Deers' antlers were found in one of the trenches. Courtesy Cambridgeshire County Council Archaeological Field Unit
One of the largest archaeological excavations ever undertaken in the UK has revealed some unusual finds amidst 2,000 years of evidence that could change the way we think about rural history in the Iron Age and Roman periods.
The investigation was carried out at Love’s Farm near St Neot’s in Cambridgeshire during 2005 and 2006 in response to plans to develop the site to provide new homes, a school and other facilities.
Archaeologists believe finds, which were discovered by digging 30 hectares of the 60-hectare site, could open the door to a new understanding of how the people of Iron Age and Roman Britain lived in the countryside.
“About five years ago we got involved in the project and at that stage we had no idea what was underneath the ground,” explained Mark Hinman, Excavation Director for Archaeological Field Unit of Cambridgeshire County Council.
After a period of thorough investigation, which included documentary research, field walking, geophysics and test pits, digging work began over the large area in 2005. “In terms of the amount of area I would say this is unprecedented - bigger in terms of open area than anything else I’ve ever worked on,” said Mark.
A team of 20 professional archaeologists have now recovered a vast amount of archaeological data and finds ranging from Iron Age insects to a headless horse - each shedding light on rural life in the Iron Age and Roman periods.
Changes in fashion have been determined from items such as leather shoes lost in the mud, discarded in ditches or placed as offerings in the corners of fields or ponds. A dog with a stone placed carefully in its eye socket and two horses, one of them headless, were found in ditches.
Variations in diet from the meat stews of the Iron Age, the Roman taste for Oysters and the Saxon’s love of venison have also survived.
“It’s a very big look at the minutiae of everyday life across one single site and I don’t know of any other occasion when this has been done,” said Mark.
“It has a value beyond its own interest and I think this site will become fundamentally useful to our understanding of the nature of farming in the area and how it changed over a period of years.”
“What we have on the whole are the things that people discarded and what they deliberately put in the ground,” added Mark. “The burial of things like horse skulls, dog skulls, whole horses in the ends of ditches or in pits indicate possible ceremonial activity as well as domestic activity.”
The site gradually reverted to pasture during the 5th century AD and one of the last acts of its inhabitants was to place a series of red deer antlers within old ditch lines and within an old well. This practice is usually recognised as something from earlier prehistory but the evidence in the ground suggests a much later date.
A skeleton of a dog was found with a stone in its eye socket. Courtesy Cambridgeshire County Council Archaeological Field Unit
“We know they must be late Roman because we found some pottery that suggests pagan people from beyond the Roman frontier coming new to the area,” said Mark. “We think they brought with them some of their prehistoric traditons to do with the rights of leaving a place, which they used before they had a chance to assimilate to the local cultural practices.”
Another intriguing discovery is a large circular ring work with an inner circular enclosure. It could simply be an animal pen but further circular objects and jewellery finds discovered at the site may yet point to a ritual use.
Carefully chosen objects such as quern stones or cooking pots buried at the entranceway to enclosures also indicate that religious belief, superstition and magic played a part in everyday life.
Perhaps the most significant result of the fieldwork however is that it is possible to place the influence of early farmers within a long established network of fields and tracks that still survive today. Only a couple of years ago the landscape was regarded as a modern one.
Mark and his team will now begin the task of analysing the discoveries and putting them onto databases that will link the pottery, bones, and other remains that came out of the fields and ditches to produce a clear synthesis of results.
A reconstruction of the appearance of the site using terrain models and drawings will also help build a picture of life as it was in the Iron Age and Roman periods.
“This dig and the results that come from it will really offer an unprecedented look at life in the countryside in the Iron Age and Roman period,” added Mark.
An initial exhibition about the Love's Farm excavations is scheduled to open at St Neot’s Museum in summer 2006.
For more information about archaeology in Cambridgeshire visit the website of Cambridgeshire Archaeology Unit