More than 50 members and friends enrolled on Saturday 4 March to listen and take part in the annual BAS round-up of recent archaeology in Berkshire, which this year took place at The Cornerstone in Wokingham.
Sarah Orr (Historic Environment Officer for the West Berkshire Archaeological Service) began by describing Recent work in West Berkshire. This mainly concerned maintaining the Historic Environment Record (HER), ensuring that development did not adversely impinge on archaeology, promoting conservation and listing sites, and outreach. The HER is accessed via the Heritage Gateway website with links to Pastscape and other databases. The online records are brief and Sarah invited people to contact her directly if more information is required. Recent projects included the restoration of Cold Ash Pumping Station, and Sheffield Lock at Theale. The Boxford History Project is an on-going community project investigating three Roman sites.
Roland Smith (Archaeological Officer for East Berkshire) followed with an account of some Recent discoveries in East Berkshire. A narrow evaluation trench by Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS) in advance of an extension to the Queen Charlotte pub in Windsor unexpectedly yielded 37 inhumation burials dating to the 16th to 18th centuries in a former churchyard. Also in Windsor, a ‘lost’ altarpiece designed by Thomas Hardy the novelist was found preserved beneath a later feature in All Saints Church in Frances Road, built in the 1860s. A joint investigation by TVAS and Wessex Archaeology in Castleview Road, Slough, revealed a series of Iron Age, Roman and early Saxon deposits. The Saxon settlement comprised five grubenhausen and radiocarbon dating of food residues on pottery provided a date of AD 350, showing that Saxon settlement in the Thames valley had begun before the formal end of the Roman occupation. Finds reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) included a Roman bronze alloy cupid from Waltham St Lawrence. An evaluation of land north of Amen Corner in Bracknell by Worcestershire Archaeology in advance of housing revealed a significant Iron Age enclosure to add to others recently found in the Wokingham and Bracknell area, and Cotswold Archaeology discovered a Roman settlement beneath the site of the former Shoppenhanger’s Manor in Maidenhead.
After coffee, Jessica Barnsley (University of Reading) described The lady in a log boat from Small Mead Farm, Burghfield. The log boat was recovered during a rescue excavation by Reading Museum in 1982 but was not published and has remained in storage. Jessica has attempted to interpret and date the remains. The 2.5 m-long oak log remained in a good state of preservation. The only available documents were the handwritten notes of the excavator and some contemporary newspaper reports hailing the discovery of the ‘log boat princess’. The log had been carved into a rough boat shape and axe marks were clearly visible; the body was placed in its naturally hollow interior. The skeleton probably represented a woman aged between 40 and 50 years; her original height was estimated to have been 5 feet 5 inches. There was no skeletal pathology and she seemed to have enjoyed an easy life style. Pollen samples suggest the burial took place in open water near woodland. Radiocarbon dates gave a broad timespan between Roman and Saxon and, in view of the paucity of Roman evidence, a probable date is post-Roman or Saxon. It was concluded that the oak log was a coffin in function and a log boat in symbolism: it would not have floated.
In his presentation on New ventures in the Society Andrew Hutt (BAS) described the outcome of investigations at Blounts Court near Sonning Common, carried out by BAS and BARG between 2013-16 with the possibility of further work later this year, and the compilation of the BAS Gazetteer of Iron Age, Roman and Saxon sites which will combine the results of several recent research projects. Geophysics and excavation have located a Georgian garden wall and the foundations of the Medieval to Tudor manor house. Radiocarbon dating of mortar samples from an earlier flint wall gave dates ranging between 50 BC and AD 1013 which, together with some of the pottery, suggest an Iron Age and Roman presence at this site as well. The Gazetteer will cover an area ranging from Oxford to Heathrow and is being compiled using the MIDAS system as used by other organisations to ensure that it will be compatible with other databases.
Mike Fulford (University of Reading) followed with an update on Silchester: Insula III and the Environs Project. 2016 was the fourth and final year of excavations in Insula III which were undertaken to try and find the source of Nero-stamped roof tiles and reused Bath stone and column fragments found in Insula IX which had been recycled before c.AD 80. A poorly understood building described in the antiquarian report of 1891in the southeast corner of Insula III seemed a possible candidate. This area was investigated by relocating and re-excavating the Victorian trenches and by the end of 2014 there was evidence for a large building with a colonnade and more Nero tiles were found. In 2015 a trench was opened in the northeast corner of Insula III. No trace of the large building was found here; instead there was a sequence of late Roman properties along the street and evidence for livestock and the use of dung as fuel. In 2016 a trench in the northwest corner showed that here the ground had been made up with dumped clay and gravel to seal Late Iron Age and early Roman levels which contained no evidence for an early building. A further extension to the excavated area in the southeast corner also proved negative for walls. It was concluded that the large building in this corner represented an abandoned building project. This site was not reused but traces of late Roman ‘cottages’ on the mid-south and mid-east sides of Insula III suggest that it was largely abandoned until the late Roman period.
Meanwhile the Silchester Environs Project was busy interpreting aerial photographs covering some 100 square km extending from southwest Reading. This revealed a series of linear earthworks between the Kennet and the Loddon suggesting a reorganisation of the landscape around the Iron Age oppidum. A bank at Wood Farm yielded pottery dated to the late 1st century BC, more or less contemporary with the oppidum. Crop marks south of Mortimer near Windabout Copse were associated with Iron Age pottery dating from the Early Iron Age (8-6th centuries BC) through to the Late Iron Age and into the 1st century AD, again contemporary with the oppidum. A Late Iron Age chambered grave dated to the very beginning of the 1st century AD was located in this area with a timber-lined chamber and Gallo-Belgic pottery originating from northeast of Paris. Four copper alloy rings may have been attached to a box containing the burial, similar to rings known from burials in the Champagne region of France and from high status burials near Colchester and St Albans. LiDAR revealed a pair of enclosures in Pamber Forest, Hampshire, with Iron Age and Bronze Age material. Roman brickworks identified at Little London near Pamber may yet yield the kilns that fired Nero’s Silchester roof tiles.
Lunch was followed by Steve Ford’s (TVAS) presentation on Iron Age and Roman discoveries at Mathews Green, Wokingham and Hatch Farm, Winnersh, both in areas scheduled for development. At Mathews Green geophysics showed very little as the underlying London Clay contains ‘the wrong sort of iron’. Excavation of the site in 2016 revealed a Middle Iron Age farmstead with a few unenclosed buildings and no field system. Radiocarbon dates showed the farm was extant around c.400 BC and lasted for 50-100 years. Slag from smelting bog iron ore was found in the ring ditch, adding this site to a concentration of Iron Age smelting sites known southeast of Reading, such as Sindlesham and Arborfield, which produced small amounts of iron. No plant material was found suggesting that the economy was mostly pastoral. A Roman site, represented by a series of enclosures overlain by post-medieval boundaries, was found 500 m from the MIA farmstead. This was a classic LIA-later Roman settlement with more enclosures added over time dating from c.AD 30-50 to 350. It was a successful little site that underwent constant additions and improvements and the Roman building remained circular in plan. Again this site was probably pastoral. There was no fancy pottery or metalwork, but a Roman coin hoard found at Mathews Green in the 1970s may have represented the owner’s wealth. Seven shallow circular pits in the area, approx. 1 m across by 10 cm deep, were radiocarbon dated to AD 1042-1218 and are thought to represent charcoal clamps.
Hatch Farm at Winnersh is close to the east bank of the Loddon. Post-medieval ditches and gullies probably represent the land reorganisation shown on a tithe map from the early 1800s. The earliest archaeology was Early Neolithic Abingdon Ware which has not previously been recorded from the Loddon valley. The MIA was represented by two adjacent ring gullies radiocarbon dated to c.200 BC; a third gully was medieval in date. There were three possible MIA rectangular enclosures with very shallow ditches and no entrances, a LIA round house and field system and an early Roman (AD 60-120) square enclosure containing a double-ringed round house. The south side of this enclosure formed a ‘baseline’ to which further enclosures were added to the east and a trackway ran up beside the westernmost boundary ditch. The pattern of enclosures changed during the middle and later Roman periods from c.AD 250-350 but the round house with its circular gullies remained in use throughout. This was not a rich site and the absence of plant material suggested a pastoral economy. The Roman site lasted over 250 years but everything stopped before AD 350. About 20 Roman sites are now known from this region, of which only two continued in use to the end of the Roman period: why?
Next Helen Vernon (MOLA) described the Excavation of Maidenhead Congregational Church and 18th century burial ground. An archaeological evaluation before the construction of an access road discovered brick-built vaults just below the surface in an area that had supposedly been cleared of burials. Some 25 vaults plus ordinary graves yielded the bones of around 70 articulated individuals. A Nonconformist chapel has existed on this site since the early 18th century and this discovery provided a rare opportunity to examine the religious beliefs and burial practices of a Nonconformist population outside London. There was a great variety of vault constructions and some were oriented north-south. Some had been opened and cleared to receive more bodies. One coffin contained butchered horse and cow bones of a similar weight to a human body, suggesting that body snatchers had surreptitiously removed the corpse. Most burials were adults with approx. 50% female, 33.87% male and the rest indeterminate. Nonconformism could adversely affect the careers of men and so was more attractive to women. Most of the observed pathology was dental or arthritic in character; some birth defects were evident such as spina bifida. 40% of individuals had lost teeth in life and three sets of dentures were found. Nutrient deficiency was shown by cribra orbitalia (pitting of the orbits) and rickets, 5% in both cases. Most of the nutrient-deficient bodies were from brick vaults and did not represent the poorest members of society. Two women had constricted rib cages indicating habitual wear of corsets; one man had a pipe notch in his teeth. Named burials enabled research to be conducted to establish the life histories of some of the individuals. Case studies included a certain William Box, a master tailor from the High Street, with details of his wives and children: he died aged 49, probably from TB, and had evidently been allowed to remarry.
After tea, Jim Leary (University of Reading) described the work of The Round Mounds Project in South Oxfordshire and East Berkshire. He began by talking about his work at Silbury Hill in Wiltshire which led him to consider other large mounds in the general area, such as the 18 m high Marlborough Mound which was thought to be a Norman motte. This is half the size of Silbury Hill. By drilling 10-cm cores through the mound from summit to base to examine and date its construction, he was able to show that the Marlborough Mound was indeed Neolithic in origin, dated to c.2400 BC and a sister mound to Silbury. It was later reused as a medieval motte and later still as a garden feature. Hatfield Barrow in Marden Henge, also in Wiltshire, was originally 15 m high and had been excavated by Colt Hoare and Cunnington in the late 18th/early 19th century, as a result of which it became destabilised and was subsequently destroyed. Excavation of the footprint of this mound also provided a Neolithic date of c.2400 BC. All three mounds were next to rivers and surrounded by springs: how many other ‘medieval mottes’ in a similar situation were also Neolithic in origin? Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Jim selected 20 other English mottes to study: they needed to be big, near water and springs, with evidence for Neolithic activity in the vicinity. Ten mounds were cored in 2015 and another ten in 2016. The first ten have now been dated and most are Norman in date. So are Neolithic mounds just a Wiltshire phenomenon?
Wallingford Castle mound was constructed on the very edge of an old channel of the Thames that was still active in the late Saxon period and dates of AD 1032-1158 were obtained from the mound itself. At Hampstead Marshall there is a row of three mounds: the first (‘Castle 3’) was c.15 m high and contained pottery that was ‘clearly medieval’ but not Norman. It was dated to AD 1168-1265, showing that it was probably constructed by William Marshall himself. Dates are awaited on the other two mounds. The Lewes Mound in Sussex was a 16th century ‘garden mount’. In contrast, Skipsea Castle mound in East Yorkshire at 13 m high was shown to be Middle Iron Age in date and is located in a chariot burial area. It is now known to be the largest Iron Age mound in Britain and one of the largest in Europe, and dates to the Hallstadt period. This previously unrecognised date implies that the mound contains a burial chamber with links to the Continent; it sits next to an enclosure which will be excavated to determine if it is also Iron Age in date.
The last speaker was Janette Platt (MOLA) who talked about Managing archaeological assets in mineral extraction areas: the East Berkshire Terrestrial Minerals Resource Assessment. The aims of this project, which is being carried out in conjunction with Berkshire Archaeology, is to determine the spatial extent of mineral resources in East Berkshire using GIS. Existing HERs are enhanced using GIS to create asset (=HER) density maps of different types of sites according to period to ensure that planners working on future mineral extraction strategies will be aware of what archaeological assets might be damaged by quarrying, to assist with the management of these assets, and to help local authorities make informed decisions. Four study areas have been defined to sample river valley deposits, river terrace deposits, soft sands (bedrock) and chalk (Pinkneys Green contains the only active chalk pit in the area). Urban areas are excluded. So far more than 4500 HERs have been examined and new assets have been created by combining or splitting existing records to give 2817 assets across the survey area. Extra information has been added to the records, including chronology, type, significance and survival status. Asset density is highest in river valley deposits, although this might partially reflect the extent of archaeological investigations and redevelopment programmes. Asset types are dominated by find spots. The range of types increases with time: transport related assets increase in the post-medieval period and modern assets are primarily defence-linked.
Thanks are due to all the participants who helped to make this event such a success, and especially to Trevor Coombs who organised it all.
report by Janet Sharpe