Berkshire Archaeological Society: Back into projects

by Dr Andrew Hutt,

The Berkshire Archaeological Society celebrates 150! -13th June 2021

In today’s earlier talk, Professor Michael Fulford had referred to the Berkshire Archaeological Society (BAS), as a hub with many spokes. Dr Andrew Hutt started his talk by thanking the several hundreds of people who make up these spokes, and who have helped the Society get back into projects. The ‘spokes’ ranged from politicians (including local Councillors, some of whom were present at today’s Anniversary Meeting), academics at the University of Reading and many other universities, museums and the Berkshire Record Office, educational establishments (with a special mention for the Workers Educational Association(WEA)), professional archaeologists, equipment suppliers and landowners. Last, but by no means least, Andrew thanked the ‘hub’ – members of the Berkshire Archaeological Society, the Berkshire Archaeological Research Group (BARG), and many other groups who have helped the Society get back into projects.

Andrew went on to describe BAS as it was when he joined it in the mid-1990s. Its main activities were Saturday lectures, visits to sites, an annual tour, and the publication of the Berkshire Archaeological Journal. The Berkshire Archaeological Research Group (BARG) was formed in 2002, its predecessor being the Berkshire Field Research Group (BFRG), which Andrew had joined in the early 1990s. In 2003-2004, while studying for a Masters in Archaeology at the University of Reading, Andrew discussed with academics the voluntary archaeological organisations’ contribution to their local archaeology, and their somewhat low level of activity. It appeared that with the rise of developer-funded archaeology, practical archaeology had been taken over by professionals, with academic archaeology separate to this, and with very little being done to explain the results of the professional work to the public. There was a gap in the market; a need for narratives which could accurately interpret the archaeology in an interesting way, and for channels to present these to the public. 

The Berkshire Iron Age Project, 2004-2009, published in the Berkshire Archaeological Journal; ‘Living in the Iron Age in and around Berkshire’, was a study of some 150 sites, covering all aspects of life in the Iron Age. This project showed that BAS could contribute to filling the gap in the archaeology/heritage market. It has led to public lectures and academic conferences, courses run in partnership with the WEA, an exhibition which has been shown throughout Berkshire, and outreach events run with Bracknell Council and a school in Crowthorne.

Andrew described the Mid to Late Iron Age community in the vicinity of Caesar’s Camp, Easthampstead. Iron smelting and working were a major industry, and farming; growing corn and raising sheep, and the production of textiles, leather and pottery, were all important for the success of the community. Andrew then told of a visit by Crowthorne schoolchildren to Caesar’s Camp, organised by BAS, where the children enjoyed a fun trading activity, bartering tokens of farm animals, textiles, pottery, etc., for whatever they wanted to ‘buy’, very much as Iron Age people would have done.

Andrew talked of the Berkshire Romans Project 1, 2010-2018, whose results were published in the Berkshire Archaeological Journal; ‘The Land of the Atrebates: in and around Roman Berkshire.’ This project led to courses organised by the WEA, and from this the BAS Study Group arose. The Study Group has worked on Roman and Anglo-Saxon Berkshire, the Berkshire Romans Project 2 (BRP2), and many fieldwork proposals and reports. There was a need to do more work on Roman Berkshire (hence BRP2), and for technology to assist in the huge amount of data collected, which lead to the creation of the BAS Gazetteer.

Members of archaeological societies expect to be able to get involved in fieldwork. Andrew talked of the challenges associated with excavation; of opening a trench and then dealing with the costs of processing and interpreting finds, with the identification of artefacts often requiring professionals. Environmental evidence incurred further expense, with the need for professionals for dating, as well as for identifying a variety of remains, including microscopic ones.

One solution was to go into geophysics; the initial costs were high, but the ongoing costs and risk were low, and everyone who wanted could get involved. The work done makes a genuine contribution to Berkshire’s archaeological record. Andrew talked of the Society’s 37 geophysics surveys, including that at Ankerwycke, where gradiometer and resistance surveys have revealed hidden features, ranging from the foundations of the 12th century Priory to a 20th century swimming pool.

Andrew described what is involved in excavation, and how knowledge and skills have been acquired by BAS members digging at Silchester, and at Blounts Court. At Blounts Court the geophysics surveys revealed various features, which were then excavated, and found to range in date from a Roman wall (built in 300 AD, according to the radiocarbon dating of its mortar), to the foundations of 15th to 17th century structures. BAS members have also learnt how to process finds, by attending finds workshops led by professionals, including some from Wessex Archaeology.

Andrew had said earlier, that for the 10 years from the 1990s to 2004, very little fieldwork had been done by BAS or BFRG. In contrast, from 2005 to 2021, there have been some 40 fieldwork projects: 15 with BARG, and over 25 with BAS. 35 fieldwork projects were with geophysics, 10 were excavations and 2 were topological surveys.

In conclusion, this huge body of work shows that members of the Society have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about archaeology. We have developed narratives which are archaeologically correct, interesting and repeatable, have explained Berkshire’s archaeology to the public, and in the process have had a lot of fun!

Catherine Petts gave a toast to ‘The Society Past’ focussing on the contributions of its members at all levels.  Then Alison McQuitty gave a toast to ‘The Society Future’ and closed the meeting.

Julie Worsfold thanked Mike, Alison, Andrew, Catherine, and Tim for all their hard work and for making this online celebratory event such a success.

report by Joan Burrow-Newton

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire