Excavating Surrey

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

After three months exploring the archaeology of Wales, in this column I head east to Surrey. This is a county that I know well from my years leading the county council’s heritage team – and I have recently returned to the area in my role at the National Trust, for which I help to care for sites that include the historic estates of Clandon Park, Hatchlands Park, and Polesden Lacey. The county is one that historically suffers from being overlooked: its proximity, and partial absorption, into Greater London risks obscuring its significance. But I, among others, know its strengths and its secrets, some of which I will share with you here.

Before I begin, two observations: first, I will cover aspects of both the modern and historic county in this column; and, second, I pay special tribute to the Surrey Archaeological Society, which was founded in 1854 and is, as such, one of the oldest archaeological organisations in Britain. Current Archaeology 192 celebrated the Society’s many successes in June 2004, when it was a mere 150 years old, and I am confident it will still be active at its bicentennial in 2054.

A river (and a road) runs through it

It feels apposite, given the popular perception of Surrey as the county of roads and suburbs, that its first serious mention appears in CA 67 and 68 (June and August 1979), reporting on a site destroyed by the expansion of the M25, but first excavated by the Surrey Archaeological Society. At Runnymede Bridge near Egham, a Late Bronze Age site was discovered beneath a playing field later lost to the motorway. CA 67 flagged the site and CA 68 explored it in detail, as the excavations uncovered a riverside settlement rich in finds, including an intact waterfront/wharf complex near the old A30 bridge, reflecting the importance of this crossing-point down the millennia.

CA 304 (July 2015) returned to the more famous, later ‘site’ (if it can be called that) at Runnymede – the riverside location of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 – as part of the 800th anniversary celebrations of that event. I would encourage all readers to pay a visit to this spot, which is cared for by the National Trust in partnership with a range of stakeholders. There is much to explore, including the deeply moving JFK Memorial, the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial, and the stunning Writ in Water – an architectural sculpture commemorating the signing of Magna Carta. This truly is a location that echoes down the ages.

Home, hearth, and heath

The Pevsner guide to Surrey includes the caustic introductory comment that ‘a history of English medieval architecture could be written without once mentioning a surviving Surrey building; a history of the suburb or the folly could almost be written without going outside [it]. All through the county there are these paradoxes… there is plenty of architecture to see in Surrey, but it is very often the small, the picturesque, or the recherché’. Something similar might also be said of CA’s archaeological coverage of the county down the years: there are some fine sites and some unusual sites, but few ‘iconic’ sites. But for all this, there is some seriously good archaeology here, both in terms of discoveries and practitioners.

For example, the county’s exceptional industrial archaeology was first mentioned in CA 84 (October 1982), at a time when such sites were far less fashionable than they are now (see also CA 371, February 2021, on the county’s post-medieval glass-making industry); and the long-running fieldwork led by a range of individuals, not least the wonderful David Bird (county archaeologist from the mid-1970s to early 2000s), at Ashtead alas gets only one mention, in issue 102 (November 1986) – an absence which belies the site’s significance.

To meet Pevsner’s recherché criteria, witness the contents of CA 276 and 301 (March 2013 and April 2015), which highlighted the county’s exceptional surviving 19th- and 20th-century transport heritage, in the form of its car- and railway-related architecture, celebrated in national reviews of these subjects undertaken by English Heritage/Historic England.

Finds and fealty

To paraphrase the Pevsner quote above, ‘a history of portable antiquities in England could almost be written without going outside the county’, a fact borne out in the pages of Current Archaeology. One Surrey site above all others gets more mentions in the pages of the magazine than any other: that of Wanborough, near Guildford. Here in 1983, on a Roman site first identified by pottery in the late 1960s, two metal-detectorists recovered some silver and gold coins which they reported to the local museum. Under the procedures of the time, a coroner’s inquest was held to determine whether the coins should be classed as Treasure and, unfortunately, the exact location of the site was given out in court, leading to large-scale looting there, with tens of thousands of artefacts (including Iron Age and Roman coins, a sceptre, and several headdresses) lost, most of which have never been recovered, and the site virtually destroyed.

The tragedy is that, far beyond the sheer monetary value of the finds, this was an exceptionally important Romano-Celtic ritual complex of at least national, if not international, significance. Its wanton destruction was thus a double one, and the site’s name is infamous in the annals of British archaeology. Some good eventually came from the tragedy, though: the case demonstrated the need to pass new Treasure legislation that was fit for purpose, and through extensive campaigning (not least by Surrey Archaeological Society), the Treasure Act (1996) eventually became law. CA 144 (August/September 1995) first mentioned the site, when the Society’s initial report on its post-looting survey and excavation was published; CA 165 (October 1999) then followed up on later fieldwork that demonstrated more surviving structures than previously thought; and CA 167 (March 2000) provided more detail and a full history of the site and its tragic tale.

Meanwhile, Surrey also has a history of unusual finds more happily reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. For example, CA 208 (March/April 2007) reported on the rare discovery of a 12th-/13th-century bronze buckle with multicoloured enamel inlay found in a field near Banstead in Surrey, and CA 221 (August 2008) highlighted a remarkable group of Late Bronze Age ingot fragments of c.800 BC date, contained within a pottery vessel and found near Betchworth.

Palaces, not for the people

Nowadays Surrey is the home of some seriously rich and famous individuals, many of whom value their privacy, and who keep their wealth tucked away behind high-tech security systems. The same was true of some medieval residents of the county, although many of these were more open in flaunting their wealth and influence. In particular, three sites with royal connections have featured in CA down the years. Tatsfield (just north of the M25 beyond Oxted) was the ancestral home of Owain ap Thomas, last prince of the House of Gwynedd, and was partially excavated as part of a TV documentary in 2004. It appeared in CA 254 (May 2011). Nonsuch (in Ewell) is the fabled ‘lost’ palace of Henry VIII. Construction on it began in 1538, but it remained incomplete at the time of Henry’s death in 1547, and was then entirely demolished in 1682-1683. It featured in CA 261 (Dec 2011); see also interviews with the site’s lead excavator, Martin Biddle, in CA 20 (May 1970) and 300 (March 2015). Most recently, Woking appeared in CA 282 and 302 (September 2013 and May 2015). A beautiful site tucked away on the River Wey to the south-east of the modern town, it was the location of some splendid fieldwork in the mid-2000s: a partnership between the county archaeological society, the county archaeological unit, and local stakeholders (especially the active ‘friends’ group of the palace), and part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This work revealed much more about the phasing and use of the site, which has a distinguished history, including serving as the home of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, in the late 15th century.

So much for Surrey, with its distinctive archaeological blend of the old and new, low- and highbrow. In my next column, I head further south and east, first into West and then East Sussex, another county with a distinguished and long-running archaeological society, and some seriously impressive sites and excavators.

Discover old issues
Read a selection of articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive376. They will be available for one month, from 3 June. 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 ‘DIGI376’.