The Search for the Site of the Lost Church of Bix Gibwyn
In the Middle Ages Bix comprised two separate parishes, Bix Brand and Bix Gibwyn, each with its own church and manor house. The parishes were amalgamated in the late Middle Ages, the Bix Gibwyn church being abandoned. The church of Bix Brand - St. James - is in the valley of Bix Bottom, but over the centuries population in the valley declined and increasing traffic on the road from Henley to Nettlebed attracted development up the hill adjacent to what is now the A423. In 1875 a new church, close to the road, was built. St James was abandoned and is now a picturesque ruin.
But where is the site of the long abandoned church of Bix Gibwyn? Records suggest that its ruins were visible as recently as the first half of the 19th century and its location known to locals even late in that century, but no location was ever specified. It is likely that it was nearer to Henley than St James church, but beyond that the evidence is inconclusive and opinions of historians differ as to whether it was up the hill and near to the road or down in the valley somewhere.
Surveying in 2007-8
In 2007 Stephen Mileson of Victoria County History (VCH), who is updating the VCH entries for the Henley area, proposed a project to locate the site of the lost church and suggested several sites for which there is supporting evidence either in the historic record or suggested by local place names. David Nicholls offered the support of SOAG and during the course of the year we undertook geophysical surveys in four promising locations; three up the hill, and one in the valley about 800m south east of St James Church. (This latter was a joint survey with Marlow Archaeological Society).
The work was a pleasure for all involved as the valley is one of the most picturesque in the Chilterns, and also one of the quietest since the road through Bix Bottom is a cul-de-sac for motor vehicles.
None of these surveys however provided evidence of buildings or settlement, although the geophysics at one location did show what might be a cluster of Iron Age grain pits.
The site surveyed in Bix Bottom valley was in the garden and surroundings of two cottages and, even though the geophysics was not promising, in 2008 Stephen Mileson produced stronger evidence that this is indeed the most likely location. When the cottages precursors were built in the late 19th century a local historian recorded that he observed human bones and collapsed walls, but was vague about the precise location. And again when the cottages were rebuilt in the 1970s some non-modern human bones were found.
Accordingly in August 2008 SOAG decided to undertake a week-long excavation in the back garden of one of the cottages. Six small trenches were opened. These were eventually dug to depths of between 1 to 1.5 metres reaching the natural in at least two trenches. Evidence that this might be the site of a church or churchyard would be grave cuts, wall footings or wall collapse, and/or human skeletal remains. None were found.
We did however have a small haul of pottery shards, animal bones and tile fragments. These were studied by an expert at the British Museum who declared that a significant proportion of the pottery was Roman in origin and the remainder spread in date throughout the middle ages. There was already known to be Roman activity nearby but our finds suggest this to have been more extensive in the valley than previously thought.
Throughout November 2008 SOAG undertook further excavations at the two cottages in what we thought would be a last attempt to locate the lost church but which at last met with success with a major find.
We started several trenches but eventually concentrated our efforts on a 4 by 1 metre trench in the back garden of the second cottage.
Discovery of medieval graves
Finally we uncovered three skeletons at a depth of 1 metre, quite close together and aligned approximately west to east. A visit to the site by Anna Williams from Cranfield University provided us with age, sex and height for all three individuals. From left to right in the photo we have a 50-59 year-old male about 5′8″ tall, a 5′9″ 18-19 year old male, and a 20-29 year-old female of about 5′7″.
Bone samples were submitted to Oxford University for carbon-14 dating. (We are grateful to our sponsors, VCH, for being able to fund this specialist work). The dates for the deaths of the three individuals were between the late 12th and early 13th century. Indeed given their differing ages and the dating ranges for each skeleton it is possible to suggest that all three individuals were contemporary. Given the other indicators for this being a formal Christian burial plus the presence of significant amounts of mortar in the trench it seems likely that we have found a systematic burial site in use at least in the 12th and 13th centuries, and that we are either in, or close to, the site of the lost medieval church of Bix Gibwyn.
Upon hearing the results of the carbon dating VCH immediately arranged press releases and TV coverage.
Report on the BBC News website.
BBC TV Local News report (video in mp4 format - 9MB).
BBC local radio interview 1 - archaeology (audio in mp3 format - 5MB).
BBC local radio interview 2 - historical background (audio in mp3 format - 6MB).
This was a much lengthier dig than was planned and was undertaken in less than ideal weather conditions.
The photo shows the dig site during a coffee break. SOAG diggers Mike Vincent and Nancy Nichols are in the trench, outside which are, from left to right, Jane Wyatt, whose lawn we were destroying (!) and friend, and Brendan the local vicar who helped us at the end of the dig to lay our medieval friends to rest again.
2009 extended surveying
Encouraged by the exciting finds of 2008, during the winter of 2008-09 we developed plans with the Archaeology Department of Reading University to conduct a more extensive survey of the cottage gardens and the adjacent field using the full range of geophysics techniques at their disposal, the principal goal being to locate the church itself.
In preparation for this, in June a small SOAG team cleared a derelict area of the garden close to the site of the graves (proving as the photo here does that archaeology isn’t all fine trowel work!)
If we are close to the site of the church our finds last year make it clear that any building remains are likely to be at a depth of at least a meter, and covered by a mixed and stony soil. Accordingly in September, in a three day session, a joint team from SOAG and Reading University conducted a GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) survey of the extended garden area. GPR is more likely to provide better signals in these conditions than resistivity. In addition we conducted a magnetometry survey covering several hundred square metres of the adjacent field.
The results of the GPR survey in the garden were strongly suggestive of a building structure running through the garden and under the cottage. Is this the outline of our ‘lost church’?
The magnetometry survey in the adjacent field also included some interesting features.
Are these the outlines of a late Iron Age or Romano British features?
In March 2010 we opened a trench across the outline of the possible building, and uncovered many more skeletons, the analysis of which is underway. We also found, as in the excavations of 2008, a great deal of mortar, and some masonry. The picture is somewhat confusing and we are still analysing whether we have actually discovered the walls and foundations of one (or more?) buildings.
If you would like anymore information please contact David Nicholls at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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