A multi-million pound Thames Water project to protect the future of a rare Oxfordshire chalk stream has revealed some fascinating and gruesome discoveries dating back almost 3,000 years. The excavation, led by CA’s Project Officer Paolo Guarino revealed an ancient settlement containing an array of historic artefacts. Among the important finds were 26 human skeletons believed to be from the Iron Age and Roman periods, and some likely to have been involved in ritual burials, along with evidence of dwellings, animal carcasses and household items including pottery, cutting implements and a decorative comb.
Our CEO Neil Holbrook, said: “The new Thames Water pipeline provided us with an opportunity to examine a number of previously unknown archaeological sites. The Iron Age site at Childrey Warren was particularly fascinating as it provided a glimpse into the beliefs and superstitions of people living in Oxfordshire before the Roman conquest. Evidence elsewhere suggests that burials in pits might have involved human sacrifice. The discovery challenges our perceptions about the past, and invites us to try to understand the beliefs of people who lived and died more than 2,000 years ago. We’ve had a tremendous reaction to this discovery on social media with people wondering just what was going on here – see what people have been saying at our Facebook post.”
Project Officer Paolo added: “These findings open a unique window into the lives and deaths of communities we often know only for their monumental buildings, such as hillforts or the Uffington White Horse. The results from the analysis of the artefacts, animal bones, the human skeletons and the soil samples will help us add some important information to the history of the communities that occupied these lands so many years ago.”
Cotswold Archaeology has now carefully removed the items for examination, allowing Thames Water to start laying the six kilometre pipe which, following consultation with residents, will supply nearby villages with water taken from groundwater boreholes near the River Thames and not Letcombe Brook. The archaeological findings have already been shared with residents at events in Letcombe Bassett and Letcombe Regis village halls.
When many people think about archaeology they focus on amazing new discoveries which are totally unexpected – that’s the exciting bit, right? Of course this is part of the romance of archaeology, but it poses a conundrum with modern commercial archaeology as significant and unexpected finds are what developers want least: they hold up the builders and can be expensive to deal with. Consequently much of the work of Cotswold Archaeology is, to use contemporary jargon, associated with de-risking proposed developments (i.e. avoid surprises when the construction work begins). But despite archaeologists’ best endeavours the old adage that you never know what’s under the ground still holds true, as a recent example at the site of a new Aldi supermarket in Andover, Hampshire, shows very clearly. Here a routine watching brief made a most unexpected discovery, but thanks to the generosity and genuine interest of Aldi this story has a highly satisfactory ending.
During the watching brief human remains began to be found, laid in graves dug into the natural chalk. In all 124 bodies were revealed, but what was even more surprising is that most were of young men and a number had injuries that clearly showed that they had been executed. Radiocarbon dating demonstrates that the cemetery was in use between c.AD 900 and 1300, and we conclude that this was an execution cemetery established in the Saxon period, but which carried on in use after the Norman Conquest. Perhaps the cemetery lay near a gallows where public hangings and executions took place? In the past justice could be harsh and summarily delivered; we will never know the perceived crimes the individuals buried here were judged to have been guilty of (although history tells us that some might seem by modern standards to have been trivial misdemeanours). This amazing discovery provides a fascinating window onto crime and punishment in this formative period of English history; find out more at Weyhil, Andover – an Anglo-Norman execution.
This highlight brings us up to date and we’ve now selected one great project for each of the thirty years of our existence. The Andover dig is a great way to mark Cotswold Archaeology’s 30th birthday which fell on 17 March. If the archaeology we investigate in the coming decades is anywhere near as good as that which we have done over the last thirty years, then being an archaeologist with us in the coming years will be a great career choice.
We all know what a Roman villa is – don’t we? They were one of the most distinctive elements of the Roman countryside – nice houses with some level of architectural pretension, often furnished with mosaic floors, painted walls, and private bath suites. But villas were actually always a rarity in Roman Britain: they are unlikely to have formed more than 1% of the total number of rural settlements in the province, and over large swathes of the country you don’t find them at all. So even a relatively humble villa (they came in all shapes and sizes) is noteworthy as the residence of the local moneyed classes. Excitement was high therefore when we found a previously unknown villa beneath a disused rugby pitch in Stoke Gifford, a northern suburb of Bristol, when working for Redrow Homes and CgMs Heritage in advance of a new housing development.
The villa house dates to the late Roman period, as is common in Gloucestershire (a villa hotspot on a national level). What particularly fascinates me about this site is that it represents an attempt by someone to express their wealth and prestige through building – a trend we still see today of course. The owners clearly wanted to be seen to be doing something that would be recognised by their peers as embracing a modern, up market, way of life, and one that perhaps signified their alignment with the perceived norms of Roman administration. The house was nice, but not spectacular. It had two rooms with under floor heating, and what seems to have been a rudimentary bath suite, but no mosaics.
But we shouldn’t envisage a fancy house set within its own private parkland. Associated buildings show that this was a place of production, a place where wealth was generated. While agriculture undoubtedly underpinned the economy of the house, other activities included metal-working and perhaps beer making. So the people who lived here were local entrepreneurs who managed to make a decent living, but never made it to the mega-wealthy heights seen in some other Gloucestershire villas. Nevertheless the owners had access to nice things, including a fantastic bronze oil lamp which seems to have been made in Egypt. How did that make its way to Gloucestershire?
Roman Britain has always been my favourite period of the past, and I’ve a particular affection for this site. It was just such great fun to work on. You can read more about the villa on this page.
Cannington Park Quarry Cave (also known as Boulder Cave or South Quarry Cave) was located in c. 1962 (some notes state 1959) when quarry blasting opened up a chamber. The cave was explored by various individuals, most notably in 1964 by Tony Locke, who recovered a number of bones.
These bones were recovered from a breccia layer around the cave, although they were from heavily disturbed contexts and were partly covered by blasting material. The bones were examined in 1984 (Powers and Currant 1985 in Rahtz et al. 2000) and found to represent at least seven human individuals, along with the bones of red deer, badger, horse and bovine.
This group of bones were initially believed to represent disturbed material from Cannington Cemetery, a Late Roman – post-Roman cemetery excavated in 1962-3 and published by Rahtz, Hirst and Wright (2000). This cemetery was sited above the quarry and had been considerably damaged by it, with a quantity of loose material disturbed by blasting in the south-east part of the cemetery area. While the proximity of the Roman/post-Roman cemetery allowed for the possibility that the bones were from the graves above, the bones were reported to be from a small area and may originally have been deliberate burials within the cave. Indeed, the report in the cemetery publication concluded:
“…it is at least possible that these were deliberate cave burials…….only radiocarbon determinations could resolve this problem”.
The close proximity of the Cannington Cemetery to Cotswold Archaeology’s excavations associated with the Cannington Bypass and Hinkley Point power station, where the respective discoveries of a Roman villa and a Post-Roman cemetery were made, meant that it was important to consider the potential relationships between these sites. As such, we wished to determine with greater certainty the date of the bones found in the cave; research grant funding from BABAO (British Association of Biological Anthropologists and Osteoarchaeologists) allowed for two radiocarbon dates on the material, which now resides at the Somerset Heritage Centre near Taunton, contained in two separate boxes.
Physical examination of the bones confirmed that they were those described in the Cannington Cemetery Publication. It was noted in the report that a ‘considerable calcareous deposit’ was removed from some of the fragments. These calcareous deposits remained in places and the bones were notably well-preserved. These deposits are usually found on material which has lain on a cave floor for a long period of time, and the light colour of the bone, together with a lack of surface erosion, did not fit with the expected appearance of bone that had spent considerable time in the earth. Aside from this, the dental attrition on one maxilla was not the expected pattern for normal dental wear, but more in keeping with the use of the teeth as a tool. The use of teeth in such a way is much more commonly seen in prehistoric than later human remains. Together, these observations indicated that the bones were more likely to have come from a prehistoric cave burial than from the Roman cemetery.
To investigate this, two bones were selected, one from each box, from different individuals (one adult, the other immature), and samples were sent for radiocarbon dating. The results were very surprising. Both samples returned dates of over 9000 years BP. When calibrated this provides date ranges of 8545-8328 cal BC and 8237-7976 cal BC (both at 95.4% probability). This places both of the bones very clearly in the early Mesolithic.
These are very exciting dates and are comparable with those for the human remains known as ‘Cheddar Man’, recovered from Gough’s cave, nearby in the Mendip Hills, which were dated to 8540-7990 and 8470-8230 cal BC. Mesolithic human remains are extremely rare discoveries in England, with just 20 firmly dated sites known (Meiklejohn, Chamberlain and Schulting 2011).
Sadly the cave was completely destroyed by quarrying during the 1990s and the boxes of bones, sketches and notes are the only surviving evidence for what now appears to have been a rare Mesolithic burial site. Fortunately, we now know the site existed. This demonstrates the archaeological potential of material residing in old archives in museum stores, and the value that can be gained by returning to re-examine it. The findings will be fully reported on and published in the coming months.
Cotswold Archaeology are grateful to BABAO, Graham Mullan (UBSS) and Rick Schulting.
The human and animal remains belong to the Somerset County Council museum collection, cared for and managed by the South West Heritage Trust.
Meiklejohn, C., Chamberlain, A.T. and Schulting, R.J. 2011 ‘Radiocarbon dating of Mesolithic human remains in Great Britain’Mesolithic Miscellany Vol 21: 2, 20-57
Rahtz, P., Hirst, S. and Wright, S. 2000. Cannington cemetery: Excavations 1962-3 of prehistoric, Roman, post-Roman, and later features at Cannington Park Quarry, near Bridgwater, Somerset. Britannia Monograph Series 17. Society for the promotion of Roman studies, London
Some archaeological sites are instantly striking and live long in the memory. An excavation near Andover in advance of new housing for Persimmon Homes certainly falls into this category. On stripping the topsoil, the surface of the underlying natural white chalk was exposed, and clearly visible in this were the contrasting dark backfills of the ring ditches defining a group of Bronze Age ritual monuments which dated to approximately 2200-1800 BC.
It is too easy to forget just how superstitious past populations were, but as archaeologists we are aware of the massive effort expended in the construction of monuments which outwardly appear to have been of little functional use in the day to day business of prehistoric farming societies. People obviously believed that the collective building of large circular barrows within which the remains of important people were buried was both necessary and worthwhile.
These remains speak to us of the power and influence that some people exerted over others, and the need for small social groups to demonstrate their place in the landscape –this doesn’t seem to have been a very egalitarian society. This cemetery remained an important focus until the Roman period, when large quantities of pottery were deposited in barrow ditches.
The work involved in constructing some of the barrows was considerable – in two cases, the ditches were 5m wide. The high mounds of freshly-excavated white chalk from the ditch, located on a prominent ridge, were designed to be visible in the landscape and provide a significant backdrop to the everyday lives of local communities. For me, however, the discovery that remains freshest in my mind was an incomplete circle of fifty stake-holes, arranged around a central cremation burial. These tiny features formed by pointed stakes being driven into the ground were wonderfully well- preserved in the surface of the chalk – they could almost have been made yesterday.
In the last few decades those areas that have experienced the most new building have also seen the most archaeological exploration. Sometimes, however, we end up in places that have seen comparatively little previous investigation, and this provides us with a chance to write the first systematic archaeological story of an area. This was just the case at Hinkley Point in West Somerset, where EDF Energy is currently building a new nuclear reactor. This major development provided us with an opportunity to examine a large tract of land bordering the Bristol Channel. From the reactor site itself there are fine views out across the water to the South Wales coast, but the area is exposed and susceptible to strong wind – we regularly saw the rain clouds being blown apace towards us. So you might have thought that this was an unlikely spot to find much archaeology, yet quite the opposite proved to be true.
Our work revealed fascinating evidence for past activity in this remote spot stretching back until around 3000 BC. Virtually all periods of the past were represented, including Iron Age and Roman settlements and a fascinating post-Roman cemetery dating from the 5th to 7th centuries AD. We also examined the site of a farm which was only abandoned in the 1960s, and amazingly showed that this site has also been occupied in the Iron Age, Roman and medieval periods. What was it about this spot that drew people back to it throughout history?