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.