Ancient Settlement

An ongoing archaeological investigation of Malmesbury town walls has found important new evidence to add to the growing knowledge of the town emerging from this and a previous investigation carried out as part of the Malmesbury Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme. This is the first time that the area outside the line of defences has been examined archaeologically, and opportunities for such an investigation around the town will be rare in the future.

In November 2005, North Wiltshire District Council, who were Contract Administrators for the project to restore a section of the historic town wall adjoining the site of the former West Gate, commissioned Nimbus Conservation to undertake a programme of repair and reconstruction. Cotswold Archaeology were commissioned to undertake the necessary archaeological investigation of the wall foundations.

The archaeologists have now excavated a further trench outside the line of the town wall and uncovered a previously unknown, substantial stone-fronted defensive rampart and a deep ditch outside the line of the known town defences. These apparently date to the Iron Age and show that the prehistoric hillfort would have had very impressive multiple defences rising above the valley of the River Avon.

These finds add to the discoveries that were recorded during the previous investigation, carried out late last year during the course of the restoration project to the walls, that revealed significant new evidence about the nature of the town’s defensive walls and the origins of Malmesbury itself. When the collapsing stone of the wall was removed substantial clay deposits almost three metres high were found. Archaeologists identified these as the upper rampart of the Iron Age hill fort on which Malmesbury was later built. Pottery from the Middle Iron Age period dating to the 5th-3rd centuries BC was recovered, providing a firm date for the construction of the first phase of the ramparts.

Form the evidence gathered it looks as if the whole of the Eastgate Bastion is an artificially constructed fortified gate (barbican) built to extend the area of the former hill fort and to provide substantial and impressive stone-built defences. This would have been a major investment of resources, initially thought to be in the medieval period (in the 12th century), in order to secure one of the historic routes into the town from the river crossing below.

Further investigation revealed tantalising evidence of a further rampart against the outer face of the lower levels of the town wall. This consisted of burnt material including a large quantity of slag. Archaeologists consider that this burnt material is probably Late Saxon and may date from the 8th/9th centuries AD. If confirmed, it would add support to Malmesbury’s claim to be the oldest borough in England.

Mark Collard from Cotswold Archaeology, a locally-based archaeological company, said:

“Archaeology is providing a rich source of significant new information about the fascinating history of Malmesbury These have been fascinating discoveries, bringing to light the unknown and complex history of this very old settlement strategically placed at the crossing of the River Avon.”

Phil McMahon, English Heritage Inspector of Ancient Monuments said:

“The results are very exciting and demonstrate the complexity and depth of archaeology at Malmesbury. The multiple hill fort defences show that the town occupies a site that was of some importance in prehistory. Its strategic location must have been recognised by later settlers and the archaeology encountered during the wall repairs supports this with the possibility that the Saxons both made use of and added to the pre-existing fortifications. All in all the work has increased our understanding of the town’s origins and brings a new dimension to the story of Malmesbury.”

6 October, 2017
All images and written works by David Forward are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License