BAS Day School 2019

There was a full house at the Cornerstone in Wokingham on Saturday 6th April as members gathered to hear reports on recent archaeological developments in Berkshire, meet up with friends and enjoy some networking at the Society’s annual day school.

After an introduction and welcome by Alison McQuitty (Chair), the first session followed tradition with presentations by Sarah Orr, the West Berkshire Senior Archaeologist based at Newbury (Recent work in West Berkshire), and Fiona McDonald, the East Berkshire Archaeological Officer based in Reading (Recent discoveries in East Berkshire). The roles of both centred on the development and maintenance of Historic Environment Records for their respective areas, assessing the impact of planning applications on the archaeological heritage, conservation of same, and outreach and education to increase awareness of this heritage among the general public. Both drew attention to A Guide to Historic Environment Records (HERs) in England, published by Historic England in February 2019. Sarah also mentioned Historic England’s Neighbourhood Planning and the Historic Environment(2018), SHINE (the Selected Heritage Inventory for Natural England, which includes listed buildings) and HAR (Heritage at Risk, a register of sites and buildings including churches that improves their chances of funding). Sites of current interest in West Berkshire include the excavation of a narrow boat behind the Narrow Boat pub in Newbury, and some waterlogged wood from Boxford that is awaiting dating. Fiona referred to the HLC (Historic Landscape Characterisation) project, the reopening of Reading Abbey to the public in June 2018, the Old Windsor project (that involved several BAS members), the Medieval tile kiln in Silver Street being dug by TVAS, and the controversial planning application at Mapledurham Playing Fields. East Berkshire is also monitoring a planning application at Hogwood Farm, south of Arborfield Garrison and close to the Devil’s Highway Roman road.

John Powell (Wessex Archaeology) opened the session after coffee with a talk entitled Extracting evidence from gravel quarries in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. The quarries in question were near neighbours at Riding Court Farm near Datchet and Richings Park near Langley. Richings Park is a five-year project involving 38 ha. The site represents a ‘staircase’ of Thames Valley terraces, formed as the river migrated south during the Ice Age. Victorian and early 20th century gravel pits in the area had produced a number of Palaeolithic worked flints dating back 260,000 years, manufactured by early humans and Neanderthals. Bore holes and test pits were used to create a model of the underlying gravel deposits to determine their archaeological potential. Long strip trenches were then dug across the area and the spoil was sieved. Samples were taken to examine for plant macrofossils. Only 17 worked flints were recovered, most of which were rolled and redeposited in the gravels; only two were local flakes. To compensate, the site also yielded Neolithic pits, a Bronze Age field system, an Iron Age burial, late Iron Age/early Roman storage pits and a Roman well. Riding Court Farm was an even larger site, covering 43 ha and requiring a seven-year project. Early Neolithic activity predominated here, with pits, rectangular houses, a cursus and a causewayed enclosure of which 370 m of its circuit have been mapped so far. The enclosure ditches yielded many finds, including animal bones, potsherds, worked flints and spreads of pottery at ditch terminals. Human remains included skulls and complete inhumations. Stone axes included material from Cornwall and Langdale Pike in the Lake District. The worked flints represented the entire range of the Neolithic tool kit. Some large pots were found, and also decorated sherds. Unusually, the causewayed enclosure contained a ditched oval feature in the centre with more finds in the ditches including an antler comb and an almost complete vessel. There was also a rectangular post-built structure similar to the houses described from Horton quarry [see the day school report in the Summer 2009 newsletter]. More details are available on the Wessex Archaeology website.

Mike Fulford (University of Reading) provided an update on Silchester: the Roman baths project[see the BAS visit report in the Autumn 2018 newsletter]. The baths lie in the south-east and lowest corner of the town which then and now is permanently wet with springs. These provided a regular supply of water that was lifted and stored before feeding the baths. The baths were first excavated in 1903-04 when the first Nero-stamped tile was found in an adjacent pit and they constitute one of the earliest examples of Roman baths in Britain. There is evidence for the continual raising of levels to counteract flooding. Wooden piles of alder were found preserved in waterlogged soil. The project aims to determine the role of Nero and his agents in the development of the early Roman town, to date and understand the building, and to determine how the baths were used by examining the finds found within and immediately outside the building. The 2018 season exposed the entrance, the east wall and later tepidarium, and explored the adjacent sediments to determine if the baths had been built on the bank of the earlier Iron Age enclosure ditch, the existence of which has only recently been confirmed. The baths were aligned to the Iron Age street plan and remained askew to the later Roman street grid. The façade was built of Wealden greensand blocks with courses of bricks but the eastern half of this area was later remodelled to accommodate a large latrine block. The stone walls were heavily robbed during the medieval period. Excavations at the baths will continue between 17 June and 13 July 2019 with an open day on Saturday 6 July.

Next Tom Dommett (Regional archaeologist, National Trust) presented Runnymede and Ankerwycke explored, in which he set out plans to reinterpret the site for visitors. Best known for the signing of Magna Carta, which has been described as the first acknowledgement of human rights (although it largely restated rights established by the Anglo-Saxons), one of the aims of the project is to discover if there actually was a ‘Magna Carta island’, the present one being an artificial construction. But there is a lot more to the site than this. With the help of an HLF grant, the National Trust has revamped the facilities and instigated a three-year community archaeology project. A ‘big dig’ and a public exhibition are scheduled to start in 2020 and volunteers are invited. Excavations by Stuart Needham in the early 1980s examined alluvial deposits and revealed a Late Bronze Age wharf. Runnymede meadows, crop marks, floodplain deposits and the changing course of the river remain to be explored: the site has huge archaeological potential. The Thames divides the National Trust site into two and at Ankerwycke on the north bank there is a moated site, representing the remains of a priory founded in the 12th century [where BAS is planning to undertake fieldwork in July – please contact Andrew Hutt for details]. The priory was converted to a Tudor manor house following the Dissolution but was reduced to a folly in the 19th century. The site is famous as home to perhaps the oldest yew tree in Britain, estimated to be some 2500 years old, but has been little explored archaeologically.

After lunch, Paul Booth (recently retired from Oxford Archaeology) gave us some New thoughts on Dorchester-on-Thamesfollowing the close of the Discovering Dorchester project (2007-2018) which included a series of annual excavations in the town’s allotments. The north-east part of the Dyke Hills oppidumwas subjected to a geophysical survey by William Wintle three years ago and revealed pits and hut circles. Dorchester was positioned significantly on a major route from the south coast to the Midlands, and a Google Earth map showed the axial road highlighted [significantly with a marked bend to the north-north-west at the north gate which follows the alignment of the High Street]. Sheppard Frere’s excavations in the allotments in the 1960s had revealed part of a possible military fort and this was finally confirmed at the end of the 2018 season when a series of linear postholes and traces of timber buildings of a military character were uncovered beneath the axial road. When superimposed on Frere’s findings, these remains appeared to form part of the same complex arrangement of buildings which represented more than one phase. These had been demolished and the axial road then built on top of the demolition layer. Some finds with military connotations, including a ceramic sling bolt and a copper alloy mount showing the head of Silenus, suggest that Frere’s fort has at last been found. Frere dated the fort to c. AD 60-80s on coin evidence, but the 715 coins found during the current excavations included five copies of Claudian asses, two Republican denarii and four Flavian coins, and Paul considers that the fort is possibly earlier than Frere thought. Of six 1st century pieces of Samian ware found during the current excavations, four are pre-Flavian. The dig trench was limited to 30 x 20 m and little was revealed of the mid-Roman sequence. Some large 1st to early 2nd century pits, dug originally for brick earth and gravel for buildings and road surfaces, later became rubbish pits. Some small fragments of cob walling were found but the only substantial structure was a 2nd century building at the west end of the trench which was cut through by a trench in the late Roman period. There were some very late Roman ditches. Large quantities of ‘Period 21’ coins dating to AD 388-402 were recovered, and these comprise more than 30% of all the Roman coins found at Dorchester. Some late Roman buckles relate to the same period and may or may not have military connotations. Other evidence for late Roman activity is found in the cemeteries outside the walled town. The discovery of another elaborate buckle with a burial on top of the inner bank of the Dyke Hills in 2010 has been dated to the first quarter of the 5th century and possibly later. This indicates the presence of a small military corps active in and around Dorchester in the early 5th century. Whether this should be considered late Roman or early Saxon is yet to be resolved.

Nero’s tile works: the Romano-British tile and pottery industry at Little London, Pamberwas presented by Sara Machin (University of Reading). This site is located 3 km south-south-west of Silchester in a known brick-making area. In 1925, amateur archaeologist Lt Col. J.B.P. Karslake described the field as ‘orange’ with brick and tile fragments, and excavated to find a Nero-stamped tile but no kilns. Excavations were carried out in 2017 following a magnetometry survey.  Two trenches were opened to explore magnetic hotspots and linear features. In the first trench the linear features were ditches on either side of a trackway and the hotspot was a kiln, brick-built and measuring 5 x 7 m. Large postholes at each corner and a surrounding ring of postholes may have formed a lean-to building where tiles were dried before firing. The second trench revealed a V-cut ditch full of wasters, over half of which were flagon handles, together with early bowls, flagons and jars. There were also three kilns, two small ones and a larger one, packed with pottery. In addition, more than 4.5 tonnes of CBM were recovered, comprising bricks and tiles. These included hypocaust pilae20 cm square and 4-5 cm thick; lots of flue tiles with scored, combed or relief patterning (one pattern was traced along the road to Cirencester, another design travelled in all directions including Alchester and Winchester); hollow voussoirs to make archways; antefixes; curved bricks probably used to span small spaces with barrel-vaulting; and circular column bricks about 50 cm in diameter. Two of the tegulaehad circular holes with raised edges and were described as ‘sky-lights’ which are very rare in Britain, known previously only from Chester and London; one was found in situ in a roof at Pompeii where it may have been to let light in or smoke out. Tegulae colliciarumhad been cut diagonally across to fit into a roof valley where two slopes met. Three more fragments of Nero-stamped tiles were found, produced by different stamps; 16 of these have been recorded from Silchester so far.

The next advertised speaker was unable to attend and Alan Hall stepped in at short notice to present High Wood: a Romano-British sitenear Henley, which is being excavated as a SOAG-backed project. This enigmatic site comprises a large, 50 x 40 m, 4th century enclosure and building complex of uncertain function, overlying Late Iron Age and early Roman material. A separate mound appears to represent the spoil heap of an early ‘antiquarian’ dig and contains higher status material hinting at a possible villa in the vicinity. Alan had previously spoken about the High Wood project at the BAS December 2018 meeting [see the Spring 2019 newsletter for a report on this talk].

After tea, the final talk of the day was entitled Medieval to modern: osteological and archaeological findings in St Mary’s churchyard, Wargrave, by Stephanie Duensing (John Moore Heritage Services) and Ceri Boston (freelance osteologist). Excavations on the north side of the church prior to building work uncovered 89 articulated skeletons and assorted charnel. Stephanie gave us a background to the site, where scattered prehistoric remains have been found, but no settlements. Margary’s Roman road 160cc, ostensibly to Silchester, runs north-east to south-west just 100 m to the east of the church and scattered Roman coins and potsherds have been found nearby. The church building dates from the 12rh century but most of it was rebuilt during the 20th century after a fire. Ceri followed with her analysis of the skeletal material. During the medieval and post-medieval periods until the late 18th century, the north side of the church was considered to be ‘the Devil’s quarter’ and most people chose to be buried on the south side. The skeletons recovered therefore did not represent the ‘top brass’ of Wargrave society. The church has maintained a continual record of christenings, marriages and burials from 1538 to the present, including 6738 burials. It was possible to correlate years with a higher than normal rate of burials with poor harvests. A high rate of burials between 1642-44 coincided with the English Civil War when armies lived off the land and local people not only went short but were exposed to diseases such as typhus and dysentery introduced by the soldiers. From the 1780s onwards the level of rural poverty increased due to the enclosure acts and poor laws and people tended to move into the cities. Nevertheless, the population did increase in Wargrave and the Victorian era brought tourists to the river and improved the economy. Analysis of the bones themselves showed that no infants or young children were present, despite the high rate of infant mortality which from 1813-1899 reached 12-25% in infants aged less than 2 years. Males outnumbered females in Ceri’s sample by 2:1, whereas the burial registers record a ratio of 1:0.9, suggesting that women and children were buried elsewhere in the churchyard. Bone injuries reflected occupations associated with farming, rural crafts and the river trade. A certain type of hand fracture (avulsion fractures) in men is associated with rowing; ankle bone fractures in women could be related to the use of treadles on spinning wheels; spinal problems indicated that children were subjected to heavy labour from a very young age. The sample of 89 skeletons included 77 bone fractures, mostly in men. Diseases can only be identified where they affect the bones and the rate of disease would have been far higher than was apparent. Syphilis was confirmed in one individual with several other suspected cases. There were only two cases of TB; 12 persons showed evidence of chronic lung disease (thickening of the ribs), and four women and two men had suffered from chronic sinusitis, probably as a result of living indoors in a smoky environment. Notches in the teeth due to habitual smoking of clay pipes were more frequent in women. The stature of the skeletons corresponded to that of the contemporary working population. There was a low rate of deficiency diseases although 13 adults showed signs of scurvy. One person suffered from gout. It was concluded that the 89 skeletons were representative of a working class population and an agrarian economy, together with specific fractures associated with the river trade; both men and women worked for their living.

Thanks are due to all the organisers and participants who made the day such a great success, and especially to Trevor Coombs who unfortunately was not able to be present: after very many years of planning the BAS day schools including the present one, he has now handed the reins over to others.

report by Janet Sharpe

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire