I have a soft spot for Berkshire: it is the county of my birth, and I spent much time there as a child. But, like many people, I would not be able to say I know either it, or its archaeology, well. Nor has history treated the county kindly when it comes to archaeological riches – the 1974 reorganisation of local government saw the Vale of the White Horse and its splendid prehistoric sites move into Oxfordshire, along with historic Abingdon, the former county town – see my column in CA 366 (September 2020). Meanwhile, the main university with archaeological interests in the area, Reading, has long conducted fieldwork locally at Silchester, just across the border in Hampshire – see my column in CA 337 (April 2018). Even the county’s archaeological administration is complicated: there is Berkshire Archaeology for the east of the county, and West Berkshire Council for, well, the west. Thankfully, there is the stalwart county archaeological society, founded in 1871 and still going strong, with two suitably distinguished locals in charge: HM The Queen as Patron and Professor Michael Fulford as President. The society celebrated its 150th anniversary under muted – socially distanced – circumstances in 2021: see CA 382 (January 2022) for photos (and, yes, there was cake, but no one was ambushed by it!).
Appropriately, given the introduction above, the first significant mention of the county in the magazine was in CA 54 (January 1976), when students from the University of Reading excavated a site of mixed Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman date at Aldermaston, led by Richard Bradley and Michael Fulford, at that time both young staff members, but who went on to distinguished careers. Bar the honourable mention of Reading Abbey (more on this below), news from the county then went quiet for over a quarter of a century, its next significant mention in the magazine coming in CA 195 (December 2004). At this time, aggregates-extraction was making a marked impact on the archaeology of the county, and the much-missed Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (an environmental levy on such extraction that was a major source of support for archaeological and environmental projects between 2002 and 2011) facilitated fieldwork by Cotswold Archaeology at Hartshill Quarry near Upper Bucklebury, halfway between Reading and Newbury. This fieldwork surveyed the remains of an iron-ore smelting facility from the 10th century BC (yes, you read that correctly), making it one of the oldest known ironworking sites in north-west Europe.
Current Archaeology has also flown Berkshire’s flag for some even older prehistoric sites over the years, including a Neolithic village discovered at Kingsmead Quarry near Horton (near the junction of the M4 and M25) in CA 292 (July 2014), and a Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Datchet (even closer to the southern edge of the M4) in CA 351 (June 2019). The former revealed evidence of four (possibly five) early Neolithic houses of c.3800-3600 BC date on a site excavated by Wessex Archaeology. The latter provided expanded evidence for the long-term occupation of the river terraces of this area, spanning the Mesolithic to modern day, with particularly rich Neolithic evidence from c.5,500 years ago. Fieldwork at the latter – another quarry site – saw the bulk of the enclosure’s circuit and interior excavated by Wessex Archaeology, producing a wealth of finds connected to some of the earliest farming communities of Britain.
Prisons and palaces
The magazine’s coverage of Berkshire’s Roman history sets the tone for the medieval and modern eras: what is mentioned is small in quantity but big in quality. One Roman site above all others stands tall: that of the unappealingly named ‘Mud Hole’ villa in the village of Boxford, to the north-west of Newbury, which first appeared in CA 333 (December 2017), with follow-up features in CA 357 (December 2019) and CA 371 (February 2021). Until the recent discovery of the mosaic in Rutland that featured on the cover of CA 383 (February 2022), the one found at Boxford was fairly described as ‘the most exciting mosaic discovery in Britain in the last 50 years’. It depicts scenes from the life of ‘monster slayer’ Bellerophon as well as other mythological figures such as Hercules. But the mosaic was merely the latest find in a catalogue of discoveries on the site, a great, long-running piece of teamwork in the finest traditions of British archaeology, fruitfully bringing together the ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ communities (I use these terms with caution, implying no slight to anyone involved) to understand the wider Roman landscape of an area rich in remains from this period, among many others.
Moving on chronologically, perhaps the most famous site in the county is that of Reading Abbey, as much for the history of the adjacent prison, infamous as the site of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, as for its archaeological riches in a town sadly blighted by thoughtless post-war redevelopment. CA 93 (August 1984) told the story of the earlier, unhappier days of the site when it was at risk of wholesale destruction, then CA 336 (March 2018) and CA 341 (August 2018) returned to the more recent, much happier tale of a location finally being valued by its community, with significant investment by the town council, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England.
One of Berkshire’s oddities is that it is often forgotten that perhaps its most famous historic site is in the county at all – that of Windsor Castle. Such is the nature of this historic royal fortress, palace, and showpiece that the county fades away around it. Current Archaeology has made multiple visits there, most notably in issues 268 (July 2012) and 341 (August 2018). The latter surveyed the full history of the site, which has been much improved – in bittersweet fashion – by the research undertaken after the disastrous fire of 1992 and during the subsequent programme of repair.
In passing, spare a thought for those who travel through Slough’s often-overlooked railway station, a jewel in the crown of mid-19th-century architecture that featured in CA 301 (April 2015). Its claim to fame is having been the starting point of Queen Victoria’s first ever railway journey, from Slough to Bishop’s Bridge, near Paddington, in 1842.
Cold comfort farm
Bringing Berkshire’s archaeology right up to date, I conclude as I began, on a personal note. As I indicated in the introduction, I spent my early childhood in Berkshire, specifically in Newbury. CA 364 (July 2020) and CA374 (May 2021) examined the Cold War heritage of this county among others, including a name well-known for both its military structures (some now listed and scheduled) and its history of protest and dissent: Greenham Common, an airbase just to the south-east of the town. Little did I know then that a site that loomed large in the local psyche would come in time to be deemed ‘archaeology’, or that I would get to write about it in a magazine. Such are the twists and turns of the life archaeological.
Discover old issues
Read a selection of articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive386. They will be available for one month from 7 April. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI386’.