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Extraordinary treasure beneath our feet in Buckinghamshire

PUBLISHED: 09:32 05 May 2015 | UPDATED: 09:32 05 May 2015

Specialists completed the excavation in the laboratory (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology)

Specialists completed the excavation in the laboratory (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology)

Archant

Archaeologists and those who care for artefacts will tell you of the amazing moment they first saw a find in all its glory, knowing that it had been unseen for hundreds or possibly thousands of years.

Archaeologists uncovering the casket on site (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology)Archaeologists uncovering the casket on site (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology)

If it’s happened to you it’s easy to understand their wonder, coupled with a scientific desire to find out more. For me it took place many years ago when I picked up a flint scraper tool, a fairly common find, in woodland on the edge of Marlow. The magic was that it fitted so perfectly in my hand and I could instantly see and feel how another woman, perhaps some 5,000 years ago, had used it to scrape skins or work wood.

“The moment of discovering something is a very special honour,” Eliza Alqassar, Archaeological Officer at Bucks County Council, tells me as we discuss the contents of a 2nd century Roman cremation casket, bronze and glass ornaments, pottery and food and drink offerings found at Whitchurch in the Autumn of last year.

“Here we have something that has lain untouched, unseen, for nearly 2,000 years, and now we have the chance to find out much more about the people who lived here.”

Three of the most significant Whitchurch finds have been on display at Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury following their discovery by John Steele of the Weekend Wanderers, a Hampshire metal detecting group. It was they who alerted Ros Tyrell, Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiques Scheme, who called in Eliza. The landowners and the finder then very generously donated the finds to Buckinghamshire Museum.

Eliza asked Oxford Archaeology to excavate the burial assemblage and initial tests show that the cremated person was probably male and of high status. A bronze handle is possibly of national importance. It shows three figures at an altar beneath a tree and one of them appears to be holding a sacrificial knife. Among the items were an urn, a bronze flagon, a dish containing food remnants, an iron lamp, glassware and pottery.

It’s unusual to find multiple metal, glass and ceramic vessels. And iron lamps, or open lamp holders, are particularly rare in late 2nd century AD burials. Similarly, burials with bronze vessels of such quality are also scarce.

After the excitement of the find, cleaning and researching the best discoveries can be a painstaking and costly business. Funding for the excavation of around £5,000 came from the Bucks Historic Environment Forum Emergency Recording Fund. Later this year the museum will start fundraising for another £3,000 to fund the conservation of the metal artefacts and bring them to display standard. It took three months just to clean and log the three artefacts - the bronze handle, a Samian cup and red jasper intaglio ring put on display at Aylesbury.

This has been an exciting time for finds in Buckinghamshire. Just before Christmas another member of the Weekend Wanderers, Paul Coleman, uncovered a hoard of more than 5,000 Anglo Saxon coins in Lenborough, near Padbury, some 10 miles north west of Whitchurch.

Bearing the heads of kings Ethelred the Unready and Canute, the coins had been wrapped in lead, so preserving them, and buried some 1,000 years ago. It’s one of the biggest discoveries of its type and could be worth well over £1 million. The mystery, of course, is what someone in this small village was doing with what would have been a massive fortune at the time.

Celebrating the finds: Lesley Clarke OBE, Dr Bob Sutcliffe (Chairman of the County Museum Trust), Eliza Aqassar and Ros Tyrell with the three artefacts on displayCelebrating the finds: Lesley Clarke OBE, Dr Bob Sutcliffe (Chairman of the County Museum Trust), Eliza Aqassar and Ros Tyrell with the three artefacts on display

Some of the coins have now gone on display at The British Museum. Under the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure Act, local museums have the first opportunity to acquire such finds but the fundraising required for all of such a significant discovery could present Bucks County Museum Trust with a formidable task.

Ros Tyrell, Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiques Scheme, who was also involved in the Whitchurch find was on site as the hoard of apparently mint coins was uncovered. She took them to Halton Museum for safekeeping, and the next day Bucks Museum services travelled to the British Museum to safely deposit the coins with the conservator.

Whitchurch’s history

• The village sits between Aylesbury and Buckingham and has around 850 residents. During the 12th century the Bolbec castle there was the largest in the county.

• It was destroyed by Cromwell in the English Civil War and today the surviving earthworks are a Scheduled Monument.

• St John’s Church dates from the 13th century and many of the village buildings have medieval timber frames.

• Brick making once sat alongside a silk factory, the latter stood next to The Firs, which was to have a major part to play in more recent history.

• Built in 1897, it was to become MD1, also known as ‘Winston Churchill’s toyshop’. For here inventors, some 250 men and women were based in top secrecy to creatively come up with unusual weapons that might help win the Second World War. It was here that ‘Sticky Bombs’ and some 25 other weapons used in the conflict were developed.

***

READ ON

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Mandy and John Clark on building their own home near Newbury - Mandy and John Clark built their own home in Berkshire – and she turned their experiences into a book. Claire Pitcher visited to find out more.

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