Windsor Castle has stood for nearly a millennium, and it’s still in use today. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II continues to spend weekends there as well as using the castle to conduct some of her obligations as monarch. Yet if the area in and around the residence wasn’t already significant enough, archaeologists have made a new discovery a mere two miles away that is causing a bit of a stir.
Windsor Castle was constructed in the 11th century after William the Conqueror had decided upon its location. From the castle’s position over the River Thames in the English town of Windsor, it was worked out that it would take a day to travel on foot from the building to the Tower of London. There, it would also be possible to protect the capital from any enemies coming in from the west.
Then, during the 14th century, Edward III decided to expand the castle, leading to the creation of the magnificent St. George’s Chapel. A total of ten monarchs lie at rest in the chapel today – from Edward IV up to and including Elizabeth II’s father, George VI.
Nowadays, the Queen resides in the castle over the Easter period, hosting so-called “dine and sleeps” events for notable visitors. She will also stay there for a week in June to be present at a service in St. George’s Chapel and at the nearby Royal Ascot horse-racing event.
A number of special occasions have also taken place in St. George’s Chapel – most notably the 2018 wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Prince Edward, the current queen’s son, and Sophie Rhys-Jones were also married there in 1999. Meanwhile, Princess Margaret’s funeral was held in the chapel in 2002.
The castle, then, has a rich and lengthy past dating back many hundreds of years. Yet for all the interest the structure has generated up to the current day, a potentially even more interesting slice of British history has been lying just a couple of miles away. In 2018 a team of archaeologists uncovered a valuable find thought to pre-date Windsor Castle’s construction by several millennia. And, in fact, the researchers’ discovery may well reveal something about Britain’s Neolithic era.
From approximately 4,000 BC, peoples from Europe started to make their way to Britain. And some of the migrants’ own distinct customs and concepts would alter the country drastically. While locals had previously only been hunter-gatherers, these changes brought by the Europeans ultimately saw agriculture taken up in Britain. Different tools came into being there, too, and a significant alteration of the landscape occurred to accommodate new agricultural practices.
This era, in which hunter-gatherer societies transitioned into cultures defined by settlement and farming, is known as the Neolithic Revolution. And the Neolithic Revolution was a significant step in human civilization’s journey to where it is today. During this time, animals began to be domesticated; labor practices, trade and politics also developed or sprang into being.
Given these vital developments, the Neolithic period is one worthy of intense scrutiny. Yet given how far back in history the era is – in Britain, for example, it is broadly defined as being from around 4,000 BC to 2,500 BC – new discoveries from that time are quite rare. That’s partly why the find near Windsor Castle is so significant.
At Riding Court Farm, close to a village called Datchet, researchers from Wessex Archaeology uncovered a Neolithic-era relic that is claimed to have been constructed 5,500 years ago. This being the case, the monument is one of the oldest of its kind to have been found in Britain.
Specifically, the discovery is an example of a causewayed enclosure. This type of earthwork is considered to be significant to British prehistory, since such enclosures are proof that monument-building took place on the isles during that period. And people are thought to have gathered within these spaces – potentially for ceremonial purposes.
Furthermore, the find at Riding Court Farm can be defined as a causewayed enclosure because the team of archaeologists identified a bank and a series of ditches – key features of these structures. And while nearly 80 monuments from the Neolithic era have been discovered across Britain, the example close to Datchet may yet prove to be one of the most intriguing.
Berkshire Archaeology officer Roland Smith was certainly enthused by what had been unearthed. In a statement published on the Wessex Archaeology website, he is quoted as saying, “[The causewayed enclosure] is such an exciting and important discovery.” Smith continued, “The excavation of this monument will add so much to our shared human story – especially at this pivotal time in the earliest years of farming in Britain.”
Archaeologists working at Riding Court Farm also unearthed a number of animal bones as well as axes, blades and arrowheads. Meanwhile, pieces of pottery found at the location had seemingly been broken purposely; these suggest an excited end to some occasion or ceremony.
And Wessex Archaeology’s John Powell has explained of the find on the organization’s website, “Although we have only uncovered part of the site so far, the monument appears to be an oval shape with a projected perimeter of 500 meters [1,640 feet].” He added, “Towards the base of the ditches, small concentrations of animal bone, pottery and worked flint have been found and probably relate to the activities that took place within the enclosure.”
Studies into the Neolithic period in Britain have been taking place since the 17th century, although naturally methods of discovery and analysis have grown more sophisticated as time has gone on. Even so, the opportunity to investigate a site such as a causewayed enclosure is unusual – particularly an example that remains in such good condition after all this time.
“Often when [causewayed enclosures are] found now in modern conditions, you might only find part of the circuit,” Powell explained to The Guardian in February 2018. “On this site, its position within the quarry means we’ll be able to investigate pretty much all of the enclosure. So that will mean we’ve got a much better picture and an understanding of the site as a whole.”
Powell also told the newspaper that other causewayed enclosures have been uncovered in England in the past, including one close to Riding Court Farm in Staines. Yet the Staines enclosure was only partly revealed. And now it lies beneath a motorway – meaning any additional means of revealing the monument have been scuppered.
For reasons such as this, the find at Riding Court Farm is very valuable within archaeological circles. Indeed, the causewayed enclosure and the various artifacts and remains discovered there will help to paint a clearer picture of what life was like during the Neolithic era – an ultimately significant period in Britain’s history.
And Powell himself has said of the Riding Court Farm monument, “The discovery of, and chance to excavate an early Neolithic causewayed enclosure is incredibly rare. We will be able to see how the Neolithic community influenced their natural landscape and the lives of later people by leaving their mark on the land.”