Marlow Archaeology Society Cookham Excavations

We wanted to discover more about early settlement in this part of the Thames valley area – and we have succeeded! Cookham’s dig, funded by a Local Heritage Initiative Grant, on the Church Paddock took place in September 2005 in a glorious heat wave. Being in the village, adjacent to Holy Trinity Church and Parish Centre, we had the luxury of loos, hot water and a car park on the site.


Evaluation took place in June and main excavation in September 2005, and was preceded by the Society’s extensive resistivity investigations led by John Robinson, and an auger profile by MAS members that revealed a post-glacial creek and shadows of solid structures.


The Paddock was surveyed by Colin Berks, the Society’s Chairman, and a temporary benchmark was established. Dr Jill Eyers reported on the geology of the area and investigated the soils in the excavated trenches. In June, an evaluation trench was dug which indicated that the stratigraphy and finds were of interest. A Launch Event was then organised by MAS Secretary, Sue Winter, when Holy Trinity Parish Centre was packed with visitors and the Rt. Hon. Theresa May, MP and Jean Stretton, Chairman of the Cookham Society gave encouraging speeches. Reading Museum, Atkins (our sponsors), the Cookham Society and other local organisations provided displays, and we toasted the excavation in wine and enjoyed some delicious ‘finger food’, cakes and teas prepared by Bobbie Quant, Sylvia Robinson and team.


The excavation was opened by the Mayor of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Miadenhead, Councillor Eric Wiles, who cut the first sod of earth, with county and parish councillors and dignitaries present. The site administrators, Betty Bell-Smith and Joy Blake, had organised the equipment and a machine to remove the topsoil. In September, Ann Griffin, Elias Kupfermann and a team of MAS members, students and friends arrived to excavate two further trenches, and excavation which lasted for three weeks. During this time Fieldwork Secretary Pam Knight organised visits by the local press and the children of Herries School and Holy Trinity C of E School.


Visitors, mainly local people, regularly appeared at Cookham – some almost daily – to watch our progress, and every class from Holy Trinity, the village primary school, visited the dig, accompanied by teachers and several parents. The top class from Herries School in Cookham Dean were walked to the site by teachers on an educational two-mile history route from the school, taking them via the Roman track to the Cockmarsh barrows and then on to our excavation past the Anglo-Saxon warrior burial site at Rowborough.


MAS members had sorted finds of pottery from all periods, flints, metal and animal bone, into a time line, making the context of the finds clearer to understand for the children – and indeed all visitors. Pupils were also taken to Holy Trinity Church to hear about the history of the church and settlement as a whole. Much more about Cookham’s past was learned as a result of the dig.


At the lowest level, the yellow, silty sand of the old river creek was exposed. Flints were found in the silt and Steve Ford of Thames Valley Archaeological Services and our own expert Geoff Fairclough agree that these were knapped in the late Mesolithic (hunter/gatherers) period to early Neolithic (early farmers) times – 8000 to 6000 years ago. Many of the flints were waste flakes but some finished tools discovered show that the people were hunting game by the river.


The next levels of brown soil showed thick scatters of flint pebbles. In Trench 1 this scatter resembled the footings of a path or structure but in Trench 2 they show where early medieval ploughing resulted in the pebbles being deposited at the bottom of the furrow. In Trench 2 this layer was overlain by a wide scatter of pebbles and many butchered bones. A 2.5 kilo bunter erratic pebble lay with the bones as if it had been used to crush them. The bone report is being compiled by Bournemouth University and we hope to be able to identify the type of medieval banquet these bones represent.


In Trench 3 the silty sand of the creek bank was overlaid by a masonry structure in the form of a cambered path composed of flint nodules, dressed chalk, mortar and tile. This material is being examined by Oxford Archaeology. The surface of the path was packed with small flint pebbles. The path in Trench 3 was overlaid by medieval plough soil, showing that the area reverted to agricultural use when the path became overgrown. In all the trenches, sherds of pottery were found at different levels and these are being identified by Oxford Archaeology to assist with dating of the contexts.


The level under the topsoil in all three trenches provided the most interesting collection of finds. Pottery of all ages, Bronze Age to Willow Pattern, metal knives, nails and ironmongery, glass, coal, flints and bone. As we were excavating next to a 12th century (or earlier) church with an altered Queen Anne vicarage, this level could reflect much of the Paddock’s history. Two of the finds were taken to Kate Sutton, the Berkshire Portable Finds Officer, who identified the metal articles that we had thought was a pew handle, as a shoe patten with half of the bowed support broken off and the wooden platform rotted away, leaving the rivets exposed. Shoe pattens were invented by the Romans and used until early Victorian times to keep shoes above the mud and wet – very necessary in the low area of Cookham Village and particularly the nearby Moor, which used to flood every winter. A clay pipe in the same level under the topsoil had a distinctive shape and the letters P I (usually interpreted as P J) on the bowl. This style was in circulation from 1750 until 1820.


There are still facts emerging about the Cookham Paddock excavation as more research is carried out about the history of the village. All three trenches revealed that the Paddock was used as a refuse dump before the days of weekly rubbish collection. The church was refurbished in 1860, and the knapped nodules of black flint used for the tower and the bricklayer’s tool we found are likely to relate to this. No doubt further investigation would reveal more of the lifestyle of the early residents of the Paddock area of Cookham Village.


Bourne End Camera Club videoed the dig, and this is currently being edited. Many thanks are due to all the participants of the excavation and post-excavation working parties who washed, sorted, counted and marked 387 flints, 397 sherds of pottery and 2,700 pieces of bone. There will be more work to do when they return from the contract experts. Please volunteer to help us with them!


Go back to find other experiences of being in a local archaeology society.