Marlow Warlord – an excavator’s experience

by Martin Labram

Above the River Thames to the south of Marlow, there are some large cornfields with truly stunning views that look north-west back across the river and up the Hambleden side valley, reaching perhaps up to Ibstone Common on a clear day on the skyline. Here was set out the late 6thcentury sentinel burial of the ‘Marlow Warrior’ uncovered in August 2020. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-54390297 

Here I’d like to give you a sense of the day-to-day experience of working on this important dig.

Many of you will have joined Prof Gabor Thomas’s recent Zoom presentation “Provisional reflections on the ‘Marlow Warlord’: an early mediaeval sentinel burial of the Middle Thames” to BAS on Saturday 20 February 2021, in which he detailed the excavation background, strategy, finds and his interpretations. 

The site started with metal detectorist Sue of the Maidenhead Search Society reporting a find of a copper alloy bowl in 2018 to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, followed by a small test exploration by the local Finds Liaison Officer that uncovered another bowl, a spearhead and a probable human toe bone, and then comprehensive geophysics surveying by Reading University Archaeology Department. 

Whilst the Department’s plans to complete the re-excavation of the bath house area in Silchester were postponed in 2020 due to Covid19, Gabor enlisted the Department’s excavation and Field School staff Amanda, Nick and Dan, together with about ten second-year students to join this dig, in addition to the half-a-dozen volunteers lined up by Paul of the Maidenhead History Society (and also with BAS) plus Sue and fellow detectorist James.

The two weeks of excavation aligned exactly with the August heatwave. Every morning, we drove through the farm complex, down a dusty track complete with the odd piece of metal rod sticking out, and parked in the new stubble from the recent harvesting at the bottom of the hill. Then we would all trudge back up the hill through the dry, prickly stubble carrying the majority of our equipment to the trenches.

Geophysics had identified lots of anomalies across this immense field and the University staff had marked out many of these with little red flags (which from a distance made me think of poppies). Gabor’s initial objective was to explore the surrounding context for the original find. So we set to, in several groups, to strip back the top soil and start the digging. The top and subsoil layers were thin with chalk emerging in some places as little as perhaps ten inches down, especially towards the top of the hill where the burial was eventually uncovered.

The farmer had adopted a direct-drill method ten or so years previously. His ploughman interestingly told us that yield had actually increased slightly together with reduction in erosion and a substantial saving in fuel costs. We saw at first-hand how the method speeded up the process so that harvesting, fertilising, weed-killer spraying and sowing were squeezed into about three weeks and completed just in time before the rains came. A few days into the dig, we were asked to don overalls whilst Thames Water spread the field with pasteurised human ordure. This turned out to be not nearly as unpleasant as anticipated, certainly a lot better than cattle muck would have been, consisting of a very even spread of small sticky gobbets of only mildly smelly, tarry black stuff.

The weedkiller spread late evening/early morning several days later was much more of an issue for me, stinging the eyes and throat, and I think causing me a mild headache too.

A consequence of the direct-drill was that the naturally gravelly clay-with-flints soil was very compacted and made for very hard work indeed. The archaeological sterility of the trenches meant that we dug a lot of them, relieved only by the occasional but unrequited excitements of small holes. And all this was in the dusty dry heatwave. 

The hottest temperature measured by my car on the way home at the end of one day was 34°C. Hard labour in this weather definitely required a conscious effort to keep drinking; I got up to 4-5 litres per working day plus electrolytes. Volunteers, staff and students were all significantly challenged by working in the glare and heat.

After a week of this, Gabor decided to recognise the general archaeological sterility of all our trenches and to open up a square trench around the original find. At first, this seemed much like some of the others, reaching the chalk under a very shallow soil layer. But slowly a narrow band of flints and some discolouration emerged.

The last picture shows the curve of a sideways-on human skull, right of centre in the photo, sliced across by a plough share. While I may have had a momentary pang, thinking that after 1,500 years we had disturbed this gentleman’s peace, this proves that the exhumation of the skeleton was a necessary act of archaeological rescue.

At this point, the group split into staff plus the student bubble uncovering the burial under a pagoda to provide shade from the sun and those older volunteers daft enough to survive the heat exploring what was apparently a mediaeval chalk quarry pit. 

The work on the skeleton became very delicate with, as Gabor mentioned in his talk, micro-excavation using dental tooth-picks and paint brushes.

This 6ft male’s sword was very evident, and triggered lots of excitement, but other interesting and high status grave goods also emerged.

On the Wednesday night of the second week, the weather broke bringing welcome relief from the heat, the glare and the dust. The following morning, detectorist James picked out a couple of pot sherds from the water-washed quarry spoil. Hammering through the very hard, and compacted dry subsoil, we had missed these in our heat-exhausted exertions. Of course, we had to immediately climb back in and scrutinise the sides of our trench for more.

The last picture shows the sword just before being lifted. A spear head can also be seen in the top right corner. 

We can speculate on the active, well-fed and dangerous life that this warrior and member of the elite may have led before being laid to rest in a spiritual role as a guardian of the Middle Thames with such an awesome view!

All images copyright Martin Labram

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire