| 2 November 2009
The oldest 'continuously inhabited' place in Britain?
Did Palaeolithic man settle in what is now known as Thatcham? It has been claimed on numerous occasions that Thatcham in Berkshire (England) is the oldest 'continuously inhabited' place in Britain. It even has a place in the 1990 Guinness Book of Records as being the strongest claimant. Whether this is true or not is still a hotly debated subject. However, there is evidence of human occupation within and around Thatcham covering the past 13,000 years or more.
Evidence for the Palaeolithic Age, which ended around 10,000 BCE, consists of two hand axes found in Lower Way gravel workings by R.A.Sheridan in 1962. These people were nomadic and would have followed their food source, wild animals, as they moved around. It is entirely possible they did camp for brief periods in the area, but little evidence exists to support it for this period. However, there is strong evidence to support the case that people settled in Thatcham in the Mesolithic Age (10,000 - 4,000 BCE). There are a number of sites in and around Thatcham which were visited by people of this period.
One of the most notable sites, which lies around the modern Lower Way sewage works, was first unearthed in 1920 when workmen were carrying out levelling operations. During the excavations which followed, flint tools as well as animal bones and pollen were uncovered. They would have used the river system for transport and even camped on the ancient lake shore which would have covered the area. Like the Palaeolithic people, they also would have been nomadic; however, there is evidence to suggest that they did stay in the area for extended periods.
The Mesolithic Age gave way to the Neolithic Age (4,000 to 2,500 BCE). Unfortunately, like the Palaeolithic Age, there are few finds in the area for this period in history. There have been a few flints as well as hand axes found locally, usually on local farm land near the river. However, a few have been found on higher ground, namely Crookham and Greenham Commons which indicates a shift away from the river system. Arguably it is the Bronze (2,500 - 750 BCE) and Iron (750 BCE - 43 CE) Ages which make Thatcham more notable that any other town in England, and indeed makes Thatcham a nationally important place. Evidence for both Bronze and Iron Age sites, on the same land, have been uncovered at Dunston Park and Cooper's Farm. However, it is sites in and around Hartshill Copse that are most notable.
In 1986, field evaluation of Hartshill Copse by the Oxford Archaeological Unit indicated a Bronze Age cremation cemetery and dense settlement. Excavations at the site by Cotswold Archaeology in 2001 and 2002 found evidence for later periods including Iron Age, Romano-British and Medieval occupation. A later excavation found evidence of Iron working. Although Iron Age settlements had already been found on or near the site, this was different. When the finds were dated, they were dated to around 1,000 BCE, at least 250 years before the Iron Age was supposed to have started.
Source: BBC Berkshire (27 October 2009)
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