A second season of excavations at Cookham, near Maidenhead, has revealed the well-preserved remains of a monastic landscape linked to an 8th-century queen.
The Thames-side monastery is associated with Cynethryth, who became its abbess after the death of her husband, Offa of Mercia, in AD 796. While this royal patronage did not spare the site from being abandoned towards the end of the 9th century, nor from its location becoming lost (and long-disputed) over subsequent years, its remains are now being brought to light once more, following their rediscovery by University of Reading archaeologists in 2021 (see CA 380).
When CA visited the University’s Field School excavations this summer, the original trenches had been greatly expanded, revealing a wide swathe of features including a waterfront trading and production zone and, some 30m to its south, an area with burials, likely to represent a monastic cemetery used for the lay population, encroached on by domestic occupation. The archaeology is undisturbed by later development, as it lies beneath land belonging to Holy Trinity church.
In the waterfront zone, large linear spreads of gravel have been interpreted as the remains of streets, yards, and radiating paths along which goods could have been brought to and from the river frontage. On each side, post-holes, beaten clay floor surfaces, and internal hearths testify to the presence of numerous buildings. The precise purpose of these structures is still being pieced together (XRF analysis has not revealed evidence for metalworking within them, for example). However, it is thought that they may have served as workshops – possibly for processing meat, given the huge quantity of butchered animal bone that has been recovered – and, in the case of one building which contained the remains of two oven bases and a flue, a bakery.
‘This level of infrastructure and planning is surprising, and compares with larger trading and production sites known as wics that were the only towns of the period,’ said lead archaeologist Dr Gabor Thomas. ‘While the population of Cookham would have been considerably smaller than contemporary London and Southampton – which numbered populations in the low thousands – there are similarities in the way in which this monastery was organised, reflecting its importance as a place of trade and production on the River Thames.’
A wide array of mid-Saxon (8th- to 9th-century) artefacts was recovered, despite only a small percentage of stratified contexts being sampled in this season’s excavation. Fragments of vessel and window glass, alongside imported pottery, are consistent with a high-status monastic community, as is a preponderance of delicate dress-pins – probably used to fasten veils and headdresses of female members of the community.
Physical traces of some of these inhabitants themselves have been uncovered by the team: a short distance from the area of industrial activity lies a cemetery thought to be associated with the lay community that served the monastery. The graves were bounded by a substantial curving ditch, running from east to west (pottery recovered from its fill suggests a Middle Saxon date), and some of the burials had been disturbed by the creation of a later north–south ditch that cut through the east–west boundary. No artefacts accompany any of the human remains, and it is hoped that radiocarbon analysis will shed more light on their date, but it is thought that they may have been interred in the 8th or 9th century.
The University of Reading Field School will return to Cookham next summer. See https://research.reading.ac.uk/middle-thames-archaeology for more information about the excavations, which are part of a wider Reading project to learn more about Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the Mid-Thames region – and watch this space for a fuller feature in a future issue of CA, once more post-excavation analysis has been done.
TEXT: C Hilts