The Romans were masters of Mendip's lead mines

Life was always hard for the lead miners who toiled on the uplands of Mendip, but probably never more so than when the Romans were their masters

Life was always hard for the lead miners who toiled on the uplands of Mendip, but probably never more so than when the Romans were their masters. We do not know the system by which the Romans worked the chief mining area at Charterhouse, but we can be certain that there were no union agreements on pay and hours of work!In the Roman invasion of AD 32 the advance across the Western counties was made by the Second Augustan Legion under the command of that brilliant, ruthless leader Vespasian, who himself later became Emperor. He is said to have fought 30 battles in the campaign and captured 20 native fortresses, including the mighty one at Maiden Castle near Dorchester. It is also thought that the Second Augustan Legion were the conquerors of Worlebury. If so, the savagery of the Roman soldier lies imprinted on the skulls found in pits in the camp.The Romans were here for what they could get. The fact that within six years of their invasion they were exporting lead from the Mendip mines suggests that they lost no time in putting prisoners of war and general slave labour to work on extracting Mendip's mineral wealth.J W Gough, in his 'The Mines of Mendip' comments that, according to Pliny, Britain became the chief source of lead in the Roman Empire, and that it was found so abundantly near the surface of the ground that a law was passed to limit production.Mendip was an important centre of production. "Most probably the Romans set the native population to work in the mines," says Gough, "or used the labour of slaves and prisoners-of-war, or condemned prisoners. The mines were well known to be the destiny of enemies captured in war...."In his book, Roman Britain, I A Richmond observes that one of the Roman pigs of lead found at Charterhouse was countermarked by the Second Legion, suggesting that there were soldiers in charge of convict labour. Relegation to the mines was a form of penal servitude. There is no firm evidence of this for the working of the Mendip mines.Sir Richard Hoare and the Rev John Skinner, made important finds linked to the Roman occupation of Charterhouse. In later excavations Skinner made finds that suggested a quite considerable Roman settlement in then Town Field area.Skinner was most perfunctory in his work on the site, kept no detailed records of the area excavated, or a full list of the finds made.Mrs F A Neale graphically comments on this site in her interesting contribution to 'Man and the Mendips', that fascinating volume produced by the Mendip Society in connection with last year's Mendip 72 Exhibition at Wells.Mrs Neale observes: "Not until the advent of air photography was it possible to visualise the real impact of Roman Charterhouse on the landscape of this valley." Richmond said: "This suggests a traffic of consignments across the Channel and along the main arterial route to southern Gaul or Italy." The theory has Mrs Neale's support. In her article she comments: "The road from Charterhouse to the English Channel, and ultimately as far as France and Italy, can still be seen running south-east from Priddy Circles to become the present B3135 near Green Ore."Its westward extension past the farms of Winscombe and Banwell towards the Severn can be seen near Tynings Farm, but becomes more irregular, and probably older tracks as it scrambles up through Holloway Rocks, and is covered by medieval and modern lanes most of the way to Winthill, in Banwell."It was a friend of Hoare's, another Wiltshire antiquarian, Thomas Leman, who gave Uphill's harbourage the name 'and Axium'. Many people believed this name was actually applied by the Romans. It was never pretended to be so. The name was merely used by Leman and Hoare for convenience.In the Victoria County History of Somerset the antiquarian Haverfield expressed doubt about the existence of a Roman road leading over Mendip to Uphill and about Uphill's importance as a port in Roman times.Another archaeologist, Oppenheim, commented that is was unlikely the Romans would have exported lead by the long, circuitous voyage from Uphill, involving the difficult navigation of the Bristol Channel, with its dangerous shoals and violent tides, and the risk of shipwreck off Land's End. Gough, however, is not so easily persuaded. "As regards the dangers of the Bristol Channel," he states, "they were not necessarily any worse for the Romans than for the sailors of the Middle Ages and even later times, until the invention of modern appliances for navigation: yet the Danes found their way up the Channel to raid the coasts on more than one occasion, and even in the Middle Ages there is evidence that ships came up the Axe, very likely for lead, not indeed to berth at Uphill itself, but at the port of Rackley, some miles higher up."Since scepticism was expressed about Uphill's importance in Roman times, there has been the discovery of the Romano-British temple on Brean Down. In addition to the long-known Roman villa sites at Winthill and Star, there have been the discoveries of other villa sites at Locking RAF Station and near the Brewer's Arms, Banwell, which support the theories of there being a Roman trackway in the locality.In a report presented by Professor Tratman to the Bristol Spelaeological Society in 1961 he stated that the discovery of the Roman building at Locking, the temple at Brean Down, and two probable sites in Weston add to many of the previously known list of Roman sites served by the road that clearly it must have existed.On his study of the route he referred to a flat-bottomed hollow commencing just north of Tynings Farm and continuing westward. This line of the old road became lost in Rowberrow Forest, but was picked up on the other side and continued along part of Shipham Lane. At one point it was only 500 yards from the Roman villa site at Star. Almost completely invisible on the ground, from the air the shadow layout of a complete small township on the Town Field's Batch slope can, in certain lights, be seen with startling clarity; its main street, the houses aligned on either side, the alleys and back lanes, the amphitheatre dropping into is rightful position just outside the town limits."These shadows are in fact the traces left by only the lowest vestiges of walls, ditches and foundation trenches. Virtually all the physical remains of the settlement have been eroded, mined, and ploughed away. In its day, however the Charterhouse valley must have had the appearance of an almost industrial settlement, the like of which has never been seen on Mendip before."Archaeologists are divided as to whether the small amphitheatre-like dip in the ground high up in Town Field, reached from the lane leading to today's police radio station, ever was an amphitheatre. It certainly has the appearance of a small arena where the Roman soldiers might have relieved the tedium of their garrison work in this bleak Mendip area by holding sports.The site was excavated in 1909 under the direction of the noted archaeologist, the late H St George Gray. Results were disappointing, little being found except flint implements, and pieces of Samian and Romano-British pottery. It was established, however, that the amphitheatre was of Roman period origin.The discoveries made by Sir Richard Hoare and the Rev John Skinner at Charterhouse stemmed from the fact the Hoare had been tracing the routes of ancient roads. One of these, starting from Old Sarum in Wiltshire, led him into Somerset and along the top of the Mendips to Charterhouse and then on across the hills to the mouth of the Axe at Uphill. In his book on Roman Britain, Richmond has no comment on the theory that lead mined at Charterhouse was taken along the Roman road for shipment at the port of Uphill. On the contrary, he takes the view that the Romans achieved their exporting by the shortest route.Apparently they were rather careless with their pigs of Mendip lead. One countermarked by the Second Legion was found at Stockbridge in Hampshire, two more in the Solent, and another at St Valery at the mouth of the River Somme on the French coast. From Shipham Lane there was then a gap in the route, which may be assumed to have turned westward, which would take it near the Roman villa site at Winthill on the southern slopes of Banwell hill.Professor Tratman refers to an old lane west and south-west of Christon Plantation, and says that if the line of part of it is extended west it would run along the crest of part of Bleadon Hill and Oldmixon "where there is for about 500 yards a very low flat-topped mound about 12 feet wide and flanked on either side by faintly marked ditches".He suggests that the line along the top of the hill is much more likely to be the Roman road than the present road noted as such on the Ordnance Survey maps. The line of the road would presumably continue to Uphill and be closely associated with known settlement areas especially near Uphill Grange where Roman pottery including Samian ware have been found.The evidence, I think, is clear that the Romans used the route over the Mendips to take lead for shipment from probably both Rackley on the Axe near Compton Bishop, and at Uphill. Lead would undoubtedly have been loaded at Uphill for shipment across the Bristol Channel and to other destinations.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 4, 1972


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