Cookham Paddock


Geophysical Survey 2022

From 9th to 21st August 2021, the University of Reading Department of Archaeology led a small team of staff/students with the support of volunteers from societies affiliated to the Middle Thames Archaeology Partnership (including the Berkshire Archaeological Society) in an archaeological evaluation of Cookham Paddock.  This proved there was a sizeable Mid Saxon settlement with defined zones of occupation. At least one timber building was found along with evidence to suggest the presence of other buildings close by. 

Based on the results of this work the University of Reading, Department of Archaeology will be undertaking a further excavation within Cookham Paddock as part of the University of Reading Field School in August 2022. To assist in the planning of the excavation, an earth resistance survey of Cookham Paddock was carried by Berkshire Archaeological Society volunteers during May 2022.

The BAS survey team (Andrew Hutt, Paul Seddon, Nigel Spencer, Martin Labram, James Peddle, Philip Rawstron and Keith Abbott) carried out the earth resistance survey from 16th to 20th May, using 20m x 20m grids with a 1.0m survey resolution across the entire Paddock area, and using 10m x 10m grids with a 0.5m survey resolution in areas of interest in the north of the Paddock. The 10m x 10m survey technique, whilst requiring 4 times more effort to capture the additional data, was able to provide significantly enhanced image resolution as can be seen below. The earth resistance data was combined in a layered image stack along with the 2021 trench plans and coring data so that the anomalies identified could be seen with as much context as possible.

The 0.5m vs 1m earth resistance anomalies

The survey report was provided to the University of Reading Department of Archaeology on time and was used to determine the location of the trenches to be excavated. This project is a good example of how the skills and experience within the voluntary sector can be called on by the University at short notice when needed.

Download the report here:

Excavations 2022 

In August 2022 Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading, Department of Archaeology led a team of staff/students (supported by volunteers from societies affiliated to the Middle Thames Archaeology Partnership (MTAP) – including the Berkshire Archaeological Society, Berkshire Archaeology Research Group, Maidenhead Archaeological & Historical Society, Maidenhead Search Society, and Marlow Archaeology Group) in further excavations at Cookham Paddock. 

Amongst the key objectives were to build on the post-excavation analysis of the 2021 evaluation and the geophysics survey carried out in May 2022 by BAS (and MTAP) volunteers, by opening two large trenches: trench 1 – at the north of the Paddock 35m x 35m in area; and trench 2, positioned to the southwest of trench 1 and 20m x 10m in area. When the topsoil was removed a significant amount of well-preserved archaeology was revealed in both trenches: 

Trench 1 was positioned against the northern eastern boundary of the Paddock. The current course of the river Thames is heavily channeled, so it is likely that the river in the 8th and 9th centuries would have been broader and shallower, flowing much nearer to the settlement at Cookham Paddock (and trench 1) than it does today. Trench 1 contained a dense spread of well-preserved archaeology of a Mid Saxon settlement that was abandoned at some point during the 2nd half of the 9th century AD. Trench 1 revealed a gravel trackway running north-south before turning to the east. Along this trackway were tightly packed buildings on either side, with individual buildings divided by smaller roads that can be seen as offshoots from the main thoroughfare. Within the buildings, floor surfaces were revealed that featured hearths, remains of ovens and a large number of timber post holes. The high level of preservation of the site revealed objects that were dropped on these floor surfaces found in situ, which offer a unique insight into the life within a Mid Saxon monastic settlement. Numerous samples from these floor surfaces were taken for X-Ray Fluorescence and Environmental Sampling, from which it is hoped that further detail of the functions carried out within these buildings (e.g., evidence of metal working, grains etc.) will be revealed. 

Road surface

Across the northern end of the trench, a heavily engineered cambered road surface running east-west robustly constructed from chalk, flints, and the remains of a nearby (yet to be located) Roman building was uncovered. It is thought that this may have served as a loading/unloading point for goods entering and leaving the monastery by river, further illustrating the role played by the monastery as a hub for commerce and trade. Finds from trench 1 included loom weights and a bone pin beater, evidence that textiles were being produced nearby. Also found were pieces of stained window glass and fragments of black glass interpreted as remains of inkwell, both of which are evidence of a high-status ecclesiastical presence. Also, items were found from the daily life of the inhabitants of the settlement such as fragments of local pottery and imported fine ware, an iron knife, fragments of an imported quern stone, a lamp holder, a fragment of a bone comb and bronze strap ends from belts. 

Trench 2 featured an east-west v-shaped ditch curving to the south interpreted as marking the boundary of an enclosed area. This ditch was intersected by a later (11th-12th century AD) north-south running ditch thought to have been dug to mark the bounds of Medieval Cookham that were laid out at this time (long after the monastery had ceased to exist). Trench 2 was found to contain an 8th-9th century AD cemetery most likely linked to the monastery, which is cut by the later north-south running ditch. The graves found within this cemetery are aligned east-west indicating that these were Christian burials. Two graves were found to have been cut by the later ditch, and a fully articulated skeleton was also discovered which was taken to the University for analysis and radiocarbon dating. It is likely that the monastery would have contained separate cemeteries for the monastic brethren and the lay community. It is also known that monasteries at this time contained multiple churches – so an objective future excavation of this area of the Paddock is to determine the focus of this cemetery and insights into the lives of the people who are buried there. This trench also contained domestic pits indicating that there were timber buildings located close by. As well as the Mid Saxon finds, lots of worked flints were found suggesting that the Paddock was also occupied during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. 

Processing finds

The 2022 Field School was a huge success, with the initial interpretation of the assemblage of finds and archaeological features discovered adding considerably to earlier work carried out. As well as the insights gained into life within this busy monastic settlement, there is now growing evidence of the presence of its high-status ecclesiastical inhabitants. The discovery of the cemetery and the extensive sampling of areas of domestic occupation will enable researchers to piece together a much more detailed picture of how the inhabitants of Mid Saxon Cookham lived. Further work is needed to expand the understanding of the chronology and spatial organisation of the site. 

A key objective of the 2022 Field School was to provide training for University of Reading students, who benefitted immensely from the experience gained at this unique site. It is hoped that the strong collaboration between the University of Reading and the MTAP affiliated societies’ volunteer archaeologists, local historians and metal detectorists working together to share their diverse knowledge, experience and resources will continue in future years. The excavations at Cookham Paddock this year also drew an unprecedented amount of interest from local residents, with more than 1000 people visiting the site for tours. 

Due to its unique level of preservation, the work carried out in 2022 only scratched the surface of the archaeology at this site. It is estimated that there are 3 to 5 further seasons of work still to be done. In the meanwhile, the Friends of Cookham Abbey will be arranging lectures, community events and fieldwork in the surrounding area carried out by MTAP volunteer archaeologists to maintain the momentum built by the 2022 Field School in advance of another season of excavation at Cookham Paddock led by the University of Reading in 2023. 

Excavations 2023 

Work at the Cookham Abbey site took place from Monday 24th July to Saturday 2nd September, and was conducted by the army of students belonging to the University of Reading Archaeology Field School plus volunteers who came from far and wide. But most were members of local societies, not least of all BAS, working under the Middle Thames Archaeology Partnership (MTAP) umbrella, and from the Maidenhead Search Society, who fielded one or two detectorists each day to comb the spoil heaps. 

BAS members Keith Abbott and James Peddle made a significant contribution in inducting archaeological newcomers to the site and teaching new things to the experienced. It was a great pleasure to see volunteers doing the key work of surveying for levels, recording by writing context sheets and drawing plans of contexts and features. 

Trench 3

Notably, the volunteer brigade – numbering almost eighty in relays over the six-week period to the end of August – was assigned the task of opening and excavating a new trench. Trench 3 was a slot from the northern edge of Trench 1 as opened in 2022 to attempt to locate the boundary of the Abbey site and establish where the edge of the River Thames lay in the mid-Saxon period. This involved squeezing through a space between trees on the boundary between the Church Paddock and the riverside open space known as Bell Rope Meadow. We were constrained by the Environment Agency as to how far we could take our trench towards a flood bund which lay between us and the river, but what we were able to do has probably added a fantastic new dimension to the site. 

The first significant feature we uncovered was a stone foundation on an East-West orientation running the width of the trench and presumably continuing either side, made of large flint nodules. This seemed likely to be a boundary wall of the Abbey site. To the North of this we encountered a cut feature, at first presumed to be an enclosure ditch beyond the presumed wall. However, excavation proved these features to be even more interesting than first thought. The ditch was cut very steeply, very deep and showed evidence of a timber revetment on both sides. Not an obvious boundary ditch! Below the excavation level we cored down to the natural, two metres down, above which was a layer of peat. 

The leat had large quantity of midden material dumped into it when it went out of use, suggesting abandonment in the early medieval period. It is a clear target for future seasons – the mill itself is presumed to be located downstream of the leat where we have opened it, possibly in the area available for excavation, but not necessarily. Fingers are crossed! 

Finding this mill leat more than makes up for not finding the site boundary or the ancient riverbank profile (yet!). The leat is clearly within the Abbey bounds, as excavation in Trench 3 further to the North above the leat showed rich occupation material of mid-Saxon date consistent with Trench 1 as opened in 2022 and further explored in 2023. 

Turning to Trench 1 we were able to make a major leap forward from some of the interpretation made in 2022, at first as a result of finding another feature in Trench 3. This was a circular deposit of flint packing, aligned North-South with two similar features discovered in 2022. These two flint deposits were tentatively interpreted then as being oven bases. The presence of three features of identical size, perfectly aligned and equidistant made it obvious we were looking at the very large post holes which must have supported the enormous timber posts of a hall. Half-sectioning the holes confirms this interpretation. 

If it is of the same date as the abbey, this hall could represent a major monastic functional building, such as a refectory or dormitory. Other sites have shown that monastic settlements have been preceded by (presumably) royal halls, so we must wait for further evidence. The hall is tucked in a corner between two Anglo-Saxon streets, and shows wonderful preservation of floors, hearths, and other internal features. Preserved at this floor level is a wonderful hearth, rectangular in shape, right in the central axis of the building, telling us that it was a residential building, a hearth important for providing both heat and light. A hearth also has a symbolic meaning as the focal point of such buildings. Samples from the hearth are to be submitted for archaeomagnetic dating – if it works, this could provide a date for the last firing of the hearth. 

The well

Cut into the roadway to the North of the hall is a well, which was safely excavated down to the water table – another terrific volunteer input in constructing and placing the shoring for the deep and constricted excavation. The well proved to have a timber lining preserved in waterlogged conditions at the bottom. More analysis to be done! 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the site, huge strides were made in excavating the Anglo-Saxon cemetery first uncovered in 2022. Trench 2 across one of the cemeteries – there may have been more – attached to the monastery was extended from the previous year to the Western boundary of the site. It has proven to be a complex area of burial archaeology. The density of burial was unexpected – we can now see a large area of burial activity over several generations. 

Only a portion of the burial archaeology in the 20mx20m area was excavated. The process is delicate and required skilled and patient excavation by students and volunteers. The burials excavated comprised two rows, overlapping, at the Western end of the trench; and two rows more clearly defined at the Eastern edge of the trench. On the Western side, the density of burial is marked, interments being very tightly packed, repeated over several generations. The community buried here is demographically mixed of both sexes and a range of ages from neonate to older adult. This has to be interpreted as a lay cemetery in the context of the Abbey. 

There is variation in burial rites: some are shroud burial; others, a smaller number, in coffins. There are also variations in body posture. Analysis of these remains is an important post-ex task to give a human-centred perspective on the contemporary population. For example, lab analysis will shed light on pathologies and health. There may possibly be evidence of medical practices, monasteries being a locus of medical work. Earliest burials at monastic sites tend to be high-status, but this is not necessarily the case here. One individual, for example, is buried with a finger ring made of iron. 

Crucially, involvement of our volunteer brigade has not stopped at the end of the dig at the beginning of September. A team of half-a-dozen or so volunteers has been working steadily since October to assist the University in tidying up and entering site data into the Integrated Archaeological Database being employed to manage a large volume of site records in a way which can enable inferences to be drawn on stratification and site chronology. This level of involvement of volunteers may be unprecedented – it shows in any case the quality of working relationship that has been built between the University Department and the volunteer community, something which we expect only to enhance in coming seasons of this project. 

Another really pleasing outcome of this season was an uplift of public interest. Nearly 2,000 visitors came through the site in August. One visitor was so impressed that she donated a large sum on the spot and was pleased to offer further support – which has materialised as a top up to University funds for analysis of the human remains. With funding sorted, I am delighted to say this project is under way. 

The outreach and fundraising activities for this project are being managed by the Friends of Cookham Abbey, a Trust set up for this purpose. Just before the dig season this year, the Friends appointed Sarah Parfitt as Community Engagement Manager and was able to draw on Sarah’s extensive network of media professionals to generate a huge uplift in media attention for the project. While media attention is all very exciting, the important detailed engagement work has started since the dig in developing an outreach programme to take the message to schools and community groups around the region. I am pleased to say that BAS is involved in this effort, building on work done over the last year or so on producing educational materials. 

Please have a look at the Friends of Cookham Abbey website: 

Main image: Cookham church & paddock from the air (c. University of Reading)

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire