HS2 archaeologists make rare find in Buckinghamshire
The Norman Conquest of 1066 saw the invasion and occupation of England by an army of thousands of Normans, Britons, Flemings and French under the leadership of the Duke of Normandy, later titled William the Conqueror. After winning the Battle of Hastings, his army seized the southeast and captured Dover and Winchester, before advancing towards London. Although many Englishmen were unhappy with the change in leadership, William was crowned king on Christmas Day of the same year.
Under Norman rule, England changed dramatically, with lasting effects including land ownership, the building of castles, and the introduction of Norman laws.
The parish of Stoke Mandeville stood in the way of William’s sliding conquest, and it was here that a secluded church, surrounded by fields and riddled with mystery, stood.
Built around 1080, the Sainte-Marie church was located in a humid and isolated place about 800 meters from the village.
It was neglected and fell into disrepair in the 19th century when a new, more practical church was built. It was finally demolished.
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Archaeologists were intrigued by the mysterious location of the church.
The team set to work to find out what is hidden under the Norman church.
Almost 1,000 years after its construction, the government’s HS2 railway line must now pass through the ruins, as a team of archaeologists have set to work digging thousands of graves, preserving thousands of other artifacts and unraveling the mystery of the history of the church.
Dr Rachel Wood, the site’s chief archaeologist, told the recent BBC documentary “Digging for Britain” that her team were determined to answer the question of why there was a church in the middle of an unoccupied field.
The site made headlines when it was revealed that around 3,000 skeletons were to be removed from its land, and in recent excavations, Dr Wood’s team uncovered evidence of the Iron Age, from the Bronze Age and even from Roman activity.
But after this last period, there was a gap of over 600 years.
The structure they found below has been called a “unique career opportunity”.
Dr Wood said: “We have no evidence of Saxon activity at this time.”
However, upon further investigation, wishes were granted when the team stumbled upon the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church buried beneath the site of the former St Mary’s Church.
The Norman church was built on a strip of compacted light gray foundation, laid by the Normans, so that anything below would have been pre-Norman.
Archaeologists found square-shaped flint walls below the Norman levels, which were surrounded by a circular moat, alongside a small number of associated burials.
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The head and shoulders of two life-size busts have been discovered.
The flint foundation was about a meter wide, which led the team to conclude that it was likely a tall structure with a small footprint.
Its footprint is similar to that of a Saxon church still standing in Barton-upon-Humber, a town just above the Humber Estuary of Hull.
In September 2021, Dr Wood said the site was an ‘exceptional’ find and explained: ‘Having so many, including walls and even some flooring, will provide a lot of information about the site before the construction of the site. Norman church in 1080 AD.
“The discovery of this possible pre-Norman Saxon church is a unique career opportunity for archaeologists and will provide a much better understanding of the history of Stoke Mandeville.”
Dr Rachel Woods holds the head of one of the busts.
While digging the circular ditch around the square foundations, they made further discoveries, uncovering the shoulders and heads of two life-size Roman busts in a darker organic layer of soil.
The ditches contained several jars of cremated remains, a stunning glass urn, and an extraordinary headless skeleton with leg wounds that suggested a sudden and violent end.
Professor Roberts said: “It all exceeds the wildest expectations of archaeologists. “
Archaeologist Guy Hunt told the documentary, “These sculptures are so rare.
“To find this kind of thing in an archaeological context, it’s really, really rare.”
Dr Wood added: “You would be extremely lucky if you found something like this, let alone more than one of them.”
Evidence from a nearby Roman settlement has given archaeologists a much better idea of what the Buckinghamshire landscape might have looked like over 1,000 years ago.
The artifacts are now divided and sent to specialists for further analysis.