This year to mark International Women’s Day we asked Echo Rew, a recent graduate, and Laura Hampden, who graduated in 2013, to reflect on women in archaeology – how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

Echo Rew (BA Ancient History and Archaeology)

“I am a Post-Excavation Officer at Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS).

The improvement for women in archaeology over time is undeniable. Although there are still challenges that unfortunately some women (and men) have to face consistently throughout their career, the progress cannot be disputed. I think one of the main reasons for this is the increased communication on the subject. During my time at university this topic, although somewhat difficult to address, was never shied away from in the archaeology department. Instead, it was embraced in an open discussion approaching the matter without a rose-tinted view. It gave us not only a realistic insight into life after university but also the ability to deal with these situations should we come across them during our careers.

A definite change in perspective is becoming more prominent and, most importantly, we now have role models. Every day we would go into our lectures and see women spearheading research projects, winning awards or writing papers, thus creating a culture of respect and encouragement within the department regardless of gender; giving us the confidence in our ability and the fact that I am a woman means absolutely nothing to my ability to do my job. I am lucky enough to have graduated university and moved into a commercial archaeology firm in which this perspective is very much at the forefront and I am given the daily support, encouragement and opportunities to progress in the field with my gender being completely irrelevant.

It would be impossible to say that everything is perfect for women in archaeology – the challenges and imbalance is still there however to say that there has been no progression in regards to the issues that female archaeologists face would be untrue. Nevertheless it is difficult to distinguish whether the issues facing women in archaeology specific to the field or just representative of wider societal perception.”


Laura Hampden (BSc Archaeological Science)

“I studied for an Archaeology BSc degree at University of Reading graduating in 2013. I really enjoyed my time at Reading. I loved that there was a broad range of modules on offer that gave me a chance to develop my own interests and gave me a solid foundation and understanding of Archaeology and archaeological practice here in the UK.

I started work as a Historic Environment Records (HER) Assistant at West Berkshire Council within a few weeks of graduation. I had learned about HER’s and Planning Archaeology within a Professional Practice module at Reading, and used HER data within my dissertation. I’m now a Historic Environment Record Project Officer at Historic England within the Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service.

Over the years there has been some change for women in archaeology. Having spoken to women who have been working in the sector for 20-30years it was much harder to get by, and gender dynamics were very hard to navigate.

I graduated in 2013, and thinking back on it it now I was really spoiled to have been able to learn from leaders in the field, who were also women at Reading Uni. And to have had a great female manager and mentor at West Berkshire within my first professional role.  I thought this was common place but in reality while there are more women who study archaeology at university than men, and more women within the profession than men, there is still an imbalance favouring men at a higher career levels.

So, there are still a few challenges to overcome. I’ve noticed there is a tendency for women, people of colour, and people from more working class backgrounds to carry with them a sense of ‘imposter syndrome’. Which is basically a feeling of inadequacy, or feeling the need to constantly prove that we deserve to be here; working in an environment or space that was not traditionally designed for us to occupy.

That said recently there has been a real energy and desire within the profession to change this. I have found that women really support each other within this profession. There are now far more opportunities for mentorship and support from other women who are well established within the profession. And there are some great people and groups within the sector working together to challenge inequality, and create a more diverse and representative environment. Joining these groups, sharing stories, hearing about and celebrating the success of women within the sector is the key to change. We need to encourage each other and support women to go for those top positions.”

PhD summer travels

Matthew Jacobson is a current PhD student researching climate change and socio-economic transformations in the Late Antiquity of the Middle East. Read on to find out what he got up to over the summer…

Whilst on holiday in Singapore earlier this year, I visited the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and gave a presentation; this was on climate change in Arabia during the 7th century CE and the potential impacts of this on individuals, society and religion. The hospitality of Dr. Xianfeng Wang who hosted me was unparalleled, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time. I was given a tour of their laboratories, which were vastly different to Reading’s due to the influence of humidity on stable-isotopes – whereas our drilling lab is the same as any other room, to enter theirs you had to enter the academic equivalent of a decompression chamber and change your clothes (+shoes).

Luckily, before my presentation I saw a talk by Professor Charles Elachi (former head of NASA Mars Mission) and valuably noted what went down well in the presentation – the main point being that they found it hilarious if you referenced their Uni! Another lesson learnt following the presentation is to ensure you use all your allotted time for presentations: I finished slightly early and had to suffer 22 minutes of questions which meant they got particularly tough towards the end. Whilst in Singapore, I also visited the Asian Civilisation Museum (see below) and it was the best Museum I have ever visited, I could not recommend it more to anyone visiting the country (especially archaeologists)!

Later in the year, I also visited Princeton University in the states; where I was invited to the climate change and history research initiative (CCHRI) annual symposium to give a similar talk to the one I gave in NTU. This time I was lucky enough to be co-presenting with Professor John Haldon (Princeton) who is an esteemed historian, which saved some of the nerves – it also saved me from the horrible historical questions that came later! Both presentations went well, and I was happy with how I did! One of the patterns that I have observed whilst giving presentations is that people often ask about the aspects they understand least about – seems obvious but it’s more than that. Archaeologists/historians tend to ask me about the climate science whereas the climate scientists in Singapore asked lots of questions about the historical/archaeological aspects – prepare for any eventuality!

Matthew J Jacobson

Josie Handley is a current PhD student in the Department, researching the resilience of agricultural systems to human activities and climate change in the Peruvian Andes. Over the summer, she conducted fieldwork in Peru – read on to learn about her experiences…

“During July, I was lucky enough to visit Peru and carryout fieldwork related to my PhD. The two-week trip involved visiting two of my study areas, the Ancash District and the Chillón Valley. Whilst in these regions I took sediment core samples from six sites, including lakes and peat bogs, which provided me with the majority of my samples for my PhD. In the field, we also interviewed local farmers and held community workshops to discuss the present day issues affecting agriculture productivity and sustainability within the study areas. This was also an excellent opportunity to record local oral histories about changes in farming practices within living memory, to go alongside the deeper history perspective the collected core records will hopefully provide.

One of the study sites in Peru

Being out in Peru conducting fieldwork was not only useful in terms of sample collection and conducting the interviews, but it also provided the opportunity to see how the agricultural land was being cultivated and worked in the present day. This can provide a modern analogue for the agricultural activity signals we may pick up through analysis of the core sequences.

I also got the opportunity to attend two workshops, one at Universidad National Santiago Antunez de Mayolo, Huaraz entitled ‘Living with Climate Change’ and the second at Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima. These workshops were a great opportunity to network with Peruvian colleagues from archaeology as well as local NGOs and governmental organisations such as the Mountain Institute and the National Institute of Investigation on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems.

My experience of fieldwork ran relatively smoothly; this was largely due to having native speakers of both Spanish and Quechua with me for the majority of the trip. This particularly helped when conducting interviews and structured discussion sessions. It was also useful having people that knew the areas well, especially when it came to site selection, as two of the sites were not in the original itinerary but turned out to be great coring locations, thanks to the local knowledge of the area. Whilst I was in Peru, I was also able to make the most of my trip and took the opportunity to do some travelling and spent two weeks after my fieldwork on the tourist trail of the south visiting Cusco, Machu Picchu, Nazca, and Huacachina, an oasis in the desert.”

Visiting Machu Picchu

SAGES PGR Conference 2018

It is nearly that time of year again for the SAGES PGR Conference. May the 11th and 12th will see 17 third year students present their research to PGR students and staff from the whole school. There will also be posters and powerpoint slides on display from a total of 48 second and first year students. These presentations will be on a range of topics fitting into all of the University’s research themes; Prosperity and Resilience, Food, Health, Environment, and Heritage and creativity. This year in addition to these themes, the conference committee have also introduced sub-topics from the United Nation Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). Many of these goals encapsulate key aims of research across the School and exemplifies the global outreach potential of our School’s research. These sub-topics include; Climate Action, Life on Land, Life Below Water, Responsible Consumption and Production, Clean Water and Sanitation, Good Health and Well-Being, Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure to name a few.

Given the disparate topics of research covered in the Conference, the Committee have also invited two external speakers, to reflect the broad academic interests of our research community. We also wanted these talks to reflect different aspects of post-PhD life including securing post-docs, interacting with external and government bodies, and securing funding and grant money to fund research projects. Therefore, Dr Jess Neumann will open the conference on the Thursday morning. Jess completed her PhD in Woodland Biodiversity and Agriculture at the University of Reading in 2014, and currently has a postdoc position looking at whether improved meteorological forecasts lead to more skilful flood forecasts in the Thames at seasonal timescales. To close the conference on the Friday afternoon, Professor Naomi Sykes from the University of Exeter will join us. Professor Sykes’s work has focused on reconstructing bio-cultural histories with an emphasis on presenting her research in a palatable and creative format. She has collaborated closely with a range of non-academic organizations worldwide and has worked with the United Nations towards the sustainable development goals.

We hope this year’s programme will be of great interest to our students and staff alike and showcase the interdisciplinary and world-leading research of our PGR community. For further updates and information on the conference, follow #SAGESPGR18 on Twitter and read the abstracts of talks below.

PGR Conference Abstracts 2018

Meet our #UoRWomen – Part 2!

Last year we profiled some of our staff to celebrate International Women’s Day. This year, we asked some of our brilliant PhD students about their research and their inspirations.  Read on for a selection…

Josie Handley

What is your research specialisation/topic?

Through my PhD I am assessing the impact human activity and climate change has had on the sustainability of terraced agriculture in the Peruvian Andes through the analysis of phytoliths, pollen, non-pollen palynomorphs, and charcoal analysis.

What made you choose this area?

Since undergraduate level, I have been interested in how past civilisations interacted with each other as well as their environments and, in particular, how this may be able to tell us more about environmental changes currently taking place, or those that may take place in the future. This inspired me to undertake an MSc in Environmental Archaeology here at the University of Reading. Whilst working on my master’s dissertation with my now PhD supervisor, Dr Nick Branch, I fell in love with Peru and its history and because of this he encouraged me to apply for a PhD.

 What is a current exciting development in your area?

In recent years, several new climatic records from speleothems, marine cores, and lake cores, have been published from Peru and South America. These illustrate how the climate has changed over the course of the Holocene; information that was lacking at the beginning of the decade. This is valuable information for those that want to understand whether agriculture has been resilient to climate change in the past.

 What advice would you have for young women wanting to study Archaeology in the future?

To get as much experience as you possibly can early on, whether that be through volunteering on digs or work experience in labs. I found that getting involved with local events and helping out in the lab have not only been beneficial training experiences but was also a lot of fun!

 Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

My parents have always motivated me and supported the decisions I have made, both for my education and my career; this has been absolutely fundamental in getting me to where I am today. I was also lucky enough to have two very inspiring female geography teachers in secondary school that sparked my interest in earth sciences at quite a young age.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

When I am not working on my PhD I enjoy getting out into the countryside, going for walks and getting some fresh air, it is really important to find time for you whilst studying; it’s helpful in clearing the brain for a while! I also enjoy baking and being creative.


Claire Nolan

What is your research specialisation/topic?

My research examines the relationship between heritage and wellbeing, exploring the therapeutic value and potential of the prehistoric landscapes of Stonehenge, Avebury and the Vale of Pewsey, in the present day. It is particularly concerned with how the historic environment impacts people, personally, and what it means for them.

What made you choose this area?

My love of prehistory and psychology, my passion for helping people and a hunch that heritage is fundamental to our wellbeing and development.

What is a current exciting development in your area?

The heritage and health sectors are beginning to work together increasingly to find new ways to promote wellbeing and justify the deeper impacts of heritage.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to study Archaeology in the future?

Do what you love – if it inspires you, just go for it!

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

The late Dr Tessa Adams. Celebrated psychoanalyst, theorist, and my former masters supervisor, Dr Adams was a force of nature, had a brilliant mind, and recognised the potential links between archaeology and wellbeing. I have also been inspired by the work, support and encouragement of Dr Jim Leary, Prof Tim Darvill and the late Prof Peter Woodman.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Walking in prehistoric landscapes!


Rebecca Scott

What is your research specialisation/topic?

My main interest is the use of soils and sediments to understand the archaeological record. My PhD draws on this by investigating the use of fire by early humans in the Palaeolithic. In the earlier parts of this period (the Lower Palaeolithic and parts of the Middle Palaeolithic), we simply don’t find much evidence for it – why? My research, therefore, focuses on the effects of fire on different soils and sediments, and the conditions under which evidence for humanly-controlled fires are preserved. I study this by using experimental archaeology – I build fires and try to identify the factors affecting their visibility.

What made you choose this area?

Although my background is in the environmental and earth sciences I have always had a keen interest in archaeology. I became fascinated by Quaternary geology and Pleistocene climates during my undergraduate degree and I am particularly interested in the interactions between humans and the environment – both how humans have shaped their environments and, conversely, how environments have shaped humans, particularly via subsistence strategies.

What is a current exciting development in your area?

Research involving the early use of fire has had a resurgence in recent years. We now have a range of scientific techniques at our fingertips which we can use to help us answer the many questions we have about this important development in human history.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to study Archaeology in the future?

Go for it! Get experience if you can, work hard, read widely, and most importantly – ask questions!

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

My mum who always encouraged me to read and pursue my interests (however weird and wonderful they may be!), and of course all of the pioneering and forgotten women of science – the Trowelblazers, like Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison – who were disregarded, actively discouraged, and written out of the textbooks.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

In my spare time, I enjoy relaxing at home with my cat and some good music, and cooking/experimenting in the kitchen.


Candace McGovern

What is your research specialisation/topic?

I am a Biological Anthropologist and currently researching puberty and childbirth in Roman-Britain.

What made you choose this area?

As an Ancient History undergraduate, I was assigned to read Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves which was a life changing moment for me as I was also becoming more active in the LGBT community. Since that moment, I have been interested in studying those less represented or marginalized. Childbirth has been primarily studied from an evolutionary perspective by males, my work aims to widen the scope of research we can gain from the topic.

What is a current exciting development in your area?

Working on addressing the stereotypes associated with obstetric hazards and early marriages among past populations.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to study Archaeology in the future?

For young women who are considering Archaeology, or a related subject like Biological Anthropology, I encourage them to pursue their passion. Develop a sense of inner strength and perseverance, so when they might be the only woman in a class they have the courage to speak out. Also, help each other out instead of tearing each other down. I always thought I was rubbish at science once I got to secondary school; however, now I love biological sciences and I am really glad I had the opportunity to continue on with it.

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

I can’t credit a specific person but there have been many strong women along the way who have inspired me. I have always been headstrong and inspired by my grandmother who left home at 15. She joined the army a few years later, one of the first women in the US to do so and traveled all over in the 1940’s and 50’s. It was all really ambitious for a young farm girl. I was also lucky to have a few really good mentors in school who saw my potential and encouraged me to stick with it, even when I was really close to failing.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

As a PhD Researcher I don’t have much free time as I also work as a tutor for SEN students. However, I really enjoy travelling and making yummy vegan food.

Visiting Research Fellow Heinrich Härke will excavate an early medieval town on the northern Silk Road

After an exploratory visit to Kazakhstan (reported here in 2009), Heinrich obtained funding from the Wenner Gren Foundation (USA) for an initial excavation season in 2011 at Dzhankent, just east of the Aral Sea. This proved highly successful in showing the potential of the site for a major project, and it provided new dating evidence (see the interim report).

Location of Dzhankent in Central Asia.

The first series of radiocarbon dates from Dzhankent, and pottery finds from sections inside the town walls have key implications for the starting date of the town: its origins are not in a 9th century fortified capital of intrusive Turkic nomads (which is suggested by writings of 10th century Arab geographers), but in an open settlement of a local sedentary fishing population in the 7th century. This is changing our ideas on the medieval urbanization of this region, and instead of looking for explanations in nomad state formation started by the arrival of the Turkic tribe of the Oguz from Mongolia, we now have to look for other factors two centuries earlier. And the most important event affecting this region on the river Syr-darya in the 7th century was the establishment of the northern Silk Road along the river, around the northern shores of Aral Sea and Caspian Sea, and continuing from there southwest to Byzantium, or northwest along to Volga linking into Viking trade routes in Eastern Europe.

Excavations in 2019 of the citadel wall of Dzhankent where the cat remains were found.

Excavations in 2019 of the citadel wall of Dzhankent where the cat remains were found.

Now Heinrich has obtained funding from the Deutsche Forschungs-Gemeinschaft (DFG) for a major three-year project to explore the relationship between this deserted town on the steppes close to the Aral Sea, and the wider world of trade in the 7th to 11th centuries. The main collaborative partner will again be the regionally important Korkyt-Ata State University of Kyzylorda. There is a whole series of key questions to be tackled: How long did that fishing village exist on this spot before it was turned into a trading site? Does the archaeological evidence suggest the presence of traders from the southern Silk Road civilization of Khorezm (Chorasmia)? There are substantial quantities of Khorezmian pottery in the occupation layers, and even the lay-out of the later fortified town appears to copy a Khorezmian type of urban lay-out. When did the Oguz nomads arrive to make this trading town their capital? Did they live in the citadel? Did they contribute livestock trade to the regional exchange patterns? Where are the cemeteries which might prove or disprove the multi-ethnic nature of this town? Where is the river channel which must have run past Dzhankent before the delta dried out, and where is the river port implied by a short note in one 10th century text? Is the hump outside the east gate of the town a caravanserai? And why did the town falter in the 11th century?

Professors G. Astill (UoR, right) and J. Staecker (Tübingen, left; † 2019) visiting the site in 2011.

These questions require a multidisciplinary approach, and Heinrich envisages close collaboration of the German and Kazakh archaeologists with geophysicists, geomorphologists and soil scientists from Russia, American animal bone specialists based in Germany, a German radiocarbon laboratory, and numismatists and historians from Britain. It is hoped that the answers will have an impact not just on debates within Central Asian archaeology, but well beyond. After all, the 7th to 11th centuries AD were the period when a trading network flourished in northwestern Europe – and Dzhankent, with its connection to the northern route leading to the Volga, may have provided a link from the Silk Road to the East European and Scandinavian trade network of this time.


Update on new fieldwork in Kazakhstan (2018-19)

Drone photo of Dzhankent (copyright M. Goffriller).

Since 2018, the international multi-disciplinary team of the Dzhankent project has been working hard on site as well as in stores and labs, helped by local workers and student volunteers. Several carefully placed trenches have revealed small houses of Central Asian type, one of them with a fragment of decorative wall painting. Large buildings such as temples or palaces have not been discovered so far. The southern town wall was found to stand on top of an occupation layer with 8th century pottery, implying the existence of an open settlement before the building of the walled town in the late 9th or 10th century. Finds from the buildings confirm the presence of three main pottery styles which suggest a mixed population made up of locals, nomads, and southern traders. Regular links to the south, by then Islamic, are also shown by a 10th-century pot with three chicken eggs bearing Arabic lettering, by about half a dozen vessels with Arabic graffiti, and by Samanid coins of the 10th century.

Mechanical coring in 2019 inside Dzhankent.

Extensive prospection (magnetometry, electric resistivity, electrotomography, georadar) and manual coring in 2018 highlighted the dense arrangement of buildings within the town walls, and a depth of occupation layers of several metres across the site. So, in order to obtain meaningful information on the history of Dzhankent within the project period of three years, the team changed its fieldwork strategy in 2019 by shifting the emphasis to coring. Our geomorphologist (Prof. Andrej Panin) laid a grid of coring points across the site and used a lorry-based mechanical drill to obtain cores down to natural, through all occupation layers. More than 100 samples from these cores are currently being C14 dated and analysed by soil scientists for their composition, aiming for an outline history of occupation of all areas of the town.

But there is already enough information to draw up a provisional model of the origins and development of Dzhankent. The later town of the 10th century grew out of a large fishing village which, as early as the 7th/8th centuries, had trade links to the south, to the Iranian civilization of Khorezm (Chorasmia) on the Amu-Darya river. Khorezmian traders became interested in Dzhankent because it was located on the river Syr-Darya which, from around AD 600, was part of the route of the Northern Silk Road, connecting Central Asia (and ultimately, China) to the Volga, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the Mediterranean. Turkic nomad rulers of the Oguz tribe instigated the building of a fortified town at this location around AD 900, making it the centre of their steppe empire. Dzhankent thrived for more than a century, perhaps also playing a role in the north-south slave trade from the Baltic region and Eastern Europe to Central Asia, until it was abandoned in the 11th or early 12th century – for reasons which we still have to find out.

Dzhanik: the earliest cat on the Northern Silk Road

Remains of the early medieval cat from Dzhankent (copyright A. Haruda)

The sharp-eyed archaeozoologist on the team, Dr Ashleigh Haruda (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany), spotted the bones of a feline while looking through the large quantities of animal bones from the site. She immediately realized the significance of the find and assembled an interdisciplinary team to extract all possible information from the largely complete skeleton. As a result, we now have an astonishingly detailed biography of a tomcat that lived and died in the late 8th century AD here in a village on the Syr-Darya river. X-rays and 3D imaging revealed a number of healed fractures of bones, meaning that humans must have looked after the animal while he was unable to hunt. In fact, he was looked after quite well: he had reached an age of several years, helped by a high-protein diet, probably fish (as shown by stable isotope analysis). And his DNA shows that he was most likely a true representative of the species Felis catus L., the kind of modern domestic cat – not a tame wildcat. This makes him the earliest domestic mouser in Eurasia north of Central Asia and east of China, about 1200 years ago.

Full open-access publication: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-67798-6#citeas


Silchester Dig Update – Kiln site week one

It has been a busy first week at the kiln site, we spent the first few days cleaning up the trenches and have now moved onto excavating the key features identified.

Drone image of trench one – kiln site

This excavation is being undertaken as part of the Nero & Silchester project, investigating the production of tiles stamped with the title of the Roman emperor Nero (AD. 54-68).  Eleven such tiles have been found at several sites within the walls at Roman Silchester, providing tantalizing evidence for imperial involvement in construction at Silchester within 25 years of the initial Roman invasion of AD 43.  The site was investigated during the 1920s by Lt. Col. Karslake during which he recovered a tile with “a round stamp in the centre with the legend NER. CL. CAE. AVG. GR., of much the same form but not identical with the stamp with the same legend which was discovered in 1903-4 in a deep latrine pit adjacent to the baths at CALLEVA”. In full the legend reads ‘Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus’.

Tile with circular stamp to surface

From the first weeks’ excavation has we have recorded nearly 300 kilos of ceramic building material (CBM), which includes a large amount of over-fired and vitrified tile which have been exposed to extreme heat, much of this has been recovered from what appear to be waster dumps.  The material also includes a number of particularly exciting pieces.  There is one tile, with a stamp to the surface, whilst we cannot identify any letters within the stamp it is of the same size and form as the Nero-stamped tiles, and has been recorded as another example, taking the total to 13.

We have also found parts of a ceramic chimney, with elaborate pie-crust decoration and a large amount of relief-patterned tile, which has been keyed using a roller-stamp.  The examples recovered so far all feature designs from the diamond-and-lattice group.

Fragments of ceramic chimney



Another interesting tile is in the form of a roof tile, tegula, with a circular hole in the centre.  These are thought to have been to provide a vent for smoke or to secure a chimney.  We have only been able to trace references to two other examples from Roman Britain, so this is particularly exciting.


With all these interesting pieces include in the material from week one, we are really looking forward to see what week two brings.  Keep up to date with our daily updates at twitter: @silchexcavation and on our facebook page: Silchester Archaeology.

Tegula with a central hole/vent

The abode of Genii and Fairies

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.

Meet our #UoRWomen!

To mark International Women’s Day this year, we asked some of our brilliant staff to answer a few questions about their research, their career highlights, and their inspirations. Read on for a selection…


Ms Elaine Jamieson

Research/teaching specialisation

I am interested in inter-disciplinary approaches to landscape archaeology, with a particular specialism in analytical earthwork survey. Although I have worked on sites of all periods, my current research is focussed on the archaeology of medieval monuments and landscapes.

What made you choose this area?

As a student I did my first archaeological survey work on Exmoor with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, and found myself tramping across the open moor surveying everything from prehistoric cists to post-medieval industrial sites. That experience shaped my future career and left me with a love of landscape archaeology.

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

When my first monograph was published.

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

I am currently working on the Leverhulme Trust funded project Extending Histories: From Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds. The recent discovery by the project team that Skipsea Castle motte may have its origins in the middle Iron Age raises interesting questions about the composite nature of medieval castles, as well as contemporary perceptions of ancient places and landscapes.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

If you have keen observation skills and an inquisitive mind then landscape archaeology, particularly non-intrusive survey and investigation work, can be a really rewarding area of study. I would say just get out there and start exploring the landscape around you!

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy spending time outdoors, watching rugby union and relaxing at home.

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

The many wonderful landscape archaeologists I have worked with over the years, but particularly Paul Everson who first sparked my interest in medieval landscapes.


Dr Hella Eckardt

Research/teaching specialisation: 

Roman Archaeology

What made you choose this area?

I studied Latin at school and read books about what life in ancient Rome would have been like – but really wanted to see for myself how ordinary people lived.

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

Securing a permanent job!

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

I have loved having so many Roman PhDs in the department and within Roman archaeology generally there has been a real resurgence in artefact studies.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

My advice would be the same for men or women: this is a brilliant job – but it is important not to take on all the competing demands and targets – or you will simply not have a life!

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Gardening and spinning (cycling, not textile working).

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

My parents were very influential – they actually met on an excavation and both had a deep interest in history.


Dr Wendy Matthews

Research/teaching specialisation

Origins of early agricultural and urban lifeways/microscopic analysis of building and settlement histories and the ecological and social strategies and relations and lives that shaped them.

What made you choose this area?

My love of the Middle East and the powerful forensic-scale insights that micromorphological analyses provide into study of the lived histories of past peoples and environments.

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

As we are always learning and there are always new discoveries and ways of looking at things, there always seems to be more to strive for!

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

New high-resolution integrated archaeobotanical studies of the diverse plants used in the past and their ecological and social significance.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

Engage in current exciting interdisciplinary research and partnerships and link your research to meaningful past, present and future global challenges.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Walking in the country, kayaking, art, and many years ago – windsurfing and horse-riding.

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

Professor Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge and Dr Marie-Agnès Courty, CNRS


Dr Catherine Barnett

Research/teaching specialisation

The practical application of Archaeological Sciences (in my case archaeobotany, geoarchaeology and dating) to sites of all ages

What made you choose this area?

It was a natural progression from a background in environmental sciences coupled with a real curiosity about our shared past. I first contemplated a career in forensic biochemistry but archaeological science struck me as just as much an exercise in detection and a lot less messy.

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

One of my most nerve-wracking days was giving a talk at the Palaeolithic-Mesolithic day conference at the British Museum while first working as a sessional lecturer and doing my PhD. To my surprise, I did not go up in a big ball of flames but instead vastly more experienced and well-known colleagues from the profession showed a genuine interest in what I was doing and talked to me at length after the talk. I’d found my people!

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

The systematic application of AMS radiocarbon dating to well-stratified remains associated with prehistoric sites is profoundly changing our understanding of the timing and nature of developments in human adaptations to rapid climate change and in securing food supplies in an evolving landscape.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

Be curious and get as much experience as you can on digs or volunteering in the lab. Personally I’ve found the science side a great way into archaeology, and there are many possible careers within the subject.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Spare what? I love spending time with my herd of little boys and prowling the landscape with friends and dogs. I won’t deny visiting archaeological sites and museums on my days off too.

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

My parents, both of them scientists in different fields showed me there is no limit to what any of us can do but it was a series of kind and enthused university lecturers who gently steered me in the right direction to get where I wanted to be.


Dr Mary Lewis

Research/teaching specialisation

Child bioarchaeology/human osteology

What made you choose this area?

My love of history, biology and medicine

Was there a moment when you realised that you had become successful academic / research staff?

Do you ever? But it was exciting the first time one of my papers was cited!

What is an exciting development currently in your area?

The use of stable isotopes to enable us to ask detailed questions about people’s diet, health and migration patterns, it has completely transformed the discipline.

What advice would you have for young women wanting to become involved in this area?

Be persistent, it takes time but opportunities do come available. Be prepared to work your way up.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Gardening, walking the dog and running

Who inspired you to get to where you are now?

A female bioarchaeologist who was an amazing and generous mentor. Still is.

New publication Medieval Archaeology edited by Reading archaeologists

Medieval Archaeology, edited by Roberta Gilchrist (Research Dean) and Gemma Watson from the Department of Archaeology, is a new publication in Routledge’s Critical Concepts in Archaeology series.

The four-volume publication reprints 77 influential papers carefully selected to highlight the key issues and debates in the development and contemporary practice of later medieval archaeology in Europe (c. 1000–1550 AD).  The four volumes are designed thematically: ‘Defining Medieval Archaeology’, ‘the Medieval Landscape’, ‘Medieval Life’ and ‘Medieval Social Archaeology’. The publication includes papers by Reading archaeologists Roberta Gilchrist, Grenville Astill, Mary Lewis, Gundula Mueldner and Aleks Pluskowski.

The set is aimed at an international audience and is intended as a one-stop research tool to complement degrees in Medieval Studies and provide a background in medieval archaeology and material culture.

For more about the book, visit the publisher’s website: https://www.routledge.com/Medieval-Archaeology/Gilchrist/p/book/9780415718165