Category Archives: Local Interest

How old is Marlow?

Archaeology In Marlow have been keeping tabs on a recent archaeological investigation. The 46 page report has now been published, revealing that two young individuals were buried in Marlow around 4,500 year ago! A summary of the findings follow.

In Spring 2013, Northamptonshire Archaeology, now MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) Northampton, were commissioned by Talmage Homes, to conduct an archaeological excavation on a site to the rear of 90 High Street, Marlow. The investigation was headed by Simon Markus whose team discovered some amazing artefacts during their excavations.

Local historians will know that the earliest recording of the town of Marlow dates from 1015AD, where it is referred to as Merelafan in the Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici.

In March 2013, an area of approximately 200 sq.m. was opened up within which, a pit, dated to the mid 12th century, contained a pile of approximately 250 re-deposited bones, radiocarbon dated to a much earlier date.

90 High St 2

Photo’ courtesy of MOLA Northampton

In addition, amongst the remains was a piece of Bronze Age (Beaker) pottery, which was probably from a pot buried with the bones, as well as medieval finds from the 12th-14th centuries.

When the 250 bones and fragments from the skeletons were examined, it soon became apparent that the remains appeared to be those of two youngish individuals fairly close in age. Those bones that could be assigned as a specific skeleton were recorded as a full skeleton and the individuals were labelled ‘Skeleton 1’ and ‘Skeleton 2’.

Skeleton 1 was an older juvenile (10-12 years) based on the condition of teeth and bones at the time of death. Skeleton 2 was also close to that age (10-11 years). Due to the age of the remains, it was not possible at this time to determine the sex of each individual.

The discovery of Bronze Age pottery raised the possibility that the bones might be from a Bronze Age burial, and likely a barrow (burial mound), which was disturbed around the 12th century AD. Bone samples from the two identified individuals were sent to the USA for radiocarbon dating. The skeletons were found to date from approximately 2030 BC (between 2140 and 1950 BC), making them Early Bronze Age in date.

 The single piece of Bronze Age (Beaker) pottery, weighing 12g, is decorated with bands of multiple horizontal lines of comb impressions, flanking a single surviving narrow zone, 10mm wide, which contains a saw-tooth pattern also formed from comb impressions.

90 High St 3

Photo’ courtesy of MOLA Northampton

An aerial survey (Lidar), around the barrow cemetery at Low Grounds Farm, identified the site as a possible island on the Thames. This would mean that the High Street burials would have been separated from the Farm by a section of the Thames. They are, however, at a similar height (within 2m) and so the High Street burial may represent an outlier to the Low Grounds cemetery. As this cemetery has been dated by form only, it is unknown whether the two sites were active at the same time.

So, it looks like people lived in Marlow well before Anglo-Saxon times and that Marlow was a ‘des res’ around 4,500 years ago!

Many thanks to MOLA Northampton; article written by John Laker for Archaeology In Marlow (AIM) using extracts from the MOLA report.

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.

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

by Jeff Griffiths

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.


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.


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

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

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 – 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

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

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

A Visit to London’s Petrie Museum

Image of Ancient Egyptian Painted ceramic pot courtesy of the Petrie Museum.
Image of Ancient Egyptian Painted ceramic pot courtesy of the Petrie Museum.

The Petrie Museum might be somewhat hidden away between Tottenham Court Road and Euston and it might even be off the tourist trail and difficult to find by the first time visitor – but it is a rare gem. It hosts one of the largest, most inspiring collections of Egyptian archaeology anywhere in the world and shows life in the Nile Valley from prehistory right through Pharaonic, Roman and Islamic times.

The Tarkhan dress shirt from Egypt’s First Dynasty or Old Kingdom (about 3000-2300 BC).  Image courtesy of the Petrie Museum
The Tarkhan dress shirt from Egypt’s First Dynasty or Old Kingdom (about 3000-2300 BC). Image courtesy of the Petrie Museum

Although most of the objects on display were actually excavated or purchased by Flinders Petrie, the initial collection was donated by the writer and Egyptophile Amelia Edwards, who funded the chair of Edwards’ Professor of Egyptology at University College London (UCL). Petrie’s own collection was added some twenty years later.

Among the many stunning artefacts at the museum is the world’s oldest preserved garment – a linen dress shirt from a First Dynasty Egyptian tomb at Tarkan, which dates from around 3000B.C.  The shoulders and sleeves are pleated to give form-fitting trimness yet cleverly allowing the wearer room to move (they say there’s nothing new…).

The museum can boast of unusual number of firsts – the earliest example of metal from Egypt, the first worked iron beads, the earliest example of glazing, the earliest ‘cylinder seal’ in Egypt (about 3500 BC); the oldest wills on papyrus paper. And bringing the firsts up to date it was also the first museum in the world to put its entire collection on-line, with all 80,000 objects having both a photograph and a description.

The museum also has a series of fascinating trails based on themes where a simple museum map takes you around objects relating to, for example mummified remains, freemasonry, and even Sci-Fi Egypt. (and yes it does include Dr Who!)

The Petrie is difficult to find – but downloading the map on should get you there. It is open from Tuesday to Saturday 13.00 – 17.00 (except over Christmas and Easter holidays) and admission is free. It is well worth a visit!

By Gerry Palmer

The Strange History of an Ostrich

The Ostrich as it is today
The Ostrich as it is today

Few buildings have such a rich and shocking history as the Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook. Both King John and Queen Elizabeth are said to have stayed there; as are Dick Turpin and Samuel Pepys – though not all at the same time! There have been multiple murders as well as ghosts. And, of course, there is a stuffed ostrich called Esmerelda.

The Ostrich Inn is (possibly) the third oldest inn in England and was founded over 900 years ago, in (or probably before) 1106 when Milo Crispin donated “the hospice of Colebroc” to Abingdon Abbey. We know a hospice was just a rest house for travellers, invariably owned and run by a religious order, and we also know that the innkeeper was a Saxon named Aegelward. Milo stipulated that the inn should be held in trust “for the good travellers in this world and the salvation of their souls in the next”.

The name Ostrich may be a simple corruption of the word hospice, though one Middle Ages source calls it “The Crane” – but, as that is also a large bird with a long bill and long legs, the two names may simply have become confused. However, ostriches were known about at the time due to two separate references to them in the Bible.

The old gallery at the rear
The old gallery at the rear

The present structure is a re-building from sometime around 1500 and the outside, would probably still be recognisable to its builders, although at the time there were two shops at the front and a gallery along the outside at the back. By comparison to the then recent times of the Wars of the Roses, this period was one of relative prosperity, when many inns and buildings were re-built. I mention this as a sneaky way to link to the unexpected fact that the term “Wars of the Roses” is actually a modern name and only came into general use because of the novel “Anne of Geierstein” by Sir Walter Scott!

If you walk along what remains of this (now-internal) back gallery, the last room you come to is used as a large storeroom that it is said to have a particularly grisly past. It also comes equipped with its very own ghost. A book published between 1596 and 1600 by Thomas Deloney carried the story of the Ostrich’s enterprising landlord Mr Jarman.

Jarman saw a risk-free method of boosting his income by robbing rich travellers. Before the days of banks people would often carry large sums of money with them as they travelled. In the “Blue Room,” one of the Inn’s best bedrooms, he built a trapdoor under the bed….. but let us allow the landlord the pleasure of telling his own tale:

Ttipping bed in the Ostrich
Tipping bed in the ostrich

“This man should then be laid in the chamber right over the kitchen, which was a fair chamber, and better set out than any other in the house: the best of bedstead therein, though it was little and low, yet was most cunningly carved, and faire, to the eys, the feet whereof were fast-naild to the chamber floore, in such sort, that it could not in any wise fall, the bed that lay therein was fast sowed to the sides of the bedstead: Moreover that part of the chamber whereupon this bed and bedstead stood, was made in such sort, that by pulling out of two Iron pinnes below in the kitchen, it was to be let downe and taken up by a draw bridge, or in manner of a trap doore: moreover in the kitchen, directly under the place where this should fall, was a mighty great caldron, wherin they used to seethe their liquor when they went to brewing. Now, the maen appointed for the slaughter, were laid into this bed, and in the dead time of night, when they were sound a sleepe, by plucking out the foresaid yron pinnes, downe would the man fall out of his bed into the boyling caldron, and all the cloaths that were upon him: where being suddenly scalded and drowned, he was never able to cry or speake one word.

An early image of the Ostrich
An early image of the Ostrich

“Then they had a little ladder ever standing ready in the kitchen, by the which they presently mounted into the sid chamber, and there closely take away the mans apparell, as also his money, in his male or capcase: and then lifting up the said falling floore which hung by hinges, they made it fast as before”.“ The dead body would they take presently out of the caldron and throw it downe the river, which ran neere unto their house, wherby they scaped all danger.

The Ostrich as it was
An early image of the Ostrich

When Jarmen was eventually caught due to his failure to rid himself of Thomas of Reading’s (or possibly a wealthy clothier called, Olde Cole’s) horse, he boasted that he had murdered sixty people! Perhaps, knowing that he was doomed, Jarman may have increased the number of victims in order to gain lasting notoriety. If so, he certainly achieved his object, and gave the Ostrich a story that has made its name known throughout the world. It probably forms the origin of the Victorian penny dreadful tale “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Sarah, the Ostrich’s friendly deputy manager, showed us all around and she explained that when this room above the kitchen was renovated they found …. But you will have to wait until the end to know just what!

Less gruesome, but still very unusual, are the curious remains of an arrangement in the function room at the front of the first floor of the building. It housed a novel flap that could be let down from the window to let passengers travelling on the roof of stage-coaches enter the inn without the inconvenience of climbing down first! There is also a great deal of interesting seventeenth-century panelling and a staircase of the same date.

The Ostrich was probably founded because of Windsor Castle. In the Middle Ages travelling was a long, dirty and tedious business and ambassadors and other important people visiting Windsor are said to have used Colnbrook as their final stop on their journey. They would change into their official robes at the Ostrich, then cross the Thames on the Datchet ferry before travelling on to the castle to meet the King.

In those days road travel was so arduous that when, in 1558, Queen Elizabeth I was travelling from Woodstock to London, and passed through Colnbrook, the road was so bad that the wheel of her coach came off, forcing her to spend the night there, quite possibly at the Ostrich itself.

On 17th June 1668 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary how he came through “Colebrooke.” Apparently he had been in a bad mood and wrote “Somewhat out of humour all day, reflection on my wife’s neglect of things, and impertinent humour got by this liberty of being from me, which she is never to be trusted with; for she is a fool.” He went on to say “I find my wife hath something in her gizzard, that only waits an opportunity of being provoked to bring up; but I will not, for my content sake, give it”.

It is possible that Pepys received some of the change from his bill in the form of a “Token.” As there was a shortage of small change at the time, shopkeepers and innkeepers minted their own money or tokens. One issued in 1657 by Samuel Mills, for the use at the Ostrich shows an ostrich holding a horseshoe in its beak – it can still found in Bucks County Council’s archive.

During the early years of the century that followed Pepys’ visit, Colnbrook was linked to many of the highwaymen who frequented the area due to the rich pickings from people travelling along the Bath road.

Esmerelda the Colnbrook ostrich
Esmerelda the Colnbrook ostrich

The most famous was Dick Turpin, who is said to have had an association with the Ostrich (and almost every other pub in South-East England!) and, according to legend hid at the inn. Stories tell of him escaping from trouble by jumping out of the window, or alternately fleeing through a secret tunnel under the inn. As recently as 1925 the inn still had one of “his” pistols on display.

But to return to Jarman’s ingenious contraption for tipping unwary travellers into a boiling caldron – “when the room above the kitchen was renovated they found …. nothing.” Despite earlier reports of finding it, it simply wasn’t there. But it still makes a good story!

 by Gerry Palmer

Desborough – the Castle on the Hill

Desborough Castle with lynchet in the foreground
Desborough Castle with lynchet in the foreground

Desborough Castle is a little-visited scheduled ancient monument on the edge of a housing estate on the south side of the Wye Valley, between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. From the castle there is a steep drop into the valley below, and so it has clear views in both directions along the valley. The Golden Ball, with its associated Iron Age camp, can clearly be seen, as can the town of High Wycombe. The site has been used for thousands of years and the valley has been an important routeway through the Chilterns from at least the Bronze Age.

The inner bank with the author at the top for scale
The inner bank with the author at the top for scale

Today, the main part of the monument is not, as widely believed, the remnants of a hillfort, but is a medieval ringwork castle with an east-facing entrance. A large 12 feet deep ditch and a 16 foot high bank run right around the area, which is now covered in trees. A lynchet in the open area around it runs roughly parallel to the ringwork defences and follows the contours of the hill. Part of the castle was excavated in 1968 by C. Saunders, who found the ploughed-out remains of large rampart and ditch fortifications. However, although the excavation was unable to date the lynchet, it is probably Late Bronze or Early Iron Age due to its construction and size, and so these are probably the remains of a Bronze or Iron Age hillfort.

A variety of chance finds in and around the castle gives us some idea of how long people have been using the area. The oldest is a Mesolithic flint axe, but other worked flints have been found both on the surface and during a 1987 dig that excavated the area in front of the entrance (Records of Bucks vol 30). The flints date to the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. Most finds from the dig were medieval but some were a surprise, such as Roman roof tiles and pottery, which imply there may be a yet undiscovered Roman building nearby.

The dig concentrated on the level ground between Rutland Avenue and Booker Lane. Five trenches were dug and under deep plough soil they found a variety of earthworks, including a 5m wide ditch and postholes from a simple farm building. Also uncovered was a large linear feature that was 12m wide and at least 2.75m deep. The diggers couldn’t reach the bottom for safety reasons but, although unconfirmed, it seems likely that it was a massive ditch that protected the area on its weakest side by cutting off the spur of the hill to form an outer bailey. On the west and north sides the ground falls steeply into the valley below.

Over the years other unusual artefacts have been uncovered, including two Greek coins. One, a gold coin bearing the image of Phillip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father), was donated to the British Museum. The other was a bronze coin from Ambracia (a Corinthian colony in western Greece), dating between 238 and 168 BC. An Iron Age brooch and a Roman coin were also found but perhaps the largest discovery of all was referred to by Delafield in 1743 as “an entire stone window frame like in ancient churches”. All traces of this window have disappeared, as has any building surrounding it. Delafield also reported that in the interior of the ringwork there were foundations, bricks and medieval roof tile. Mr Watts in the 1950s also saw foundations and a tile hearth within the earthwork. Today, nothing can be seen amongst the trees and undergrowth.

It was Delafield who first mentiond the name Desborough Castle – previously it was simply known as “the Roundabout”. Desborough, however, was the name of the original Saxon Hundred and the castle site has been identified as the moot or meeting place for the Hundred court. Indeed it has been suggested that the small remaining mound on the west side of the castle, which was subsequently cut across by the ringwork ditch, was the mound used as the moot. There is the possibility that it is also the remains of a Bronze Age barrow.

All that remains of the possible moot mound at Desborough Castle
This small bump is all that remains of the possible moot mound at Desborough Castle

The castle lay in the manor of West Wycombe and was occasionally mentioned in the manorial rent records. In 1350 “John ate Castel” died there from the pestilence and in 1389 there were tenements in Dustleburgh. Other names for the area were Chasteleye, Castle field, Castel Garden and Dusteburgh Meadow.

It seems that the ringwork was built in the Norman period and it may have been a siege castle at the time of the Anarchy (the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda 1135-1154). However, the earliest pottery found dates to the early 12th century – later than one would expect if it was contemporary with the construction of the Castle. As it was part of the manor of West Wycombe it would have been owned by the Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and King Stephen’s brother and greatest ally. He is known to have built seven castles during 1138 and Desborough could easily have been one of them. It must have been an impressive sight perched up on the hillside with its massive ditch and bank, presumably topped by a palisade.

From the records it is known that Stephen was “apud Wycumbam in obsidione” (i.e. “in the siege at Wycumbam”) at some time during the Civil War. It is most likely that he was there to lay siege to the motte on Castle Hill, which belonged to Brian Fitz Count, one of Matilda’s most important supporters. From the hillside Stephen and his followers were in an ideal position to control the valley and the road to Oxford and Wallingford, as well as to observe the activities in Maud’s Wycombe castle.

dapted from Bucks Records,  the southern extent of the site is unknown and under housing
dapted from Bucks Records, the southern extent of the site is unknown and under housing

The archaeological dig, the manorial records and the Pipe Rolls (the records of the Royal exchequer) seem to indicate that the castle was abandoned in the early thirteenth century. The animal remains and the pottery found show the occupants were high status, as does the evidence for large buildings within the ringwork, but nothing can be certainwithout further excavation.

Finally, as the castle became ruinous the outer defences were deliberately filled in to provide arable land for a local farmer – and they were used this way until the demand for homes became overwhelming and much of the area was covered with housing. Fortunately, the castle and the grassy slope have been left as open space for us to enjoy and explore.

by Rose Palmer