Prehistoric find to be sacrificed for gravel

Unique Bronze Age bridges are to disappear under a man-made lake for rowers, writes David Keys
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The Independent Online
One of the most important archaeological discoveries in Britain is being destroyed in preparation for gravel extraction.

Archaeologists excavating the old course of the River Thames near Dorney, Buckinghamshire, 25 miles west of London, have discovered a huge 3,300- year-old religious complex. The site, on land owned by Eton College, is of international importance and includes the remains of the world's oldest- known bridge. It has no known parallel anywhere in the world.

The team, from the Oxford archaeological unit, has discovered six bridge-like structures which originally spanned the river and appear to have been used for the ritual disposal of corpses.

The remains of about five people have been found in the 10 per cent of the site which the team has been able to excavate. Most of the ancient timbers and any unexcavated bodies are being obliterated in preparation for pounds 33m worth of gravel extraction work. Eton College has made the area available to mineral contractors. In 10 years' time the gravel pit can be used as a rowing lake for Eton pupils.

The evidence suggests that the bodies were either of high status individuals or of human sacrificial victims. The structures were used successively over a period of almost a thousand years, from 1350BC to 400BC, and if they had been used for ordinary funerals many more bones would have been found.

The six prehistoric ritual bridges at Eton range from 18 to 39 metres in length - because of variations in the width of the river in prehistoric times. So far, 150 metres of bridge have been found and 156 metres of the timber uprights have been located.

Sheep and cattle remains - almost certainly from animal sacrifices - were also thrown from the bridges, and large numbers of their bones have been recovered.

The director of the excavation, Tim Allen, believes that the oldest of the six Eton "body bridges" was built in the Middle Bronze Age in around 1350BC, with three others dating from 1200 to 900BC, and two others from 700-500BC. The youngest, dating from the Middle Iron Age, was built in around 400BC. A seventh structure, dating from the Late Bronze Age, may have been a bridge or jetty.

The bridges connect the north bank of the northern channel of the prehistoric Thames to what was then a half-mile long island located between the northern and still surviving southern channel of the river. The former island - now bounded on its southern side by the modern Thames - could be a vital clue to understanding the "body bridges", and why they were constructed in this stretch of river. According to prehistoric British tradition, islands were sacred places, often identified with the "other world", the domain of the dead and the gods.

On a former sandbank, archaeologists have found the remains of a Late Bronze Age skeleton, wooden stakes, and two empty pots, while nearby, in former shallow water, they unearthed a skull and a morticed plank of wood. It is possible the human remains were from sacrifices.

"This discovery is of international importance," saidJohn Barrett, reader in archaeology at Sheffield University."As a complex the site is unique".

Because of time and financial constraints, 90 per cent of the archaeologically important human bone-bearing deposits have not been excavated.

In planning its "archaeological campaign", Eton College says it took "the best possible advice" and appointed "an advisory board of eminent academics" including some from the British Museum and the British Archaeology Council.