All posts by archa

Recent Investigations in South Oxfordshire’

David Oliver is the Chairman of the South Oxfordshire Archaeological Group; on the 14th November he spoke about SOAG’s recent investigations and developments in a number of sites across South Oxfordshire.

SOAG was founded in 1969, since when it has undertaken a number of investigations, sometimes with input from professional archaeologists, including the fifteen year excavation of a 3rd to 4th century Roman villa site at Gatehampton near Goring-on-Thames.  Roman remains were discovered during work on the local water supply, field walking produced further finds and photographs taken from 50 feet above the site record what transpired to be a Roman villa with a large central room with a mosaic floor, a bath house and evidence of later industrial use.

Another Roman site, at Binfield Heath, dug mainly in the 1980s by the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group, suffered badly from raids by ‘night hawks’.  A circular mound was excavated and found to contain Roman coins and tiles.  It was thought to be the spoil heap of a nearby villa but, sadly, metal detectors got to the villa site itself before the archaeologists.  A nearby rectangular enclosure with double ditch and rounded ends is evident from aerial photographs.  A resistivity survey by SOAG turned up nothing useful due to extremely dry site conditions, but they are now researching old records and plan further work on the site.

Aerial photographs have proved useful in investigating many sites, and David recommended the use of Google Earth, which even includes, for some areas, historical photographs.  Such use of aerial photographs was demonstrated in those taken in, respectively, 2009 and 2010 in Emmer Green, where circular parch marks indicating possible Bronze Age barrows show up clearly in the 2009 photograph but had been all but obliterated by 2010, following development of a playground.

Two manor houses were known to have existed at Brightwell Baldwin but their locations were unknown.  A late 16th century dove cote, presumably related to the original Medieval manor house, still stands.  The second Medieval manor burned down in 1788 in the owners’ absence and reports exist of a court case following the fire; servants were arrested and fined for breaking into the cellar, leading to scenes of drunkenness.  A new replacement manor house was built in the late 18th century.  Without clearly defining the site of the manors, a geophysical survey revealed a vast number of features, including a carriageway and circular turning point, from which the likely position of the manors was deduced.

Finds of early medieval floor tiles, mid 17th century slipware and late 17th century Delft all dated from before the fire, helped indicate the site of the manor houses, and an early Medieval fireplace with a later wall over it provided, at last, the probable location of the 18th century manor house overlaying the earlier manor.  A large quantity of broken glass found in a burnt area could well be the scene of the incident leading to the 18th century court case!

Nearer to Marlow is a remarkable site at Highlands Farm near Henley, where a huge number of primitive stone tools, thought to have been made by Homo Erectus 450,000 years ago (thus predating Homo Sapiens) were found during gravel extraction.  It is the largest such find in the country.  This is a scheduled site but, with the threat of development on adjoining land, SOAG have been asked to investigate whether the archaeological site extends further.  Despite the difficulties posed by many ancient swallow holes, finds have included Neolithic and Mesolithic flints and, most importantly, two Paelolithic items, namely a core and a primitive tool.  David brought these with him to show us.

Other SOAG investigations included a search for the history of the village of Ewelme, which did discover an unknown possible early Medieval manor house at the site of the school and almshouse, an ancient mound in an (undisclosed) Chilterns field and early Medieval or Saxon enclosures at Greyhone Wood.  A possible future project is investigation of a Victorian boatyard at South Stoke.

For further information you may like to look at SOAG’s website:


Excavating Spitalfields – The Story of a Global Disaster

Don Walker is a Senior Human Osteologist at Museum of London Archaeology.

For many years excavations have been continuing in the area of the priory/hospital of St Mary’s Spital Without Bishopsgate.  There was a Roman cemetery, just outside the city walls, probable water use of this sacred ground and in 1197 the establishment of the priory church and hospital by the Brunus family.  During the 13th and 14th centuries this became one of the greatest hospitals in the country.

Major excavations in 1999 – 2002 uncovered about 10,500 skeletons.  Work on the adjacent market site revealed many more, the majority being buried in the period 1120 – 1539, those pre 1200 being before the founding of the priory.

Near the main church there were several stone tombs including one of a priest, interred with chalice and patten. The cemetery seems to have had four main periods of use.

  1. 1120 – 1200  – pre priory
  2. 1200 – 1250  – “attritional” burials, mostly single, some   double and some stacked.
  3. 1250 – 1400  – “catastrophic” multiple burials in pits.
  4. 1400 – 1539  – final years of cemetery.

The multiple burials were carefully laid out side by side and layered with feet facing to the east.  There was some evidence of linen like shrouding material, a very few items of jewellery, such as rings, but very little else. There was a 50/50 spread of male and female adults, bones in excellent condition and exhibiting usual range of size for this medieval period.  There was a noticeable absence of children’s skeletons.

The initial phase of multiple burials was in square pits; followed, a short while later, by a series in rectangular pits, fitted in between the earlier pits.

The excavators wondered why there were so many mass graves, was it the “Great Famine”, the “Black Death”, they puzzled over the two distinct phases, they looked for evidence of blunt force trauma and battle injuries but found very little.

The “Great Famine” occurred 1315–17 and an estimated 10–25% of Londoners died.  The Black Death happened 1348–50 with 30–50% dying.

Fortunately the excavations have been well funded and the archaeologists were able to get large numbers of skeletal samples radio-carbon dated.  Results proved unexpected giving dates in the period 1230–60, too early for the known disasters that have traditionally explained mass burials.

Looking for possible explanations, researchers looked at documentary records where available, historical and modern famines, funerary evidence, and osteological evidence from attritional and catastrophic events.  They analysed the results of famine, starvations and subsequent disease as immunity wanes and its spread through the population, the poor and migrants dying first, the wealthy becoming more vulnerable with time.


They found two written accounts from this period that give useful information. One believed to be 1258, describes a very cold winter and spring with a vicious north wind affecting crop growth, food production and human survival.  The other account details a massive crop failure, with major loss of life from starvation, with final salvation coming from the importation of large amounts of corn from Almaine.

Could these events be linked to volcanic eruptions, blacking out the sun, putting masses of ash and toxic substances into the earths’ atmosphere?  Scientists know from Arctic and Antarctic ice core specimens that volcanic ash levels and sulphate levels were massively elevated in the mid 13th century. This is confirmed by mud-core samples taken from African lakes.  Levels show results 8 times more concentrated than those found when Krakatoa erupted in 1883.  This eruption resulted in dry fogs, periods of intense rain, very poor harvests, famine and disease.

There are two recorded eruptions in the period 1240 – 1270, El Chichon in Mexico and Quilotoa in Ecuador with a third possibility at Rinjani in Indonesia.

Quite recently a mass grave has been found just outside the old city walls of Berlin.  Radio – Carbon dating indicates burials in the mid 1200s, extensive investigation is ongoing and it will be interesting to see if there are similarities to the Spitalfields site.  Maybe history will have to be expanded and re-written to include another disaster within the time frame of the burials, maybe a massive volcanic eruption occurred, but will it be adults only in Berlin? In which case a further explanation might be sought.





The Wallingford Burh to Borough Project’

Judy Dewey, Curator of Wallingford Museum, came to talk to us about a remarkable community project undertaken in Wallingford.  Funding of £250,000 was granted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for research in this once large and important fortified town, dating back to the time of King Alfred.  William the Conqueror came to Wallingford in 1066, and it belonged at one time to Richard Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III (who also owned a deer park in Marlow, possibly at the site currently being excavated by AIM at Warren Wood).  Wallingford was not a successful town economically, due to poor navigation, unlike its flourishing neighbours, Oxford, Reading, Abingdon and Henley, and was badly affected by the Black Death.  The priory was dissolved by Cardinal Wolsey and the castle was knocked down and removed stone by stone in 1646, after a 12 week siege by Cromwell’s Army.

With its royal castle by a strategic Thames crossing and important priory, as well as its Charter dating back to 1155 (even predating London’s Charter), Wallingford offers exceptional opportunity for research:  because of its early Charter, many documents dating as far back as the 12th century still exist, and much of the land once occupied by the Saxon town and royal castle is now open space, giving unusually good access for archaeological investigations.

A number of earlier excavations had not been published and the community archaeological project organised by The Wallingford Historical and Archaeological Survey (TWHAS) and Wallingford Museum set about trawling through material from this earlier work, which included excavation of 5th to 7th century early Anglo Saxon pagan burials and of the castle site.  Early documents, from the 1220s on, were researched.  The excavations were led by Dr Neil Christie of the University of Leicester, Professor Oliver Crichton, a castle expert and Assistant Professor of Archaeology of Exeter University, and Professor Helena Hamerow, a medieval specialist from Oxford University.  PhD students, 200 local school children and volunteers of all ages took part in surveys and excavations, vitally sustained by twice daily deliveries of tea and coffee by wheelbarrow!  Sixty six small test pits were dug in gardens throughout the town, turning up bone, pottery, slag and metalwork, mostly from the 9th century on.

For further details, a report on Wallingford’s Burh to Borough Project is shortly to be published in the British Archaeological Report.  Wallingford Museum contains many fascinating artefacts found and is certainly high on my list for a day out soon.


Hillforts of the Ridgeway

A large audience was attracted to this talk by Emeritus Professor Gary Lock of Oxford University on 25th October (see photo’ below).

AIM G Lock 2a

The speaker  co-directed the Hillforts of the Ridgeway Project which ran between 1994 and 2000. Two of the three hillforts covered in his talk, Uffington and Segsbury Camp, have already been published with the report on the third, Alfred’s Castle, to follow.  The Ridgeway links these three sites which are part of a series of hillforts on the northern edge of the chalk uplands. By the time of the Iron Age the uplands would probably have undergone extensive tree clearance – wood being an important commodity – while the boggy lowland would have retained large wooded areas.

Reference was made to English Heritage’s National Mapping Programme (NMP) which aims to enhance the understanding of past human settlement by providing information on all archaeological sites and landscapes visible on aerial photographs. The Ridgeway area, a much researched region, has had a continuity of use between 1000BC and the 5th century AD with its occupants continually reusing its resources.  Professor Lock explained the concept of ‘landscape locales as historical mnemonics’, i.e. even before the invention of writing, generations of peoples recognised that there were particular areas associated withhistorical continuity.  Groups gathered at these places at particular times of the year as their forefathers had done.

Hillforts stretched right across Europe but they are not necessarily defensive structures.
People would employ them in different ways for their own particular purposes.  Hillforts in this area fit into this social template. While the three sites may at first appear similar, excavation has revealed that each is one is distinctive, as the speaker explained.

The White Horse Hill complex encompasses round barrows, a linear ditch and the chalk
figure White Horse as well as the hillfort.

The evidence suggests that Uffington Castle hillfort was constructed at the end of an earlier linear ditch in the 7th century BC with a single circuit of box rampart and opposing eastern and western entrances. In the 4th century BC the rampart was remodeled and the eastern entrance was blocked. There was very little evidence for activity within the enclosure and it was concluded that the hillfort was used for periodic ceremonial gatherings associated with the White Horse.  The hillfort was re-used and remodelled in Romano- British times, including for burial. By these times the White Horse could have been nearly 1,000 years old and it might have been its mythological attractions that drew people there, as is still the case today.

The Uffington White Horse is a highly stylised prehistoric hill figure formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk which has been shown to date back some 3,000 years by means of OSL (Optically Stimulated Luminescence) carried out following archaeological investigations in 1994.

Segsbury Camp or Segsbury Castle, about 8 miles away, has an extensive ditch and ramparts with four gateways. It had round houses with pits in the middle dating from the 6th to 2nd centuries BC which had fallen into disuse by the Roman period. Excavation carried out in 1996 and 1997 suggests that it was a communal centre for various activities, including sheep management and exchange, which might also suggest religious offerings.

Alfred’s Castle is a small enclosure that lies a mile south of the Ridgeway. It has a large enclosure attached started around 6th century BC. The hillfort was established within a series of late Bronze Age linear ditches and revealed much evidence for occupation within it.  In the late first century AD a Romano-British farmhouse was built within the abandoned prehistoric enclosure.

The speaker also described Banjo enclosures, a number of which are found in this area. They are so named because they consist of a small round area with a long entrance track leading inwards from one direction, giving them the appearance in plan of frying pans or banjos. The enclosure is defined by a low bank and ditch with the earthworks at the end of the track sometimes turned outwards, creating a funnel effect. Once believed to be small farming settlements occupied between around 400 and 100 BC, the lack of finds relating to settlement associated with them means that they are currently thought to be seasonal ritual centres where feasting occurred.

For information on the Hillforts of the Ridgeway see

by Jeff Griffiths