a place for ceremonies and entertainment for the troops.

Pottery, South Gloucestershire5
Numerous Roman pottery finds have occurred from ‘fieldwalking’ in South Gloucestershire.

Barland’s Farm, Gwent5
This vessel which originally would have had a mast, was made of oak planks held together by iron nails. It was originally 11.1m in length and 2.6m wide and much of it still survived when it was discovered in the 1990s. It is likely that it is representative of a group of boats that plied their trade across the Estuary, potentially also making longer, sea-going journeys.

Fish traps, Stert Flats, Bridgwater Bay, Somerset13
Tree-ring and radiocarbon dating suggest that construction of the numerous fish weirs on Stert Flats, was within the last four centuries. A millennium of fish traps is represented in the area, with the earliest ‘V’ shaped structures dating back to the 10th century AD (see Fig.1).

Caldicot Castle7
The remains of this important masonry castle date from the early 13th and 14th centuries. The castle was developed as a stronghold in medieval times and was later restored as a Victorian family home.

Ship, Newport, Wales9
Discovered in 2002 during some development work for a new theatre, this Medieval vessel is one of the most well preserved and intact examples of a fifteenth century ship existing in Northern Europe. The vessel still contained items belonging to the crew, including Portuguese pottery and coins. The discovery of this vessel is one of the most significant finds of international importance.

Fish Traps, South Gloucestershire10
Fish traps and baskets dating back to medieval times were unearthed near Sudbrook during a survey prior to the construction of the Second Severn Crossing in 1991. Artefacts found include post settings, track-ways, and woven fish traps and baskets; illustrating the strong maritime history of the Estuary.

Magor Pill Boat, Gwent11
The vessel was found in 1994 by Derek Upton; the subsequent Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust excavation was funded by Cadw. Only a portion (7m by 3.4m) of the original vessel was found in a complete condition (originally measuring 13.2-14.3m by 3.7m). Tree ring dating has shown the boat was built in 1240 AD.

Puxton, North Somerset12
Following extensive post-Roman flooding, Puxton was one of the first places on the North Somerset Levels to be recolonised; making the site a particularly fine example of a shrunken medieval settlement.

Recent Finds14

During the summer of 2011, the well preserved remains of the civil settlement outside the Roman fortress at Caerleon were excavated by a team from Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion. Among their discoveries was what was probably part of a quay. The archaeological remains in the Estuary are not only fundamental to our understanding of the region’s past, but also help us understand its present and future. This rich historical heritage forms an irreplaceable record and it is certain that there is much more to be discovered.

The Future, Threats and Climate Change

Proposals for further development continue, and the new challenge of sustainability is starting to be recognised. The recognition of the estuary as an internationally important wildlife area, awareness of its valuable archaeological heritage, and the importance of a healthy, pollution free estuary raise the bar further for what we must do to achieve this vision of sustainable development. Alongside this comes increasing opportunities for tapping the estuary’s resources, such as renewable power.

Sea level rise, like that which our ancestors had to deal with on the estuary, also faces us in the future. We cannot move inland as easily as they did however, and how we deal with the rising sea level is surely one of the biggest challenges facing the estuary in the future.

There are numerous threats to artefacts of historical importance within the Estuary-particularly from land-based development, although improved planning guidance and legislation is reducing this. With many sites remaining undiscovered, this threat is amplified. The potential damage to archaeological remains from climate change is also significant, with increasing erosion resulting from sea level rise and more frequent severe weather events posing a possible threat.

For more information see the following links:


  1. Strategy for the Severn Estuary Summary Report. Severn Estuary Partnership, 2001.
  2. Severn Estuary Shoreline Management Plan Review – Appendix E – Issues, Features and Objectives Evaluation. Produced by Atkins for the Severn Estuary Coastal Group.
  3. Severn Estuary Shoreline Management Plan Review – Appendix 1 – Part A – Strategic Environmental Assessment Report. Produced by Atkins for the Severn Estuary Coastal Group.
  4. Chadwick, A.M. Gloucestershire County Council Archaeological Service. ‘Footprints on the sands on time’: The archaeology of the Severn Estuary.
  5. The Archaeology of the Severn Estuary. A guide for planners, developers, decision makers and local communities. 2006.
  6. Sweet Track. SELRC Top Sites.
  7. Caldicot Castle.
  8. Redwick. SELRC Top Sites.
  9. Newport City Council. Medieval Ship.
  10. Sudbrook Archaeology. SELRC.
  11. Magor Pill Boat. SELRC Top Sites.
  12. Puxton. SELRC Top Sites.
  13. Stert Flats. SELRC Top Sites.
  14. Cardiff University News centre; Lost Roman Fort found
Last Updated 2013

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