Excavating Worcestershire and Warwickshire

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

In my next few columns, following recent visits to Essex and Suffolk, I am moving from the east of England to its centre. Sadly, neither Worcestershire nor Warwickshire have featured heavily in Current Archaeology over the years, so here I have combined what coverage there is of these two counties in a single column. If you are an archaeologist working in either of these counties, then do please drop us a line – we would love to feature more stories from this green and pleasant heart of England.

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The warp and weave of Worcestershire

CA 126 explored the early medieval salt industry in Droitwich.
CA 204 examined the Anglo-Saxon origins of Worcester Cathedral.

CA’s first significant mention of Worcestershire comes in issue 5 (November 1967), when a series of Anglo-Saxon burials were discovered during the construction of a Working Men’s Club at Fladbury in the Vale of Evesham. A young David Peacock, who went on to have a distinguished career (primarily as a Roman archaeologist) at the University of Southampton, reported on the rescue of this site – which was excavated in the teeth of its destruction – and the modest but important find of a small Anglo-Saxon settlement and associated cemetery. CA 126 (September 1991) made the next major foray into the county, again exploring its Anglo-Saxon heritage, when excavations in Droitwich revealed evidence of industrial-scale manufacture of salt in the early medieval period, pushing back the earliest date of this trade there. While there is excellent charter evidence for early exploitation of the local brine springs from at least the 7th century AD, the excavations also revealed spectacular timber remains from the Roman period, along with the main medieval brine pit, known as the Upwich Pit. The Anglo-Saxon origins of Worcester Cathedral, meanwhile, were examined in CA 204 (July 2006).

From later in the period, some fine medieval sites have been reported in the Vale of Evesham over the years, including from the town itself, in CA 263 (February 2012) and CA 339 (June 2018); and from nearby Pershore Abbey, in CA 150 (November 1996) and CA 365 (August 2020). But that, alas, is it for Worcestershire, the most under-reported English county in terms of CA’s coverage.

Warwickshire takes centre stage

I have covered some sites technically in Warwickshire in a previous column, when I explored the West Midlands and Black Country in CA 372 (March 2021). In this column, therefore, I shall turn beyond the urban north of the county to explore Warwickshire’s other sites, both well- and lesser-known. To start with a twist, most people would not necessarily associate Leamington Spa’s primarily Georgian heritage with prehistory, but – in a rare incidence for this column, which is normally full of sites from this period – the prehistoric site that we will be covering this month (the only one in the county that CA has ever referred to) comes from near there, when issue 133 (March 1993) reported on finds made at Waverley Wood Farm. As Philip Wise explained in the magazine, the site ‘is perhaps the least picturesque of all sites in British archaeology. It is a gravel quarry about four miles north-east of Leamington Spa… a bleak inhospitable place, partly used as a landfill site’. But the finds… oh, the finds! As Philip continued: ‘from this unpromising location has come evidence of some of the oldest human occupation in Britain’. There, on the edge of a former prehistoric river channel, archaeologists found large amounts of environmental data, including mammal bones, plant fossils, insect remains, and mollusc shells, along with stone tools, indicating that humans were exploiting this rich resource at least 500,000 years ago.

CA 133 featured prehistoric finds at Waverley Wood Farm dating back at least 500,000 years.
CA 125 reported on a Roman legionary fortress on Watling Street.

Moving forward in time, the only definitively Roman site to feature in this month’s column also comes from Warwickshire, where CA 31 (March 1972) reported on finds from Atherstone/Mancetter on Watling Street, just to the north of Nuneaton, of extremely fine mortaria produced there in a white fabric that resembles pipe clay. Some 20 years later, CA 125 (July 1991) followed up on this report, by which time it was recognised that the site was much more significant than originally imagined, being that of a Roman legionary fortress, one of a series of strongpoints along Watling Street that was created under Constantius Chlorus following the recovery of Britain from the rebel emperor Allectus in AD 296.

A better-known site first featured in CA 60 (February 1978), and again in CA 126 (September 1991) and CA 246 (September 2010): that of Wasperton. The initial finds spotted on a gravel terrace overlooking the River Avon, were prehistoric, but it is for Roman and Anglo-Saxon features that the site became known. CA 126 reported on a cemetery that included 5th-century remains associated with both communities – a discovery that shook established theories about the completeness of the break between Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxons. As Philip Wise reported for the magazine: ‘in all, 182 inhumations and 25 cremations were uncovered. Of these… 137 can be regarded as Saxon, 36 appear to be Roman, while nine, the most interesting, show characteristics that are both Roman and Anglo-Saxon’. CA 246 returned, some 20 years later, to report on the wider context of the cemetery alongside other, contemporaneous finds from Mucking in Essex, and Bloodmoor Hill, Boss Hall, and Buttermarket in Suffolk.

Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon has been explored in several CAs, including issue 325.
Kenilworth Castle’s Elizabethan gardens were the subject of a feature in CA 232.

To conclude this column, I shall move to two later locations well-known among the archaeological and wider community alike. The first of these is Stratford-upon-Avon, a town indelibly associated with William Shakespeare. CA has reported on archaeological finds associated with this nationally important figure on repeated occasions. To provide just a few examples, CA 240 and CA 243 (March and June 2010) covered fieldwork at ‘New Place’, Shakespeare’s ‘retirement home’ from 1610 and the place where he died in 1616 – for a follow-up on this work, see CA 311 (February 2016). CA 325 (April 2017) then examined the fact and fiction underlying Shakespeare’s burial place in Holy Trinity Church, while, most recently, CA 384 (March 2022) reported on the re-examination of murals in the city’s Guildhall, where a young Shakespeare received his early education.

Finally, I turn to Kenilworth Castle. This imposing medieval and post-medieval fortification, with its distinctive red sandstone walls, its outline prominent on the local horizon, is one of the best-known and best-loved castles in Britain. CA 232 (July 2009) paid the magazine’s first significant visit there, shortly after English Heritage had spent £2.1m recreating its Elizabethan gardens. The magazine returned in issue 255 (June 2011) as part of a wider re-examination of medieval fortifications; and, most recently, in CA 380 (November 2021), as part of an examination of the archaeology of ornamental lakes.