Wolverton and District Archaeological Society

Yesterday I came across a booklet prepared for an exhibition at the Radcliffe School in 1968. It cost 2/ – and has lain in a box for over 40 years. I have now read it and there is a lot within the booklet that is of interest, partly because it reflects the knowledge of the area in the late 1960s, before the arrival of Milton Keynes.

The society was founded in 1955 by a group of enthusiasts who organised digs in the district and spent a lot of their spare time and energy making some important finds about our past. They were able to identify a number of Roman villa sites, although not, as it turned out, the spectacular Roman villa at Bancroft. They were also assiduous in collecting and preserving artefacts that had stories to tell about the past, many of which must have been on display at this exhibition.

The establishment of Milton Keynes only a few years after this exhibition brought with it a unit of professional archaeologists. The buzzword of the day was “rescue  archaeology” and resources were afforded to any location that was subject to development in order to record as much of our ancient past as was possible. The amateur archaeologists were to some degree sidelined, although their contributions were respected. However, a small team of professionals working throughout the week was bound to be more productive than a handful of amateurs working at the weekend.

The society survives today and is a healthy organisation, although it has adapted itself. It is now called the Wolverton and District Archaeological and Historical Society.

I am reproducing an article from the booklet describing the state of local archaeological studies in 1968.  It is initialled by G.K.T. better known in his time as KeithTull, a teacher of history at Wolverton Secondary Modern School and the Radcliffe School from the 1950s.


To the general public the work of the archaeologist often seems very difficult to understand. He often seems to become quite excited over small fragments of bone and pot and to make statements about his finds which the ordinary observer finds difficult to believe. It may therefore assist the understanding of the importance of these seemingly insignificant pieces if the methods of the archaeologist are briefly explained.

The work of discovering the past from the remains left by previous generations in the soil is based upon two processes. The first is the careful recording and study of all the remains which are found in the layers in which they occur. This is known as stratification from the Latin word strata, a layer. It is obvious that the most recent objects, that is the objects nearest to us in time, will be found near the surface of a dig while the oldest will be found deeper down. However this is only true if the layers have not been disturbed. Frequently however the layers will have been disturbed as latter folk dig down and disturb earlier layers. It is therefore most important that the archaeologist recognises these layers as he digs down through them because each has a special meaning. This is particularly so because as he digs the archaeologist destroys his own evidence and if a mistake is made valuable evidence may be destroyed for ever.

The great importance of each layer is that in it are found the remains of a particular period on the site.   If the layer is sealed, that is if it has not been disturbed since a certain time, all the objects found in it will come from that particular time. If only one of the objects can be dated this automatically dates all the objects found with it in that layer. Thus they are dated by association. Once the date of a particular shape of pot has thus been established, the same shape can be used to date a layer on another site. Thus as historical work progresses a knowledge of the dates of various objects has been built up. The growth of a knowledge of styles and types of this type has been built up in this area during the last few years with medieval pottery. A piece of decorated dish which was found during the excavations at Stanton Low in 1955 was stated to be at that time by no less an authority than the British Museum, to be a piece of pottery of the type made in Staffordshire in the seventeenth century. Ten years later excavations on the site of a new house at Potterspury revealed a pottery kiln which had made this very type of ware. A knowledge of the green glazed roofing tiles made in the fourteenth century at Potterspury which were used to tile the roof of the church at Stanton Low and the manor house by Whaddon Manor is also being built up in the area.

The other main method available to the archaeologist to date his finds is by a knowledge of how the “type” has developed, a study known as typology. In the same way as the modern eye can roughly date a motor car from its style and design, so can the archaeologist date his finds, albeit roughly, from its design and the materials used. With pottery it is the rims and bases of the vessels together with their decoration which are most valuable for this purpose and so it is these which interest the digger more than the sides of a pot although these may be larger.
There are also an increasing number of scientific aids which can help the archaeologist in his work. A count of pollen seeds can indicate seasons, the electrical resistance of the ground may indicate sites; pottery kilns may be dated from their magnetic field and organic remains by their radio activity. By and large however these are expensive specialist techniques which are not available to the local enthusiast unless he stumbles upon a particularly important site and this is usually then taken over by a more experienced digger.

The area of North Bucks contains relics from very early times. The oldest object on display is the scapula or shoulder bone of a mammoth found in the quarry at Cosgrove. If allowance is made for the neck of the animal an estimation of the shoulder width of the beast may be obtained. Such an animal roamed what is now North Bucks during one of the ice ages, the last of which is now thought to have ended some 10,000 years B.C. This part of Britain was covered by the ice at its greatest extent and a striking reminder of this can still be seen in the village of Soulbury, south of Bletchley, where a boulder of millstone grit still stands, a menace to the modern motorist in the modern road, where it was deposited by the ice which had brought it from the Pennines.

Both the rough chipped tools of Old Stone Age Man and the polished tools of the New Stone Age have been found in the gravels of the River Ouse and it is likely that many more would have been found but for the fact that they appear as ordinary stones to the untutored eye. Indeed many an academic argument has been waged for many hours over the authenticity of supposed hand axes. It is said that a genuine hand axe will only spin in one direction if it is laid flat on a polished surface and it has been known for erudite gentlemen to spend several hours on the counters of local public houses attempting to prove their point by spinning their hand axes!

One of the earliest sites known in the area has been discovered this year by pupils of the Wolverton County Secondary School (now the junior section of the Radcliffe School) when excavation of a tell tale ring of grass greener than that around it discovered what is believed to be the ditch of a Bronze Age burial mound or tumulus. This with the other evidence now known, the mound at Passenham and the Bronze Age hoard found some 100 years ago at what is now the Corner Pin at New Bradwell less than half a mile from what appears to be another mound near the Haversham Road, is all evidence for the occupation of this area by men in the Bronze Age some three thousand years ago.

Around 500 B.C. the people known to history as the Celts first came to Britain and, overcoming the residents of these parts with their inferior bronze weapons, introduced the Iron Age. With their iron tools these people began to clear the ancient forest from the clay soils of the area. Whereas earlier folk were only to be found on the light gravels of the river valleys, small settlements began to be established in the forest. For defence against alien tribes these people built hill forts with ramparts to which they could retire with their flocks and herds in time of danger. There is no hill fort in this area to compare with the grandeur of the great one at Maiden Castle in Dorset, but the high land in our area has a number of these at Stoke Hammond, Stoke Goldington, Sherington, Danesborough, Clifton Reynes, Wakefield, and, in all probability, Whaddon. This number of defensive points seems to indicate a considerable population of this area at this time. In the first century B.C. a number of gold coins of the period were hidden in the ground in what is now Whaddon Chase. These were discovered in the last century and one was given to each of the workers on the estate so some may still be found in the village.

The Roman invasion of Britain by the Emperor Claudius in 43 A.D. began the period which has received most attention from the Society. Until Mr. Charles Green began his work on the Roman roads of the area it was thought that the only Roman road in the area was the Watling Street built by the army across the forest and swamp of the area connecting Londinium with the north west. Watling Street was undoubtedly an imperial Ml but it ran across not forest and swamp but a densely farmed agricultural area. A complex of buildings beside the River Ouse, now destroyed by gravel working, stored corn before it was transported to the fens along the river and then on to feed the garrisons of the Wall and the more distant frontier posts along the Rhine. A series of country houses or villas has been discovered along the northern bank of the river facing the warmth of the summer sun (although the Romans who came to Britain complained as bitterly about the climate as we do today and the most popular god of the soldiers on the wall was Mithras the Persian Sun God). Each of these substantial houses, Foxcote, Deanshanger, Cosgrove, Hill Farm at Linford and Gayhurst, were the centre of substantial agricultural estates. Of these Cosgrove has stood the test of time the best. Here the remains of the bath house were found. An underfioor flue heated the warm and hot room of the bath in which the civilised Roman loved to sweat and lose some of the weight which sumptuous living could produce. The small cold plunge in which he could immerse himself can still be seen and from here the bather would proceed to the masseur’s table. The floors contained mosaic paving and although none of this was found in position a large number of the small cubes or tesserae from which they were made were found on the site. Other structural materials from the building are the box shaped flue tiles which ran inside the walls and carried the warm air from the furnace below ground level which centrally heated the building. The roofs of such villas’ were covered by two types of tile both of which are much larger than those in use today. The roof was first covered by flat tiles called tegula. These were some 18 inches wide and 30 inches “long and placed so that each tile overlapped the tile below it in the roof. To prevent water seeping down the sides of the tile a curved tile or imbrex was placed over the sides of the flat tile the edges of which were turned up to hold them in place. Both types of tile were substantial and pieces of them are frequently found amongst the scatter which marks the site of such buildings on the modern surface of the land.

The excavation of such villas usually uncovers considerable evidence of the way of life of the people who lived on these estates. Fragments of Samian pottery are found. This was the highest grade of pottery in the Empire which was exported from the potteries of Gaul and Germany.  A pleasing red in colour it was made and decorated in moulds and so well fired in the kiln that the vessel was baked all through. In this respect it is unlike most other pottery found on sites which has a band of improperly fired clay running through it. Samian ware is so well known to the archaeologist that each shape produced by the potteries is given a form number and the time each type was made is known as is often the name of the potter stamped on the base. The high grade pottery made in Britain came either from the New Forest with a lustrous dark brown surface with white painted strip decoration or from Castor in the nearby Nene Valley which was frequently decorated with animal motifs. Most of the pottery found however is not of this standard but is rough ware made locally with the possible exception of the large storage jars or amphorae which were imported containing wine and olive oil and had pointed bottoms so that they could be stood into soft ground. The other interesting pottery is the grinding bowls or mortaria which were made with small pieces of grit in their bases. Other domestic material frequently found includes ornamental brooches used for holding the Roman toga or gown and more infrequently other jewellery and toilet articles.

The Angles and later the Saxons who took over this area from the Romano-British probably in the sixth century did not build as substantially as the Romans and none of their buildings has been found locally although traces of their settlement have been found at Passenham and Newport Pagnell where a fine piece of Anglo Saxon glass ware was found. A Bronze Guilt saucer brooch used also to hold a cloak has been found at Leighton Buzzard. From later Saxon times there is in the area the Church of Wing where the early part of the church is based on the basilica plan which was copied from the temples of Rome itself. To the North there also remains the Saxon tower of the church at Earls Barton while in our own area the now ruinous church of Stanton Low also contained signs of Saxon work. Place name evidence suggests that Wolverton itself was a small settlement founded in the sixth century by a band of Angles who had rowed their way across the North Sea and up the River Ouse. Unfortunately there has, as yet, been no discovery in the north of the county to compare with the gold buckle set with semi – precious garnets and lapis lazuli as was found on the Thames at Taplow in the south of the county.

When the Normans invaded England in 1066 their army, having defeated Harold at Hastings, advanced northwards and crossed the Thames at Wallingford where was the barracks of Harold’s Housecarls or bodyguard and advanced north as far as Aston Clinton, near Aylesbury. William in the autumn of 1066 did not yet feel strong enough to advance on London fearing attack by the earls Edwin and Morcar whose forces had laid waste to Northampton the year before. However to enable his army to feed itself from the land it was divided into three parts and to the north a cavalry screen was deployed to give warning of the approach of a hostile force. Part of this cavalry screen was across the Watling Street and based for at least a short time at Passenham where King Edward the Elder had camped with his army nearly 150 years before as he reconquered land from the Danes then based upon Northampton. The possible attack on William did not come and he entered London from the north to be crowned in the newly completed Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.

Some forty years after William’s death the throne was disputed between Stephen and Matilda. Once the strong government of the earlier Norman rulers was removed the local barons began to increase their power and illegal or adulterine castles sprang up all over England. These were not the strong stone keeps like those built by the Conqueror himself at London and Windsor but timber structure with a motte, a steep sided mound of earth which in some places was 50 feet high, and possibly with a bailey, a larger less well defended area for cattle in time of siege. Castles of his type abound in North Bucks and although none has been properly excavated, most probably date from this time. Examples which may be quoted are at Old Wolverton under the modern church, Castlethorpe, Old Bradwell, and Lavendon.

Potterspury tile was also used to roof the medieval manor at Whaddon excavated this year and here the interesting discovery was made of wooden bowls preserved below the modern water line. This manor appears to have been in use in Elizabethan times as were the pottery kilns at Potterspury which continued into the seventeenth century. Indeed the archaeological finds in the area continue almost to the present day. The work at Stanton Low last year was on the deserted medieval village but earlier work on the church uncovered one wall of the manor destroyed by fire in the mid eighteenth century. Blisworth abounds with earthworks which date from the problems of the canal at the beginning of the nineteenth century while the fast changing twentieth century still has its relics which like those of the more remote past are still adding to our knowledge of this area.
G. K. T.