Investigations on the River Chess

On Thursday the 21st of June, Yvonne Edwards of Chess Valley Archaeological and Historical Society (CVAHS) gave an excellent talk about their investigations along the river Chess.

Yvonne illustrated talk began with CVAHS excavations at a Burnt Mound adjacent to the river. Yvonne said that burnt mounds are common in Ireland and Scotland but not so common in Britain. Most are associated with a good stream or river water supply, hearths and a large trough. The troughs, that are thought to have held water, are sometimes clay-lined or wood-lined. Radiocarbon dates for these mounds vary quite widely, ranging from the late Neolithic to the Iron Age, but most between 2,000 – 800BC during the Bronze Age.

The mound is made of charcoal and heat shattered flints which are thought to be the remains of stones heated in fires and wood burnt on the fire.  The hot stones were subsequently used to heat the water in the trough. There are various theories about what the hot  water was for – possibly cooking, bathing, dyeing or leather treatment – but no general agreement as yet.

CVAHS’s test excavation spanned four days and enabled them to make a section through the mound and uncover the underlying surface of river deposits. They also recovered pieces of crude pottery and some fragments of bone. The pottery fragments have been examined by a specialist and identified as late Bronze Age (1,200 – 800BC) jar fragments tempered with flint. One of the pieces appears to have slight finger impressions in the surface, which is very common in Bronze Age pots.

No trace of a hearth, or trough, were found during this initial excavation, but CVAHS hope to return in the future for a more comprehensive investigation.

Yvonne next spoke about their dig at a suspected Romano-British site near Sarratt. CVAHS had conducted an extensive geophysical survey near the Chess at Sarratt. This had revealed numerous indications of tracks, walls and buildings. A vast array of Roman coins and artifacts have been found in this area since the 1960s and they were pretty sure there was a significant Romano-British settlement there.

Three trenches were positioned in order to examine features that CVAHS had previously identified by resistivity survey. These included what looked like a large rectangular area enclosed by a ditch and possible traces of a small building.

These trenches were dug and uncovered evidence of possible enclosure ditches, dumped building material and pottery all dating to the Romano-British period. This quickly uncovered several undated pottery sherds, a tile with the imprint of a hobnailed sandal, and another with a paw print, probably of a dog.

CVAHS succeeded in finding ditches in two trenches. In one case the ditch contained pottery dating from the late Late Iron Age and first century. The other ditch contained pottery dating  from the second to third centuries, many iron and bronze objects and a substantial number of third century coins. Other trenches produced a large amount of Romano-British roof tile fragments, together with some floor tile and also flue tile, indicating under-floor (hypocaust) heating.

These finds indicate that human occupation probably spanned at least the period from the Iron Age to the Romano-British period. During the latter period there appears to have been at least one villa and/or a bath house on the site, as indicated by the flue tile fragments.

The third site Yvonne discussed was the Chesham Bois Manor.  The current Chesham Bois House stands on the site of a much older and larger residence and estate dating back to the 11th century. There is evidence that the estate was one of the 5 estates (or manors) listed in the Domesday Book in 1086 as part of Chesham. The estate had had a long and varied history since the days of King Harold. It was taken over by the Norman Bishop Odo of Bayeaux, but by 1213 the de Bois family were in residence, they brought their name from France and it became attached to the Parish.

Subsequently various families owned and extended the manor, especially the Cheyne family, from (around) 1430 to 1735. The house and estate were then purchased by the Duke of Bedford, but were considered of little value. The house was eventually demolished and another building replaced it in the early nineteenth century. Excavations by the Chess Valley Archaeological Society uncovered a 12th century pitch tile hearth and a smithying pit.   In 2006  Time Team asked if they could take part in these investigations (Series 14, Episode 10 – available on Channel 4 OD) and their work over 3 days helped to discover more  about  the old Manor House. CVAHS volunteers help Tony and co., to map out 17th and 18th century features and buildings.

Tea, coffee and biscuits followed a question and answer session. Yvonne was thanked for a very interesting and informative talk and we departed with a much greater knowledge of the history of a town not far from Marlow.

One thought on “Investigations on the River Chess”

  1. The villa at Sarratt is interesting. Many years ago I was wading in the Chess by the ford and bridge at Sarratt, and found a number of regular shaped stones. Some of these I have been informed may well be pieces of Victorian tile, but one piece appears to be a Roman tessarae. The information I have is from Dr Jeffrey Davies, formerly a lecturer at Aberystwyth University. I will be more than happy to send photographs (with a scale) of these stones for you to consider if you so wish.

    Kind regards,

    Rebecca Le Good

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