Excavating the CA archive: Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire

5 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 2 March. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI385, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

This is now my 25th ‘county’ column exploring the history of Current Archaeology, and within it I visit the neighbouring counties of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. I mean no offence to either county with this double-headed approach: the sad reality is that neither have featured very much in the 55 years of the magazine, so there aren’t enough articles on either county to fill a full column. I’d urge archaeologists working in both locations to redress this balance in the future, submitting articles to the magazine [Ed: yes, please!], as what does feature in the pages of CA from these counties is great work indeed.

Bravo for Bedfordshire

Beginning with Bedfordshire, the earliest mention of the county comes in CA 30 (January 1972), when fieldwork in the middle of a new housing estate on the edge of Luton examined a Neolithic henge known as Waulud’s Bank, contemporaneous with other, more famous such sites being explored at this time – Durrington Walls (CA 5, November 1967), Marden (CA 17, November 1969), and Mount Pleasant (CA 23, November 1970). The site’s location – and its truncation by development – means that it is less well-known than it deserves to be. But for anyone seeking evidence of Bedfordshire greatness, I say: begin here.

Chronologically, the next step is then to CA 47 (May 1975), an issue that comes close to being a ‘Beds Special’: the cover star was a ring ditch at Roxton, on the banks of the River Ouse, and the issue featured round-ups of fieldwork in both the county and the county town by David Baker (who helped establish the systematic management of archaeology in the county in the 1970s, long before such requirements became compulsory in the planning system in the 1990s). CA 66 (April 1979) then featured a fine example of a Romano-British farmstead, examined in advance of quarrying along the River Ouse at Odell; and CA 69 (November 1979) saw Dunstable’s one moment of glory in the magazine, with a cover story on the discovery of a Roman cemetery made by a name little-known outside of the county – and which ought to be far more widely celebrated – that of Leslie Matthews. As CA explained:

‘The Manshead Archaeological Society of Dunstable has always centred round Leslie Matthews, its current site director… [he] spent most of his life as a car worker for Vauxhall’s, but in 1973 retired early to devote himself full-time to archaeology and to publishing the immense amount of material he had accumulated… Les is therefore in many ways a typical example of the independent archaeologist working over the past 50 years.’

After this late 1970s hurrah for Bedfordshire, the story of the county’s archaeology in CA goes cold until issue 315 (June 2016) picks up the thread, visiting Albion Archaeology’s fieldwork along the River Ouse on a massive site over 70ha in size. The excavations revealed 6,000 years of human activity within a loop of the river near Biddenham. As the lead excavators, Mike Luke and Simon Mortimer, explained, ‘The features incised into the ground could have been plucked from a textbook on rural activity in Britain. There are Neolithic henge monuments, Bronze Age fields, Iron Age pits, Roman farmsteads, Saxon grubenhäuser, and medieval ridge-and-furrow.’ The magazine’s most recent foray into the county then came in CA 354 (September 2019), when Albion Archaeology were back at work (again on a site examined in advance of a new housing development), this time at Houghton Regis on the north-western edge of Luton, where they revealed a smaller but nonetheless still important palimpsest of Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman settlement.

The beauties of Buckinghamshire

The magazine’s first mention of Buckinghamshire comes in CA 20 (May 1970), when local archaeologist Keith Branigan was excavating the Roman villa at Latimer (along the River Chess to the east of Chesham). This multi-phased development evolved between the 1st to 4th centuries AD, and was one of perhaps five villas built along the river valley during this period.

From bucolic rural Buckinghamshire, the magazine moved to more familiar ground in its next visit to the county, when CA 71 (April 1980) examined the remains of a medieval settlement, including the rare survival of a post-mill, at Great Linford, in the north-east corner of the then-new city of Milton Keynes. CA 90 (January 1984) returned to the town, this time with a cover story featuring the Iron Age and Roman site now lost beneath the modern-day developments in the Pennyland neighbourhood, as well as a review of other sites and structures found within the town’s boundaries, including four major Roman sites, at least one of which – Bancroft – was a villa of some importance given the quality of its mosaics. The magazine’s most recent visit to Milton Keynes then came in CA 122 (November 1990), with another round-up of work, including finds of Saxon jewellery at Westbury, a wheel of Taranis at Wavendon, the seal of Bradwell Abbey, and a Roman counterfeiter’s hoard.

Moving back in time ever so slightly, Aylesbury featured in CA 101 (August 1986). Dramatic evidence was found here for Iron Age ritual practices: parts of at least five human bodies were discovered, arranged round the western edge of a shallow hollow filled full of articulated animal bones. The most striking discovery was of a young person buried face up, spread-eagled, with knees apart and hand tensioned. Four other burials lay nearby on various orientations, including one buried with a goat. Fascinatingly, this all appears to have been set within a previously unrecorded Iron Age hillfort adjacent to St Mary’s church, on the topmost point of the ridge on which Aylesbury is situated, in the historic centre of the town. The hillfort ditch was over 3m deep and was traced for more than 20m along the hill slope; if it continued along the same contour line around the whole hilltop, it would enclose an area of around 10ha. CA 278 (May 2013) then followed up on this discovery nearly 30 years later, when the full report of the site was published.

The prehistoric riches of Buckinghamshire are reflected in three further sites featured in the magazine. The first of these came to light during works around Dorney, on the northern edge of the Thames, resulting from the construction of the Eton Rowing Course and the associated Maidenhead Flood Alleviation Scheme: CA 148 and 178 (June 1996 and March 2002) examined the prehistoric (especially Bronze Age) remains discovered at the former location, and the Saxon settlements discovered at the latter.

The second of these sites, just to the north-west along the northern bank of the Thames at Taplow, is a stunning Iron Age hillfort, enclosing a Saxon burial mound (second only in many people’s eyes to that of Sutton Hoo), which featured in CA 175 (August/September 2001). Finally, the third site is that of the Bronze Age barrow discovered at Gayhurst, a quarry on the edge of Milton Keynes. CA 191 and 195 (April and December 2004) explored the extraordinary story of this site, in which over 600 cattle had been slaughtered, there was a huge feast, and the animal bones were then piled over the barrow. These three sites give just some taste of the archaeological diversity of Buckinghamshire, and I can only end where I began, by pleading with fieldworkers there and in neighbouring Bedfordshire to share more such stories of a fascinating array of landscapes rich with untapped narrative potential.

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About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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