Four years of excavations at a 5,500-year-old causewayed enclosure have shed vivid light on a Berkshire monument and the landscape’s early Neolithic past, illuminating the lives of some of the first farming communities in Britain. John Powell and Gareth Chaffey report.
South of Slough and a stone’s throw from Windsor Castle lies the Berkshire village of Datchet. It is a picturesque riverside settlement – but close by, four years of archaeological investigations have revealed evidence of rather earlier occupation, spanning the Mesolithic period to the present day. This area lies within the Middle Thames Valley, and is set within a rich Neolithic landscape that boasts a huge array of cursus monuments, timber-framed houses, and middens. Now, though, excavations at a local quarry have uncovered some of the area’s most significant features, including a 5,500-year-old early Neolithic causewayed enclosure.
This monumental gathering place was initially discovered in 2017 by a team from Wessex Archaeology working as part of CEMEX UK’s programme of archaeological investigations ahead of quarrying at the site (see CA 338). Subsequent fieldwork in 2018 concentrated on exposing the majority of the rest of the enclosure’s circuit and investigating its interior, and the team is now back on site to investigate the final section and its northern boundary, formed of an ancient palaeochannel. This site has afforded archaeologists the rare chance to excavate an entire causewayed enclosure, including its interior and artefactual deposits, which has produced a wealth of important finds that may help us to understand the lives of some of the earliest farming communities in Britain.
Our investigations have found evidence for ceremonial feasting activity, the use of and deposition of stone tools and pottery, the presence of imported objects, and clues to how this community disposed of its dead. We now have a remarkable amount of cultural material for this period: what can it tell us about the lives of the earliest Neolithic monument builders?
EXCAVATING IN THE THAMES VALLEY
The quarry that houses the Neolithic enclosure is located to the north of Datchet. It is bordered on its southern side by the M4 motorway, but an equally prominent and much older feature is the River Thames, which lies around 1km to the south and has been both a dominant aspect of the landscape and doubtlessly an important routeway for local inhabitants since the prehistoric period.
The earliest known activity in the area predates the construction of the causewayed enclosure by some centuries, relating to the Mesolithic period, and perceptions of this landscape as a ‘special’ place seems to have persisted long after the monument was built – the Thames was a focus for the ritual deposition of artefacts, and over 50 stone and bronze weapons and tools have been found in a nearby section. Excavations in the surrounding landscape have also uncovered a range of activities dating from the Neolithic through to the post-medieval period, with evidence of occupation in the Iron Age, Romano-British, and Anglo-Saxon periods. In the wider area, archaeological investigations have revealed extensive activity from the Neolithic onwards, especially in the Middle Bronze Age, when large areas of the landscape were cleared and sub-divided to form the fields of a farming landscape. The communities that created this new environment would not be the last to recognise the promise of this fertile valley – it has been used for farmland, trading, and settlement for centuries.
Moving into the later medieval period, settlement activity of this date has been identified locally at Riding Court Farm, Datchet village, Ditton Park, and Upton Court. It has been suggested that there could have been a separate settlement at Riding Court Farm – the site that we have been investigating – as early as the 12th century. Meanwhile, Ditton Park, a parkland that lies to the north-east of the site, is documented as an estate in 1066 and in the mid-15th century belonged to the Crown. Its parkland was enlarged rapidly during the 17th century – the 18th century even saw the involvement of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in its design.
What of Riding Court Farm? Archaeologists have been investigating the 34-hectare site on behalf of CEMEX since 2015, recording archaeology ahead of quarrying to extract gravel created during the geological movements of the most recent Ice Age. So far, more than 20 hectares have been fully excavated, and we are currently back on site with plans to strip a new area for investigation over the coming months. Through these excavations at Riding Court Farm, we are building up a view of the archaeology on a landscape scale, enabling us to understand how humans used the site throughout history.
How did this use begin? At the end of the last Ice Age, humans were able to settle once more, and they began to exploit the landscape for their own ends. The area of the Middle Thames Valley in which we have been working contains some of the earliest known examples of hunting camps and occupation – the oldest in situ artefacts found on the site date to the Mesolithic period (8500- 4000 BC): a spread of worked flints that was found in 2017 close to what was most likely a former stream channel or marshy area, and includes a fragment of a skilfully worked flint axe.
The spread of flints was uncovered across an 80m wide area towards the north of the marshy area, and through 3D and GPS mapping, five concentrations were identified and investigated within 1m test pits. Of these concentrations, one contained significantly more lithics – of the 820 flints that were recovered in total, 535 came from this dense area – and so this area was sampled in greater detail. The stone tools that it yielded included mainly finely produced blades, tiny implements like microliths and microburins, and opposed platform cores. These objects provide us with a tangible link to the daily life of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in the Middle Thames Valley, who were adept at using such tools whilst procuring resources in this landscape, which they probably only seasonally visited. Once people began to form more settled communities, though, they left far clearer and more lasting marks on the landscape in which they lived.