Remains from the lost 16th century hamlet of Tappingweir were uncovered as part of dredging works carried out along the River Parrett.
In 1515, Tappingweir consisted of two houses east of where the River Tone joins the River Parrett on the Somerset Levels near Burrowbridge.
A report written for Somerset Rivers Authority (SRA) and the Parrett Internal Drainage Board (IDB) reveals the results of archaeological monitoring performed by local archaeologists James Brigers and Alan Graham of Prospect Archaeology.
It appears that Tappingweir’s inhabitants led humble lives, with inferior pots from West and South Somerset and a wetland diet of fish and fowl.
The story below draws on the official report written for the SRA and the Parrett IDB by James Brigers.
Pictured below: the Parrett IDB has been delivering a dredging scheme for the SRA between Stathe and Burrowbridge, working closely with the Environment Agency and Natural England. The SRA has been using Growth Deal funding from the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership.
As part of preparations for dredging between Stathe and Burrowbridge, topsoil was stripped from the back of the northern bank of the River Parrett. This was done so that – when dredging began – silt taken from the river could be swung round in excavators’ buckets and deposited at the back of the bank. The bank is thus made wider and stronger – and time and money is saved because silt does not have to be hauled away and put somewhere else. Topsoil is later spread back on the bank and re-seeded.
Topsoil stripping was monitored by James Brigers and Alan Graham. If they ordered the process to pause, it paused, so they could get in close and investigate and retrieve relics. Two other sites were also watched over, but the late 18th century Chard’s Brickworks yielded just kiln waste – and little of interest came from another abandoned 16th century hamlet called Tutyate, possibly because the brickworks used the area around there as a tip.
At Tappingweir a wall was exposed (pictured above), on a platform containing 16th century pottery and other domestic waste. It is possible this layer was deliberately created to raise a house’s ground level by 1 foot or more. Another larger platform was also found with materials from the later 18th and early 19th centuries.
A lot of the 16th century pottery was most likely made in West Somerset. Bits of jugs and pancheons (wide shallow bowls used to separate cream or bake bread) and cooking pots with thumb-decorated rims and applied cordons (strips of clay) all match artefacts known to have come from kilns at Crowcombe and Nether Stowey.
Mr Brigers comments in his report: “Given the location of the site on the bank of the River Parrett with easy access to the medieval port of Bridgwater to the north and onward communications with the Quantock Hills the predominance of vessels from these areas is perhaps unsurprising.”
In the larger and later platform more pottery is reckoned to have come from the Donyatt area of South Somerset.
Across the centuries, one consistent factor is the pottery’s substandard quality.
Mr Brigers says: “In general the pottery here is typical of what may be expected from a site of relatively low economic status during the Tudor period and it is notable that many examples exhibited imperfections, particularly from the later context, suggesting that the inhabitants of the site may well have been purchasing ‘seconds’ at a discount rather than perfect items.
“Material of earlier date was scarce and included a small quantity of pottery, predominantly jugs, but also a fragment of floor tile of possible 13th or 14th century date. Humble peasants’ houses of the medieval period were unlikely to have possessed floors made up of expensive formal surfaces and the tile is suggestive that some form of higher status structure may have existed in the locality, although it is equally possible that this fragment was imported to site in one of the numerous dumps that must have been incorporated in flood defences.”
Bones and metalwork
Metalwork at Tappingweir consisted mostly of mostly hand-made iron carpentry nails presumed to be from properties’ timber structures and fittings. There was also a small knife, almost certainly from the 16th or early 17th century, part of a hinge strap, and a broken iron chain link. A small fragment of thin copper alloy foil could be the remains of decoration from a leather or wood item.
A small amount of animal bone was present but not enough to suggest that meat formed a dominant part of the local diet. Also found was a femur from a large bird, possibly water fowl, and probable fish bones.
As Mr Brigers remarks, “it would be surprising if these elements were not present in the diet of a population inhabiting the banks of river at the edge of an extensive wetland environment”.
On maps from 1800 only one dwelling is still visible at Tappingweir.
By 1840 this is gone.
It must have been a hard life.
Fieldwork summary and site archive
Mr Brigers’ own summary of the results of all this fieldwork is being published in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society in 2020.
The site archive is deposited at Somerset Heritage Centre under accession number TTNCM 97/2019. This includes 207 retained finds weighing a total of 3,107g.