I want to take you back to 3807 BC, the dawn of farming has just gripped the British Isles and you stand in a cold, peat marsh with, where you have just felled some trees in preparation to build a wooden trackway to make your navigation through marshes a little easier for your and your people. But little do you know, nearly 6000 years later the simple trackway you built would not only survive, but be discovered. Providing archaeologists with one of the oldest glimpses of a purposes built trackways in the British Isles…
In the spring of 1970 Raymond Sweet, a worker for the Eclipse Peat Works, came across a wooden plank buried deep in the peat of the Somerset Levels. This discovery provided the first glimpse of a purpose built, man-made trackway in the British Isles. John Coles, a Cambridge Archaeologist who had been studying the Somerset Levels for some years, was sent the planks and that summer he returned to the levels to carry out an archaeological excavation of the area.
We now know that the planks formed part of an extensive trakcway that carried on for about one kilometer. This trackway linked the Polden Hills with Westhay Meare, at that time an island surrounded by the marshes. Very precise dendrochronology has dated the timbers to the winter of 3807/3806 BC, 5777 years ago.
So who were these builder? Why did they build these trackways? Since the discovery of Sweet Track, many other trackways have been discovered in the Somerset Levels. But we still do not really know why these trackways were built, but excavations have given us a few clues. We definitely know that the trackway dates to the Neolithic, but were these people farmers? We cannot say for certain, but they certainly were using tools associated with Neolithic Farmers. The wood for the planks were cut with stone axes, a jadeite axe was found close to the Sweet Track (Jadeite axes are very rare and often associated with special deposits as form of ritual offerings. A collection of struck flint tools were also found by the track, broad flakes and long blades that are very characteristic of the farmer’s toolkit, and a very different flint technology from small microlith blades of the Mesolithic hunter gatherers. Further evidence came from a broken pot, filled with hazelnuts. Pottery is associated with origins of farming, and not known from earlier time periods.
But why did they build the Sweet trackway? It may have linked the communities of the Polden Hills with the communities living on the island. The corridor potentially provided hunting opportunities along the trackway. However, the trackway was not an easy route to traverse, the walker would have to negotiate slippery planks less than 10 inches wide. The planks were pegged and placed between diagonal timbers. Archaeologists have estimated that it may have only take a dozen people a day to lay the planks. However, the preparation would of taken much longer. The wood needed to be selected, felled, transported. thousands of pegs, planks and rails needed to be made. This would of likely needed the combined effort of two small communities working together, potentially worming at different ends of the trackways. The upright/diagonal timbers then had to be laid first, followed by the timbers.
There is evidence that trackway was repaired over a period of about ten years, but feel out use soon after. Compared to other trackways, the Sweet Track had a pretty short life, but still an important discovery in British Prehistory.
Bronze Age Britain, Michael Parker Pearson, English Heritage Publications
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