Unlocking Old Windsor: a project to consolidate, enhance and promote the archive of Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavations between 1953 and 1958.
In the 1950s the late Brian Hope-Taylor undertook five seasons of excavations at Old Windsor, Berkshire, initially on behalf of the Berkshire Archaeological Society (BAS) and subsequently for the Ministry of Works. The excavations revealed a nationally important sequence of Saxon, early Norman and medieval remains that Hope-Taylor interpreted as part of a late Saxon and early Norman royal complex and the pre-cursor to New Windsor. Old Windsor is a key site for the archaeology of the period in southern England. The results provided the basis for protecting the site as a Scheduled Monument (No. 1006995).
However, Hope-Taylor’s excavations have never been fully analysed and published beyond a small number of very short interim summaries (Hope Taylor, 1954-5; 1956-7) and an unpublished ‘synopsis’ prepared by Hope-Taylor in 1983. A programme of post-excavation work in the 1980s, led by Hope- Taylor, did not achieve a report outcome. There is, therefore, currently no published analytical data to support Hope-Taylor’s conclusions on the archaeological significance of the site. On Hope-Taylor’s death in 2001, the documentary, drawn and photographic records of the excavations at Old Windsor, along with other of his excavation archives, were deposited with Historic Environment Scotland in Edinburgh, while the finds archive post-excavation records had previously been deposited with Reading Museum.
In order to understand better the division of the archive between the two, geographically distant, repositories and also to understand the condition, completeness and coherence of the whole Old Windsor archive, Berkshire Archaeology undertook a rapid archive assessment in 2018 on behalf of Historic England (Smith, 2019). This assessment included the first complete quantification of the finds archive, largely through volunteer input from members of BAS, the local Old Windsor community and other groups.
Although the project identified a number of issues with the archive, including some missing records, the report concluded that it should be possible to reconstruct the principal results of the 1950s excavations from the archive with further work and investment. A context index superimposed on the finds record in the 1980s provides a crucial link between the finds record and the original site records, while the pottery assemblage comprises 38,651 sherds of largely Saxon and early Norman date and is nationally important. The report therefore concluded with a number of recommendations aimed at advancing understanding and accessibility of the archive and encouraging future research to unlock the site’s national research potential. This document sets out an outline proposal to take forward those recommendations.
The aims of the project are threefold. The first aim is to consolidate and secure the project archive for the future by supporting the mutual sharing and, where appropriate, the exchange of material, documentation, and data between the two archive repositories. This will largely be achieved by the digitisation of elements of the archive and sharing it through publicly accessible digital platforms, such as Historic Scotland’s Canmore website and ADS. The project can therefore act as an exemplar for overcoming the challenges of integrating a fragmented project archive that is curated by two geographically distant and separate institutions.
The second intertwined aim is to undertake a targeted programme of research on part of the archive. Following the formula successfully used to unlock other backlog excavation archives, such as Iona (Campbell and Maldonado, 2020), targeted analysis will develop a provisional interpretative framework for the site and evaluate critically its potential as a tool for future research. Thirdly, the project will also lead to a greater understanding of the Monument and its significance and aid its future management and conservation.
Over nine days between May and September this year, 15 BAS members came to Reading Museum’s store in south Reading to help catalogue the documentary archive of Brian Hope-Taylor’s 1955-7 excavations at Old Windsor. Although most of the material we would today consider a data archive is with Hope-Taylor’s other papers at Historic Environment Scotland (HES), we felt that what we have would contain insights into the excavation and post-excavation (or lack of it), and the collection’s history in the museum. Much work had already been done to order and re-box the archive and list its contents, but the aim of this exercise was to produce a detailed index with a view to developing a classification system for this type of archive, potentially making them more accessible.
The volunteers looked through and recorded two boxes of correspondence, sets of object X-rays and conservation reports, and 70 rolls of excavation negatives. They also documented for the first time a thick folder of papers transferred from English Heritage for addition to the archive. This gave a fascinating insight into both the history of archaeology and the character of Hope-Taylor himself. Much of the correspondence related to a period thirty years after the excavation, when specialist reports were being produced with funding from English Heritage – in some cases significantly hampered by the limitations of the original excavation records. University of Southampton animal bone expert Jennie Coy lamented that she was unable to produce a usable report, writing ‘Despite the obvious prestige and interest of the site […] to study these bones without a broad chronological framework (i.e., some real phasing) […] would be a waste of the taxpayers’ money’; Hope-Taylor defended his stratigraphy, dismissing phasing as a ‘worthy but inappropriate cult-term’!
Afterwards, volunteers moved on to searching the HES online catalogue https://canmore.org.uk/ for any digitised material relevant to objects in our collections, particularly images of them, and annotating the negative list with links to the corresponding contact sheets.
The next stage will be to compare the illustrations on the Canmore website with those we hold to identify any overlap, then to add references to the X-rays, conservation reports and online resources into the object records on our Modes database. We would also love to write a blog about the excavation based on what we’ve discovered in the correspondence! The work has already proved useful in locating information on timber sampling and we would like to extend our thanks to all the volunteers for their contributions.
Angela Houghton (Collection Management Curator, Reading Museum)
Harriet Haugvik (Collections Assistant, Reading Museum)
Image: Hope-Taylor’s Trench Plan showing Trenches ID/X, Butterfly A & B and OD3 proposed for assessment. Licensed Copyright content from www.historicscotland.scot. Used with permission