Fascinating evidence for the early use of rivers, including the oldest bridge found in England, emerged during the excavation of a reservoir and two lakes in Hampshire.
New! An animation of the Bronze Age bridge 3D visualisation is now online.
In 1996 Southern Water began to excavate at Testwood in Hampshire, to develop a reservoir to store water for 200,000 people in and around Southampton.
As with all major construction schemes, archaeologists were called in to see if there were any important remains from the past. While carrying out what they call a watching brief, staff from Wessex Archaeology came across fascinating evidence of early society, including part of the earliest bridge ever definitely identified in England, dating to the Middle Bronze Age, c1,500BC.
Using text and images, these pages tell us about the excavation, what was found and the people who lived during the Bronze Age.
In 1996 Southern Water began a scheme to create a reservoir at Testwood, Hampshire, where they could store water for 200,000 people in Southampton, Totton and parts of the Isle of Wight.
The scheme involved excavating 58 hectares (145 acres) of open pasture to create the reservoir, called Little Testwood Lake, and also a natural lake, Testwood Lake, and an artificial lake, Meadow Lake. The reservoir would take water from the River Test, which flows into the Solent, and store it before it was treated and piped to homes.
Archaeologists were called in to see if there were any important remains from the past. Staff from Wessex Archaeology in Salisbury were employed by Southern Water to carry out observations of the excavation in what is known as a watching brief.
During the excavation of Meadow Lake and Testwood Lake the archaeologists made a series of fascinating discoveries that shed important light on the way people lived more than 3,500 years ago.
This included finding the evidence of the earliest bridge to be definitely identified in England, two other bridges, part of one of the earliest sea-going boats ever found and a complete rapier made of bronze.
The Middle Bronze Age, c 1,600BC-1,100BC, was a time when the countryside had largely been settled and people lived by growing crops such as wheat and by keeping domestic animals such as cows, sheep and pigs. It was a time when the first permanent settlements were developing, and the communal farming of land by groups was giving way to individual fields and farms. Trade with the continent was increasing.
Two bridges found at Meadow Lake
The reservoirs and the lake were created in the floodplain of the River Blackwater, a tributary of the River Test. Below the pasture lay gravels deposited by the rivers.
Meadow Lake was the first area to be excavated by Southern Water and mechanical diggers were used to remove the soil. As one driver operating the digger carried out his work, he noticed timbers buried deep in the gravels.
The driver alerted Wessex Archaeology’s staff and they began excavating the timbers. They turned out to be the remains of what were at first thought to be two jetties, dating to the Middle Bronze Age, around 1,500BC. The timbers had been driven into the bed of a river which has since changed its course, probably what is now the Blackwater.
In total, 79 foundation piles survived, some up to 3.5 metres (13 feet) high, well enough preserved that the marks left by the tools of the prehistoric carpenters could still be seen.
The top of the piles had either rotted away or washed downstream long ago, but the rest of the piles had been gradually covered by silts and gravels, and preserved.
Even though the river had gradually moved away from its present course, the high water table of the area kept the timbers damp for thousands of years, stopping them from turning to dust.
After careful analysis, archaeologists decided that the piles, mainly oak, but with some alder and ash, were actually two bridges, one a replacement for the other, probably as the first rotted or was washed away.
England's oldest bridge
In 1998 another bridge was found nearby in Testwood Lake, which was the earliest complete bridge in England.
In 1998, two years after the excavation at Meadow Lake, more timbers were found, this time during work on a lagoon. The lagoon was a temporary structure excavated and then filled with water before its removal a year later as part of the construction of Testwood Lake.
Buried deep in the gravels of the lagoon, two parallel rows of timbers were found, similar to those found at Meadow Lake. There were two rows of upright stakes, set about 1.5 metres (almost five feet) apart, running for about 22 metres (72 feet).
The timbers crossed an old river course, showing that they were from a bridge. The bridge was about 26 metres (85 feet) long and between 1.5 metres and 2 metres wide (5 feet to 6.5 feet). It would have stood for about 100 years.
A radiocarbon test on the timbers dated them to around 1,500BC, the oldest definitely established bridge in England. (Slightly older timbers found jutting into the Thames at Vauxhall might have been a jetty).
There were 143 timbers driven into the river bed, the largest being a quarter of a metre in diameter (10 inches) and three metres tall (ten feet). None of the stakes were complete – the tops had been exposed and had weathered away. Also found were parts of 15 planks which formed the top of the bridge.
The wood used was mainly oak, with some alder and ash, and a little hazel and willow. People had used bronze tools to fashion the wood, using sophisticated carpentry techniques to create pegs, notches, bevels and mortice holes.
Part of a boat dating again to the Middle Bronze Age, (c1,500BC) was found at Meadow Lake. The part found was a curved piece of wood called a cleat, which was used to help fasten crossbeams to the hull of the boat.
This is one of the oldest pieces of a sea-going boat ever found in Britain. We know that these sorts of boats were used to sail across the sea, along coasts and into estuaries.
The boat would have been similar to others found in the Bronze Age, such as the Dover boat, which were about 16m long, with a flat bottom like a raft and with the ends and sides curving up like a large canoe. They were made of huge oak planks sewn together with twisted yew branches. There was room for up to 18 paddles, with nine timbers or thwarts across the boat which could have been used by paddlers or passengers to sit on.
It is probable that at Testwood, boats sailed up the river to the bridges and no further as their way was blocked. Their goods might then have been transferred to smaller log boats which carried on upstream.
Below the bridges at Meadow Lake archaeologists found a bronze rapier buried in mud. The rapier is 32 cm long (13 inches) long. No trace of its handle, which would have been made of wood, horn or bone, was identified.
This may have been because the rapier was accidentally dropped into the water, but it is more likely it was thrown into the water as part of a religious ritual. We know that people in the Bronze Age showed their veneration for water by putting important objects, often weapons, into it.
Methods of excavation
The excavation at Testwood Lake of the oldest bridge in England presented archaeologists with an interesting challenge
The timbers were found during the excavation of a temporary lagoon which would be flooded with water two weeks after they were found. The team needed to act quickly because the force of the flooding would damage the timbers, and chemicals in the water could start their decay. They rapidly cleaned and recorded the exposed timbers, removing some for examination and to provide samples for tree-ring and radiocarbon dating.
Those timbers that remained were carefully wrapped in layers of protective polythene and textiles and then covered with gravel. A year later, in 1999, the temporary lagoon was drained dry in preparation for it being removed and the Testwood Lakes excavated on its place.
The team were then able to work again on the timbers. They decided they must be recorded and then removed as the construction of the reservoir would destroy them if they were left where they were. The project manager, Andrew Fitzpatrick, decided to cut a section parallel with the row of stakes to expose them fully.
One again, the timbers needed to be protected against drying out – once their protective layer of gravel and textiles was removed, they were in danger of turning quickly to dust. The team wrapped them in polythene and sprayed them three times a day with a water spray to keep them moist.
The next stage was to number and record the size and position of each of the timbers. This was done digitally using an EDM (electronic distance measurer). The data was created in a way that would allow the archaeologists to construct a three-dimensional map using computer software.
Once this had been done, the timbers were taken out and put in a small lagoon to keep them wet. They were drawn, photographed and samples taken to date them before they were wrapped again in polythene and stored.
Testing of samples
The timbers from the bridge were dated by using radiocarbon dating. This is technique that uses the fact that all living things, including trees, take in the carbon 14 isotope from the atmosphere during their lives. After they die they emit this isotope at a steady rate. By measuring the amount of C14 left in the object, this can give us an approximate age.
We know from tests carried out by the Queen’s University of Belfast Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory this that it is highly likely the bridge at Testwood Lake dates to 1500BC.
We can also date timber from the sequence of tree rings shown in the wood. Each year a tree will grow a certain amount depending on how good the growing conditions were that year – a good year will produce a thick tree ring, and a bad one a thin ring. The pattern of rings can be matched against a known sequence to establish the date the tree was cut down.
In the case of the Testwood Lakes samples, the tree used was 137 years old when cut down, and the sequence of 137 tree rings could be compared with those obtained on the bridges at Meadow Lake.
It is not just the objects that tell us about Testwood in 1,500 BC: environmental archaeologists can get clues from the past by analysing the remains of plants, insects and other organic remains.
The image their work conjures is one of a country idyll: the river at the time was largely freshwater, flowed slowly, was slightly brown in colour from peat in the water and had large shallow areas on its edges, though the centre may well have been deep.
Close to the river, possibly on its banks, grow scrub and small trees. The ground near the river is marshy, with rushes and long grass. As we move away from the river, we find open grassland, and by the time we are half a kilometre away we are in a mix of ancient woodland and fields where cows and sheep graze. It is likely that the cattle was brought to the river to drink.
We know all this because some species of insects and plants will only live in certain types of environment. For instance, the water buttercup, whose remains we found at Testwood, will only survive in rivers which have shallow edges. Ants which were found at Testwood live in the hollows of rotting trees. The dung beetles we found needed cow or sheep pats to live on.
Environmental archaeologists work on samples taken from the ground at various points on a site. These are put in water; some of the organic matter will float and can be collected, while the rest will sink, as will earth and stones. Sieving of the residue can recover more organic matter.
The organic matter is then examined under a microscope. This could be plants or insects that have survived because they are waterlogged, such as the water buttercup at Testwood, or because it was charred when a fire was lit – burnt matter survives more easily. Some specialists concentrate on insects, often having to identify a wing or thorax from among millions of species.
"The work is laborious and time-consuming,” said the head of Wessex Archaeology’s environmental archaeology section. “The analysis of the Testwood samples has taken thousands of hours and we’ve used ten specialists who are national experts in their fields. But it’s worth the effort to meet the challenge of reconstructing the past and painting a picture of the landscape and animals that lived there in 1,500BC.”
It’s not just specialists in Britain who work on the samples: a small part of the cleat from the boat will be sent to a laboratory in New Zealand for carbon dating.
Displaying the artefacts
About a tenth of the timbers found at Testwood Lakes have been conserved, by replacing the water in them with chemicals, and given to Hampshire Museums Service.
Some of the finds are on display at the Hampshire and Wight Trust site at Testwood lakes
Bronze Age background
The bridges at Testwood Lakes and at Meadow Lake were built during the Middle Bronze Age, a period that archaeologists usually date from about 1,600BC-1,100BC
To set this in context:
Archaeologists divide the human occupation of Britain into various periods and sub-divisions.
The earliest is the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) which began with the first humans to arrive in Britain and leave a trace. This dates from 500,000BC-8,000BC. As the ice sheets advanced and receded during the Palaeolithic period, the climate varied from one close to present-day Africa, with hippos and elephants, to one similar to northern Canada with arctic fox and reindeer. The sea level varied: when it was low Britain was joined to the continent; when high, it made Britain an island. People at this time lived in small groups by hunting and gathering; they used stone tools and their homes were temporary shelters.
The Mesolithic period (Middle Stone Age, 8,000-4,000BC) was marked by the retreat of the glaciers and a rise in temperature and sea level, which formed the English Channel and cut Britain off from the continent about 6,500BC. The stone tools were becoming smaller and more complex.
The Neolithic period (New Stone Age, 4,000-2,400BC) saw the first farming. Forests were cleared and crops planted communally in clearings. Animals were domesticated and the first pottery was made. Monuments such as long barrows (earthen mounds put over chambered tombs) and henges (open spaces enclosed by a bank and ditch) were created.
The Bronze Age (2,400BC-700BC) saw the first appearance of metals such as copper, gold and bronze. The land began to be farmed by individuals rather than communally, with field boundaries. The period saw the introduction of artefacts from the Beaker culture, marked by a new style of pottery, the use of barbed flat arrowheads, copper knives and small gold ornaments. The relative equality of the Stone Age gave way to an increasingly individualistic, hierarchical society, where individuals could amass a great wealth of objects, as seen in burials such as the Amesbury Archer. Instead of the burials of large numbers of people, often from several generations in one tomb, as seen in the Neolithic barrows, important people tended to be buried singly.
Settlements of roundhouses became semi-permanent fixtures in the landscape for the first time and warfare seems to have become more important – some people were living defensive strongholds, and the sword became prevalent. Trade in tin and copper, needed to create the precious bronze artefacts, became widespread and linked Britain closely to the continent. It is in the middle of the Bronze Age that the bridges at Testwood were built.
The archaeologist in day-to-day charge of the work, Chris Ellis, talks about finding the oldest bridge, and other work at Testwood:
"We were carrying out a watching brief at Testwood Lake in 1998. Southern Water were a good client – when their staff came across something that they thought might interest us, they would let us know immediately.
So when one of them noticed the top of the stakes, they told us straight away and we were able to clean up the area to reveal two rows of wooden stakes. By then we knew that there might be remains from the Middle Bronze Age because of the bridges that had been found at Meadow Lake two years before.
We excavated very gingerly around each of the stakes. It was fascinating to see the craftsmanship that went into making them. They would have used a bronze adze (a type of early axe) to trim the wood to make the timbers, and we could see the characteristic scallop marks of the adze upon the wood.
The most exciting moment of the work at Testwood for me was two years before at Meadow Lake in 1996 when we recovered the bronze rapier, which was an unbelievable find.
One of the staff found it and brought it over to me, and said:“Chris is this important?” and I looked at it and almost swore because it was such a fantastic find.
The rapier was dead straight, with a point that you could cut yourself on, and with no tarnishing – unlike most metalwork from this time, it hadn’t turned green but was still a lovely browny-yellow colour. We were all so excited – it’s one of the best bits of metalwork I’ve ever seen.
Working on the wetland at Testwood was fantastic because so much more has been preserved by waterlogging – not just the stakes but pollen and seeds which can tell us so much about the environment.
It’s hard work though, and everything takes three times as long because you are working in alluvial clays and peats, and the ground is so stodgy. You also face the problem that once something organic like the stakes are opened up to the air, they degrade very quickly, within hours.
We had to spray the stakes three times a day with water using an industrial pump. Then we covered them with polythene sheeting to try and keep the moisture in. But the effort was all worth it to see such well-preserved remains.”
This image is a visualisation showing the setting of the oldest bridge in England. The position of the supports is based upon the actual survey of surviving timbers, and the planks upon preserved examples from the site. The excavation told us about the depth of the river itself, and gave us many clues about the lay of the land during the Bronze Age.
The trees and plants depicted in this image, including alder, hemp-agrimony, water buttercups, bullrushes and ferns, are known to have been growing when the bridge was in use. Preserved in the waterlogged sediments were the remains of seeds and pollen whose species have been identified by environmental archaeologists working on the project.