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Historic England Research Records

Earthworks On Glastonbury Tor

Hob Uid: 196702
Location :
Grid Ref : ST5112638556
Summary : Earthworks on Glastonbury Tor have been interpreted in at least three ways. Originally these were thought to be Medieval strip lynchets, however it has been noted that the top of the tor is too steep for effective cultivation with or without animals. It suggests if these were lynchets it was during a time of extreme land-hunger that forced people to marginal land. It is known that the lower terraces at least were cultivated, as seen in a drawing of 1670 which has sharp contrast to the wilder terraces above. This cultivation remained until at least the 19th century. Another theory was that of a spiral maze, in a similar if very elongated pattern to those found elsewhere dating to the Iron Age. This is a strong idea in popular culture but ultimately unlikely to be the explanation as it is rather too subjective and it would be unusually placed. It is possible that the terraces are Neolithic modifications of the natural Tor. The Tor is visible from around the landscape and would have been an important landmark so it is not unlikely it would have been modified by the people living in the surrounding area. Later on the lower terraces were cultivated and the upper ones left due to their unsuitability. It is also likely that they have seen other uses throughout their history although there is no evidence for this.
More information : [Area: ST 5150 3860] On and around Glastonbury Tor are evident traces of earthworks, but not in any regular form. (1)

A/P's show lynchets in the field called 'The Lynches' east of Tor Hill. (2)

'Test holes and auger holes were dug on all the loweer slopes and terraces of the Tor. In all cases they revealed only clear yellowish soil and silt lying on bedrock down to 4 ft. While their evidence cannot be regarded as conclusive, nothing was found which would justify further exploration of these areas'. (3)

The terraces on Tor Hill (centred ST 51153856) are probably medieval. They are more pronounced on the lower slopes of the Tor, but lose some definition higher up partly from pathways and landslip.

The 'Lynches' (ST 51643853) are well defined terraces; again, probably medieval. (4)

The conventional explanation of the lynchets and terraces is that they are either natural features or strip-lynchets; 'but a theory has recently been put forward by Mr G N Russell that they are, in fact, the remains of a three-dimensional maze. The argument is complex, but it is worth consideration; if this were true it would be of the greatest importance in any consideration of the religious aspects of Glastonbury'. (5)

The original and generally most accepted view of the earthworks was that they were Medieval strip lynchets. However it is pointed out by Philip Rahtz that the upper portion of the Tor is incredibly steep and it would have been very difficult to adequately cultivate the strips with or without animals. It is argued that there would have had to have been a huge shortage of food so that people were forced onto marginal land. It is however known that the terraces were used as lynchets as late as the 19th cebtury, and a drawing of 1670 clearly shows the lower terraces being used for cultivation where as there is a sharp contrast with the upper terraces which are much more wild. A survey undertaken on behalf of the National Trust in 1999 effectively 'disproved' any chance that the terraces are differential erosion due to the natural geology.

While the idea that the terraces are a mizmaze is still a prominent one in popular culture, it is very unlikely to be the case. It would be unusual to place a maze on such long hill and there is too much subjectivity in interpreting the shape of the terraces. One idea suggested by Rahtz is that the terraces actually originated in the Neolithic period. Barrett has pointed out that the Neolithic was the advent of monumentality but also of modification of natural features. The Tor is highly visible from anywhere in the landscape and as such would have been a significant landmark. It is then argued that the Neolithic modifications were reworked into lynchets as and when they were needed, although the upper levels were too steep for such use. It remains the most likely explanation that the terraces have a history of re-use deviating from their original purpose. (6)

Sources :
Source Number : 1
Source : History and Antiquities of Somerset
Source details :
Page(s) : 112
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Source Number : 2
Source : Aerial photograph
Source details : A/Ps (RAF/CPE/UK/1924/30723)
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Source Number : 3
Source details : Interim Report on Glastonbury Tor Excavations, 1965, (P. A. Rahtz)
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Source Number : 4
Source : Field Investigators Comments
Source details : F1 GHP 06-OCT-66
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Source Number : 5
Source : The quest for Arthur's Britain
Source details : Chapter by P Rahtz
Page(s) : 142
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Source Number : 6
Source : Glastonbury Tor: A modified landscape
Source details :
Page(s) : Apr-18
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Plates :
Vol(s) : Vol 3, Issue 1

Monument Types:
Monument Period Name : Neolithic
Display Date : Neolithic
Monument End Date : -2200
Monument Start Date : -4000
Monument Type : Earthwork
Evidence : Earthwork, Conjectural Evidence
Monument Period Name : Iron Age
Display Date : Possibly IA
Monument End Date : 43
Monument Start Date : -800
Monument Type : Maze
Evidence : Conjectural Evidence, Earthwork
Monument Period Name : Medieval
Display Date : Medieval
Monument End Date : 1540
Monument Start Date : 1066
Monument Type : Cultivation Terrace
Evidence : Documentary Evidence, Earthwork

Components and Objects:
Related Records from other datasets:
External Cross Reference Source : Scheduled Monument Legacy (National No.)
External Cross Reference Number : 29700
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : National Monuments Record Number
External Cross Reference Number : ST 53 NW 8
External Cross Reference Notes :

Related Warden Records :
Associated Monuments : 196695
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 196715
Relationship type : General association

Related Activities :
Associated Activities : Primary, FIELD OBSERVATION ON ST 53 NW 7
Start Date : 1966-10-06
End Date : 1966-10-06