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.
Cotswold Archaeology and Suffolk Archaeology Merge.
We are pleased to announce that from today Suffolk Archaeology Community Interest Company has become part of Cotswold Archaeology. This initiative builds on the strong history of collaboration between the two companies in East Anglia over the past few years on projects such as Sizewell Nuclear Power Station and the cable connection to East Anglia One offshore wind farm.
Cotswold Archaeology Chief Executive Neil Holbrook said “I am delighted that Cotswold Archaeology and Suffolk Archaeology have merged operations. We have enjoyed working with Suffolk over the last few years and have the utmost respect for their unrivalled regional archaeological expertise. Suffolk’s core operating area of Suffolk and surrounding counties is a great match with the territory we currently service from our office in Milton Keynes, so the synergies are obvious. Suffolk Archaeology’s current premises in Needham Market near Ipswich will from today trade as the Suffolk office of Cotswold Archaeology, and I am particularly pleased that their Managing Director Dr Rhodri Gardner will remain office head and join Cotswold’s Senior Management Group. Rhod will be a great asset to us, as will his colleagues who between them have decades of first-hand expert knowledge of the archaeology of East Anglia. We are looking forward to harnessing that expertise for the benefit of our clients, and building on their excellent track record of community engagement and outreach”.
Suffolk Archaeology’s Managing Director Rhodri Gardner said “The merger of Suffolk Archaeology and Cotswold Archaeology represents an exciting new development for archaeology in East Anglia. For our employees it will offer increased security and the chance to become a vital part of a larger national organisation with a tremendous reputation for high quality fieldwork and research. For our customers it will very much be “business as usual” in the short term, but we also look forward to being able to grow our regional capacity with the increased investment potential the merger offers. We look forward to working with our Cotswold colleagues in the coming years and using our knowledge and experience to strengthen the business as a whole and provide enhanced capability to all our clients and the local archaeological community”.
About Suffolk Archaeology
Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service was created in 1974 with a remit to conserve and record the county’s heritage. It originally carried out research or rescue projects as funding allowed, but from the early 1990s the Field Team developed into a self-financing contracting service for private and public sector clients.
By 2014 the Field Team was the dominant archaeological contractor in Suffolk, with projects ranging from small watching briefs to long-running investigations of extensive multi-period archaeological landscapes. It had also expanded its operating area into the neighbouring counties of Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk. This success led to the County Council’s decision in 2015 to outsource the Field Team as an independent Community Interest Company. Suffolk Archaeology now carries out in the order of 150 projects a year and maintains a staff of around 40. Find out more about Suffolk Archaeology here.
On the 28th February, Years 3 and 4 from Wickham Church of England Primary School welcomed Project Officers Jeremy and Sam to lead an interactive hands-on workshop about the investigations in Wickham.
In preparation for the workshop, the pupils spent time learning about archaeology and watching the on-site video. Encouraged by their teachers, they produced imaginary newspaper reports about the investigations on site. Sharing these with Jeremy and Sam on the day, we felt they deserved wider publicity and have included two fantastic examples below (please note poetic licence will be required when reading).
Through a combination of talks and practical activities, involving sorting, identifying and dating artefacts, the pupils developed their knowledge of archaeology and the methods and techniques used at Wickham.
The workshop aimed to raise awareness and spark interest, and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting the pupils of Wickham Church of England Primary School. If you are interested in learning more about the school workshops we offer, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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