British Archaeology, no 17, September 1996: News

Saxon defences `face ruin through suburban growth'

One of the most impressive Anglo-Saxon monuments in England, the 9th century defensive town boundary at Wallingford in Oxfordshire, is under threat from two proposed developments at a nearby school.

As one of only two Anglo-Saxon burh boundaries still surviving almost intact in England - the other is at Wareham in Dorset - the bank-and-ditch monument has immense historical importance. Later buildings have encroached on the outside of much of the circuit, but from the north-west the bank and ditch can still be seen unobscured, across meadows that retain a semi-rural feel. It is on these meadows - a conservation area originally designated to protect the most impressive aspect of the monument - that plans have been drawn up for three hard tennis courts, a science block and sports hall at Wallingford Lower School.

The plans are opposed by English Heritage, not only for their impact on the defences, but also for the way they are being carried through by Oxfordshire County Council. The council, as both education and planning authority, was able to submit plans to itself for approval. Moreover, the plans were divided into two separate applications. Late last year, the council applied to build the tennis courts alone, and English Heritage's request that the application be 'called in' for a government decision was turned down on the grounds that, without buildings, the proposal was of insufficent impact to merit an inquiry. Permission for the courts was therefore granted.

The application for the buildings was submitted this summer. English Heritage has again asked for it to be called in, and the Government is considering doing so. The effect of the whole scheme, according to Roger Thomas at English Heritage, will be to make a rural environment suburban. 'It will quickly put paid to the conservation area,' he said.

Oxfordshire County Council argues that the development at the school is unavoidable. It follows the decision to merge Wallingford Upper and Lower Schools on one site, in accordance with national education policy to remove surplus space from schools, and to improve the efficiency of the school. Neil Monaghan, the council's Chief Property Manager, said the impact on the conservation area would be minimal. The buildings, he said, would be obscured by trees, and a buffer zone of undeveloped land would lie between the tennis courts and the defensive ditch. He added that the applications had been phased simply because it was necessary, for financial reasons, to start work on the tennis courts during the summer break.

The council's decision on the second application is expected this month.

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Battlefield grave lost without record

The discovery this summer of a mass grave at Towton in North Yorkshire, probably of soldiers killed at the 1461 Battle of Towton, has exposed a flaw in Government guidelines on buried human remains, which could prevent archaeologists from seeing important historical material.

Around 25 skeletons were found heaped together in a communal grave during extension works to Towton Hall, very close to the site of the Wars of the Roses battle, which is thought to be the bloodiest ever fought on British soil. A number of unidentified metal objects were found among the skeletons, one of which had shards of metal in its spine.

No archaeologist was present, however, when the skeletons were found, lifted, and reburied in a nearby churchyard. A Home Office license, granting the builder permission to disturb the skeletons, was issued with standard conditions - that they be lifted with due care, handled out of sight of the public, and suitably reburied. There was no requirement that archaeologists be brought in.

Neil Campling, North Yorkshire's County Archaeologist, said the building works at Towton Hall were too minor for archaeologists to be involved at an early stage. The site lies outside the designated battlefield area, and there was no overwhelming reason to expect skeletons on the site.

In such cases, he said, Home Office licenses should insist on an archaeological presence, to prevent the remains being lost without record. 'We have now written to the Home Office asking for the loophole to be closed,' he said.

Only part of the grave is thought to have been found so far. Later this month, North Yorkshire archaeologists will visit the site, by permission of the owner, in the hope of finding further remains.

According to Alastair Massie of the National Army Museum, who wrote the original report on Towton for the Battlefields Register, several mass graves are known on the battlefield, but this could be the first one uncovered this century.

Graves were usually placed close to where dead bodies lay, he explained, suggesting that the new grave could relate to skirmishing that took place near Towton Hall on the day before the battle. The Yorkists had the better of the skirmish, in which the Lancastrian, Lord 'Butcher' Clifford was killed.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office confirmed that the matter had been brought to their attention. 'We are looking into it,' she said.

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Multi-media journal launched on screen

An electronic, multi-media academic journal for archaeology, which greatly extends the range of archaeological publishing, was launched this month on the Internet.

Set up by a consortium of British universities, the British Academy and the CBA, and funded by the UK Higher Education Funding Councils, Internet Archaeology differs from print journals in a number of ways. It not only allows larger amounts of data to be published, and enables readers to interrogate the data directly on screen, but also contains types of evidence unpublishable in print form, such as virtual-reality models of sites and artefacts, and video clips of excavation evidence.

The first issue of the journal contains seven papers, all refereed in the conventional way, ranging from surveys of the evidence for Roman amphoras in Britain, to papers on archaeological techniques, such as new ways to link GIS models with virtual reality.

One paper, on the archaeological evidence for food plants in Britain by Allan Hall and Philippa Tomlinson, illustrates well the potential of the new medium. Alongside the authors' analysis, it contains a database of all known samples of food plants, which can be interrogated by period, site, plant-type, or researcher, and viewed through interactive distribution maps. All of this allows the authors' conclusions to be interrogated more easily than if the paper had been published in print form.

The first issue of the journal is available to Internet users free of charge - an arrangement that may continue. Mike Heyworth of the CBA, which publishes the journal, said he hoped that in subsequent issues papers would be published 'as soon as they are ready', rather than on a specified publication date.

Internet Archaeology, based at York University under the general editorship of Prof Barry Cunliffe, can be reached at

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In brief

Treasure progress

LONG-RUNNING attempts to reform Treasure Trove came to fruition with the passing of the Treasure Act in July. The Act brings all buried objects of gold or silver, together with associated artefacts, within the scope of the law, where the original owner or his heirs cannot be traced (for background, see BAN March 1994, BA Feb 1996). A voluntary reporting scheme for portable antiquities not made of gold or silver is now under discussion at the Department of National Heritage (see BA March 1996). This month an application will be made for Lottery funding to launch four pilot schemes, in which detectorists and others will be encouraged to report finds, and the information passed on to local Sites and Monuments Records.

Open to the public

AROUND 200 archaeological sites and events will be open to the public this month, in the biggest ever programme of events for National Archaeology Days on 14th and 15th September. Nearly twice as many sites are open as last year, when about 40,000 people attended, ranging from such major sites as Wroxeter near Shrewsbury, to more unusual events such as the construction of a Bronze Age house in Cornwall and a display of flint-knapping in Wessex.

Romans in Norfolk

AERIAL photography in Norfolk has revealed an early Roman fort that may have been built to impose order on the Iceni after Boudicca's revolt in AD60-61. The fort, whose precise location has not been revealed, straddles the ancient north-south road, the Peddars Way. According to David Gurney, principal landscape archaeologist at Norfolk Museums Service, the wooden fort was surrounded by a series of three defensive ditches - the outer ditch up to 30ft wide - and survived for about ten years. Traces have been identified of two internal streets, some possible structures, and an outer compound perhaps used as a corral for cavalry horses.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1996