The site of St Mary’s Church at Stoke Mandeville has delivered archaeological excitement beyond expectation. Work began last year excavating the site of the Norman church, which dates back to 1080. The route for the HS2 railway line will go right through the middle of the site, so archaeological teams set to work to clear the site and research any remains.
The church was abandoned in 1880, and demolished in 1966 after it was declared dangerous. Its ruins became overgrown with vegetation.
Archaeologists knew of the Norman church, but were amazed by what they found further down.
An unknown layer of Anglo-Saxon archaeology lies beneath. They found what they initially believed to be the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church.
Flint walls formed a square structure underneath the Norman church, with walls and some of the flooring still in place.
But the best was yet to come; even further down lay an even earlier phase of Roman artefacts.
The story was investigated by the BBC’s Digging for Britain documentary series.
Professor Alice Roberts, the programme’s presenter, said the spectacular find was “one of the most exciting finds of the year, if not the decade”.
The square foundation feature, believed to be from the Anglo-Saxon tower, was surrounded by a circular ditch.
Roman statues often had their heads removed before being pulled down.
The ditch contained a remarkably well-preserved hexagonal Roman jug, multiple pots of cremated remains, Roman roof tiles and a headless skeleton with leg injuries that suggest a sudden violent end.
Dr Wood told the BBC of the discoveries: “You can’t even say it’s once in a career.
“You would be extremely lucky if you ever found that, never mind two or three of them.”
She added: “For us to end the dig with these utterly astounding finds is beyond exciting.
“The statues are exceptionally well-preserved, and you really get an impression of the people they depict — literally looking into the faces of the past is a unique experience.
“Of course, it leads us to wonder what else might be buried beneath England’s medieval village churches.
“This has truly been a once in a lifetime site and we are all looking forward to hearing what more the specialists can tell us about these incredible statues and the history of the site before the construction of the Norman church.”
Archaeologists now believe the site is a natural mound, covered with soil to create a taller mound and then possibly used as a Bronze Age burial site.
The Romans are then thought to have replaced this with a mausoleum — materials found at the site are too ornate, and also too sparse, to suggest it was a domestic building.
Once the Normans arrived, they are thought to have demolished the site, which may have been reused during the Saxon period.
There is no soil build up between the rubble of the Roman building and the Norman foundations, but Saxon pottery and a coin were found in the ditches.
Further analysis remains ongoing to confirm the archaeologists’ hypothesis.