Dispute halts report into historic mass grave in Buckingham

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The report into the excavation of a historic site, where 80 skeletons were found with their hands tied behind their backs, may never see the light of day due to a financial dispute

More than 80 historic skeletons uncovered more than two years ago on a development site in Buckingham are still in storage and the promised archaeological report may never be completed, due to a financial dispute between the developers and the archaeologists.

The bodies were uncovered during excavations ahead of work for a planned care home at West End Farm, on Brackley Road. They included the skeletons of 80 bodies with their hands tied behind their backs.

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A report by a private firm, Network Archaeology, contracted by developers Brio Homes to report on the excavation, has long been anticipated.

Councillor Robin StuchburyCouncillor Robin Stuchbury
Councillor Robin Stuchbury

Now an enquiry from Buckingham councillor Robin Stuchbury to the Buckinghamshire Council cabinet has revealed that the report may never see the light of day - unless Bucks Council can find the funding to see it completed.

Speaking at the cabinet meeting on Monday, September 13, Councillor Stuchbury asked for an interim report on the basic analysis of this major historic site to clarify what took place and in what date period, for the benefit of local residents.

He said: "I understand that some of the investigations have been halted due to financial issues between the developer and Network Archaeology, which have been ongoing for some considerable time, and if this is the case what action can be taken by the council to bring this to a quick resolution?

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Councillor Stuchbury said Buckingham was historically one of the border towns between Mercia and Wessex and the Daneland.

Deputy council leader, Gareth WilliamsDeputy council leader, Gareth Williams
Deputy council leader, Gareth Williams

And he added: "I ask you this because I'm desperate on a personal basis and my residents are desperate to know their own history.

"Being a local boy, I may even have relatives that are in the hole, or I may have relatives who put them in the hole, so I think I need to find out.

"My family's been there from 1086 so if it is Anglo Saxon/Viking it's probably to do with my family and I'm quite interested."

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Replying to Councillor Stuchbury's question, Gareth Williams, deputy council leader and cabinet member for planning and regeneration, said the council had raised concerns over a year ago about the storage and conservation of the skeletons, and initial stabilisation of the human remains was carried out in August 2020.

But he added that Brio Homes appear to have decided against developing the site after all, "and therefore have have no intention of funding the post-excavation works".

Mr Williams told the meeting: "We are aware of the issues surrounding this archaeological excavation, which took place in 2018-19, in accordance with a condition attached to planning consent 16/00847/APP granted to Brio Homes through appeal.

"Between 70 and 80 irregular burials were excavated, some singular and others multiple, with some of the skeletons appearing to be face down with their hands behind their backs.

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"There was limited artefactual evidence recovered, but two medieval buckles suggested a long-lived medieval burial ground.

"The excavation was carried out by Network Archaeology in accordance with a Written Scheme of Investigation approved by the council’s archaeology service.

"Following the completion of the excavation, it was agreed that the development could commence, with an archaeological watching brief to be carried out on any groundworks. This was to ensure any further burials be identified and appropriately excavated.

"It was agreed that the reporting could be postponed until all archaeological works had finished. However, in 2019 all works ceased on site whilst Brio Homes awaited the result of a Variation of Permission application.

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"After raising our concerns about storage and conservation of the skeletons, Brio Homes agreed in February 2020 to pay for the initial stabilisation of the human remains. This work was completed in August 2020, but is only the first stage in the post-excavation process, and to date no further works have been undertaken.

"In April 2021 it became apparent that Brio Homes had failed to settle the outstanding balance on works already completed, and as such Network Archaeology were no longer prepared to undertake any further works, including producing a written report on the skeletons.

"It is unfortunate that the planning permission Brio Homes won under appeal has lapsed, and there has been no approach for a renewal. Brio Homes have also withdrawn their application for a variation of permission. It appears that they have decided against developing the site and therefore have no intention of funding the post-excavation works.

"Brio Homes do not appear to be in breach of any condition due to the final phase of works having not taken place, nor will they need the archaeological condition discharged if they do not progress with the development. It therefore seems that Buckinghamshire Council cannot insist that they fund the post-excavation works and Network Archaeology cannot undertake the works without payment."

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Thanking Councillor Williams, Councillor Stuchbury urged the council to see if other sources of funding could be found to enable the completion of the archaeology report.

Council Leader Martin Tett, who has a keen interest in history, said he wished to ascertain if there is a legal responsibility on the council to see this issue resolved.