Palaeolithic hand axe found in the Thames by a police diver. © West Berkshire Heritage Service.
This is the sixth in a series of seven introductory features about the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Roadshows, happening nationally on November 27, 2004.
Most areas under the auspices of the PAS can boast a range of antiquities spanning the ages - from Palaeolithic to Post-Medieval. But most have a particular specialisation in one or two areas or a strong archaeological period that yields a lot of finds.
In Berkshire and Oxfordshire the latter is not the case and, according to Finds Liaison Officer Kate Sutton, the area sees a procession of finds from all archaeological periods coming through the scheme. “That’s what’s great about this job,” she says, “you can specialise but you can also be a great generalist.”
It’s a situation that suits her perfectly. “In Berkshire and Oxfordshire I can honestly say we have a complete panorama that takes in tools from the Megalithic period right through to cannon balls from the English Civil War.”
Seated in the heart of southern England the area covered by the two counties boasts a vast and varied historical landscape, which is especially rich in the Thames Valley area.
Part of an Anglo-Saxon mount, this chip-carved and gilded fragment was found by Thelma Beedie from the Oxford Blues metal detecting club, experts within the PAS are still trying to pin down exactly what the fragment is from. © West Berkshire Heritage Service.
Kate, who has been in the post for about a year, admits to being bowled over by the sheer scale of finds coming in through the scheme.
“Since last December it’s been wonderful and I think I was in no way prepared for the quantity of finds coming in. I have one guy who has been field walking for a number of years and he has brought in about a thousand objects.”
Kate has so far logged and recorded about 500 finds and she admits to having a healthy backlog of artefacts awaiting appraisal.
“It’s amazing and I find it still takes your breath away. But it’s honestly hard for me to say there is a bias toward a certain period because this area conforms to national PAS standards in terms of the range of finds - I get a good range from many interested members of the public.”
A cannon ball found in Wyfold, Berkshire. © West Berkshire Heritage Service/PAS.
The area also conforms to the old adage of 'quality rather than quantity.' “In my experience if you have one box full of flints you expect to pull out one or two interesting pieces but here you often find that every single one is amazing,” she says.
“A man brought in some flints, arrowheads and part of a sword - objects ranging from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age - and that just came out of a back garden in Reading. It’s amazing that a place like Reading is like that for archaeology.”
Kate concedes that this particular finder wasn’t just an average gardener and, in common with an increasing number people, he ‘knew what he was looking for.’ But it remains a remarkable find for an urban built-up area.
Such finds are something that Kate puts down partly to the presence of the Thames Valley - a place of continuous settlement and a major area in the pre-historic ritual landscape. It has been a focus for people ever since it was first inhabited, approximately 450,000 years ago.
The Crow Down Hoard comes from an area rich with Bronze Age finds that has evidence of settlements and many barrows. © West Berkshire Heritage Service.
“Of course it’s going to be a rich area because there are early settlements right along the river and as a ritual site it’s very important – we have had some amazing depositions including Bronze Age swords from there.”
But one of the most exciting finds of the last year is the Bronze Age Crow Down Hoard, which turned up in September during a metal detecting rally. “It’s a hoard with three bracelets and two twisted and coiled armlets,” says Kate.
The piece was very lucky to have survived so well and all together - the farmer had only ploughed to a very shallow depth. Had he gone any deeper the hoard would have been brought up to the surface and scattered.
“The two coiled and twisted armlets do have some damage to them possibly caused by the plough,” says Kate, “but part of the archaeological significance lies in the fact that they were found all together.”
As a result of the hoard find, funds have been raised for a geophysical survey of the area © West Berkshire Heritage Service.
“When you see them it takes your breath away, the beauty of the artefacts is stunning and I don’t think I’m merely being dazzled by the gold here, there’s just something about hoards and the way you can begin to reconstruct the past from them.”
Kate and her colleagues have managed to raise funds from English Heritage to do some geophysical studies of the area as well as a small excavation. “Hopefully it will tell us more about the context of the hoard and what else was going on in the landscape during that time in the Bronze Age.”
Again the find is a classic metal detecting discovery and just the kind of thing the PAS excels at. “Up until now I think the bulk of archaeology was done on the back of contractual work in built up areas,” says Kate.
“What the PAS does is allow us to build up a picture of the rest of the country – of the places that are not in the development areas.”
A spear found in Henley, Oxfordshire. © West Berkshire Heritage Service/Portable Antiquities Scheme.
“The PAS is sometimes called the biggest community project in the UK and you can see why,” adds Kate.
An integral part of Kate's job is to visit metal detecting clubs regularly – and not just to record the finds but to also tap into the knowledge of club members.
“I find that it’s rare they don’t know what something is,” she says. “They have a huge amount of finds knowledge so the things that stump them are usually the things that stump us too, but then we do have access to a network of knowledge that goes right back to the British Museum.”
One find currently proving troublesome is a fragment from an Anglo Saxon mount. “It is intricate and beautiful and I have shown it to some experts and we have been unable to more accurately pin down what it is a fragment from,” says Kate, “but there are still a few more experts that I will try.”
A Romano-British bronze boss inlaid with intricate glass designs, a technique known as 'millefiore.' © West Berkshire Heritage Service/Portable Antiquities Scheme.
For the finds day on Saturday 27 at Reading Museum Kate will have plenty of help on hand should any troublesome objects turn up - she will be joined by five Finds Liaison Officers from across the two counties.
The event takes place between 11am and 4pm and includes a finds trail through the museum, an expert on Roman armour, coin striking and the opportunity to dress up in historical costume.
“I’m hopeful of a good turn-out and also a little bit excited about what people might bring in,” admits Kate.
If the last 12 months of administering the PAS in Ox and Berks is anything to go by, Kate and her colleagues should be kept quite busy - hopefully with a slection of interesting finds that continue to span the ages.
Gilt pyramid mount from the medieval period. Found near Didcot in Oxfordshire it will be on display on Saturday. © West Berkshire Heritage Service/Portable Antiquities Scheme.
This is the penultimate feature about the Portable Antiquities Scheme but we will be returning to each of the areas after the weekend to see what turned up at the each of the Finds Roadshows.
The series started in Essex where we talked to Finds Liaison Officer Caroline McDonald.
Next we looked at Devon where Nicky Powell revealed some of the things that land on the desk of an FLO.
In Shropshire and Herefordshire FLO Peter Reavill explained the historical topography of the Welsh Marches.
In North and East Yorkshire Simon Holmes expounded the virtues of 'community archaeology'.
In Wales Mark Lodwick explained how field walkers are returning a vast amount of archaeological evidence about pre-historic Wales.
To read about the Portable Antiquities Scheme and get more information about the Roadshows read our Roadshows feature where we talked to Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.