Archaeologists have recovered the first intact egg from Roman Britain among other unusual finds during investigations in Buckinghamshire.
Oxford Archaeology’s excavation at Berryfields uncovered a wealth of evidence for Iron Age and Roman occupation at the site. They found a waterlogged pit containing what are thought to be votive deposits, including four Roman chicken eggs and a well-preserved basketry tray, as well as bridge timbers that may have carried Akeman Street over the River Thame (a tributary of the Thames).
The site is located along the path of Akeman Street, an important Roman road that now lies beneath the A41, and adjacent to the site of a Roman town in the parish of Fleet Marston. It was therefore assumed that some evidence of Roman activity would be found at Berryfields – but the site yielded a much wider range of archaeology than expected.
The research – which was funded by the Berryfields Consortium and carried out by Oxford Archaeology between 2007 and 2016, ahead of a development project in the area, and followed by three years of post-excavation analysis – revealed that the site had a long and complex history of occupation. Through a combination of specialist analyses and stratigraphic work a picture has emerged of Berryfields from the early Neolithic to the post-medieval period. The first intensive occupation of the site appears in the form of a Middle Iron Age settlement, consisting of several enclosures and roundhouses, with faunal evidence suggesting an economy based on horse-farming. There is no evidence that occupation continued into the Late Iron Age, so it is likely that the Roman settlement of Fleet Marston was newly established in connection with the construction of Akeman Street.
The Roman remains at Berryfields are significant for their contribution to our understanding of roadside activities in an area peripheral to the core of the settlement. It appears that various industries were set up in the area to supply travellers passing along Akeman Street, including malting and brewing, metalworking, and woodworking. Horses also appear to have been important, and it has been suggested that the settlement at Fleet Marston functioned as a mutatio (changing post), supplying horses to travellers. The remains of timbers, which may be part of a bridge over the Thame, reinforce the idea of this area as an important point in a network of travel routes across the country.
The most spectacular discoveries from the site were found in a waterlogged pit associated with the Roman occupation of the site. Among those finds were four chicken eggs, one of which was extracted intact, making it the only complete Roman-era egg known in Britain. Also in the pit were a basketry tray of woven oak bands and willow rods, which may have been used to carry bread, and other objects such as the remains of shoes and whole ceramic vessels. It has been suggested that the pit was the site of a votive offering, perhaps the result of a procession along Akeman Street that culminated in the placement of the eggs, a tray of bread, and other offerings into the pit as part of a funerary rite or other religious activity.