The Rev. John Skinner was vicar of Camerton from 1800 to 1839. He was a prolific antiquarian and his journals, now preserved in the British Library, record the opening of hundreds of sites in Somerset and Wiltshire.
His first recorded visit to Beacon Hill is in June 1818, where he mentions tracing the course of the Roman road with Sir Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead, this would be the ‘Via Ad Axium’ that Sir Richard later maps in his book ‘The Ancient History of Wiltshire’. Following the visit, Skinner records that:
“..there were several barrows near Beacon hill and the appearance of trenches”
This seems to have peaked his interest as he returned to the site in September and October that year, then the following year he returned to begin excavations.
Between the 14th and 17th August 1820, Skinner opened at least four of the barrows, two were inside the ring ditch and two were in what he refers to as the South field, this is actually to the East of the ring ditch.
The story is probably best told in his own words:
Aug. 14, 1820. f66, BM ADD MSS 33656.
“Having engaged with Mr Crocker to meet him at Beacon Hill, above Oakhill on Mendip, to inspect the line of the Roman road running from thence in the direction of Gaer Hill and Maiden Bradley, I left home immediately after breakfast this morning, and passing along the Fosse by Stratton to Nettlecombe and thence in front of Ashwick House and street; arrived at the Beacon a quarter before eleven; having procured a person whom I saw in a potatoe field close at hand, to dig in different parts of the plantations in the vicinity of the Beacon, to ascertain whether there had been any permanent settlement in this immediate neighbourhood. We commenced operations first close to the Beacon, of which I made a sketch and of the Tumulus adjoining with a stone placed on the summit. The soil he turned up presented no appearance of pottery nor any other indicia of residence. We next dug within the centre of the Beacon barrow which is hollowed out eighteen paces in diameter, the banks being about six feet high (44 – Doulting 2). We met with no signs of charcoal which rather surprised me, still as we only opened the ground in one place it was no fair criterion to judge by: this Beacon was on a very commanding point. As the whole of the district between the Avon, the Axe and the Frome, might receive intelligence from thence by signal of any movement made from the Severn, and communicate the same to the Wiltshire Camps, as well as those situate in the Country of the Colonists of Camalodunum: We also dug on the summit of the Barrow, near the pillar (45 – Doulting 3), and turned up some fragments of pottery of more recent date, probably left there by people visiting and dining on the summit of the Tumulus. X – It was a custom as far back as the time of Homer to place a stone on the summit of a barrow…. I cannot find whether the stone placed there, almost six feet above the ground, owns a remote antiquity, I should rather think not. However it was set up beyond the memory of man and is covered over with initials of names of persons who have visited the place: – before the hill was planted. The Tumulus and its vicinity must have afforded a delightful prospect: indeed even now, I hear it is much frequented by persons coming out of Shepton and the neighbouring villages, during the time the Wortleberries are ripe, with which the surface of the soil abounds. In the course of half an hour, Mr Crocker and his brother arrived; we then employed the man in digging to the South of the Beacon Hill where there are six tumuli (46 – Doulting 4). The soil was very black, occasioned I imagine by decayed vegetables and grasses, but no appearance of pottery. Being anxious to examine the contents of the largest tumulus in this direction (47 – Doulting 5), I desired the man to get it open for my inspection by Wednesday morning, meaning to take it on my way home from Stourhead.”
Aug. 16, 1820. f71, BM ADD MSS 33656.
“Rain beginning now to fall, I hastened my course to Mendip, but was quite wet through before I reached Beacon Hill which obliged me a stop at a Public House to get my clothes dried. It being now four o’clock, I took some bread and cheese, but could procure no eggs, it being a miserable place; on inquiring whether any ancient coins had been dug up here, I learnt that a person in the neighbourhood had several, but they could not inform me where they were found; neither could I procure the sight of them, the possessor being away from home. The weather clearing up, and my coat quite dry, I proceeded to the Beacon Hill within half a mile of the public house. On arriving there I found the large barrow (47 – Doulting 5) had been opened to the depth of eight feet, that is, to the natural surface of the soil, which presented a thick black list where the funeral pile had been burnt. As I was very anxious to ascertain the nature of the interment I determined on spending the night at Cannards Grave Inn about two miles distant, leaving orders with the workmen who were now increased to three and two boys, to proceed early in their operations the following morning. Then quietly trotted along the line of the Fosse to the Inn, and having ordered a fire, and something to eat, employed myself till bed time in my sketches etc.”
Aug. 17, 1820. f72, BM ADD MSS 33656.
“I could not help thinking how differently this morning was to be spent, by myself, an obscure individual, on the desolate heights of Mendip, and the Queen of these realms in the midst of her judges in the most splendid metropolis in the world. Yet when half the number of years have rolled away which these Tumuli have witnessed how will every memorial, every trace, be forgotten of the agitation which now fills every breast; all the busy heads and aching hearts will be as quiet as those of the savage chieftains which have so long occupied these hillocks. The grave settles all human difficulties; but there is an important hereafter; therefore it concerns us to look far beyond the present: our concern is elevated far beyond this sphere it extends beyond time and centres in eternity!!”
“On arriving at the barrow I perceived the excavation of the larger had been considerably extended, but without finding anything. The depth they had dug was eleven feet, that is nearly two feet below the natural surface of the soil. I therefore directed them to make trenches across the tumulus, in doing which they came to an urn on the south side, evidently a secondary interment. The material was of the coarsest kind of unbaked clay with the usual kind of zig zag ornament near the rim, it was half full of burnt bones, but no weapons or ornaments. As it broke to pieces when taken out could not measure its exact dimensions, but l think it was almost sixteen inches in height and twelve inches across the rim. The rude appearance of the vessel convinced me of the antiquity of the interment. Probably the original deposit at the bottom of the Tumulus was without any vessel, placed in a hole in the earth, as was the one the men afterward found in the second barrow they opened. Wishing again to examine the ground in the immediate vicinity, as I am pretty certain their must have been a settlement near at hand, I went into the potatoe field with the person who had dug it over, and looked very carefully for pottery, but without success; however any time and trouble were not intirely lost, as I clearly saw where the Fosse came into the field, with a high dorsum; on digging into which, the man came to a layer of pebbles and below it found a pitching of large stones, the length of the section of dorsum was 35 paces measured from the hedge bounding on the Wells road, which passed over the Fosse; on the other side of the road, we also saw as large a portion of the dorsum quite perfect, about 100 yards to the North East of Beacon Hill, it evidently made a bend to avoid the hill, and descend to the line leading to Cannards Grave. When we again returned to the potatoe field the man showed me the places he had found such difficulty in digging, which marked the line of the Fosse, and the Uphill Portway, which crossed it in this field, not in the lane adjoining it, as I at first supposed. The occupier of the field has promised to make every observation in his power, respecting coins and pottery, two silver pieces, he informs me, were dug up in Maesbury Camp, and sold at Shepton; and that quantities of pottery are turned up there at a certain depth. I took some bread and cheese at the farm house under Beacon Hill, called Thrive All Farm and having settled with the labourers, who cost me altogether 22s I proceed along the Fosse to Stratton, thence by Norton to Clandown, and so home; after an interesting, but in some respects, unsatisfactory excursion; as the principal object for undertaking it remains unaccomplished.”
The urn ‘broke to pieces when taken out’ and we are told nothing more of it’s fate. However, the discovery gets a mention in later publications including
William Phelps – The History and antiquities of Somersetshire
John Phyllis – Correspondance of the Shepton Mallet Museum Curator
In the intervening years Skinner returns several times, but in October 1823 he provides us with the following intriguing information:
Oct. 17, 1823, f 102, BM ADD MSS 33675.
“A man who has known the premises many years and assisted in planting the trees which now encompass the beacon barrow and the one with a stone placed on the summit. He said that the barrow with the pillar on it could be seen from all the surrounding hills. That people used to come there for the sake of the prospect and that old Mr Horner once dined there with a large party, christening the barrow in honour of the Duke of Cumberland by throwing a bottle of wine against the pillar. that a deserter was shot and buried on the spot within the enclosure and that he himself had seen the bones dug up. Query, might not the bones have been of more ancient date.”
Again several years go by with Skinner making only passing references to Beacon Hill, but in June 1826 excavations begin again:
June 10, 1826. f239, BM ADD MSS 33691.
“Bishop Law has also promised to obtain permission to examine the large tumulus on which the stone pillar is placed on Beacon hill from Mr Horner.”
June 22, 1826. f303, BM ADD MSS 33691.
“ It having been so arranged that we were to open some of the barrows near Beacon hill, my sons, Warner and myself proceeded in a car immediately after breakfast to Croscombe in order to inlist Mr Blackburn in the service. He was gone to Wells, but his boys accompanied us with two workmen. They had not commenced digging ten minutes to the south of the Beacon, where I had found an urn three years ago, when the farmer, who rents the field, came up in a violent rage, and said the men should not proceed, moreover, he would send them to prison for digging there. I told him that the Bishop had obtained leave of Mr Horner, and that I acted for the Bishop, under that permission. The man replied, Mr Horner had no more to do with the property than I had; that it belonged to a person near Bristol. After a little time, I found this very man had assisted me in opening the Barrow three years ago, on the very spot; I soon found he expected a retaining fee, and accordingly gave him one under the plea of procuring something for his people to drink, and the spades were again at work. In the space of half an hour they came to a large urn the mouth resting on a flat stone. The bottom had been injured by the pressure of the earth above it, although guarded by a flat stone, as were the sides by a cist of upright stones. Wishing that the Bishop should see the urn and its contents when opened l dispatched a messenger to Wells leaving the vessel to harden in the sun and air and employed the men in the interval at another place. Which seemed to have been the site of a barrow, although all the earth and stones which formed the tumulus had been removed. I was not disappointed, for in the course of a few minutes the men came to a large stone about two feet in length and fourteen inches in thickness, placed just below the surface. of the soil. Under this was a thin flat stone of the Pennant kind and just below this the urn, which was of a different shape to that first discovered, being wider at the mouth and not so high, it was also reversed on a flat stone. This l had dug round and left for the Bishops inspection, who was delighted with our mornings good fortune, and wished us to return with him to a late dinner, but we could notquit the field, Warner had left us before the discovery of the first, having therefore sent to the Waggon and Horses Public House for some bread cheese and beer, for the men and ourselves, we proceeded to the examination of one of the large barrows adjoining or rather contiguous to that opened three years since, it had some large stones in the centre, but no urn or ashes. We found a bronze arrow head, almost two inches long and one wide, in the first urn among the bones which half-filled the vessel. In the second urn there was nothing but ashes and the clay was so much decayed we found it impossible to send it to Wells. Some men with a hand barrow dispatched by the Bishop on his return, conveyed the first in safety to the place of its destination during the night with some large fragments of the second. As our obliging host had expressed a wish to see a section of the Roman Fosse, I procured permission of the Farmer, in whose field it is, to dig within twenty feet of its junction with the Uphill road, which I have before observed runs to the Port from the Hampshire Coast. The dorsum of the Fosse is here at least four feet in height, and above eighteen in width, extending from the hedge of the field abbutting on the Frome road a little to the North of Beacon Hill, about thirty feet into the field, which was the point where the Uphill road crossed it. As some excavations have evidently been made at this point, and beyond it, at the bottom of the field; I am inclined to think a Roman outpost was established at the junction of these important military ways; and the soil has been excavated for the purpose of procuring the wrought stone of the walls for building houses in the vicinity; as the field is in grass, I could not satisfy myself on this lead? On examining however, the section made about ten feet from the hedge, I perceived first a stratum of pebbles about six inches, then one of white sand, or pounded stone, upwards of a foot in thickness; below this, a deeper stratum of yellow sand, almost of an orange colour, which I understand is found on Mendip. The man had got to the bottom of this layer when we left the spot. I fully expected to have found a stratum of thin stone towards the middle of the dorsum, and another at the bottom; as the mode adopted on the Fosse, near Radstock, as I ascertained by the sections I had made there; but I will take another opportunity of examining this spot again. The evening now closing in, we returned to Wells, and partook of some supper, which I seldom indulge in, but we had only taken bread and cheese on Mendip, we fairly earned this supernumerary meal. We were not at all sorry to get to bed a little after ten.”
June 23, 1826, f310, BM ADD MSS 33691.
“The whole of the day was occupied in uniting the fragments of the larger urn which had suffered by its conveyance; in this operation I was assisted by my sons and Mr Blackburn. We saw several visitors while thus engaged in the Palace Garden, whither we had adjourned for the sake of the sun and air to harden the clay of the vessel, we were cementing together. The pieces were perfect, but we found more trouble than we suspected in uniting them as the weight of the vessel displaced very frequently what it cost us much labour to put together. However we at length succeeded and before the evening had entirely closed, the urn was in the midst of the other British remains in the museum. Although we intended to reach Camerton this evening, we have been obliged to delay our return for another day.
June 24, 1826, f310, BM ADD MSS 33691.
“The urn we found in statu quo in the museum. As Miss Law wished for an explanation of the British and Roman indicia there collected, with references to the Epochs to which they belong. I set to work immediately after breakfast, dividing in different compartments, the earliest records we possess of human agency; namely, the flint arrow heads, coarse pottery, stone amulets and showing the greater ingenuity of the Belgic Britons in
ornamenting their Urns, and in the construction of, after the discovery of metals, their weapons I also arranged the Roman pottery, from coarse ware, to the finished Samian; their painted stucco, tesserae, glass, coins etc etc; showing the process of the Arts from their rudest times, to that of civilised society. I put labels on all the compartments, and made a list of them by way of explanation. ”
Again several years pass with only cursory mentions of Beacon Hill, then in August 1829 two more barrows are opened:
August 4, 1829, BM ADD MSS 33713.
“After breakfast, the rain keeping off, the Bishop conveyed Mr and Mrs Selwyn and myself, in his carriage to Beacon Hill where we were to begin our operations on the barrow with the stone pillar placed on the summit; four labourers previously despatched in a cart, who commenced operations immediately we arrived. I marked out a sufficient space in the centre for them to work without being in each others way, and they shortly dug through two or three feet of earth, when they came to large stones, which it required some strength to remove. While engaged in this more tedious occupation, the Bishop, and Mr and Mrs Selwyn wnet to pay a visit to Oakhill while I continued to overlook the workmen; nothing occurred during the whole morning to identify the internment; no charcoal or the appearance of a cist occurred. The men had sunk to a depth of 5ft or more when the party returned by the hour admonishing us to return to the Palace, the workmen had orders to throw out the loose stone and earth during our absence and Mr Strachey, who arrived from his house at Ashwick, said he would send some labourers to complete the job before our arrival in the morning.”
The next day Skinner records that he left the Bishops palace early before the Bishop and his party, but he, Skinner, became so interested in the countryside on his journey to the Beacon that he found he had taken the wrong road and consequently had to pass through the village of Oakhill which was much farther.
“…so that I did not arrive at my place of destination till after the Bishop and his party. the men had sunk farther than they were ordered to do and had arrived at the interment between 7 and 8 feet deep; it was a simple deposit of burnt bones in a small cist, surrounded by stones six or seven inches high and was covered with a flat stone which the workmen had removed; there were no beads nor instruments of any kind so I am inclined to think it was an original British interment. The Bishop was disappointed at not finding an urn, and so was I on his account, as he wished for one for his museum: but the history of the tumulus was told, and the Danes apparently had no part or portion in its construction. As there was a small barrow about 200 paces to the north of this near the British trackway which passed over Beacon Hill, north and south parallel to the Uphill Roman road. I put the workmen to dig there, hoping to find an urn, as I had discovered three in the group of Barrows beyond, but as the party did not attent the digging wishing to return to an early dinner to Wells, I had it filled in and turfed immediatley.”