Princes Risborough Countryside Group's archaeological experiences

As a group we had a keen interest in both conservation and archaeology from the start and when the opportunity arose to become involved with the Whiteleaf Cross Restoration Project, which was to be undertaken by Buckinghamshire County Council after successfully receiving funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Onyx Environmental Trust and The Chilterns Conservation Board, we were eager to take part. Our role in the project was to be the voluntary organisation that would supply all of the volunteers, most of whom were local people, to support the professional contractor, in this case Oxford Archaeology under the leadership of Dr Gill Hey.


It was in September of 2003 that the archaeological part of the project began with a team of volunteers working alongside the professionals from Oxford Archaeology. The central aim of the project was to revisit and restore the Neolithic barrow adjacent to the Whiteleaf Cross and then to further explore the rest of the site by means of geophysics, test pits, and evaluation trenches on known or presumed features. At this point none of the volunteers had any experience of actually working on a dig. Our only previous work had been tracing and recording remaining sections of the "Black Hedge" [the Saxon boundary of Monks Risborough]. All of our enthusiasm and scant knowledge was from TV programmes and some books and magazines, and to be honest we only really expected to be allowed to push full wheel barrows of spoil away if we were lucky. We were thrilled that from day one we were to be "diggers" and our first trench, under instruction from "Geordie Dan" from Oxford Archaeology, was to explore the remains of trenches dug by troops early in the First World War. It was a good place to start and we successfully revealed the trench and the best "find"; a tin of Brasso seemed to support the military origin of the trench superbly.


From this early 20th century start we went back through time and helped out wherever we could in support of Oxford Archaeology as they explored the cross ridge dyke feature, that is presumed to be Bronze Age, and the scheduled barrows, also presumed to have been Bronze Age [though now thought to be a natural knoll and a windmill mound]. All of the time we were learning fast, from marking out the trench, how to dig, and how to read the features as they were revealed. We also learnt how to record the site properly and were invited back to Oxford Archaeology for a day so that we could clean and examine our finds in order that we could recognise pottery and worked flint.


We then had the unexpected thrill of being able to assist in the six-week dig of the Neolithic barrow, which had been started in the 1930's by Sir Lindsay Scott. We all put in as much time as we could, most weekends and during the week and this was when we started to find our first Roman and Iron Age pottery and eventually Bronze Age and Neolithic. It is surprising how excited you can get over a small sherd of broken pottery, let alone finds like a Neolithic antler pick. We had a great time!


During the winter, and following training by Oxford Archaeology, we were given the task of examining and recording all of the pottery and flint that had been found by Sir Lindsay Scott's dig. This resulted in more than 1500 sherds of Neolithic pottery being weighed, the fabric examined to identify the inclusions and to record from which part of the vessel the sherd had come from, e.g. rim, shoulder etc, and most importantly to record special distinguishing features such as the decoration, grain impressions, or charred food residue. All of our care and gentle packing was rewarded when charred residue was radiocarbon dated to approximately 3600 BC [Early Neolithic].


It was from this point, with the profile of the project being so high in the town, that our own projects started. A friend showed us pottery found whilst gardening that was obviously Roman and allowed us a test pit that by sheer chance landed on what turned out to be a Roman ditch feature. Unsure of what we had found, ditch or foundation wall, we had enough good sense to call for help from the County Archaeologist. We received great help and guidance from Sandy Kidd, whom we knew from Whiteleaf and has, along with everyone in the department, helped us to formulate good practice in future work. We have used all of the County Archaeological Service and Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies’ resources of old maps, documents and aerial photographs to research our sites. Buckinghamshire County Museum staff are also very good to us in helping to correctly identify our finds. The on-line Historic Environment Record [Unlocking Buckinghamshire’s Past] is wonderful. We are committed to their projects such as the Historic Landscape Characterisation survey, verifying the interpretation of the landscape locally and enhancing where possible, e.g. adding historical features such as ridge and furrow to the database.


We have taken every opportunity available to us to learn more skills e.g. working with Gary Marshall our region's National Trust Archaeologist, surveying Bradenham Woods and plotting all of the landscape features. We have made contact with other local groups and archaeologists, learned from their experience, helped in field walking or digging and visited as many sites of archaeological interest as possible.


What next? Well we would like to obtain our own geophysics equipment to continue our non-invasive surveys. We have identified many local sites and are producing a self-guided walks leaflet so that others can share our enthusiasm. In the future we may have our own dig but our present plan is to create a better understanding of how our landscape has been used since the Neolithic burial. We are also keen to identify the old routes and boundaries that may lead us to archaeological sites.


We have been very lucky to have had such a wonderful project on our doorstep that has opened up so many exciting opportunities for us. This has maintained our enthusiasm and means that we are usually well supported with volunteers. We have had to learn a great deal but that has never been anything but fun. We give talks locally, and have displays locally and at Buckinghamshire County Museum on National Archaeology Week. We're busy and love every minute of it!


Paul Green


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