Development & Archaeology: Water Scheme Inadvertently Reveals Mystery of Childrey Warren

We often lament the effects of ‘development’ these days…at least I do.  Our green and pleasant land slowly morphing into a concrete jungle, vast swathes of habitat converted into a barren moonscape by the teeth of excavators, animals seldom seen except as roadside carrion.

Just occasionally, however, the forces of upheaval shine an unexpected light on the past.  This occurred recently in Oxfordshire, where a burial site containing twenty-six bodies and countless other interesting artefacts from the late Iron/early Roman Age were found during a Thames Water scheme.

One of the skeleton finds

With the growing demand for water (from our growing and greedy population) putting pressure on a rare chalk stream, the utility company plans to install a new pipe to take water from the River Thames rather than Letcombe Brook.

Cotswold Archaeology has since uncovered the proverbial treasure-trove, including dwellings, animal carcasses, household items including pottery, cutting implements and a decorative comb.  Evidence of human sacrifice has even been mooted.

The dating of approximately 3,000 years ago puts the find in the same historical era as the famous White Horse at Uffington, a magnificent stallion gouged approximately 1.0m into the chalk above the town of Wantage in the southwest of the county.

The impressive Uffington White Horse

The National Trust succinctly describes the historic significance of the area:

The horse is only part of the unique complex of ancient remains that are found at White Horse Hill and beyond, spreading out across the high chalk downland…Crowning White Horse Hill is an Iron Age hillfort known as Uffington Castle. A simple design of one rampart and ditch, the castle at 860 feet (262m) above sea level forms the highest point in Oxfordshire, with views for miles around over six counties.

Across the property Burial Mounds can be spotted. These date from the Neolithic period and have been reused up to the Saxon age. The largest contained 47 skeletons. 

These latest discoveries at Childrey Warren will further aid our hazy understanding of a period of time barely comprehensible to most of us.  They are not unique hordes but they are certainly rare and illuminating.  Yet, such finds invariably have a downside.  Namely, they further the lust of commercial archaeological companies.

Deer antlers: thought to be used as a digging tool

Every project manager for a new housing estate, cable route, road construction or any other development, must consider the ‘risk’ of disturbing precious archaeology.  Yes, we don’t want to go blundering through what we believe to be undisturbed land, destroying our heritage (along with the environment) in the process.

But do we really need to dig trial trenches across the country?  Do we need to commit months of manpower and spend thousands of pounds dusting down Roman coins and pottery shards? Too often a desk-based archaeological study is only a means to an end; i.e. a commission to dig.  But surely if we have already committed to a development – whatever folly that might entail – we should not be held to ransom by the trowel?  Is it fair to say that some history just doesn’t need to be preserved?

Archaeological trenches in Cambridgeshire

Perhaps this is a ridiculous suggestion for someone who writes a history blog.  Perhaps it is not appropriate to give development the green light and only call the archaeologists in when something ‘interesting’ is uncovered.  After all, how many excavator drivers are cognisant of Iron Age artefacts?  You’d imagine they would notice a skeleton…but anything else…It just sometimes seems that resource could be put to better use than collecting more and more trivial evidence that does little to further our knowledge of the past.

Put simply, it seems as if there is too much development and too much archaeology in England today.  Chance finds seem just as likely to throw up a historical fascination as painstaking research and careful excavation.

Comb made of bone found at Childrey Warren

Either way, I suppose we should be grateful for the Thames Water people. They have saved Letcombe Brook and also inadvertently unleashed a prehistoric marvel.  How frustrated it must have made the project managers of this urgent £14.5million scheme is, I concede, beside the point.


The Last Dictators? Kazakhstan and Algeria Enter New Eras

The reigns of two long-standing dictators are, in theory, at an end. Nursultan Nazarbayev has stepped down as President of Kazakhstan having led the country since the dying days of communism in the late 1980s. In Algeria, meanwhile, the ailing and reclusive Abdelaziz Bouteflika has abandoned attempts to serve a fifth term as president after protesters took to the street to oppose him.

Algeria has been rocked by street protests in recent weeks

Both departures – should they be realised – will mark a major turning point in each country’s history and, arguably, these two dictatorships were born out of a necessity that is no longer required.

Nazarbayev has overseen Kazakhstan’s development since the Soviet Union collapsed and, until his surprise resignation, was the only president his independent nation had known. Marshaling a vast, impoverished, country into the 21st century was no mean feat and relied as much on political repression and restriction of civil liberties as it did on profitable oil and gas exports.

Nazarbayev has been accused of fostering a personality cult

Bouteflika, on the other hand, was a seasoned campaigner in Algerian politics when he ascended to the premiership in 1999 in the latter stages of a bloody civil war. Having fought the French during their brutal final stand in the Algerian War (1954-1962) he negotiated an end to the most recent conflict – one that had killed more than 150,000 people – in 2002. Amending the constitution so that he would go on to serve an unprecedented four terms, Bouteflika has generally been successful at preserving a tenuous peace in a region plagued by domestic instability and transnational terrorist violence, aided too by vast natural gas reserves.

Both Kazakhstan and Algeria are deemed ‘not free’ by the Freedom House democracy index. In line with modernisation theory, political development is put on hold until economic prosperity creates a middle class eager for greater representation. For many people  in both nations, Nazarbayev and Bouteflika are the only political voices they have ever known.

Is the time for democratisation now? Kazakhstan’s economic growth rate has slumped from a +8% GDP increase in the years prior to 2013 to a comparatively measly 3.9% in 2017. Algeria was used to 4% growth rates in the post-civil war years but that has since decreased to just 1.4%.

With a younger generation struggling for jobs and perhaps less indebted to the enforced ‘stability’ provided by their dictatorial masters two to three decades ago, perhaps real political change is possible.

Even the tightly-policed Kazakhstan has seen popular protests in recent years as the economy has slumped

But – and there is always a but when it comes to authoritarian rule – slow degradation is far more likely than revolution. Nazarbayev, for instance, has not gone away. He has named his successor as president, elevated his eldest daughter to the second most powerful political position in the country, and been given the honorific ‘Leader of the Nation’. The capital Astana is even being renamed Nursultan! 

It is somewhat different in Algeria where Bouteflika has basically been incapacitated since suffering a stroke in 2013. He has barely been seen in public since and sends delegates to official meetings and international forums. That said, it is under Bouteflika’s watch that the shady ‘Le Pouvoir’ (‘The Power’) has gained increasing informal power. It is thought that a group of military officials, politicians from the ruling National Liberation Front, and wealthy businessmen influence all key government decisions. How much sway Bouteflika has, particularly in his fragile condition, is unclear.

Bouteflika has not spoken in public since 2014

Either way, the state in Kazakhstan and Algeria has been captured by nefarious elites that will persist beyond the reigns of their figureheads. How effective people power and civil society will be in drawing concessions from them remains to be seen.

In Kazakhstan, it will likely take the death of Nursultan Nazarbayev to see whether a challenge to his daughter,and by extension her father’s legacy, will materialise. In Algeria, Le Pouvoir is unlikely to let go whilst the true extent of its reach is unknown, or until a mobilised populace rises up to sweep it away.

In an era of seeming democratic retrenchment, don’t expect these hotbeds of authoritarianism to perish with their leaders.