The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 106

Issue 106

May / June 2009



Breton hoard of stone axeheads is first for UK

Flint finds point to Scotland's first people

Antiquities Scheme unearths second Roman pan

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Beneath the Sea Special: Part 1
Discovery and work on HMS Victory

Beneath the Sea Special: Part 2
Underwater landscapes and the Swash Channel wreck

THE BIG DIG: Wallingford
Community research project in this historic Oxfordshire town, said to have been founded by King Alfred

The Nighthawing Report
While most metal detectorists give positive contributions to the archaological world, nobody is perfect. Pete Wilson considers tackling the rogues


Proud of all humanity – and Homophobic (Latin or Greek?)

on the web

Recommended websites
Discovering historic landscapes, and a major Gallo-Belgic pottery resource


your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Gill Chitty introduces some recent examples from the CBA's advocacy files


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


THE BIG DIG: Wallingford

A research project run from three universities and with local community groups is exploring the early story of a historic Oxfordshire town said to have been founded by King Alfred. Oliver Creighton, Neil Christie, Matt Edgeworth and Helena Hamerow report.

Wallingford, midway between Oxford and Reading, is a familiar site to medieval archaeologists as a supposedly "classic" example of a burh (a fortified enclosure and incipient town) established by the kings of Wessex in the late ninth century AD. Aerial views show the unmistakable rectangular plan of the ditched and embanked defences, set against the river Thames at an important strategic crossing and enclosing a regular gridded street plan. The site is long thought to have been founded by King Alfred, its fortifications enclosing the machinery of royal control and creating a bubble of stability and economic growth on Mercia in the face of Viking threats. Among the burhs of Wessex, Wallingford is second in size only to the great Roman centre of Winchester, and its earthworks are arguably the most impressive surviving of any burghal site, with an enormous rampart in places still rising 7–8m above the ditch.

Yet there are surprisingly few published archaeological data to support this well-known story. The Wallingford Burh to Borough Research Project aims to change this through new survey, excavation and documentary research, and the reanalysis of earlier archaeological work. This is a major case study of urban change not only in Anglo-Saxon times, but also after the Norman conquest, when the townscape was transformed through the imposition of new elite and ecclesiastical sites, through to Wallingford's decline into a later medieval backwater. Our knowledge of how small towns such as Wallingford evolved remains limited while so much scholarship has focused on the larger, better known centres – the classic sites of urban archaeology such as Lincoln, Southampton, Winchester and York.


Wallingford represents one of our best chances of understanding late Saxon urbanism and the transition into later medieval centuries. Why? Unlike its regional rivals, Oxford and Reading, Wallingford did not become a thriving post-medieval town. Today, substantial swathes of space within the defences are open land – parks, recreational spaces and meadows – giving the town massive archaeological potential, with large parts of the medieval urban zone amenable to archaeological scrutiny. A fine collection of later medieval documents and a good stock of vernacular townhouses and church buildings are further reasons why Wallingford represents such a superb testing ground for wider debates on medieval urbanism.

Embodying the spirit of "community archaeology", the project involves university researchers and professional archaeologists working with Wallingford Museum and other local organisations, including the town's historical, archaeological and conservation bodies, whose deep local knowledge and active membership are feeding into a dynamic and evolving research process. The public nature of our excavations in the centre of a busy market town, means that the project inspires intense local interest, with open days and other events showcasing archaeology to the community.

Set-piece excavation of a prime site within the urban core is arguably not the best way of exploring the key questions that engage the project. Instead, we are combining large-scale geophysics surveys in open spaces within the town and its suburbs, with excavations targeted to answer specific questions. The collation and re-analysis of archives of some important (and largely unpublished) large excavations is a further essential aspect of the work.

There are strong hints that Wallingford's history is not as simple as the foundation of a ninth century Alfredian burh on a greenfield site. The impression of a pre-burh centre is heightened not only by a miscellany of stray Roman finds (including figurines, lamps and keys alongside coins and pottery) but also the existence of a fifth and sixth century cemetery immediately outside the south-west corner of the defences, discovered sporadically from the 1890s onwards and partially excavated in the 1930s. Re-analysis shows that the cemetery contained an unusual and remarkable concentration of Anglo-Saxon infant burials that awaits explanation.

As we refine methodologies, it is becoming increasingly clear that one of the major challenges is to realise the potential of the many previous, much smaller-scale interventions. The dramatic growth of developer-led archaeology since 1990 has pockmarked the townscape with trial excavations and watching briefs, usually recorded in the form of grey literature that can be notoriously variable in quality and detail. This can make the overall archaeological picture seem fragmented, but the value of this resource should not be underestimated: cumulatively, these data can shed new light on overall processes of urban development. Even the smallest watching brief can improve our knowledge of the presence, absence or depth of archaeological deposits.

Digging small-scale archaeological test pits in open areas has been applied to good effect in medieval rural settlement studies, as exemplified by the Whittlewood Project in rural Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. The Burh to Borough Research Project is piloting this method in an urban context. Together with Wallingford Museum we are excavating small trenches (typically 1m×1.5m) in private residential gardens, reaching the archaeological record where the townscape (including the immediate suburbs) is not amenable to larger-scale archaeological work or geophysical survey. The town's post-medieval history means that earlier archaeological deposits often survive very well, and in many places medieval and early medieval layers are little more than 1m below the surface of gardens and other open areas such as school grounds. As well as holding exciting potential for unravelling occupation chronologies, archaeological features, layers and natural deposits, the technique has proved to be a fantastic way of engaging townspeople with the project and in their own local history.

Town in transformation

Central to our understanding of Wallingford's Anglo-Saxon origins is the relationship between settlement and defence. Excavations in the late 1960s and early 1970s have shown the town bank to have been built over a ploughsoil, and to comprise a primary turf rampart strengthened with timbers; it was subsequently enlarged and a wall (perhaps just at or near the gates?) was added before the circuit fell into disrepair in the later medieval period. Although the ramparts represent the most obvious vestiges of the late Saxon defences, water was crucial to the place's military context in the late ninth and 10th centuries; indeed, Wallingford's fortifications may well have looked to the river Thames rather than its rural hinterland, while a sophisticated water engineering system supplied the burh ditch.

Early medieval archaeologists are beginning to appreciate that burhs were often just component parts in wider militarised landscapes. In Wessex, these landscapes were criss-crossed by military highways and might include "civil defence" installations such as beacons and thegnly (or aristocratic) residences with their own fortifications and bell towers. A likely component of Wallingford's Anglo-Saxon military landscape was a fortified bridgehead on the opposite (east) bank of the Thames. One potential explanation for the disparity between the 2,400 hides needed to defend Wallingford, as listed in the early 10th century document the Burghal Hidage, and the apparently shorter length of the urban defences, is the existence of a small bridgehead burh, where the historic borough boundary deviates to take in a wedge of land, its line partly marked by a substantial ditch. Geophysical survey and small-scale excavation have shown that permanent late Saxon settlement within any bridgehead area is unlikely, although we have mapped a tantalising geophysical anomaly here that may equate to a temporary siege castle of the anarchy, one of at least two built in the period 1139–53 when the town was bitterly contested.

The complex, substantial earthworks of the Norman castle that was the focus of these anarchy-period sieges take up the north-east quarter of the townscape. Here, in the late 1960s, excavation beneath the castle's outer bank revealed excellent surviving late Saxon stratigraphy, with houses and other structures fronting onto a road, as well as one of the town's gates; other excavations in the early 1970s revealed part of a later 12th century cob-built kitchen complex. There are hints that the Norman castle was not the first high- status presence here: the tantalising reference in Domesday Book that King Edward had held 15 acres (acras) (6ha) on which the housecarls (huscarles) were settled, suggests that this area formed the core of a royal estate, perhaps focused on a hall or palace.

Our new survey is showing clearly the castle's dramatic and enduring impact on the townscape. Virtually the entire northern third of the burh was transformed into a visibly elite quarter. A major rebuilding scheme in the 13th century saw the main road into the north side of the town diverted to showcase twinned symbols of power in the form of a Norman Benedictine priory and the great castle – by this stage equipped with impressive concentric defences on the side that travellers would see. Further elements of this lordly landscape included a complex of mills, a swannery, fishponds and the castle gardens. A parallel pair of ancient linear banks striking north from the castle for more than a kilometre is an enigma. Seemingly too wide to represent a prehistoric cursus and too massive to form part of a field system, could this feature mark the course of an earlier droving route towards the Thames crossing or, given the fact that it terminates on the castle, a hunting feature or even a deer course?

Perhaps surprisingly, elsewhere in the town archaeological evidence is suggesting that not all of the burh was permanently occupied, and even that some of the internal space may not have been intended to be settled. The core of the town was always in the south-east corner, against the Thames, where the vestiges of a grid of insulae are preserved in the modern street pattern. Late medieval Wallingford was packed with churches, 14 in all, whose sites provide important clues to how the town grew up. Six of these lay on or near the defences, and an intriguing possibility is that one or more represent the seats of Anglo-Saxon thegns (or aristocrats). Early medieval law codes specify that ownership of a "bell and a burh-geat" was a requirement of thegnly status, and it is tempting to see gate-chapels and churches as the urban seats of such men; certainly, the perception of burhs as "communal" fortifications should not disguise that they accommodated elite assets in late Saxon society. Gate churches would have had a powerful impact on how these places were perceived by contemporaries: the two positioned directly inside the east and west gates of Wallingford were in effect "holy protectors", their dedications to St Peter referencing the gatekeeper of heaven. St Leonard's, which still exhibits Saxon masonry, is prime candidate for a pre-burh foundation, the church being on a different alignment to the defences, which jut out on an angle almost as if to incorporate it.

Much of the west side of the burh is taken up by two open areas now used as parks: the Kinecroft (from medieval kine, meaning cows) and the Bullcroft (a post-medieval coinage, again referring to cattle, although in the middle ages it was called the Bodecroft or Bothecroft, meaning booths and perhaps referring to temporary stalls). Part of the Bullcroft was occupied from the late 11th century by the Benedictine Priory, the core of which was probably located on the street frontage. Our survey has recorded elements of the monastic precinct, but elsewhere in this large open space excavations are drawing a blank. For example, a trench in the north-west part of the Bullcroft in 2008 revealed a sterile land surface behind the ramparts, with little sign of medieval activity on any scale.

The smaller, narrower Kinecroft presents different archaeological circumstances. Geophysical survey here has hinted at the presence of a continuation of the road system into the space, but documents so far examined contain few hints that the area was ever settled. Other clear geophysical anomalies relate to first world war practice trenches in the southern part of the area, with their characteristic zigzag pattern.

Nonetheless, excavation in the west of the Kinecroft in 2008 revealed the plans of a remarkable series of medieval timber houses, surviving as beam slots and postholes, built gable end on to an east-west lane across the zone. The regular, planned and single-phase nature of these structures points to a short-term expansion of settlement into this space – perhaps just a single generation of buildings – at some time between the 11th/12th and 13th centuries. Could this be a by-product of the settlement's rise in fortunes following the construction of the great royal castle? Could it even represent part of the otherwise elusive French borough hinted at in the Domesday reference to 22 houses (masurae) held by Frenchmen (francigenae)?

The fact that these buildings were demonstrably post-conquest, with nothing earlier, takes us back to a key question about the relationship between settlement and defence in the original burh: why construct such an expansive series of defences if the entire site was never to be occupied? Did its costly and imposing defences represent in effect a façade?

From the Thames the site would have looked heavily settled, and the defences and gateways would have loomed over travellers and traders; but within the fortified zones were large unoccupied areas. Crucially, however, open spaces within medieval towns need not signify evidence of settlement contraction, nor that a place failed to live up to its planned potential; many great medieval cities were full of gardens, precincts and other spaces.

To take late Saxon London as an example, archaeology is showing clearly that Lundenburh was similarly a Thames-side intra-mural settlement, with expanses of fields between it and the ancient walls of Roman Londinium. Much of the area within the walls by c 900, indeed perhaps the majority of it, was open, while other zones quite separate from the burh had more specific high-status functions, including a likely Saxon palace and the ecclesiastical focus of St Paul's.

Could the same be true of Wallingford, with the settled burh taking up a relatively small area within the defences, accompanied by semidetached high-status and ecclesiastical foci? Open intra-mural areas could be integral to the functions of Anglo-Saxon centres, hosting fairs and providing areas for grazing, storage and the assembly of animals for market; they might comprise parts of aristocratic estates and periodically accommodate refugee populations and mustering armies. Indeed, it might be argued that intra-mural open zones were as important to the everyday functions of ninth and 10th century burh as areas of recognisably "urban" development.

Oliver Creighton is senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Exeter, Neil Christie is reader in archaeology and Matt Edgeworth is the project officer at the University of Leicester, and Helena Hamerow is professor of European archaeology (early medieval) at the University of Oxford. Running from 2008–11, the Wallingford Burh to Borough Research Project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is supported by the respective universities. Pilot phases of the project were supported financially by the British Academy, the Royal Archaeological Institute, the Medieval Settlement Research Group and the Marc Fitch Fund. The project runs in collaboration with Wallingford Museum. Further details, with a diary for the 2008 season, can be found online.

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