Archaeological Evaluation at Cookham Paddock

by Keith Abbott

Cookham Paddock is located on the south bank of the River Thames 50 metres from the 12th century Holy Trinity Church in Cookham listed in Domesday. The church has long been thought to stand on the site of a much earlier church and has been one of a number of rumoured locations for the lost Cookham monastery, which is known to have been part of a network of monasteries established along the Thames during the Early Medieval (mid-Saxon) period.

Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading (UoR) Department of Archaeology led a small team of staff/students in the two weeks 9th – 21st August 2021 supported by volunteers from societies affiliated to the Middle Thames Archaeology Partnership (MTAP) including: Berkshire Archaeological Society (BAS), Berkshire Archaeology Research Group (BARG), Maidenhead Archaeological & Historical Society (MAHS), Maidenhead Search Society (MSS), Marlow Archaeology Group (MAG) and South Oxfordshire Archaeological Group (SOAG). The main objective of this project was to evaluate the potential of the site through a series of test trenches.

Situated south of the River Thames, Cookham was located close to the much contested boundary between Wessex and Mercia and near to a Roman crossing of the River Thames, which would both have been major arteries for trade. As such, Cookham was a strategic centre for religious, political and commercial activity throughout the Early Medieval period. Historical records show that there was an monastery in Cookham which was captured in 733 AD by Æthelbald of Mercia. Cynewulf of Wessex took possession of the monastery around 760 AD, and Offa retook the monastery for Mercia in 779 AD as the result of his victory at the Battle of Bensington. After Offa’s death in 796 AD, his widow Cynethryth became the abbess at Cookham until her death sometime after 798 AD.

Figure 1. Holy Trinity Church, and excavations in Cookham Paddock (University of Reading, 2021)

Holy Trinity Church lies on the rising land of a gravel terrace, and the churchyard and the adjoining Paddock lie on alluvial sediments located on the flood plain of the River Thames. An auger survey also identified the presence of a paleochannel at the north end of the Paddock. A number of previous archaeological investigations have been carried out yielding results suggestive of an Early Medieval settlement in the area: 

– A trial excavation to the south of the church revealed undated courses of chalk rubble thought to pre-date two ditches containing post-Medieval tile and pottery (Collard, 1986).

– An archaeological assessment to the north of the church revealed finds of Early Medieval pottery, suggesting the presence of an Early Medieval settlement in the near vicinity (Mudd & Burrow, 1987). 

– Trial trenches on Sashes Island failed to find evidence of the expected Saxon burh (Hill, Beard & Robinson, 2000).

– Excavations carried out by the Marlow Archaeological Society in Cookham Paddock revealed pottery sherds dating from the Late Iron Age and Late Roman periods, a metalled track way constructed from re-used Roman building material running parallel to the river, deposits of animal bone and pottery sherds dating to 450-850 AD suggesting the presence of a nearby Early Medieval settlement (Griffin, 2005).

UoR’s prior geophysical survey of the paddock did not reveal well defined anomalies in part at least due to the underlying geology, but six evaluation trenches were positioned around the paddock across features of interest to assess the extent of its archaeology. The location of these trenches proved to be well founded, as once the digger had removed the topsoil, a huge amount of archaeology was revealed within all of these trenches:

Trench 1: Contained an area of intercutting pits filled with animal bone, pottery sherds and dismantled hearths dating to the mid-Saxon period. The metalled track way running parallel to the river (first discovered in 2005) was further exposed, and thought to be heading towards the church. The trench also contained a ditch running north-south containing mid-Saxon pottery sherds indicating that the track way was associated with an early phase of activity. The trench also contained a rubbish pit cut deep into the sterile alluvial deposits of the paleochannel which was then filled with animal bones. Close to the pit was an area metalled with flints too large to be used for a track way, which may have formed a plinth supporting a post of a timber building. A bronze pin dating from the Early Medieval period was found to the north of the track way. Also found in this trench were fragments of a scrimshaw decorated bone comb.

Figure 2. Student and volunteer archaeologists excavating trench 1

Trench 2: Revealed two parallel ditches running east-west, which contained animal bones and mid-Saxon pottery. Within one of these ditches, a well preserved iron axe head was found. Also found was an alignment of six post holes running north-south which probably formed the eastern side of a substantial wooden building. The Early Medieval archaeology was partially covered by gravel bed and a hearth possibly forming the floor of a 12th century building, as a largely intact 12th century pot was found close to the hearth. Further postholes were found underneath this gravel bed and elsewhere in the trench suggesting the presence of other Early Medieval timber buildings close by. Also a well preserved silver sceatta coin dating from 710-760 AD to 8th century AD was found on the spoil heap of this trench.

Figure 3. A student archeologist unearths an Early Medieval iron axe head

Trench 3: Revealed at one end a large Early Medieval midden containing huge deposits of animal bones which will be further analysed to gain insights into diet and farming practices of the inhabitants of this settlement. At the other end of this trench were ten postholes possibly related to a number of phases of monastery timber buildings close to which was an area of intense burning which may have been the hearth of a smithy as slag was recovered from features nearby.

Figure 4. Volunteer archaeologists process finds

Trench 4: Contained the continuation of one of the east-west boundary ditches seen in Trench 2.

Trench 5: Contained an east-west boundary ditch recut at its western end. Sections dug through these ditches revealed animal bones, Mid Saxon pottery sherds, an iron knife and a disarticulated human skull. The skull will be further examined by the University, but it is thought likely that an earlier burial was disturbed and the skull re-deposited in this nearby ditch.

Figure 5. Careful excavation of the human skull found in trench 5

Trench 6: Revealed two Early Medieval pits which would have been used for storage, and later filled in with rubbish, and yielded finds of animal bone,  Mid-Saxon pottery sherds and a delicate bronze bracelet

Figure 6. Metal detectorist from the Maidenhead Search Society (MSS) examining spoil heaps, and briefing students on finds made

The results from this archaeological evaluation have proved that there was a sizeable mid-Saxon settlement located within Cookham Paddock. The pottery finds were almost exclusively from the mmid- Saxon period. The numerous parallel running ditches suggest the settlement was structured into defined zones of occupation, and the postholes have shown the presence of at least one timber building that would have housed the inhabitants of the settlement and further suggest the presence of other buildings close by. The artefacts found across the site include food remains, pottery vessels used for cooking and eating; and the bronze bracelet, bone comb and bronze pins which were likely to have been worn by female members of the community. The axe, knife and smithy hearth demonstrate that the settlement also contained industrial occupations as well as farming and domestic activities. Together, this assemblage of finds will allow us to piece together a detailed impression of how the inhabitants of this settlement ate, worked and dressed.

Figure 7. Excavation operations in full swing due to the amount of archaeology revealed!

The metalled track way revealed in Trench 1 would have taken considerable labour and materials to construct. The flint plinth also in this trench possibly supported the base of a substantial building. Taken together, it suggests this part of the settlement could have been of particularly high status, one of the indications that it was directly associated with the documented monastery. Further work will be needed to expand understanding of the chronology and spatial organisation of the site.

Overall, the archaeological evaluation excavation at Cookham Paddock has been a huge success: revealing strong evidence of an Early Medieval settlement, high status finds and datable evidence suggestive of an association with the Cookham Monastery, and a wealth of other finds all shedding light on how the inhabitants of this settlement would have lived and worked.

Also a huge success was the level of collaboration between the University of Reading and the affiliated societies of the Middle Thames Archaeology Partnership which demonstrated the benefits for all parties of bringing together academic staff/students from the UoR’s Archaeology Department with experienced volunteer archaeologists, historians and metal detectorists to work together and share their diverse knowledge, experience and resources. Future work is already being considered by UoR and MTAP to return to this site again to continue the investigation add to the growing body of knowledge of Early Medieval Cookham.

Figure 8. The Middle Thames Archaeology Partnership excavation team

All the volunteers from BAS who took part in this project very much enjoyed the experience of being involved in this ground-breaking initiative. As well as benefiting from the technical guidance of the professional archaeologists from the University, the volunteers from the various local societies involved were able to renew old acquaintances, build new friendships, exchange ideas, and share experiences in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. 

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