Burial with the Romans
Editor Simon Denison
Bronze Age pottery underneath the M25
David Longley recalls the moment he discovered his first undisturbed archaeological site
For my favourite find, I've chosen a few scruffy pieces of prehistoric pottery that I found more than 25 years ago at Runnymede Bridge, where the M25 motorway now crosses the Thames west of London.
I was working as a field archaeologist in Surrey at the time, just one year out of university. The M25 was then being built around London, and in 1975 construction work had got to within a few hundred yards of the Thames on the south side. Prehistoric pottery had been found in the area before, so we decided to do a little investigation near the bridge, which then carried the A30 over the river.
The site was a mess. Rubbish had been tipped over the side of the A30 down the embankment onto our excavation area. It was wet, flooded, silted, and overgrown with reeds. The site did not look promising at all.
A few rough sherds
We started to excavate, and initially it seemed that there was nothing of interest there. But then we came to a layer of clean river silts, and underneath we found dark soil - an undisturbed archaeological layer - with a couple of pieces of prehistoric pot sticking out it. The sherds were just rough, browny-black, not particularly well-formed pieces of coarse pottery - hardly the world's most exciting find, you might think.
But this was my first job as a field archaeologist, working without supervision; and what this pottery showed was that we'd got an in situ archaeological site, which I knew was going to lead to a proper excavation. That was a hugely exciting feeling.
The pottery started it all. But it was what happened next that made the experience outstanding. It was winter, and in a few months' time construction would start to create a 10-lane carriageway over the river. So with just three friends, I excavated a narrow strip by the side of the A30. It was very cold. A lot of the time the ground was frozen solid, and we couldn't do a thing. But over that winter we produced something like 600 sherds of pottery, a collection of late Bronze Age metalwork, spindlewhorls, loom weights, and animal bone.
It turned out that this material was nationally significant. There was a lot of debate at the time in academic circles about the transition period between the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. The type of coarse pottery we were finding was then regarded as Iron Age, associated with invaders coming to Britain from the Continent and dramatically different to what had gone before.
But what we were able to show was that both the metalwork and the pottery were indigenous and late Bronze Age. So this was one of the first sites that showed that pottery of this type was being manufactured in the late Bronze Age, a kind of missing link, without the need for any Iron Age incomers to explain it.
In subsequent years, of course, Runnymede became one of the best-known Bronze Age sites in the country, producing tonnes of material, as a result of a series of excavations led by Stuart Needham of the British Museum. Our little site was the beginning of it all.At various times during the excavation, the rest of the digging team stayed at my house on the other side of Surrey. These were the days before archaeology formed part of the planning system, so we were working on a shoestring budget. We didn't have a site hut; or any facilities at all at Runnymede. So we packed all our gear into the back of the car in the morning, regardless of the weather, and drove about 30 miles to the site every day.
Stashing the finds
Then in the evening, we piled all the stuff - including any finds that we'd made - into the back of the car and drove home again. We stashed everything in my shed at home, including all the Bronze Age artefacts. It seems laughable now, but that's how we worked all that winter.
At the time, we were very pleased at the significance of what we had achieved. But at that stage I don't think I realised that these sorts of discoveries don't happen on a regular basis. Runnymede was probably one of the most important sites I have ever been involved with - and I got it right at the start of my career.
David Longley is the Director of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005