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Sometimes, remarkable things come from a little conversation.

I looked like I’d been pulled through a hedge backwards. I felt like it too, standing in my shabby overalls, willing the smoking camp-fire to stay alight for a day’s archaeological experiments in the Harris Garden.  And my supervisor taking a snap-shot of me to post to Twitter – thanks, Jim.  So, to lighten my mood, I said,

“I’ve come across a couple of references to sarsen stones being brought to the Duke of Marlborough’s estate at White Knights.  I wonder what happened to the stones?”

And pointing over his left shoulder towards the tangle of trees behind, Jim said,

“They’re over there in the wilderness.”

Now my research is into the use of sarsen stone, a hard, siliceous sandstone commonly found as large boulders in areas of southern England, and best known as the trilithons and lintelled circle at Stonehenge.  How exciting, to discover tantalisingly brief references to Georgian landscape design using sarsens: and then find out that those rocks were still here two hundred years later!

It’s remarkably easy to find the stones on campus.  Go to Biological Sciences and, passing the building on your right, take the footpath leading into the trees.  Follow it for a couple of minutes, and you will see a pile of large stones in the trees to your right.  You are in The Wilderness, and this is The Grotto.

The Grotto, built for the Marquis of Blandford in his woodland garden in White Knights park (photo, Katy Whitaker)

The Wilderness – called The Woods by the fifth Duke of Marlborough who planted up White Knights park – was a designed landscape.  The Duke (at that time the Marquis of Blandford, as his father was still alive) moved into White Knights in 1798 and promptly lavished enormous sums on the house and 300 acre grounds. He spent 21 years transforming the park into “a fairy-tale garden”; really, a series of gardens within a garden, including The Woods with its walks, lawns, plantations, themed flower borders, bowers, and romantic garden buildings (including one for his orchestra to play in).  The Grotto, Grade II-listed, is one of the few remaining structures.

The Grotto in its heyday, painted by Thomas Hofland. Scattered sarsens, looking much as they do in the wild in Wiltshire, adorn the approach, whilst the Grotto itself is decorated with huge clam shells and crystal “spars” (Hofland, 1819, Plate 19) (Image: University of Reading, Special Collections).

Nevertheless, it is much changed in two hundred years.  It used to have branches of coral hanging from the upper stones, seaweed mixed in with the ferns, and was decorated with shells and crystals.  We have this contemporary description of “the abode of Genii and Fairies” thanks to a book about the park written by Barbara Hofland, illustrated by her husband Thomas: you can read it in MERL Special Collections.  The Grotto has lost all bar its huge sarsens, and stands forlornly overlooking not a stream-head and fountains leading to the lake but a rather marshy hollow you would do well not to get too close to.

Part of Mrs Marsland’s fernery, built by her gardener Mr Lees using sarsens from the Marquis of Blandford’s stone row (photo, Katy Whitaker).

Walk a few metres to the south, and you will encounter another arrangement of large sarsens.  This peculiar garden feature, like a stone circle, has a more complex story.  The Duke had used these sarsens to build a stone row, each half of the row either side of the gate to The Wood.  The Duke was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, after all, and sarsens are so appropriate for ‘archaeological’ monuments.  This piece of modern prehistory, described somewhat unrealistically as “a miniature Stonehenge” by The Gardener’s Chronicle correspondent, was one of many eye-catching features in the grounds. In 1878, however, when the estate had been broken up into separate properties, the Honourable Mrs Marsland’s gardener Mr Lees took these boulders in hand.

The entrance to The Wood, marked by a stone row of sarsens looking like the entrance façade of West Kennet neolithic long barrow (Robertson, 1846, title page) (Image: University of Reading, Special Collections).

After the Duke went bankrupt in 1819 the estate changed hands until, in the 1860s, it was divided into six plots.  One plot was most of The Woods, and in it was built a large house called The Wilderness, rented by Mrs Marsland.  Mr Lees decided to use the derelict stone row – reputedly 104 stones – to build a fernery.  At no small effort, the sarsens were uprooted and re-planted close to The Grotto.  Not only has the Duke’s grand house gone, demolished in 1840, but also The Wilderness, pulled down before 1959.  Only the indurate, obstinate, sarsens remain.

And amazingly, I can show you where the sarsens came from.

There is an eye-witness account of the stones being taken from their original location in Wiltshire and being brought to White Knights.  So now we return to those tantalising references that I had stumbled across in the library.  Sir Richard Colt Hoare, an antiquarian who wrote a two-volume history of the antiquities of Wiltshire, actually witnessed the sarsens being loaded onto wagons to be taken away for the Duke’s pleasure at White Knights.  Colt Hoare was visiting the prehistoric monument “Devil’s Den”, which stands in a long dry valley called Clatford Bottom about 3 miles to the east of Avebury.  From there, Colt Hoare rode up the valley towards the higher ground where many thousands of sarsen stones lay scattered about on the surface.

Part of the Valley of Stones, at the northern end of Clatford Bottom, Wiltshire (photo, Katy Whitaker).

Here he saw three wagons loaded up with sarsens destined for White Knights, and, fortunately for us, decided to mention this in a footnote in his magnum opus.  Given how many stones there are on campus, and how heavy these dense, cumbersome, boulders are, many more wagon-loads must have been shifted.  But it was a long way and a hard road in those days of horse-power.  There is a hint, however, about how the Duke got the precious cargo from the wilds of Wiltshire to the sophisticated wildness of his pleasure gardens.  In 1901 Professor T. Rupert Jones FGS reported a story told to him by Sir Walter Money FSA: that a row of sarsens in The Wilderness at White Knights had been supplied from Hungerford and Newbury by the Kennet River Navigation “in early times”.

Sarsens can be found around Hungerford and Newbury, but it is more likely that Money’s tale is about the Clatford sarsens, being shipped along the Kennet and Avon Canal that passed from Wiltshire through these towns on the way to Reading.  From 1810, the canal made it possible to ship goods from Bristol in the west to London in the east, by linking the older Avon Navigation to the Kennet Navigation and into the River Thames.  This was safer than the sea journey via the Bristol Channel, through the English Channel, and up the River Thames to London.  The Duke could have arranged for stones to be carted from his Wiltshire estates down to a wharf, perhaps Honeystreet (from whence sarsens were shipped in the early twentieth-century for repairs at Windsor Castle), loaded onto barges, and floated all the way to Reading.

The fairies and woodland spirits have not entirely deserted The Grotto.  A few ferns are still watched over by their sentinel sarsens.  I hope that the Whiteknights stones remember their origin, and their journey.  In the meantime, we have a little bit of Wiltshire in Reading by which to remember the profligate Duke and his pleasure gardens.

Katy Whitaker

March 2017

 

‘A.D.’. 1878. The Wilderness, near Reading. The Gardners’ Chronicle, 28 December 1878.

COLT HOARE, R. 1819. The Ancient History of Wiltshire., London, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, and Jones.

FREE, D. W. 1948. Sarsen stones and their origin. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 52, 338-344.

HOFLAND, B. 1819. A descriptive account of the mansion and gardens of White-Knights, a seat of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough., London, Printed for His Grace the Duke of Marlborough, by W. Wilson.

OSBORNE WHITE, H. J. 1907. The Geology of the Country around Hungerford and Newbury. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.

ROBERTSON, J. G. 1846. The Botanic Gardens and WIlderness of Whiteknights. A Day At White Knights. Reading: Berkshire Directory Office.

RUPERT JONES, T. 1901. History of the Sarsens. The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Archaeological Journal, 7, 54-59.

SOAMES, M. 1987. The Profligate Duke. George Spencer-Churchill, fifth Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess, London, Collins.

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Congratulations to Aroa Garcia-Suarez (PhD student in Archaeology) and Izabela Stacewicz (PhD student in GES), who have made successful applications to the first annual Rob Potter Memorial Overseas Travel Award.  Both Aroa and Izabela have each been awarded £500 towards overseas fieldwork in 2014/2015.

Izabela Stacewicz

Izabela Stacewicz

“I am delighted to have received the Rob Potter Memorial Travel Award for Overseas Fieldwork, and I am most grateful to the Committee for supporting my work.  My PhD project explores the politics and effectiveness of Social Impact Assessment in addressing land and labour rights in the context of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.  The Award will contribute to fieldwork in Malaysia and Indonesia in Spring 2015, during which I will conduct research with palm oil plantation workers, and communities affected by palm oil production.”

Izabela Stacewicz

“This award represents a great aid to carry out fieldwork related to my doctoral project and will be used to cover travel costs to and from Turkey in order to finalise the excavation and sampling of an archaeologically significant Neolithic building at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Çatalhöyük.”

Aroa Garcia-Suarez

This is the first year of this award made in honour of the former Head of School, Professor Emeritus Rob Potter (1950 – 2014).  For more information about Rob’s academic achievements, and details on the application process for the Overseas Travel Award, please visit the webpage.

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kirstenFrom November 21st -25th 2014 a small team from the University of Reading Archaeology Department took advantage of a low tide to investigate Mesolithic sites in the intertidal zone at Goldcliff, South Wales where many archaeological discoveries have been made over the last 24 years. We found human, bird and deer footprints, Mesolithic flints and charred hazel nuts. The fieldwork was in conjunction with a team from the BBC Horizon Science Series for a programme on the Mesolithic which will be screened in early 2015.

This was the start of a 3 year PhD project by Kirsten Barr who will be looking at Mesolithic, human, animal and bird footprints in the Severn Estuary and elsewhere in order to develop new techniques for the rapid and accurate recording and interpretation of this footprint evidence which is increasingly being found particularly in coastal locations.

Kirsten graduated with a First Class degree in Archaeology from the University of Reading. She started off with a mainly arts focus but discovered an aptitude for science during her kirsten2undergraduate degree. After this she did a MSc in Forensic Archaeology at University College, London and her current PhD project has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Fieldwork with the BBC team provided an early opportunity in the second month of her project to get information about the project out to the public.

Severn Estuary Prehistoric research is led by Professor Martin Bell, who has published 3 monographs on the subject in the last 14 years. The most recent is The Bronze Age in the Severn Estuary published by the Council for British Archaeology in 2013. This monograph includes contributions by several Reading University students including Kirsten who did her undergraduate dissertation on the footprints of animals in Bronze Age sites.

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James Billson, currently studying for his MA in the Archaeology of Medieval Europe, spent time this summer working at the excavations at Montfort. Read on for his report!

“During 2014 I was a part of the excavations conducted at the Teutonic castle of Montfort, in Northern Galilee. Montfort is a Mountain spur castle which takes advantage of the local topography; it is flanked by Nahal Kziv to the north and Khalet Khzam to the south.

This castle was occupied from roughly 1220 to 1271; it saw two Muslim sieges, one in 1266 which it survived, and another in 1271, falling to Baybars. Chronical tell us that this spur castle served as the headquarters for the order in the holy land, occasionally being used as the residence of the Hochmeister (the grand master of the order).

Montfort1

Figure 1: Sole standing wall of the ‘hall’. Note the staircase leading to the doorway, formerly a window which is thought to have been converted by the knights for this use. Also note the central pillar, as an indicator of the scale of this room, for more of an indicator see figure 2.

Previous excavations were conducted at this site in 1877 by Horatio H. Kitchener and in 1926 by Bashford Dean (the curator for the arms and armour department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), he was hoping to recover a suit of armour. In 1994 limited excavations were conducted in the hall prior to restoration work commencing; the castle is in a state of ruin, much as it was left by Baybars following its fall.

Montfort2

Figure 2. (See figure 1 description)

Excavation work commenced in 2011 following five years of surveying. I was fortunate enough to get a place on this excavation, which for the 2014 season focused on the area immediately behind the ‘gatehouse’ to the castle, on the slopes of the mountain. This area was thought to have been the stables for the garrisons mounts, and certainly finds including a horseshoe suggest this.

I was a part of this excavation for two weeks during which time I was able to see the transformation of the site from tree stumps and slumping, to the revealing of the paved medieval floor surface, and it being reduced to its original high.

Montfort3

Figure 3: Half removed level, when I arrived.

Montfort4

Figure 4: Nearly fully reduced level, with ashlar blocks, parts of the collapsed archways. (Note: not in original positions, moved during excavations for ease of access).

This was a fantastic opportunity for me to expand my experience within field archaeology; not only that but to increase the variety of experience that I possess, and increasing my adaptability. It is rare to find a site in England where you need to trek across low mountains in high heat! I was also able to apply lessons taught during my time at the Silchester field school with regards to taking levels!

I would like to thank the SAGES bursary for providing me with a bursary for this trip which in many ways made it possible for me to go. I would also like to thank Dr Alexs Pluskowski for putting me in touch with Dr Adrian Boas who ran the excavation (a thank you to him as well!) and finally to all those who took part in the excavation alongside me – without them I doubt it would have been so much fun!”

– James Billson

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TODAY at 12 noon (Monday 13 January) is the last day for registering to attend the Open Day for the new AHRC PhD studentships and Doctoral Training Programme on 22 January!!!
Click here to register!

Attendance at this Open Day will be of great benefit in applying for the studentships (deadline for submission of written applications is 21 February).

Contact Dr Wendy Matthews, Director of Postgraduate Research Studies in Archaeology for more info. (w.matthews@reading.ac.uk)

Details of the application processes are outlined below:

 

AHRC Doctoral Training Programme

University of Reading in the South West and Wales Consortium

  • 50 Fully-funded PhD studentships for entry in October 2014 across the Consortium (UK Fees and maintenance £13,726; EU fees only)
  • Supervision at Reading and within network of 8 Universities (Aberystwyth, Bath, Bath Spa, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Reading and Southampton)
  • Placements and supervision with external Partner Organisations including the National Trust, English Heritage, BBC, Getty Research Institute LA, Universities in Germany, Japan, USA, China
  • Professional Arts and Humanities Researcher training, including ‘Public Humanities’
  • Research Theme and Cluster meetings and conference each year
  • Funds for attendance at meetings and sharing of resources across the consortium

 Action

  • Register your Expression of interest and to attend the Open Day by 13 January 2014 12 noon
  • Attend the Open Day on 22 January in Arnolfi Gallery, Bristol
  • Contact the Subject leader by 24 January (with 500 word proposal and CV) and apply for a place at the university
  • Prepare and submit your application by 21 February 2014 (Form available from SWWC DTP)

–      1500 word proposal

–      500 word personal statement

  • Interviews are 17-28 March
  • Awards will be announced on 17 April
  • Acceptance must be made by 1 May 2014
Rosie Weetch

Rosie Weetch

 

The British MuseumTwo of our current PhD students have been appointed to prestigious positions at the British Museum.

Rosie Weetch is just about to complete her PhD on Late Saxon brooches (supervised by Dr Gabor Thomas & Hella Eckardt) and has been working as a project curator at the British Museum since 2012, helping to design the new early medieval gallery and in particular researching and displaying the famous Sutton Hoo treasure.

Helen McGauran will submit her thesis on the circulation of Bronze Age soft-stone artefacts in Bahrain and Cyprus (supervised by Dr Wendy Matthews & Stuart Black) this June, before starting as Project Curator on the Zayed National Museum Project.

Helen McGauran

Helen McGauran

Her role is to carry out targeted research into topics and key sites to support the Interpretation team in presenting information on the archaeology of Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates from early prehistory up until the end of the pre-Islamic period, within the new Museum in Abu Dhabi. She will also be involved in some aspects of artefact and other object selection.

Read about postgraduate research in Archaeology

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