ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 46, July 1999


First `London Bridge' in River Thames at Vauxhall

Remains of the oldest prehistoric bridge known in Britain have been found in the Thames in central London. The `first London Bridge' dates from the middle Bronze Age, and consists of two parallel lines of large oak posts leading into the river from the south bank at Vauxhall.

The discovery follows that of a slightly later Bronze Age bridge found four years ago further up the Thames at Eton. The bridge at London dates to c 1500BC (two timbers were radiocarbon-dated to between 1750-1535BC and 1605-1285BC). The Eton bridge dates to c 1400-1300BC (two of its posts were dated to between 1500-1300BC and 1400-1200BC).

The two lines of posts at Vauxhall stand about 5m apart, twice as wide as the Eton bridge, and wide enough to allow two carts to pass one another comfortably. The overall width of the structure, and the size of the timber posts used - each was at least 40cm across - led to the interpretation as a bridge rather than anything less substantial such as a jetty.

The timbers lean slightly inwards, suggesting they originally formed a series of diagonal crosses with the platform resting on top - a `cradle' construction commonly used in Bronze Age trackways. The remains are now only visible at the very lowest tides, and were first seen by a member of the public who found two Bronze Age palstave axes between the timbers and alerted the Museum of London. The structure has since been mapped and interpreted by archaeologists from the Thames Archaeological Survey, run jointly by the Museum of London and the Institute of Archaeology.

In the Bronze Age the Thames was much wider than it is now, consisting of a number of narrow channels rather than one wide stream. The bridge, therefore, probably linked the riverbank to a mid-stream island, or one island to another, and other sections of bridge may yet be found in the same area.

According to Mike Webber of the Survey, the bridge suggests the existence of a major permanent settlement by the river. Settlements were often sited at the confluence of rivers, he said, and the site lies some 100m upstream of the entry point of the River Effra, one of the Thames's major `lost' tributaries.

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New causewayed enclosure, new hillfort

Two major prehistoric enclosure monuments have come to light - a Neolithic causewayed enclosure in Leicestershire and an Iron Age hillfort in Buckinghamshire.

Causewayed enclosures - in which the perimeter ditches are broken by multiple entrances or `causeways' - are rare in the Midlands, with only about a dozen known. The new example, a first for Leicestershire, is at Husbands Bosworth, south-west of Market Harborough. It was found by geophysical survey on the site of a flint scatter in ploughsoil. No earthworks survive.

Trial excavation later confirmed the site, showing that the egg-shaped enclosure was bounded by a double circuit of interrupted ditches. An internal bank seems to have collapsed into one of the ditches, and concentrations of postholes between the ditches have been interpreted as signs of a revetment to hold the bank in place. Early Neolithic flint tools were found with later 3rd millennium Impressed Ware and Peterborough Ware pottery in the upper levels of the ditches, suggesting the monument remained in use for several centuries.

The enclosure stands on high ground between the valleys of the Rivers Avon, Soar, Welland and Swift. Neolithic occupation material has been found in each valley. According to Patrick Clay of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, the monument's location suggests it may have provided a meeting place at the boundary of different community territories.

The Iron Age hillfort was found at Taplow near Maidenhead, on the brow of a hill overlooking the Thames. The defensive bank has long since been ploughed flat, and the ditch was filled to within a few feet of its top, perhaps in Roman times. A small surface depression marks the line of the ditch today.

Excavations by the Oxford Archaeological Unit established that there were at least two phases of ditch-and-bank defences possibly preceded by a palisade. Charred timbers in the ditch, some up to 4m long, suggest a box rampart that was destroyed by a massive fire - perhaps in a military assault. Evidence suggests the rampart may have incorporated watchtowers along its length.

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Archaeology suffers as peat sales rise

Mention peat, and most people think of its use in plant pots and flower beds. Archaeologists think of the way it preserves ancient human remains, wood and leather, plants, pollen and insects - and the fact that the precious stuff is almost all being dug up for sale in garden centres. Soon, they worry, it will all be gone.

The latest Government figures on peat sales confirm archaeologists' worst fears. Between 1993 and 1997, sales of peat to amateur gardeners, local authorities and professional landscapers rose by 57 per cent, from 1.55 million to 2.27 million cubic metres a year (figures on sales to professional growers were not published).

Sales of peat-free alternatives also rose, but by a smaller amount - from 970,000 to 1.25 million cubic metres (up 29 per cent). Amateur gardeners use almost all the peat sold each year but less than half the peat-free alternatives. The figures were released in the Department of the Environment's report, Monitoring and Assessment of Peat and Alternative Products for Growing Media and Soil Improvers in the UK, published in May.

Over half the peat used in this country is quarried in Britain, and most of the remainder comes from Ireland. Government-sponsored market research suggested that amateur gardeners favour peat over alternatives largely on grounds of price and availability.

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In brief

Medieval ship

A LARGE section of a 13th century rowing galley has been found near the Thames in central London, propping up the bank of a later medieval fishpond near London Bridge. The pond iself became a Tudor rubbish pit and was found full of rare and remarkable artefacts, such as a knight's long-spiked spurs, decorated armour, swords and sheaths, bowling balls, saddle bags, pottery, cutlery, 400 leather shoes, and the first banana yet found in England.

The ship's side lay behind the chalk and brick pond lining, and was recognised by distinctive oar-slots and caulking tar between the timbers. The ship, thought to be the first rowed medieval vessel found in Britain, may have been 40ft-100ft (12m-30.5m) long and was of a type used for convoy duty and for enforcing customs regulations.

The oldest roof yet dated in Britain has been found at St Mary's Church in Kempley, Gloucestershire. The timbers were cut from oaks felled between 1120 and 1150, some of which may have been saplings at the time of the Norman Conquest. The church is a lone survival from a deserted medieval village and is now in the care of English Heritage.

Director goes

RICHARD MORRIS, Director of the CBA since 1991, leaves his post next month to devote more time to writing books and composing music. He has presided over a flowering of the CBA during the 1990s, turning it into an effective campaigning organisation for the historic environment and an increasingly respected publisher of both specialist and popular literature - such as this magazine.

David Miles, Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage, said Mr Morris was `a great polymath with a political sense' who had been extremely influential. `He is one of the people who have put archaeology on the national agenda.'

David Breeze, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic Scotland, said Mr Morris had been an excellent advocate for archaeology, and was `sensitive to the interests of all parts of the UK'.

A successor should be appointed by the end of next month.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999