The Sweet Track is just the most famous, and oldest of a number of ancient trackways discovered crossing the Somerset Levels. It runs from the higher ground of Westhay south west to the edge of the Polden Hills at Shapwick, a few miles west of Glastonbury. At the time of construction, the area the track crossed was waterlogged, perhaps even tidal salt marsh.
The track is constructed from timber, mostly oak, which has been cut into wide planks and laid longitudinally between crossed pegs driven into the ground, crossing over a log or rail lying on the ground surface. The planks are mostly notched to sit tightly around the pegs. This created a very long track, which was also surprisingly narrow - 40cm at its widest. This must have made it difficult for two people to pass, suggesting that the route was used as one way at a time, or more likely that the ground around had plenty of drier points where people could briefly step off the trackway.
The timber has been analysed, and it is now believed that the pegs were taken from coppiced trees, while the planks came from substantial Oaks, some of them up to 400 years old. Most of the planks are only about 5cm thick, and 3m long, and some have tentatively been paired up showing that more than one came from each trunk. It is also believed that the construction was prefabricated - the levels would not have provided a suitable fabrication site! There is also evidence, however, that some trimming was needed on site to make it all fit together!
Some of this timber has then been preserved in the peat bog that built up, allowing archaeologists to investigate it fully after it was discovered by the land owners - peat cutters - in 1970. The construction runs for over a mile across the levels, and dendrochronology has dated it to 3807/6BC, making it the second oldest such structure in Northern Europe.
Use of the track
Perhaps surprisingly, it is thought that the track only remained in use for about 10 years, before rising water (sea?) levels flooded it. However, the discovery of an even earlier construction - called the Post Track - underneath the Sweet Track shows that this was not a new occurrence, and it is possible that a new route was built nearby but due to environmental factors has not survived for archaeologists to discover, or perhaps even still lies undiscovered in the peat.
The track was in regular, probably daily, use by the locals throughout its life. It is suspected that it was just one of a number of similar tracks that crisscrossed the levels between the various inhabited 'islands'. Indeed, the skill and craftmanship exhibited in the surviving timbers lead archaeologists to believe that it was anything but a one-off.
Today, a reconstruction of a section can be seen at the Peat Moors Centre just outside Westhay.
Other tracks on the Levels
As mentioned above, the Sweet Track is not alone. A number of other, similar tracks have been discovered nearby, including the Abbotts Way, Bakers, Bells, Honeygore, Nidons, and Westhay trackways. The Abbotts Way was one of the earliest discovered, and gained its name as it was believed at the time to have been built by the Abbotts of Glastonbury in the middle ages. However, subsequent investigations, not least a Dendro test, has proven the track to be much, much older!