The Thames – a Late Stone Age Lost & Found
The River Thames is very much part of the lives of everyone living in its fertile valley. My story lies in the late stone age, (10-2,500 BC) and takes us from Henley to Hedsor Weir. The river meanders gently through a wide fertile flood plain, with cliffs at Medmenham and Quarry Wood. People have been living by and using the river for thousands of years and have left their mark along this part of its course. The earliest recorded river finds seem to be from Mesolithic people who, from around 8,000 BC, lived and hunted here as the ice retreated. At this time the river was shallower and wider, there were more channels, plentiful gravelly islands, (where most of the finds are) and even a few rapids.
Local Mesolithic and Neolithic people were hunter -gatherers whose game included elk, deer and beaver. Although no fish hooks have been recorded in our stretch of the Thames, those found elsewhere indicate they were skilled fishermen. People moved with the seasons, leaving little evidence of camp sites. Homes, possibly skin covered wooden frames, were easy to transport. A few hearths have been uncovered, but no evidence has been found for the permanent settlements discovered in other parts of the UK.
Although no boats have been dated to this period, a large oak log boat was found at Bourne End in 1871 – but it had been lost by 1880! It was dated as “Bronze Age” at the time, but it could conceivably have been Mesolithic as dating methods weren’t always precise at that time. It has also been suggested that coracles were used as local people were adept at curing and stretching animal skins.
Many flint tools have been dredged up or found on the river’s banks from this period. At Mill End cores, blades, microliths and scrapers were discovered, indicating that there was a camp nearby. Work near Bourne End’s rail bridge uncovered cores, blades, flakes and seven tranchet axes from the Mesolithic period. The cores imply that they were working the flint there and seven suggests they were for trade, as well as their own use. This type of tool was often used for clearing wooded areas and may have been employed this way locally. Two more axes were dredged from the river at Marlow itself.
As the Mesolithic era merged into the Neolithic, there were great lifestyle changes for the people in our valley, though these are now thought to have been more gradual than previously believed. The period heralded the beginnings of agriculture and a more settled way of life. Woods were cleared and fields were introduced as people became skilled at animal husbandry and growing Emmer wheat and barley. There is no direct evidence for field boundaries in our area (perhaps they were ploughed out), but Neolithic field boundaries were still visible in nearby Maidenhead until the 1960s.
People’s values and beliefs also changed and the building of large monuments such as barrows, henges and cursus became the norm. Although there is very little evidence for these between Henley and Hedsor Weir, a possible Neolithic rectangular enclosure was found during the excavations preceding the Marlow Flood Alleviation scheme in Pound Lane. Finds included polished axes, which implies “ritual” as they were not designed for real use.
Although England was now cut off from Europe, there was still an exchange of culture and items with the continent. Evidence of domestic sheep and goats proves this contact with South East and Central Europe, as these animals were not native.
Pottery was introduced. A stunning and complete rounded-bottomed bowl was found whilst dredging an area near Upper Hedsor weir. Three Neolithic axes were also found during dredging.
Just east of the Spade Oak wharf, cores, sixteen flakes, four axes (one polished), an arrowhead and a scraper were dug out of the riverbank in the 1890s, again indicating a nearby settlement.
Although there have been many finds along our stretch of the River the ones I have highlighted shed particular light on local life at the end of Stone Age. So when you next walk along a footpath by the river spare a thought for the people, perhaps worrying about their lost axe or pot, who lived here so many thousands of years ago.
By Rose Palmer