Category Archives: archaeology


‘Operation Poppy’ earlier this month saw a 197-million-year-old ichthyosaur from Stolford delivered to the Somerset Heritage Centre ahead of conservation work. The specimen was successfully extracted on 27 December by experts working against the clock in the intertidal zone of Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve.

Despite the skull not being preserved the five-and-a-half-foot-long ichthyosaur is otherwise remarkably complete.

The prehistoric fossil was discovered by amateur fossil hunter Jon Gopsill when he was out walking his dogs on 14 December. The five-and-a-half-foot-long marine reptile had been exposed by recent storms. It has now been dubbed ‘Poppy’ after one of Jon’s dogs who helped make the discovery.

The rescue mission took place at the first opportunity allowed by the tides after the unexpected discovery was made. The fossil was at risk of being washed away by the strong seasonal tides. A team of geological specialists from Geckoella had a four-hour window within which they could extract the specimen from the Blue Lias rock. They used rock saws, hammers, chisels and crow bars to cut out a single block of stone containing the fossil. The block weighs about 160 kg and is 175 cm long, 85 cm wide and 9 cm deep.

Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve is owned by the Environment Agency and managed by Natural England, who assisted with the excavation along with archaeologists from the South West Heritage Trust. They were joined by the finder Jon, together with his dogs Poppy and Sam.

Dr Andy King, Co-Director and Palaeontologist with Geckoella, led the extraction. He said: “It was very exciting to have the chance to rescue such an impressive fossil ichthyosaur as ‘Poppy’. Given the tidal conditions at Stolford and very shaley nature of the rock, this particular extraction was certainly more challenging than others we’ve been involved with. Though the skull is not preserved, ‘Poppy’ is otherwise remarkably complete.

“It’s not uncommon to find pieces of fossil ichthyosaur ribs or vertebrae, but such complete specimens are relatively rare. Slightly older ichthyosaurs have been collected from West Somerset, but it’s still quite a feeling to realise that this marine reptile was swimming in the Jurassic seas covering Somerset nearly 200 million years ago at the same time that dinosaurs were walking around on the land and pterosaurs were flying in the skies.  We’re really delighted that this fossil was collected safely and responsibly, and that it will be preserved by the South West Heritage Trust.”

The Environment Agency transferred ownership of ‘Poppy’ to the Somerset Heritage Centre, near Taunton, on 17 January ahead of conservation work to be undertaken by the Heritage Trust.

Sam Astill, Head of Museums from the Trust, said: “We’re grateful to Jon and our partners at Geckoella, Natural England and the Environment Agency for their collaboration in successfully rescuing this remarkable specimen. We will now undertake the conservation work required to preserve the fossil. This involves three basic steps – cleaning, including de-salination and drying, consolidation and stabilisation, to avoid splitting, and preparation for display. We look forward to displaying ‘Poppy’ at the Museum of Somerset where visitors can discover more about the county’s Jurassic past.”

David Evans, a geologist from Natural England who assisted with the extraction, said: “Natural England and the National Nature Reserve team were really pleased to be able to ensure that this valuable fossil and important piece of Somerset’s heritage was safely and responsibly extracted,  and will be going to the county museum to be conserved and then to be seen by the public.”

Jon Gopsill said: “I’ve been interested in fossils all my life. I started fossil hunting on Watchet beach when I was just six-years-old. The scale of this find, at 197-million-years-old, is incredible. When I saw it I thought, ‘I’ve been looking for this my whole life!’

“The whole experience has been amazing. You see ichthyosaurs in museums and think they’re amazing, but to actually find a ‘wild’ one in it’s natural environment is totally mind blowing! Somerset is my home so I’m delighted that this specimen will be staying in the county for other people to enjoy.”

Top: The extraction team, with the fossil on a pallet, following its successful extraction.


Do you want to find out more about the hidden heritage in North Devon? A new Coastal Heritage project is currently underway led by the new North Devon Coast AONB Heritage Officer, Joe Penfold. Joe has spent the last five years working for the Shropshire Hills AONB Partnership where he helped to conserve, enhance and celebrate the local historical features.

Within North Devon Joe plans to use his previous knowledge and skills to develop opportunities for volunteers to train in the use of practical archaeological skills as well as to conserve and assess the condition of the heritage sites with a particular-focus on coastal hillforts, the history of Hartland and World War II features.

Joe Penfold, AONB Heritage Officer said, “The North Devon coast is a treasure trove of landmarks, stories and events from a bygone age. Getting involved in the Coastal Heritage project is a great way to meet new people, to learn something new about the landscape and to take action to conserve it. I will also be offering work experience placements to any budding archaeologists in the area.”

In addition to the practical aspects of this project Joe will produce new interpretation materials and organise heritage related talks and walks for those living in the area to better understand and enjoy the history that matters to them. A key element of the project is also to support community-led activities and celebrations such as next year’s 75th D-Day Commemorations.

The project is being delivered and funded by local partners working with the AONB team including Devon County Council’s Heritage Team, the National Trust, North Devon Archaeological Society, North Devon Council’s Museum Development Officer, Torridge District Council and Hartland Parish Council.

Jenny Carey-Wood, AONB Manager, said, “We have some fantastic hidden heritage across North Devon and we welcome Joe’s skills and experience to engage local people and visitors in discovering more about our coastal history.”

This winter there will be opportunities to get involved in the project across North Devon. If you have a passion for heritage and would like to know more please visit the website or email us

Photo: Digging at Clovelly Dykes


Results of recent archaeological research on Exmoor are due to be presented at the National Park’s annual Archaeology Forum on Saturday 13 October 10am – 4.30pm at Brushford Parish Hall.

Archaeological research on Exmoor’s peatlands, undertaken as part of the Exmoor Mires Partnership, will showcase a multi-disciplinary study of the prehistoric landscapes and settlements of Codsend Moor.

An analysis of the efforts of the Knight Family to ‘improve’ the former Royal Forest will look at the palaeo-environmental evidence and compare the field remains with old letters and other documents from the Knight family uncovered in an attic in 2016. Speakers include Prof. Ralph Fyfe and Havananda Ombashi from the University of Plymouth and Ross Dean, Hazel Riley and Dr Martin Gillard.

In the afternoon, the results of a survey examining the condition of Exmoor’s oldest structures, known as ‘miniliths’, will be presented. In the face of them being threatened by off-road vehicles, erosion, vandalism, grazing animals and even moorland vegetation, the National Park was awarded funding from Historic England to appoint an intern in 2017 to catalogue and thoroughly investigate the condition of the stones.

Jack Fuller, the intern who carried out the investigation, said: “Exmoor’s standing stones are more than 4,000 years old, yet we’re still discovering new things all the time. The survey included more than 140 sites, and even led to the discovery of new stones, which just goes to show how much more there still is to learn about Exmoor’s fascinating past.”

It’s thought Exmoor’s standing stone monuments originate from some time between the Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (c.3000-1500BCE).  Many are under half a metre tall, with some barely protruding the surface of the turf and include rows, circles and a variety of other shapes. Dr Sandy Gerrard’s talk will shed light on how Exmoor’s stone rows compare with those from around Britain. To conclude,  Exmoor National Park Authority archaeologists will present a summary of other recent work, along with the final year results of a project to restore some of our most recent historic assets: traditional black and white signposts.

There are still two or three tickets remaining for the 18th Exmoor Archaeology Forum. They cost £17 each, including a buffet lunch. For more information and to book a place search “archaeology forum” on the Exmoor National Park Website – – or call 01398 322289.


An archaeological dig to uncover features of a lost garden created by ‘father of Exmoor’ John Knight in the nineteenth century is about to begin. The work is being led by South West Archaeology with local volunteers, and funded by Exmoor National Park Authority in association with the Simonsbath Programme Steering Group.
An archaeology open morning is being held on Wednesday 27 June from 10am – 1pm to give people the chance to see the excavations and learn more about John Knight’s ambitious plans (Ashcombe car park, TA24 7SH).

In 1820 John Knight, a businessman from Worcestershire, paid £50,000 for a wild, uninhabited area of moorland within what is now Exmoor National Park. He moved there with his wife and six young children and began a project to single-handedly colonise and reclaim the 16,000 acre wilderness previously untouched since the Bronze Age, and to transform it into a great estate with a mansion at its heart in Simonsbath.

Nearby Ashcombe gardens were begun as part of this vision, but were never to be completed. Traces of garden terraces, bridges and paths remain, but very little is known about what the gardens were to be like.

Charlotte Hornsby from the Simonsbath Programme, said: “We have exciting plans to tell Simonsbath’s story and to enlighten both visitors and residents. We also want to bring together the local community, friends and family from around the world who have been touched by the beauty and magic of Simonsbath and its history.”

Rob Wilson-North, head of conservation and access at Exmoor National Park Authority, said: “No one person has done more to shape the direction of Exmoor’s landscape than John Knight, yet we still know relatively little about his influences and motives. We hope this latest excavation will provide further clues to his vision for Exmoor, and help us better understand this cornerstone of the National Park’s history.”

PHOTO: A quartz outcrop in Ashcombe dating back to the 1820s that once formed part of John Knight’s vision for a designed landscape. Credit: Hazel Riley.


A temporary museum will be popping up in Barnstaple, as part of the museum’s £1.8m Long Bridge Wing extension project.

As the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon prepares to close its doors to allow work to begin on the extension, space has been secured across the road in Bridge Chambers to provide a ‘Pop-Up’ venue for museum events and activities for the coming year.

North Devon Council and the Barnstaple and North Devon Museum Development Trust (MDT) have been working together to deliver the project, which will provide the opportunity for more displays and exhibitions, including a new twentieth- and twenty-first-century social history gallery.

Throughout 2018, the museum will be working with the local community to help deliver this exciting project and the temporary museum at Bridge Chambers will be used to sort through some of the items needed to create content for the new gallery.

The temporary museum opens its doors on Wednesday 14 February and staff are calling for local experts who have knowledge of North Devon’s history to help identify objects and share their story under five themes ‘Hatched, Matched, Dispatched’, ‘World of Work’, ‘Town and Country’, ‘Highdays and Holidays’ and ‘House and Home’. The first theme is ‘Hatched, Matched and Dispatched’ and the museum will bring previously unseen items from its store, which are connected to birth, childhood, schooldays, weddings and funerals.

Sadie Green, Activity Plan Co-ordinator at the museum, says: “ As the pop-up museum opens on Valentine’s Day, we’d love to see some wedding day photographs, so if you got married in North Devon between the 1940s and the 1990s and have a favourite photograph of your wedding day to share with us, please bring it along to the launch and share the love with us! We have an interesting and varied collection of objects – we have a pram, the Bishops Nympton parish bier, Youings stonemasonry tools and trolley and baby gloves from Pilton glove factory. We also have toys, school textbooks, badges and uniforms, Cub Scout and Brownie uniforms and a christening gown.”

Executive Member for Parks, Leisure and Culture, Councillor Dick Jones, says: “Show your love for history and visit the new ‘pop-up’ museum on Valentine’s Day. The museum would like to know more about the objects in its collection and we hope that visitors get involved to share their memories and stories. The main museum building will shortly be closing to allow work to begin on the new extension, but this doesn’t mean we won’t be providing a museum service – the pop-up will be open and the museum’s annual programme of events and activities for children will still continue during school holidays.”

The museum is also recruiting Collections Care volunteers to help move objects from storage to be cleaned, catalogued and documented and to gather stories from visitors. Visit the museum on the Square in Barnstaple to pick up an application form, or email


This year’s Exmoor Archaeology Forum will focus on Exmoor’s historic buildings and will be looking at the rich built heritage through recording, conservation and development projects. The Forum is on Saturday 15 October 10.30am to 4.30pm in Brushford Village Hall (TA22 9AH).

Presentations will include the results of new investigations into the historic settlements of Dunster, Dulverton and Porlock, including projects by Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, the Time Team Dig Village project at Dunster and excavations in advance of development at the Luttrell Arms Hotel.

Rob Wilson-North, conservation manager at Exmoor National Park, says: “In addition to the above, we will be comparing the evidence of our medieval buildings from excavation at Ley Hill and standing building recording at Holnicote.

With items on mills and water power plus climate change and historic signposts, it promises to be a fascinating day, so if you have an interest in historic buildings or would just like to know a bit more about them do book your place and join us.”

Speakers include Claire Fear, Bryn Morris, Richard Parker, Isabel Richardson, Martin Watts and staff from Exmoor National Park.

The Forum costs £16 per person including lunch. Advance booking is essential and spaces are limited; to book online visit: and search for ‘archaeology forum’. Booking forms are also available from National Park Centres in Dunster, Dulverton and Lynmouth or by post by telephoning 01398 323665.

PHOTO: Courtesy ENPA


Visitors to the medieval village of Dunster might well be wondering what on earth is going on in the garden at The Luttrell Arms Hotel?  For, whilst the award winning hotel carries on its daily business, a fascinating set of mid-eighteenth-century buildings has been uncovered below a section of their back lawn.

South West Archaeology Ltd, specialists in recording sites of historic interest, are working with the Luttrell’s owners Nigel and Anne Way, ahead of a £2million investment in the hotel. The significance of the finds beneath the aptly-named ‘Secret Garden’ is such that essential development work for a new service tunnel, laundry and conversion to the existing buildings, set to go ahead in the spring, has been halted whilst a full archaeological survey is carried out some 15 feet beneath the garden.

This has presented a rare opportunity for archaeologists to see what is underneath some of the ancient buildings of the village. So far the remains of an eighteenth-century pottery cottage, a kitchen with an oven, stables and cobbled paths have been uncovered behind the hotel on the High Street, and the project is getting more interesting by the day.

Colin Humphreys, Director of South West Archaeology, says: ‘The owners have been generous in enabling us to carry out the work even though they need to get on with the building project.” Items of interest unearthed by the site of the cottage beneath the Pottery Kiln built by Henry Fownes Luttrell as part of his plan to improve the landscape around Dunster Castle are among finds being examined and recorded. The new buildings to improve facilities at the hotel are expected to take three years and are probably the largest construction along the ancient street in recent times.

The Pottery Kiln, commissioned by Henry Fownes Luttrell of Dunster Castle in the mid-eighteen century to landscape the valley of Avill, still survives and is a rare example of a domestic pottery kiln, which is visible from the hotel’s garden.  The occupants of the Pottery Cottage were John and Ruth Mogg of Bristol. After John’s death in 1760 Ruth advertised the pottery but there were no takers so it was subsequently closed down.

The ‘house’ that is now the Luttrell Arms Hotel once had stabling for 30 horses and was thought to be a base for the visiting Abbot of nearby Cleeve Abbey.

Today the 28-bedroom hotel is a thriving business in the village of Dunster, employing 40 full- and part-time staff. Nigel and Anne Way are South West hoteliers and own The Luttrell Arms Hotel, Dunster, The Royal Seven Stars, Totnes and The Royal Castle Hotel, Dartmouth.

PHOTO Part of the kitchen, courtesy of South West Archaeology.