A team of archaeologists working along the route of the HS2 in Stoke Mandeville have made an extraordinary find of rare Roman statues. The Guardian reports that the statues of a man, woman, and child were uncovered during excavations of an abandoned medieval church.
The statues have been very well preserved during their 1,000 years or so in the earth, with the heads and bust separated but still largely intact, and with fine details still clearly visible. According to Construction News, the team of archaeologists were in the final stages of excavating a circular ditch at the Buckinghamshire church yard.
The Norman church is believed to date from around 1080, and the experts think that previously, it was a Bronze age burial site, which later became used as a Roman mausoleum. A hexagonal glass jug was also discovered at the dig which is in good condition, with large pieces still intact.
The lead archaeologist appointed by the early works contractors Fusion JV, Rachel Woods, said the discovery “leads us to wonder what else might be buried beneath England’s medieval village churches.”
Woods added: “This has truly been a once in a lifetime site and we are all looking forward to hearing what more the specialists can tell us about these incredible statues and the history of the site before the construction of the Norman church.”
The remains of 3,000 bodies have already been removed from the site earlier this year, and will be reburied at a suitable location. The church, named St Mary’s, was demolished for safety reasons in 1966, and its ruins were completely abandoned and overgrown. There is evidence it was renovated in the 13th, 14th, and 17th centuries.
HS2 lead archaeologist Mike Court said: “HS2’s unprecedented archaeology programme has given us new insights into Britain’s history, providing evidence of where and how our ancestors lived. These extraordinary Roman statues are just some of the incredible artefacts uncovered between London and the West Midlands.”
Since works began on the HS2 project in 2018, tens of thousands of skeletons have been exhumed from the 150-mile-long route. According to Construction News, in 2019 the remains of Matthew Flinders, a Royal Navy explorer who pioneered exploration of Australia, were discovered during the excavation of the HS2 station site in London Euston.
Historical records show that Flinders was buried at St James cemetery in 1814. The site was later incorporated into the expanding railway station, and the headstone was removed in 1840. His remains were considered lost, but archaeologists identified his coffin from an inscription on the breastplate.
Captain Flinders is thought to have been the first person to sail around the entire circumference of Australia, and is said to have named the nation and declared it a continent. The chief executive of HS2, Mark Thurston, wrote to the descendants of Captain Flinders to confirm the remains will be returned to the Lincolnshire village where he grew up.
His family requested that the remains be interred at the Spalding parish Church of St. Mary and the Holy Rood. Flinders is commemorated by a statue in Melbourne Australia, and there is also a bronze of him in his home village of Donington.
The hometown sculpture also includes his favourite cat, Trim, who was born aboard the HMS Resilience on a voyage from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay. When he was a kitten, he fell overboard, but managed to survive by scaling a rope, and this endeared him to the crew. Trim survived many adventures at sea before disappearing in 1804.
A further 40,000 sets of human remains were exhumed from the Euston site, in what was the largest ever excavation of a post-medieval site in the UK. During the time the site was active as a burial ground, between 1789-1853, autopsies were illegal, and graves were often dug up by medical students who needed a cadaver to study.
Relatives of the dead took steps to make sure the graves were extra secure, such as burying the coffins unusually deep, up to 8.2 metres, and using cast iron coffins with metal bandings and locks. This has presented extra challenges for the teams working at the site, as they can’t use plant for the last stages of the dig, and must complete the work by hand.
Construction News reports that among the plant at the massive operation are seven electric ride-on one tonne dumpers, six electric diggers, and an electric frontloading digger and telehandler. There is also an electric 1.5 tonne excavator, all designed to reduce the amount of fumes workers are exposed to, and lower overall CO2 emissions.
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