British Archaeology, no 19, November 1996: News


`Anglo-Saxon waterfront' discovered at Chelsea

The remains of what may be an Anglo-Saxon timber wharf have been found on the northern foreshore of the River Thames at Chelsea in London. The wharf may prove to be the first material evidence yet found of the Anglo-Saxon settlement at Chelsea - mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - and may even mark the site of a royal palace of Offa, the 8th century King of Mercia whose kingdom is thought to have stretched as far south as the river.

The remains consist of around 50 timbers, which appear to have once formed part of a bankside revetment, used for mooring boats and for unloading goods to the shore. The roughly-built wharf, apparently constructed in two phases, now stands some 40-50m out from the present-day riverbank. The timbers have not yet been securely dated by dendrochronology, but according to Mike Webber of the Thames Archaeological Survey, based at the Museum of London, a number of clues point to an Anglo-Saxon date.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records council meetings at `Cealc-hythe' - traditionally interpreted as Chelsea - for the years 785, held by King Offa, and again in 816, held by Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury. Following the Anglo-Saxon period, however, Chelsea fell into decline, and no settlement is recorded there until the Tudor period. No wharf is mentioned, however, in any will known to have belonged to Chelsea's wealthy, riverfront landowners of the Tudor and later periods. Moreover, a 1664 map of Chelsea, drawn by the surveyor James Hamilton, shows a shoreline very similar to today's, suggesting massive shoreline erosion since the wharf was built.

One timber, bearing the marks of an iron axe, has been removed and examined by specialists at the Museum of London. It was found to be alder, a timber not thought to have been used for building after the medieval period. `We know also of many medieval wharfs down-river near the City,' Mr Webber said. `They are much better built than this one, which looks pretty rough, suggesting an earlier date.'

The timbers, forming two ragged lines roughly 20m long - interpreted as two phases of the same structure - were found to be standing amid the waterlogged remains of fallen tree-trunks from a prehistoric forest perhaps dating from the Bronze Age. They were also near stretches of exposed peat, similar to peat found down-river and dated by the Museum of London to the Late Upper Palaeolithic. The peat is expected to contain environmental clues to the little-known settlement in the area in the late-glacial period.

At present, the area between the timbers and the shore is used for mooring barges and house-boats, which at low-tide settle down onto the riverbed. A few timbers, set back from the main group towards the boats and the shore, may have belonged to dryland structures, according to Mr Webber. `That means the boats could be sitting on the remains of Offa's palace,' he said.


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County archaeology heads into crisis

Archaeology is facing one of its most alarming crises for years in many parts of England, as county councils suffer swingeing budget cuts as a result of the creation of new unitary authorities in a number of counties next April.

Supervision of planning applications that affect archaeological sites, historic buildings and conservation areas may virtually cease in some counties following the cuts. Numerous regional research projects may come to an end, and local government strategies integrating conservation, research and information-storage look set to collapse.

In Bedfordshire, long the flagship of good, integrated practice in local government conservation, the heritage group is facing a 43 per cent budget cut, following the creation of a new unitary authority in Luton - while the amount of conservation work to be done in the residual county remains much as before. Staff cuts, which include the County Archaeologist, David Baker, will leave the group so short-staffed that only a small proportion of planning applications will be monitored. The county archaeological unit will cease all public service work, such as open days and education. Above all, the county's integrated approach to conservation, research and the Sites and Monuments Record will collapse. `It is an absolute disaster,' Mr Baker said.

Staffordshire faces a similar crisis, with cuts of 50 per cent to the county's archaeological budget following the creation of a unitary authority in Stoke-on-Trent. Staff numbers will be halved to two - one to look after archaeology, the other to deal with historic buildings and the SMR. According to County Archaeologist Ken Sheridan, who loses his job, all survey and project work will cease, including a ground-breaking historic landscape survey - one of only a handful in the country but seen by many as an essential tool of heritage conservation in the future (see BA, July).

In other counties, budgets are expected to be finalised this month. Cuts next year could be around 45 per cent in Dorset, 30 per cent in Wiltshire, 27 per cent in Hampshire, and in 1998 up to 38 per cent in Devon, as new unitary authorities claim their share of the county's council tax income.

English Heritage is pressing the Department of National Heritage to write to local authorities, urging them to maintain adequate conservation services. However, the DNH has no power to direct authorities to make appointments. Moreover, following recent cuts to its own budget, English Heritage will be unable to step in itself and help. According to Michael Coupe, Head of Planning at English Heritage, his warnings have `fallen on deaf ears' throughout the Local Government Review process, because `conservation was seen as marginal' by the Local Government Commission.

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Earliest house found at `oldest village'

Traces of a Neolithic building have been found at Yarnton near Oxford - one of the very few Neo-lithic buildings known in England, and the first permanent dwelling in a remarkable sequence of persistent occupation at Yarnton stretching back 5,000 years.

Excavations over recent years, led by Gill Hey of the Oxford Archaeological Unit and funded by English Heritage, have uncovered evidence of settlement from every period of history and prehistory since the Neolithic (see BAN, June 1994), but until this year the first permanent dwellings dated from the Bronze Age at around 2,000BC. The evidence, as a whole, shows that the village - perhaps England's oldest - has gradually shifted its position over the years, moving out of the Thames flood-plain and edging north-west along a gravel terrace for about a mile to its present site.

Previously, the Neolithic evidence at Yarnton had suggested the persistent but temporary encampments of wandering pastoralists, consisting of scattered post-holes for windbreaks, tethering posts and the like, together with early, middle and late Neolithic pottery, flints and animal bones. Now, however, the discovery of a large building suggests a more permanent presence. The sub-rectangular building, narrower at the east end like a longbarrow, measures some 20m by 12m. It was built of posts and divided into two rooms, with a double row of heavier posts running lengthways through the middle of the building perhaps to support a roof. Although its date is unconfirmed pending radiocarbon tests on charcoal from the site, an internal hearth was found to contain Peterborough Ware pottery, dating from c 3,000BC, and a second internal pit was found containing later Neolithic Grooved Ware. According to Ms Hey, in structure the building resembles other Neolithic buildings such as at Lismore Fields in Derbyshire. Its purpose - whether domestic or ritual, private or communal - is unknown.

Last year, the ditches of a Neolithic mortuary enclosure were discovered some 400m east of the building, with evidence of three inhumation and eight cremation burials inside and nearby, together with pottery suggesting use from the mid-Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age.


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In brief

Stonehenge roads

THE GOVERNMENT decided last month to shelve its controversial plans to turn the trunk-road past Stonehenge into a dual carriageway, after more than three years of often heated debate between the Department of Transport and conserva-tionists led by English Heritage and the National Trust, supported by the CBA.

The Department of Transport announced that it agreed that the only acceptable route for an upgraded A303 was in a long tunnel underneath the site, as proposed by English Heritage and the National Trust. However, the department said that the UKP300m tunnel would be too expensive to construct, and that the scheme would therefore be placed on the `long-term roads programme', only to be revived if new funding becomes available.

English Heritage, meanwhile, an-nounced that it was pressing ahead with its own scheme to turn the World Heritage Site into a `Millennium Park' (see BAN, September 1994), which depends on the closure of the A344, which runs within yards of the stones. The contract to build the park, including a new visitor centre and possibly a light railway, has been put to tender, and a bid for funding will be sent to the Millennium Commission this month.

Open-air burial

THE REMAINS of what is thought to be a Neolithic `excarnation platform' - where dead bodies were exposed to be picked clean by predators before burial - has been found by archaeologists from English Heritage at Stoney Middleton in the Peak District National Park, Derbyshire. The platform, found underneath a Bronze Age barrow, was surrounded by a semi-circular wall with three standing stones by its entrance. Hundreds of human teeth and bones have been found at the site, together with the tiny bones of small animals, such as frogs and rodents, which are thought to have been deposited at the site in the droppings of owls and other birds of prey attracted to the decaying flesh. The excavators believe the platform was built c 3,000BC, and was in use for up to 1,000 years. At least three Neolithic burial sites are known nearby - Minninglow, Five Wells and Tideslow - which perhaps provided the final resting places for bones from the platform.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison


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