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The things you find when you upgrade a railway: prehistoric butter churn?

There has been a lot of talk in the media over the years about developments such as Crossrail, HS1 and HS2, especially about the cost of such ventures. In case you didn’t know, part of the cost of these major projects, and a lot of smaller ones too, is for archaeological work to be undertaken.

What sort of archaeological work?

Well, a simplified version of the process is that when such developments are being planned, one of the steps taken is to assess the impact of the work on any archaeology in the area. This can range from historic buildings to cemeteries to prehistoric burial mounds. Now these, of course, are known – we can see them. However, there is also a need to consider what might be in the ground that we don’t know about too.

What happens is that a ‘desk-based assessment’ is carried out by archaeologists as to the likelihood of there being archaeology in the area of the development, and if they think there is, they can recommend a number of strategies to ameliorate any impact. This can include something call a ‘watching brief’. This will entail an archaeologist supervising the first steps of the ‘ground-breaking’ work. Sounds exciting eh? Well, it really means that you get to watch a JCB start stripping turf and soil whilst keeping an eye out for anything which might be archaeology appearing in the ground. If nothing appears then the development carries on. However, if something significant turns up it can lead to a full-scale archaeological excavation, paid for by the developer. So, it’s not always popular with them!

Good things do happen!

As I mentioned earlier, one of the recent major developments has been the Crossrail project in London. Now, given the location, archaeology of some kind was always going to be turning up. So archaeologists were involved from the beginning. The project did indeed produce a huge amount of archaeology and there was a great exhibition in London which showed how developers and archaeologists worked together as well as some of the fantastic finds from the excavations. You can see examples of just what was found here –

A smaller scale

Of course, not all finds from such projects lend themselves to exhibitions and national coverage. That’s not to say that they cannot be important. Take for example, a recent find from upgrade work being carried out near Stone in Staffordshire. As well as finding many Victorian beer bottles, perhaps used by the workers who built the original railway line, archaeologists have also found wooden stakes and what is believed to be a small butter churn. The wooden objects, it turns out, are not Victorian: after close initial analysis by Dr Emma Tetlow of the University of Birmingham, they are thought to date to the Bronze Age!

As yet, there is no evidence of a Bronze Age settlement nearby, but it does raise the possibility of one. It is interesting to find an object such a a butter churn – it points to a whole lot more happening – such as animal husbandry and settlement around Stone some 4,500 years ago or 2500 BC.

There are plans for an ‘information evening’ sometime in the summer and if you want to know more you can email Network Rail at or visit Stone’s local news website here: or the Staffordshire newsletter here:


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