Majestic House, Staines: the prehistory of a modern town

It’s fair to say that the CA Andover team had some preconceived ideas about what might be encountered below the concrete slab at our 2013 excavations at the site of Majestic House, a former office block in the centre of Staines. The history of the town was already well known: it was an important Roman town – Pontibus – on a natural crossing point of the Thames close to its confluence with the River Colne, that was probably on the main Roman road from London to Silchester. Staines was recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086, flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries but, like many other settlements in England, declined in the later medieval period before reviving in the 16th century to become a ‘well-built town’ in the later 17th century. The arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century brought renewed growth with industrial development in and around the town.

Majestic House Staines excavation overview
Not your typical Bronze Age site!

As expected, the excavations revealed a multiperiod site that reflected the known history of the town, including evidence for Roman boundary ditches and occupation debris, the remains of medieval and post-medieval buildings and plots fronting the street to the west, and even an enigmatic double horse burial of 17th or 18th-century date.

Multiperiod remains in the north-west corner of the site – including a Bronze Age ring ditch
Multiperiod remains in the north-west corner of the site – including a Bronze Age ring ditch
The post-medieval double horse burial
The post-medieval double horse burial

What was less expected were the significant prehistoric remains uncovered – not just a handful of Iron Age ditches that preceded the Roman occupation, but the remains of a large ring ditch of Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age date, a significant discovery of a monument type rarely recorded in the area. About 40% of the 1.6m-wide ditch survived – the original monument would have been around 21m in diameter. No human bone was recovered but it was probably once a large round barrow. Pits and postholes of Neolithic or Bronze Age date recorded to the east of the ring ditch suggest contemporary post-built structures stood close to the barrow.

The Neolithic/Bronze Age ring ditch
The Neolithic/Bronze Age ring ditch

Over 600 pieces of worked flint were also recovered from the site, including a few diagnostically Mesolithic or Neolithic flint tools retrieved from the Neolithic/Bronze Age features. The presence of these early tools tells us that the series of gravel islands at the confluence of the Thames and the Colne, upon which Staines is built, was attractive to early prehistoric people, providing a range of terrestrial and riverine resources, with the watercourses acting as avenues for movement and communication. The presence of the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age monument indicates that this became a place of special significance to the community that built it, perhaps a ‘sacred area’ overlooking the Thames crossing.

A detailed account of our discoveries at Majestic House, Staines, has been published in Surrey Archaeological Collections for 2016 (volume 99).

Chris Ellis

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