Excavating the Bronze Age Barrow
As some of you know, the Bronze Age Barrow in Teddington is one of my favourite mysteries of Teddington. My involvement with this began in 1985 and I wrote my first article on the topic for TW11 in 2012, which marked the start of my relationship with the magazine.
The indeterminate age of the Barrow would be about 1500 BC and the first written reference to it was in a map by Charles Bridgeman of 1730. So what happened to it during those intervening 3,000 years? It certainly did not move but in that time it was many things to many people. Montagu Sharpe, a leading antiquarian of the early 1800s was convinced that it was a “tothill” – a Roman look-out hill. Others claimed that it marked a mass grave for the burial of victims of the Great Plague. This notion clearly struck a cord with William, Duke of Clarence, who was residing at Bushy House in the Park at that time. He expressly forbade any investigation into the Barrow.
Some time later, in 1835, a large part of the south section of the mound was removed for road widening and this probably brought the Barrow to public attention again.
The 1850s were the golden years of archaeology and local societies were springing up all over England. The 30th June 1853 was the birth of the Surrey Archaeological Society (SyAS). We are told that they celebrated their first A.G.M. at the Kingston Town Hall with one hundred and fifty members and visitors in attendance. In the Chair was Mr William John Evelyn MP, F.S.A. His winding up address stated:
“We have now a most interesting investigation before us, and that is, to examine a mound – or, as it is called a barrow – which is in the neighbourhood, permission having been given by the proprietor. It will be rather a long business excavating it, and we must not be surprised if we find nothing – because we can’t be sure that in a place so near London as this, the barrow has not already been explored. I trust, however, we shall be enabled to discover something: and from this [he held up a relic] which has just come from there, I have little doubt that we have some success.”
It has always puzzled me why Mr Evelyn could not be sure that the barrow had already been disturbed when he was actually holding a flint from it. How this was acquired and what happened to it has never been explained.
As I said earlier, SyAS was in its infancy and this was to be its very first excavation. They therefore sought the guidance and leadership of Mr John Yonge Akerman, the Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries to lead them. After the AGM the Society adjourned to “The Griffin” for a robust lunch before crossing the Thames at Kingston Bridge into Middlesex to carry out the excavation.
A very simple report describes the successes of the day which were the recovery of a fine bronze blade of a knife or dagger, some worked flints, fragments of a pottery urn and a mass of calcined bones. On the following day, Mr Akerman left to resume his duties elsewhere and Mr Charles Bridger of the Society took his place as head of the excavation. On digging a little to the east of the previous day, they unearthed pieces of a very large half-baked urn, some portions of calcined bones, a flint hatchet head and the bones of an adult buried superficially. It was clear that the Barrow had been disturbed, possibly by treasure seekers.
Only one source account of the excavation exists, from Jon Akerman and it is a great shame that this dig took place before the general study had been able to formulate standards for recording such proceedings. Not even a site map exists of the exact spot of the Barrow. Indeed when presenting their centenary report in 1954, the President noted that this particular assignment had been on a par with countrywide “barrow wrecking” of the time. Summing up, he went on to say:
“It is perhaps as well that this initial excavation took place both outside the county and on a barrow that had not already been disturbed, but had had a large portion of its mound removed during road widening.”
All in all this should have been a most satisfactory outcome for a newly formed society celebrating their first anniversary and digging their first excavation. With such a fine range of finds it should have been possible to trace and re-examine those finds but alas this has not proved possible. A guide book of Bushy Park states: “The flat site of Bushy Park lies within a loop of the Thames and has been settled for at least 4,000 years. Near Sandy Lane a bronze age barrow was excavated and a fine dagger found. It is now in the British Museum.” Sadly it is not; nor is there any evidence that it ever came remotely near the British Museum.
In 1855 the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society (LAMAS) was formed and it was decided by the Council of the Surrey Archaeological Society that any relics, prints, artifacts etc from the areas within London and Middlesex that had been dealt with by SyAS in its first two years should now be handed over to LAMAS. Whilst it is a commonly held view that this arrangement did actually take place, a search of the minute books and correspondence of both societies at Guildford Museum Library and the Greater London Record Office (now London Metropolitan Archives) has failed to find a note of any formal record of this but we must assume that the Teddington Barrow finds were included within the transfer. But were they?
At the second A.G.M. of LAMAS in 1856 the Rev Thomas Hugo exhibited the bronze dagger and a flint celt from the Teddington Barrow. Indeed it is Rev Hugo that we must thank for the fine drawing of the dagger that exists in our archives. When later reporting for the Society’s proceedings in 1860, he commented that since the engravement of the dagger had been made, “the weapon had suffered considerably from incautious handling and was being withdrawn from future exhibiting.” It is not too difficult to imagine a full church hall for LAMAS or SyAS meetings in the 1850s with all of the local worthies taking the front couple of rows. Such an object as the dagger, which had laid in the ground peacefully minding its own business for 3,000 years, is suddenly being mauled by no end of sweaty pairs of hands as it passed along the rows of the audiences, occasionally being dropped for a chip to fly off, until something had to be done about it.
I cannot blame Rev Hugo for trying to protect and preserve the dagger but I wish he had had the foresight to say where he was going to keep it in future.
The Barrow is now marked by a fine information plaque on the Park Road/Sandy Lane road.
Ken Howe is a local historian and author of several books.