Category Archives: Articles

Finds from the River Thames: The Thames Water Collection

Jill Greenaway spoke to the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group on 6 November about this collection which she curates at Reading Museum. Around 500 items were discovered from the non-tidal part of the Thames, from its source in Gloucestershire up to Teddington Lock, in a period which covered from 1911 to 1980.

An historic agreement with the Thames Conservancy Board (TCB) is allowed for all archaeological items found in this upper section of the river during dredging to be deposited with the Museum on indefinite loan.

Then, in 1996, Thames Water, successor to the TCB, donated the collection to Reading Museum.

Additionally, the collection of river based finds by George W. Smith has bolstered the collection. The speaker told how, after the extensive floods of 1947, a programme of deep dredging was launched which added to the yield.

However, it is likely that many more items were missed. The dredger crews only recovered what they recognised as being of interest and so much may have passed unnoticed. Another problem was identifying the locality as no careful recording was done as the dredger made its passage along the river.  ‘Above or below’ a bridge, lock or riverside pub was as close as they normally got. Thus, no evidence could be deduced from the finds with any accuracy, such as crossing points on the river.

Finders were rewarded with ten shillings for items handed in but this was a sum that was not increased from when it was instituted in 1932!  We were reminded that, in the days before municipally-organised rubbish disposal, rivers were often used as dumps which helps to explain the eclectic nature of the items ranging from Mesolithic flints to Victorian ginger beer bottles.

The most important part of the collection is the large quantity of beautiful Bronze Age and Iron Age metalwork weaponry. Similar discoveries, from the London section of the Thames and other English rivers flowing into the North Sea suggest a prehistoric cult of ritual offerings made to river gods.

However, the speaker was sceptical of the claim that the 23 skulls in the Collection necessarily related to burial rites pointing out that accidental river fatalities – and criminality – over the last 10,000 years may have been equally responsible.

by Jeff Griffiths

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Hurley Weir Capstan and the Tea Magnate

A recent National Gardens Scheme open day at the SAS Institute at Medmenham provided access to the Hurley Weir capstan. This is historically important as the only remaining example on the Thames of those capstans that once hauled boats upstream when there were only ‘flash’ locks – rather like dams – and not the ‘pound’ locks of today. The men who provided the manual power to turn the capstan wheel – usually rough individuals – were known as ‘tow rags’ which provides one explanation of from where the unflattering description ‘toe rag’ derives. The capstan had survived until the 20th century because of the efforts of Viscount Devonport who pledged to preserve it and donated oak from his estate to replace decayed timbers. The capstan wheel (see photograph below) was then restored in the 1980s by two men, David Empringham and Christopher Barnes-Wallis, the son of the man who invented the famous ‘bouncing bomb’ used in the WWII ‘Dam Buster’ raids.

CapstanJG
Capstan at Hurley

The capstan wheel is to be found on the Buckinghamshire bank of the river close to the end of the walkway over Hurley weir (see photo bottom left) It stands on that portion of riverside land that Hudson Ewbanke Kearley, later 1st Viscount Devonport, bought to annoy his neighbour and rival Robert Hudson of Sunlight Soap fame who had acquired the next door Danesfield estate in the 1890s.

Kearley (1856 – 1934) was a grocer and politician who founded the International Tea Company’s Stores, became the first chairman of the Port of London Authority and served as Minister of Food Control during World War I. Kearley’s fortune was based on importing and distributing tea as is commemorated by the sprig of tea in the carved crest over the main door Wittington House. Hilaire Belloc wrote this savage verse about the man who’d been the MP for Devonport:

  • The grocer Hudson Kearley, he
  • When purchasing his barony
  • Considered first, we understand,
  • The title of Lord Sugarsand,
  • Or then again he might have been
  • Lord Underweight of Margarine:
  • But being of the nobler sort
  • He took the title Devonport.

In point of fact, Kearley had actually refused to pay to acquire his peerage citing his unpaid posts of national importance as justification enough for his elevation. An interesting history of the century-old Wittington House, built by Kearley and which now stands at the heart of the SAS Institute’s Medmenham estate, can be found at http://www.sas.com/offices/europe/uk/corporate/history.html

by Jeff Griffiths

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The Queen of the Night

The Queen of the Night

The British Museum bought the Queen of the Night in 2003 to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It’s a baked clay plaque nearly half a metre tall and was made in ancient Iraq (Babylonia) sometime between 1800 and 1750 BC.

As a giggle I should tell you that they tried to buy it as early as 1979 but wouldn’t pay the £70,000 asking price. The owner, Mr Sakamoto must have been some negotiator as they eventually paid £1,500,000.

However, it is a magnificent and worthy piece, now sadly tucked away almost out of sight in a corner of room 56. The first record of the plaque was in 1924 in the hands of a Syrian dealer, by 1933 it had found its way to the British Museum and soon became known as “The Burnley relief” after its owner. It came to the public’s attention in 1936 in a feature article in The Illustrated London News and was given the somewhat dramatic name “The Queen of the Night” when the British Museum acquired it.

We will probably never know exactly where it came from but it shows stylistic similarity with the sculpted head of a male god found in the biblical city of Ur. It is so close in quality, workmanship and iconographical details, that it could well have come from the same workshop. The necklace is virtually identical.

The figure on the plaque was originally painted red. She wears the horned headdress characteristic of a Mesopotamian deity and holds a rod and ring of justice, which are symbols of divinity. Her long multi-coloured wings hang downwards, implying that she was a goddess of the Underworld. It comes as a surprise to us today that, if you look at her feet you see the talons of a bird of prey. The background to the plaque was originally painted black, suggesting that she was associated with the night. She stands on the backs of two lions and a scale pattern indicates mountains.

More surprising is the way she would once have looked. Today we are used to seeing ancient artefacts without paint on them but this wasn’t how they were originally seen. Almost all of them were painted in the often brash and gaudy colours of the paints that were available at the time.

Queen of the Night in its original Colours
© Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has analysed the traces of the paint on the plaque and reconstructed its original colours in Photoshop.

Who was the Queen of the Night? Nobody knows, but there are several contenders:-

Lilith is the Hebrew name of a demoness from the Bible. According to legend she was Adam’s first wife and flew away after a quarrel. The name Lilith was connected to that of the Mesopotamian demoness Lilitu, one of a triad of demons. Lilu was the male demon who haunted open country and was especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Lilitu was his female counterpart. She was believed to cause impotence in men and sterility in women. Lilitu was also associated with owls.

There is, however, a problem with this identification as Lilitu was a demoness and not a goddess, whereas the Queen’s headdress and the rod-and-ring symbols she holds unambiguously indicate her status as a goddess.

Ereshkigal was the “Queen of the Great Below” and ruled the Underworld from the beginning of time. In ancient Mesopotamia, this was the place where all the dead were gathered.

Ereshkigal was certainly entitled to a horned headdress and the rod-and-ring symbol and was probably permitted to hold two rod-and-ring symbols as well. The dark background, the lowered wings, the owls with their association with death and the scale pattern are all features that are associated with the Underworld. However, Ereshkigal was an unpopular subject due to her link with death.

Ishtar was a Mesopotamian (Akkadian) goddess of sexual love and war. She was associated with Venus and was sometimes depicted with wings rising from her shoulders. As a goddess of war she generally wears an open robe allowing her freedom of movement. In her right hand she holds either the double-lion-headed mace, the rod-and-ring symbol, or the leash of her roaring lion on whose back she rests one foot. In the third and early second millennium BC she was almost always depicted full-face, often with a necklace and with two locks of hair hanging above her breasts. She had cult centres throughout Mesopotamia, as well as hundreds of minor shrines. Ishtar, was also goddess of harlots.

The size of the plaque suggests it would have belonged in a shrine, probably set into a mud-brick wall. Such a shrine might have been a dedicated space in a large private home or other house.

According to some scholars that shrine may have been located inside a brothel. Well, at least that would explain her name! by Gerry Palmer

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Pottery Analysis from Warren Woods -

Pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn
Pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn

(extracted from) Paul Blinkhorn’s Report to AiM

The pottery assemblage comprised 296 sherds with a total weight of 4229g.  It comprised a mixture of Iron Age and medieval fabrics, indicating that there were two entirely separate phases of activity at the site, one in the Early Iron Age (C9th – 5th century BC), and the other in the early 12th – early 13th century.

Prehistoric:

The following fabric types were noted:
F1:  Sand and Flint.  Moderate to dense sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less.  Sparse angular white flint up to 1mm, some carbonized organic material.  94 sherds, 2423g.

Sherds from the 5-9th century BC Iron Age 300 mm diameter pot
Sherds from the 5-9th century BC Iron Age 300 mm diameter pot

F2:  Coarse flint.  Moderate to dense angular white flint up to 2mm. Moderate to dense sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less, some carbonized organic material.  6 sherds, 51g.

F3:  Fine flint.  Rare to sparse sub-angular flint up to 0.5mm, sparse to moderate sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less, some carbonized organic material.  Thin-walled, burnished vessels.  4 sherds, 17g.

 A cross-section across the Iron Age pit in Trench 6, where the pot was found
A cross-section across the Iron Age pit in Trench 6, where the pot was found

F4:  Shell.  Sparse shell fragments up to 5mm, sparse sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm.  Most of the calcareous inclusions had dissolved.  2 sherds, 36g.

The range of fabric types is typical of the Iron Age pottery of the region, and can be paralleled at a number of sites, such as George Street, Aylesbury (Allen and Dalwood 1983) and Oxford Road, Stone (Last, 2001).  Trench 6 produced all but three sherds of the Iron Age pottery from the site.  Most of it consisted of plain bodysherds from different vessels, but all but two sherds from Trench 6, context 3, were from a single vessel.  The pot in question is a large jar (rim diameter = 300mm, 20% complete) which was partially reconstructed, and had a fingertipped rim and two rows of fingertip impressions on the outer body between the rim and shoulder.  It is in reasonably good condition, although all the sherds are slightly abraded.  The fabric is very soft however, so the attrition seems most likely to be due to bioturbation rather than redeposition via human activity.  A large area of the lower body was also reconstructed, and it seems very likely that more of the vessel is stratified beyond the limits of the trench.  The rim-form and decoration is very typical of the pottery of the Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age period in the south of England (Knight 2002), and suggests a date of the 9th – 5th century BC for the assemblage.

Medieval:

Glazed tile  found on site  - dates are possibly slightly later than the dates of the associated pottery
Glazed tile found on site - dates are possibly slightly later than the dates of the associated pottery

The medieval assemblage was recorded using the coding system of the Milton Keynes Archaeological Unit type-series (e.g. Mynard and Zeepvat 1992; Zeepvat et al. 1994), as follows:

MS3:      Medieval Grey Sandy Wares.  Mid 11th – late 14th century.  188 sherds, 1662g.
MS9:      Brill/Boarstall Ware.  1200-?1600.  1 sherd, 36g.
TLMS3:  Late Medieval Reduced Ware.  Mid 14th – early 16th century.  1 sherd, 4g.

The pottery occurrence by number and weight of sherds per context by fabric type was included by Paul but is too detailed to include here. Each date should be regarded as a terminus post quem.  The bulk of the medieval pottery occurred in Trenches 6, 7 and 8.
Most of the pottery comprised unglazed, sand-tempered wares which can all be regarded as part of the fabric MS3, Medieval Grey Sandy Ware tradition of Buckinghamshire.  It

Animal bone found on site
Animal bone found on Warren Wood site

would also appear that it is mainly is of fairly local manufacture, as the fabric very similar to that of medieval wares from kiln-sites at Great Missenden (Ashworth 1983; Blinkhorn in press) and Denham (McCarthy and Brooks, 1988, 293).  A few sherds were noted with vertical or diagonal incised decoration on the outer bodies.  This is typical of the so-called ‘M40 Ware’ tradition (Hinton 1973).  Such pottery was manufactured at the Denham kiln, and also at Camley Gardens, Maidenhead (Pike 1965).  The Denham scored sherds are dated to the early 12th century in London (Vince 1985, 37), although the kiln itself produced an archaeomagnetic date for its final firing of AD1250 +/-20 (McCarthy and Brooks 1988, 293).  The Camley Gardens wares usually have noticeable flint in the fabric, which the sherds from this site lack, so Denham seems the most likely source of the scored wares, and it is entirely possible that some of the plain sandy wares also come from that source.  All the rimsherds in MS3 were from jars, and there were no obvious jug sherds anywhere amongst the assemblage.  This is a trait more typical of the earlier part of the medieval period, jugs are much more common in the later part of that era.

The largest group, from Trench 7 Context 3, is in good condition and the sherd size is fairly large.  A number of vessels in the group are represented by more than one sherd, and the group appears to be the result of primary deposition, suggesting that there was medieval occupation in the immediate vicinity of the trench.

The only pottery which can be definitely dated to the 13th century is the fragment of Brill/Boarstall ware from Trench 1 Context 1.  Such wares are usually very common on sites of the 13th – 14th century in Buckinghamshire.  For example, this was the case at George Street, Aylesbury (Yeoman 1983), and suggests that activity at Warren Wood did not extend much beyond the beginning of the 13th century.  In addition, glazed London Wares, which are known from sites in High Wycombe (eg. Thompson 2009) from the mid-late 12th century onwards, and Surrey Whitewares, which are common at places such as Maidenhead from the second quarter of the 13th century onwards (eg. Whittingham 2002, 89) are also absent, which reinforces this suggestion.  The single sherd of TLMS3, dated to the 14th century, seems likely to be a stray find.

It would appear therefore that the medieval activity at this site was from the early 12th to the early 13th century, and may have started in the late 11th century.

The four “inner enclosure” trenches at Warren Wood superimposed on our topographical and resistance surveys
The four “inner enclosure” trenches at Warren Wood superimposed on our topographical and resistance surveys
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Hardicanut’s Moat in Burnham Beeches and a Speculative Parallel with Warren Wood

Local folklore has it that Hardicanut (Canute’s son and the king of England from 1040 to 1042, also known as Harthacnut) had, as one of his lodges, the intriguing double enclosure in the woods at Burnham Beeches.  After all it’s called Hardicanut’s Moat (as well as Harlequin’s palace and Hartley court).

I would like to talk a little about this intriguing Viking king, but first it is interesting to look at the double enclosure itself, as there are good physical parallels between it and our dig at Warren Wood (albeit on a smaller scale as our entire enclosure is roughly the size of their inner enclosure).  The date range for the construction of both enclosures is the same (see Warren Wood news and article).

Hardicanut’s Moat lies in ancient woodland that was probably once a part of the Royal Windsor forest; the inner enclosure covers one and a half acres, and the outer another eight.  The outer moat and ditch form a somewhat wonky fat diamond shape and the inner enclosure is sub-rectangular and sits at an angle to it.

Hardicanute's moat in Burnham Beeches
After DD and MM Miller, Records of Bucks 1978

The inner enclosure’s ditch is broken by a few gaps, though these are probably not original.  No buildings have been found within the enclosure (but as it is scheduled they may simply not have been found yet).  However, the inner enclosure is divided by several banks and it has been suggested that one may exist between two of these.  There is also evidence of a well (though I couldn’t spot it with the naked eye) and a suggestion of a second building (possibly a kitchen / brew / bake house) nearby.

There are other slightly raised areas, which may be building platforms.
Pottery and building materials are common and easy to spot laying on the surface (especially around the entrance way).  But, sadly these are modern, some probably dating from a local 19th century pottery kiln and others even more recent, from the time the Beeches was used as a vehicle depot for the D-day landings.

Hardicanute’s Moat
Hardicanute’s Moat - taken before the clean up

The ditches and banks of the outer enclosure are much smaller and in poorer condition than those of the inner.  They are believed to have enclosed an area to keep domestic animals, probably pigs and deer, as well as an area for vegetables or grain.  Evidence implies that much of the degradation of the outer banks and ditches has been in the last hundred years.

This leads to the obvious speculation that the outer enclosure at Warren Wood could also have been used for animals or crops.  Warren Wood’s inner enclosure, with its mass of flint and roof tiles, as well as its pottery is an obvious parallel to the probable dwelling in the Burnham Beeches inner enclosure.

Hardicanut’s moat is believed to date from between C12th and C14th, which ties in neatly with the new 12th to early 13th century pottery dates from Warren Wood.  This was the golden age of building moated houses – though surprisingly they were often a fashion item rather than for defence.  There are literally dozens of them in Buckinghamshire, two more lie within Burnham parish alone.

Sadly the date puts the enclosure around two hundred years after the death of Hardicanut, and so it seems that local folklore has played us false!  However, Park Lane lies just 100 metres west of the enclosure and, together with Green Lane and it formed the boundary between Burnham and Dorney.  Green, in a boundary name, is said to derive from the Old English Gemaere and indicates a Saxon origin.  So it is still, just, possible that there is a link to a time before our Viking after all!

This tenuous link was enough to set me off on the trail of Hardicanut, though I no longer believe he had a hunting lodge nearby.  Anyone who has the bad taste to die while making a toast at a wedding, is always interesting to investigate!

Hardicanut – King of England

Coin of Hardicanut
Coin of Hardicanut

Having dispelled the local story that Hardicanut ever lived in Burnham Beeches, I have to say that this is a good thing as, unlike his father Cnut (also spelled Canute) he and his brothers were not pleasant people.  When Hardicanut became king he had his half-brother’s (Harold) body disinterred from Westminster, publicly beheaded, thrown in a sewer, retrieved and then thrown into the Thames.

To be fair, Harold had not only usurped his place as king of England, but had tricked their younger brother, Prince Alfred, into capture and had six hundred of his men barbarously tortured and killed.  Alfred was then stripped naked, tied to a horse, taken from Guildford to the Isle of Ely, where his eyes were torn out and he died miserably a few days later.

Hardicanut was the son of Cnut and Emma of Normandy (who had previously been married to Æthelred the Unready and had held out against Cnut’s invasion after her husband died).  Though Hardicanut was made King of Denmark when his father died, it is unclear why he didn’t also become King of England, though it is possible that it was arranged for him to rule south of the Thames while his brother Harold would reign to the north.  Certainly the penny coin shown supports this as it was struck around at this time.  However, Harold became overall regent.

Hardicanut meeting Magnus of Norway
Hardicanut meeting Magnus of Norway

Fear of invasion from Magnus of Norway probably kept Hardicanut away from England, and two years later in 1037,Harold was accepted by the English as their king.  Having come to an agreement with Magnus, Hardicanut and his mother Emma planned an invasion of England but delayed it as Harold became ill and died.

Hardicanut was welcomed to England with open arms, (probably because he came backed with 62 warships at a time when the English navy had only 16!)  However, as these “peaceful” invaders needed payment, a geld of £21,000 was levied – a huge sum of money for the times.

Although the English were used to a king ruling with a council, Hardicanut ruled as a ruthless and feared autocrat.  He caused great hardship in 1041 by increasing taxes in order to to double the size of the navy at a time of a poor harvest.  His tax gatherers were so harsh that people in Worcester rioted and killed them.  Hardicanut reacted by imposing the legal but unpopular punishment of “harrying” and ordered his earls to burn the town and kill the population. Fortunately most fled.

After a reign of just two years Hardicanute died from a seizure at a riotous drinking bout in Clapham to celebrate the marriage of the daughter oh his Thane, Osgod Clapa. Collapsing whilst making a toast, he never spoke again and died a few days later.  As he had never married and had no children, he was succeeded by another half-brother, Edward the Confessor, restoring the Saxon line for the next quarter of a century.  Hardicanute was buried at Winchester Cathedral where he still lies along with both Cnut and his mother Emma.

By Gerry Palmer

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Lucinda Lambton on Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle

I attended Lucinda Lambton’s talk this January to the Historical Society in Hedgerley, her home village, as much for the attraction of seeing this colourful character in person as for the topic. However, her subject, the story of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, turned out to be one of fascination.

Queen Mary's Dolls houseThis four-storey Palladian villa was constructed in 1/12 scale and is now a permanent exhibit at Windsor Castle. The House was inspired by Princess Marie Louise, Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter, who asked Lutyens, the architect of the Cenotaph, to build it for Queen Mary. Ironically, it has never seen a doll, being in fact one of the finest architectural models in the world.  Built between 1921- 1924, it was intended that it should exhibit the finest of British workmanship of the period.  As well as involving many of the country’s finest craftsmen, prominent artists, writers and musicians also made their contributions in miniature. The Dolls’ House provides a time capsule of royal splendour in the inter-war years, the final flourish of the British Empire, which had been at its zenith in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The whole venture was overseen by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the quintessential British architect of his time ,who was responsible for the building of New Delhi.  Lutyens would even sign his extensive correspondence with Princess Louise as ‘Diminutively yours’. It proved to be a project that cost Lutyens dearly. The model in construction dominated his office and required the demolition of a wall to move it on its completion. It was initially built for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 where it was seen by over a million people (another lasting legacy of this 1924 Exhibition was the old Wembley Stadium, the home of English football).

The Dolls’ House was dedicated to Queen Mary, a collector of miniatures, who always referred to it as ‘my house’. Lucinda told in passing a family story to illustrate Queen Mary’s well-attested kleptomaniac tendency – any hosts with good sense learnt to hide choice items in their homes before her visits.

While many of us may have viewed it at some time, it’s difficult to appreciate the exquisite detail and workmanship of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House as one is quickly ushered past it in the dimly-lit setting at Windsor Castle. Lucinda Lambton’s beautiful images (photography was her initial profession) illustrated her lecture and revealed the House’s many glories. Over 60 artists and decorators were involved in its construction. The House itself contains hundreds of works of art. Miniature versions of their paintings were contributed by some of the leading artists of the time. Goscombe John contributed sculpted busts. Some of the finest writers of the era produced miniature, original works that are exquisitely bound in leather in the House’s walnut-paneled library.  Those who contributed to making it a heritage piece include John Buchan, Conan Doyle, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, A A Milne, Somerset Maugham and Siegfried Sassoon. Not everyone was prepared to contribute to this whimsical project, however, and George Bernard Shaw and Edward Elgar were amongst those who refused.

What amazes is its intricate detailing – the working electric lights and taps, the operative lifts, and the wide range of contents. There are miniature versions of then common household appliances, such as a Singer sewing machine, a Ewbank floor sweeper, and a Miramax fire extinguisher. On the kitchen table is a tin of Coleman’s Mustard and Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce. A box of Lux flakes stands by the kitchen sink.

Queen Mary's Dolls houseA real showstopper are the tiny copies of the Crown Jewels, which lie behind the gate in the strong room. The Royal School of Needlework produced monogrammed linen and the Royal coat of arms on the bedheads. There is a working gramophone and an ivory toothbrush with its bristles made from the hair of a goat’s ear. Alfred Dunhill supplied miniature cigars and custom-made tobacco, while the jewelers Cartier built a long case clock for the marble hallway. In the cellar are hundreds of miniature bottles of the finest champagne, wines and beers including 200 bottles of Chateau Lafitte 1875 and five dozen bottles of Veuve Clicquot.

As well as the splendour of the Royal family’s apartments, the simpler servants’ quarters have true-to-life details, with wash stands and chamber pots in evidence. In the basement is a garage with places for six cars including a Daimler limousine and a model Rolls Royce, which even contains a miniature flask of whisky.  Outside is a landscaped garden, designed by the famed Gertrude Jekyll, which even has a functional lawnmower.

Lucinda Lambton’s eclectic research made its usual quirky contribution. Thus we were informed that Mrs. Benjamin Guinness, one of the decorators of the Dolls’ House’s rooms, was also the founder of the Pekinese Club of America. This was altogether an eye-opener of a talk delivered by an unusually gifted speaker.
by Jeff Griffiths

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Why is there a Neolithic Channel Islands monument in Henley? – and other questions

Archaeological conferences come up with some odd things, few more so than one on the Prehistory of the Channel islands that I just attended. The “Big Question” was to try to fix one of the “Big Problems” in Archaeology – why did the start of the Neolithic age take around 1200 years to cross the Channel from France to the UK? A smaller question was “Why is there large a Neolithic Channel Islands tomb in Henley?”

Mont de la Ville
Mont de la Ville in Henley

On the outskirts of Henley, just past the drive to Templecombe, is a thick hedge. 150 yards behind this, on private land, is a very impressive and totally genuine Neolithic Passage Grave from around 3,000 BC. There is only one tiny thing wrong with it – it was moved from Jersey lock, stock and standing stone, in the late eighteenth century.

On 12th August 1785, the militia was levelling a hilltop to act as a parade ground, in an area that was later to become Fort Regent, in the strategically placed capital of St Helier. The soldiers “discovered” a megalithic monument that came to be called the “Mont de la Ville”. (Actually, although this story has been generally accepted, it turns out that a Philip Morant read a paper about this tomb to the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, nearly twenty five years earlier!)

At that time General Marshall Conway was retiring after spending several years as the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey. The islanders decided to present him with the tomb, which was thought to be a Druid temple, as an unique gift of gratitude. Upon discovering that he would have to transport it at his own expense, he was somewhat reticent to accept. Indeed it was only when Horace Walpole wrote to him, “Pray do not disappoint me but transport the Cathedral of your island to your domain on our continent,” that he finally agreed.

In March 1788 the stones were taken up the Thames to Conway’s house outside Henley and the monument was re-erected on a hill overlooking the river. The tomb consists of a covered passage leading into a circular unroofed chamber with a number of cists, each with a capstone, arranged around the edge. No known prehistoric finds were uncovered at the site during the removal.

HERM & the Neolithic Question

It is easy to see why people would be interested in the Channel Islands – they were a half way along several of the main trade routes between France and the UK. The timing of Neolithic changes there could nudge us in the direction of an answer. Indeed, that’s why two of the UK’s most senior archaeologists – Professor Barry Cunliffe (Oxford) and Professor Chris Scarre (Durham) have been working there for many years.

  Neolithic Tomb,  Herm
Neolithic Tomb, Herm

One of the most interesting papers at the conference covered an excavation of some of the 16 Neolithic tombs on the tiny Isle of Herm. The excavations also covered the ground between tombs, where the team found a large and very clear area of ard marks (from ancient ploughing) traced in the soil. Some of the tombs are very early and include pottery from the late 5th Millennium BC. Surprisingly, none of them show much resemblance to tombs from the same period across the water in France. Indeed some seem to be unique. I visited Herm back in 2002 and 2004 and the photo shows one of the unusual tombs we found there.

The conference also covered the finds and provisional conclusions from other excavations, covering several islands over the last few years. The most recent discovery had been made just five days before! Two tentative conclusions were drawn, though only one related directly to the Neolithic question:-

The Neolithic didn’t happen overnight, nobody woke up one day and decided to give up hunter-gathering for farming. It was a slow and gradual process, with different aspects, such as arable farming, livestock domestication, permanent settlement, pottery production and social changes all happening at different times. This created a wide blurring over time and implies that the Neolithic question is perhaps too simplistic to have a meaningful answer.

This led to a profound second thought on the basic process of archaeology, where many theories have become widely accepted only to change completely on the basis of a few new finds. So, perhaps the amount of evidence we have, which is often based on chance and unrepresentative excavations in too few places, creates a limit on how accurate any conjectures might be. This highlighted the fact that any current answer to the Neolithic Question was probably formed on far too little evidence to be sound. Indeed the evidence that was used to pose the question in the first place may not be too sound either!

By Gerry Palmer

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Finds identification

This is a list of simple hints and tips that can be used for identifying and dating some objects. Lack of space sadly means lack of supporting photos.  These tips are not absolute – but they are helpful.

Palaeolithic Neanderthal hand axePalaeolithic Neanderthal hand axes are subtriangular as in the photo – they date before 40K BC.

Mesolithic Tranchet axeTranchet axe: This shape is typical, in the UK they date from the Neolithic (after ~2500 BC) and Mesolithic (~12-2.5K BC). Mesolithic ones are likely to have the end cut off at an angle. Much earlier and cruder ones are found (Acheulian period) in Africa (~1.5Ma).

Neolithic polished Axe from MarlowPolished Axes: These work extreemly well as axes, they date from the Neolithic.  This example was found in Marlow.

Ceramics: are made from Earthenware (like a flowerpot) or stoneware (smoother, heavier and much harder) Stoneware dates from 16th Century onwards.

Bellarmine jarBellarmine jars (they have a grotesque face on them) date from after 1550 and become more common after 1600.

Wheel-thrown potteryWheel-thrown pottery (as opposed to coiled and smoothed) dates from either from the late Iron Age (Belgic) or from the 13th Century onwards. You can almost always see traces of the coils in non-thrown pottery.

Pottery inclusions: If local pottery inclusions are shelly they are usually from North Bucks. If inclusions are flinty it is Prehistoric. Roman inclusions were sand or (sometimes) shell. If the inclusions are grass, vegetable or grog (broken pot) it is Saxon – and the pottery will look and feel very grotty and like a soggy digestive biscuit!

Pot shape: Neolithic bowls usually have rounded bases, sometimes with a little lip at the top and occasionally two or four lugs for suspension. Medieval pots often have saggy bottoms (just like some from Warren Wood!)

Beaker potteryBeaker pottery usually accompanied a burial or cremation. They were well made and often had a herringbone pattern. Circa 2.5 – 1.5K BC. The shape in the photo is typical.

Pottery colour: This is usually a red-herring – it depended more on the firing than the date and should usually be ignored.

Pottery shape – see the Ashmolean website for an excellent section on this – http://potweb.ashmolean.org/PotChron1.html then change the 1 to a 2 – 9 for more.

Samian WareRoman Samian Ware: around half of all pots have a potters identification mark. It often has a foot ring and no inclusions.

Brill Ware  Brill Ware handle(Close up of slashing in handle) Brill Ware: impressive part glazed jugs, usually green or white and often with stabbing / slashing on the handles. 13th -14th Century.

Glaze: If it is glazed it is from the 13th Century onwards (though there is some very rare Roman glazed pottery). If there is glaze inside a pot usually dates from 13th – 15th century.

Pot rims: Medieval rims are usually flat topped, Roman rims are usually curved.

Hieroglyphs: – probably Egyptian, but also found on tourist tat!

By Gerry Palmer

All photographs are of the collections in Buckinghamshire County Museum

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Elizabeth’s Well at Bisham

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

Not far from the roar of traffic on the A404 Marlow by-pass above is the neglected site of a once important part of our local history. Elizabeth’s Well at Bisham carries the name of the Tudor Princess who spent some years confined at Bisham Abbey in her youth before she ascended to the throne. One may safely assume that this local example of a holy well would have already been ancient before it ever acquired the name of the Virgin Queen however.

Holy wells were frequently pagan sacred sites that had later become Christianised.* It is likely that the place where the spring that emerges from the chalk through a natural arch of tree roots on Bisham hill would have been venerated for hundreds of years, maybe far back into the Celtic past. There is evidence of brickwork around the spring, but this is now in a poor state of repair, showing how this place of significance has become neglected.

Elizabeth’s Well
Elizabeth’s Well

An early mention of the well at Bisham occurs in 1338 when its fame for cures had begun to spread across the county. Springs acquired reputations for particular healing qualities and Bisham’s well became renowned for curing eye conditions.

Much folklore grew around these locations and ceremonies or rituals were often centred on holy well sites. At Bisham a tame bird and a hermit were said to live in the tree next to the well. The miraculous nature of the cures claimed for the well attracted the attention of the 14th century Bishop Erghum of Salisbury who had a manor house not far away at Sonning. Concerned at the attention this location was attracting, and deeming it to be a threat to Mother Church, the Bishop had the spring filled in with stones and the tree associated with the well cut down. The power of the common people prevailed, however, and some ‘sons of the devil’, as they were described at the time, from Marlow and High Wycombe soon restored the well to use.

Some of the brickwork around Elizabeth’s Well
Some of the brickwork around Elizabeth’s Well

Piers Compton, the historian of Bisham Abbey writing in the 1970s, reported that people within living memory still attributed healing powers to the waters that bubble out at Elizabeth’s Well. Analysed in 1905, it appears that the spring water’s qualities match those of well-known spas. The field in which it stood had even once taken the name of Holy-well. Today, an ancient oak tree towers massively over the site of the spring, perhaps a successor to the tree that was deliberately felled. The oak, of course, was sacred to the Druids. One sees in this tree and the neglected well both a link with the distant past and a lingering belief in the curative nature of holy water down the ages.

Please note that Elizabeth’s Well is on private land.

by Jeff Griffiths

*The characteristics of such places have been described in an earlier AiM Newsletter. See Holy? – Well, Well, Well! by Gerry Palmer, AiM Newsletter April 2011.

The Story of Bisham Abbey by Piers Compton was first published by Thames Valley Press in 1973.

Some intriguing links with paranormal activity and folklore associated with wells, including that at Bisham, are recounted at http://www.strangebritain.co.uk/holywells/elizabeth.html

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King Sil of Silbury Hill

In 1663, the writer John Aubrey was showing Charles II the Avebury henge, when his Majesty “..cast his eye on Silbury-hill about a mile off; which they had the curiosity to see.”

Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill

He was told that, according to local tradition, King Sil, was buried there on horseback, and that ”..the hill was raysed while a posset of milke was seething.”

In the way of all good traditions, the story King Sil grew over the centuries and the posset or bowl of milk somehow became a golden horse.

The history of the many archaeological excavations at Silbury is an interesting story in its own right, and we will turn to it shortly, including the work done by English Heritage between 2007 and 8 which has been particularly insightful and has overthrown many previous theories and speculations.

But first a little about the hill itself.

Silbaby Hill
Silbaby Hill

The mound was built in three main stages between around 2450 and 2400 BC, meaning it was probably built at the same time Stonehenge and Durrington Walls just a few miles away. Silbury Hill is 41m high (130ft) and has a base circumference of 494m (1630ft). It was contemporary with Egypt’s pyramids (141m).

Silbury is unique only in scale, there are two similar but smaller mounds nearby, one of which – SilBaby – is just a few fields away, the other is in the grounds of Marlborough College and was believed to be considerably younger until very recently.

Now, let us return to the excavation history.

The Drax shaft, 1776

In 1776 the Duke of Northumberland asked Colonel Drax to tunnel into the mound. He brought in tin miners from Cornwall and sank a vertical shaft in the hope of finding the burial chamber, the golden horse and various unnamed treasures. All they found was a thin slip of oak. And they even burnt one end of it with a wax taper and discovered it was wood and not the whalebone they thought. Later excavations found that because the hill is not precisely circular, he missed the centre anyway!

The Merewether tunnels, 1849

Much had been learnt about tunnelling techniques by the time John Merewether, Dean of Hereford, employed navvies and drove a 300ft horizontal tunnel from the south-western edge to the centre of the mound. The excavation was arranged with the support of the Archaeological Institute, which requested that men dug “night and day” so that completion could co-inside with their Salisbury meeting. The tunnel was to be six and a half feet high and three feet wide – for the sound archaeological reason that it enabled the visitors to walk in without removing their top hats! Digging the last few feet was paused so that the Institute members would be there at the very moment of discovery.

Sadly nothing was discovered, no golden treasure, no grave goods, just a traceable line from the original turf. To be fair a hollow-sounding place had been detected in the roof of the tunnel, but after extra excavation the sound disappeared and was never heard again.

Undeterred, the Dean ordered side passages to be dug near the centre, and in one of these they found …….. the in-filling of the base of Northumberland’s shaft! His pattern of tunnels was continued until it came to resemble, in plan, the shape of an elaborate pastoral staff.

Flinders Petrie excavates, 1922

Professor Flinders Petrie’s work on the pyramids made him look for an entrance into the burial chamber on the mound’s surface, probably via a sloping tunnel. He first looked at the south-eastern, and then at the southern perimeter of the mound but found no entrance and reasoned that if there was one the excavation, would prove to be too expensive to ever uncover it. He felt that if such a passage existed it would be in the style of the local long barrows with sarson stones used for the walls and ceiling.

Dr McKim’s survey, 1959

Dr McKim carried out a resistivity survey of the hill as this would reveal if there was a passage entrance. He found a single well-defined irregularity. And indeed it was the entrance to a tunnel – the metal door covering Dean Merewether’s tunnel to be precise.

Dr McKim also found a faint overall oscillation in readings which he interpreted, probably correctly, as the original pattern of dumping chalk materials.

Professor Atkinson interviewed  in 1967
Professor Atkinson interviewed in 1967

Professor R. J. C. Atkinson and BBC 2, 1967

In 1967, Professor Richard Atkinson and BBC 2 undertook what was billed as “One of the most exciting researches ever undertaken in British archaeology” and “Viewers will see everything of significance as it happens. If a particularly interesting situation develops there may even be five-minute programmes every day.” Yet other publicity proclaimed “Some archaeologists believe that it is the largest of all Bronze Age barrows and is likely to contain a royal burial of exceptional richness.”

The programmes began 8th April 1968 and continued until 9 August 1969. On the very last day the first man-made container ever to have been discovered under Silbury Hill was found. It was a tall, sealed, cylindrical pot, found embedded in the very heart of the hill. Although cracked it was soon taped together and under the full glare of the cameras, the well preserved mementoes of the 1849 excavation were revealed.

English Heritage 2007-8

Excavations at Silbury Hill
Excavations at Silbury Hill

In 2000 a sixty foot hole appeared in the top of Silbury Hill, brought on by collapse caused by previous excavations. As part of preparing a preservation plan English Heritage carried out extensive work on the hill.

The first activity found at the site has nothing to do with its construction at all, but consisted of charred plant remains (including hazelnut shells), two pig teeth and debris from flint knapping. Above that there are signs that the ground was prepared for a gravel mound 10m across but just one metre high. This was then enlarged into a lower organic mound which had a ring of wooden stakes around it, it was surrounded by smaller mounds. Pits were dug into the mound, which was subsequently covered to a height of 5 or 6m (35m across) with an organic layer that contained small natural sarsen stones.

Silbury was finished about a century later and was far from a single construction project, but seems to have been the site of an unconnected series of activities, that do not follow any obvious common plan.

As a result of the 1967 excavation, it was believed that the mound was constructed as a layer cake with a series of round flat platforms built one on top of the other, each with a radiating set of retaining walls. However, it now seems that a spiral construction technique was used.

In many ways the most mysterious features of Silbury don’t even relate to the mound itself, but to the gargantuan ditches that were excavated through solid bedrock (and would have provided far more rock than could be used in the hill. They formed a circuit 100m across and 6.5m deep – but almost as soon they were was dug they were reburied (before there were any signs of erosion). Even more unexpectedly they were repeatedly re-cut, each event widening them slightly.

Silbury’s enigmatic shape, with its flat top (originally thought to be for ceremonies) may not be original or even relevant. The flat top probably came much later as a series of medieval post-holes on top of the hill indicate a large building. The discovery of two arrowheads imply it was defensive and built either at the time of the Danish invasions early the 11th century, or the Norman Conquest. There is speculation that a dome-shaped prehistoric summit was simply altered at this time.

But why was Silbury built at all? Answers have ranged from a kingly burial mound to Druids (even though it was built 2,000 years too early for that), to a Neolithic cathedral, a mother goddess shrine (as from the air the shape of the ditch was said to resemble a pregnant woman – though to me it looks more like a guitar case) and even by space aliens with their corn circles.

Many say it must have been related to the local and ancient “ritual” landscape with its numerous round barrows, long barrows, smaller hills, Avebury, Stone Henge, Marden Henge, Durrington Walls and far too many others to list here. Despite all of the work, geophysics, excavations, interpretations, brainpower and erudite comments, we will probably never know.

By Gerry Palmer

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