HS2 archaeologists make rare discovery in Buckinghamshire

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The “once in a lifetime” discovery was made during an excavation at the site of a Norman church in Stoke Mandeville. The medieval church, known as St Mary’s, has already proven to be an archaeologist’s dream after it was found to be built on top of a suspected Anglo-Saxon structure. Now, in the final stages of the excavation ahead of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway project, archaeologists have come across a set of statues indicating the site was used even earlier, in the Roman period.

As the archaeologists dug deeper and deeper into the soil, they recovered a total of three stone busts, one of which appears to be missing a torso.

The complete, though split, busts appear to represent a male and female adult, while the recovered head appears to be that of a child’s.

It is possible the statues were vandalised before being torn down.

The statues were discovered around a circular ditch, which at first was thought to be the foundation of an Anglo-Saxon tower.

The discovery sparked a wave of excitement at the site, with the excavators describing it as “uniquely remarkable for us as archaeologists”.

The excavation was carried out by HS2’s Enabling Works Contractor, Fusion JV, as well as the archaeological contractor, L-P Archaeology.

Dr Rachel Wood, Lead Archaeologist for Fusion JV, said: “For us to end the dig with these utterly astounding finds is beyond exciting.

“The statues are exceptionally well preserved, and you really get an impression of the people they depict – literally looking into the faces of the past is a unique experience.

“Of course, it leads us to wonder what else might be buried beneath England’s medieval village churches.

“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.”

And the discoveries did not end there because the archaeologists also unearthed a well-preserved glass jug from the Roman era.

The hexagonal green vessel was hidden away in the ground for more than 1,000 years but its big pieces have remained surprisingly intact.

The archaeologists believe they have recovered all of its pieces from the site.

So far, they have only been able to compare it to a similar, intact vessel presently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA) in New York, US.

The discoveries have challenged the team’s previous assumptions about the site under the Norman church.

The site may have begun as a Bronze Age burial ground before being replaced by a square building during the Roman period.

The archaeologists now believe the square structure was a Roman mausoleum as the materials found in the ditch are too sophisticated for it to have been a household.

The mausoleum would have been likely demolished by the Normans when building St Mary’s church.

Mike Court, Lead Archaeologist at HS2 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.

“As HS2 builds for Britain’s future, we are uncovering and learning about the past, leaving a legacy of knowledge and discovery.”

The artefacts will now be taken to a laboratory where they will be cleaned and examined.

Roman statues were usually painted with bright colours so the busts will be analysed for evidence of pigments.

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