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 Article by Moss

            Drawing of Charmy down and its barrows by Rev. Skinner

A chieftains relics buried here
One who with us delights to ken
The ancient works of Celtic man;
Who makes their labours by his own
Survive, when falls each magic stone,
or roaring midst the hills and groves,
View scenes which every Druid loves
The cup our benefactors hand…
Taken from;   ‘Beth Pennard or The British Chieftan’s Grave’

A lot of what we know today about our prehistoric monuments can be credited to the amateur archaeologists of the 19th century. Yet sometimes we approach their exuberant destruction of barrow sites with despair in our hearts, the destruction of barrows in search of some exotic treasure has destroyed much valuable evidence which could have been interpreted at a later date.

John Skinner was one such person, he left three iron bound chests behind of documents and drawings of his archaeological pursuits and these chests now reside in the British Museum to be examined sometime in the future.  He also left his diaries  as well which have been published;  they seem mainly to consist of a rant against his parishioners in Camerton, a mining village in Somerset near to Bath and also the site of a Roman town.

He is not a particularly likeable person, nervous, irritable and bad tempered, though there are mitigating circumstances to his behaviour, he lost his wife and three children to consumption, he encountered poverty and suffering amongst his parishioners. Virginnia Woolf wrote a short article called “Two Parsons” her words outline his sad life…

“Private sorrow had increased the natural acerbity of his temper. His wife had died young, leaving him with four small children, and of these the best-loved, Laura, a child who shared his tastes and would have sweetened his life, for she already kept a diary and had arranged a cabinet of shells with the utmost neatness, died too. But these losses, though they served nominally to make him love God the better, in practice led him to hate men more.”

Yet this man of the church when he was not visiting his parishioners, or buried in the sanctuary of his study could be found wandering the landscape a strong interest in the archaeological monuments he found, and sometimes with the help of the miners digging out the barrows. 

Stoney Littleton long barrow he excavated along with Sir Colt Hoare, and as you can see from the following an interesting vignette of history which is recorded in the Stoney Littleton guide book.

It was archaeologically explored on 24/25 May 1816 by Reverend John Skinner of Camerton and his brother Russell, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, and his steward and surveyor Philip Crocker, assisted by a labourer named Zebedee Weston. After gaining entry through the hole made c1760, they cleared quantities of ‘rubbish’ from the interior, but it is uncertain whether this comprised deliberate filling after the tomb had ceased to fulfil its original purpose, or a normal accumulation through the lapse of time” 

And before we harangue them, Stoney Littleton long barrow was already under assault by local workmen for road making, and was perhaps saved from a very destructive assault such as this at Nymphsfield, which was also being used as a quarry for road building, before it was excavated and restored to its present state in the 20th century.

The Ashen Hill barrows (close to Nine Barrows in the Mendips)  also bear evidence of his work, and closer to Bath he drew plans of  the barrows on Charmy Down, which were later destroyed to accommodate a first World War temporary airfield.  The Charmy down barrows which follow an old track, are now forgotten and lost are interesting though because they are close to the Iron Age settlement that occupied Solsbury Hill during 200 BC.

For 39 years as vicar of Camerton, Skinner looked after his parish and recorded the ancient sites in his landscape, the tragedy of the deaths of his children were in the end to overwhelm him, and as his son lay  ill with consumption in a bedroom above Skinner took his gun went outside to a beech wood and shot himself in  October 1839.  The coroner’s statement – in a state of derangement, he shot himself through the head with a pistol, and was dead in an instant.” 

His value lies in what  archaeological notes and drawings he left behind, and an interesting sight into the life of the village of Camerton in which village he found himself unsuitably placed amongst drunken miners, and the sad tragedy of a personal life he must have found hard to bear at times.


August 2010

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