Some 21 miles of the A14 in Cambridgeshire are being upgraded in an ambitious road scheme. With additional spaces being opened up for quarrying and supporting works beside the road corridor, archaeologists have had the opportunity to explore an area of around 350ha. (ALL IMAGES: Highways England, courtesy of MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

Highways England’s road improvement works between Cambridge and Huntingdon have allowed archaeologists to investigate an entire landscape on a vast scale. Carly Hilts visited the project to see some of the impressive finds that have been uncovered.

Stripped bare and covered with reddish clay, the landscape stretching before us could have been the surface of Mars. In fact, we were standing in what had until recently been Cambridgeshire countryside near Brampton, now under excavation as part of one of the largest and most complex archaeological projects ever undertaken in the UK.

Since October 2016, a £1.5bn road scheme has been upgrading the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon to three lanes in each direction. With 21 miles of route under construction, and additional land opened up to house temporary works and quarry minerals for road bedding and making concrete, the project offers exciting – and extensive – archaeological opportunities.

The route of the A14 improvements scheme. Locations mentioned in this article include Brampton, Godmanchester, Fenstanton, Conington, and Cambridge.

An international team of around 250 archaeologists has been brought together, led by the MOLA Headland Infrastructure consortium (working for the A14 Integrated Delivery Team on behalf of Highways England as part of the road upgrade), and also including archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology, Oxford Archaeology, Pre-Construct Archaeology, Albion Archaeology, and Cooperativa Archeologia in Rome. To meet the recruitment demands of such a huge undertaking, an accredited on-site training programme has also been devised with CIfA. So far, the team has investigated over 40 targeted sites along the route, excavating an area of 350ha – equivalent to around 800 small football pitches. This is archaeology on a landscape scale, and the discoveries that have come to light, spanning 6,000 years, are illuminating the lives of the people who once inhabited the area.

The scale of the finds is no less impressive – 7 tonnes of pottery, 6.5 tonnes of animal bone, 140 tonnes of environmental samples taken – but it is the rare chance to open up such large areas that is proving the major boon for understanding the material evidence in its wider context. While an urban building site might reveal the corner of a structure or a portion of a cemetery, along the A14 the footprints of entire settlements have been exposed.

Village people

Historic documents name this settlement as Houghton, which was inhabited between the 11th and 13th centuries, and whose inhabitants lost their livelihoods when royal forest law was extended to include this area.

The most impressive examples of these date from the medieval period. One such site, a deserted village occupied between the 11th and 13th centuries, has been picked out by Emma Jeffery, senior archaeologist from MOLA Headland Infrastructure, as one of her highlights of the whole project. Thanks to surviving historical documents, we know the settlement’s name – Houghton – as well as the reason that its inhabitants abandoned their homes: they were forced to move out by the expansion of ‘royal forest’ in the area.

This law was introduced by the Normans, designating large areas of England as hunting grounds set aside exclusively for the use of the monarch. On his accession in 1154, Henry II claimed the whole of Huntingdonshire in this way – and when the denizens of Houghton lost their access to the local woodlands, which they would have relied on for food and fuel, they lost their livelihoods and the very reason for the village to exist. Houghton had no church or manor of its own, and was probably an outlier of the nearby larger settlement of Brampton, Emma suggests; as the village declined, its inhabitants may have decamped there.

‘What is really interesting about Houghton is that it is a Deserted Medieval Village, but an early one – it wasn’t abandoned due to the Black Death like many other DMVs were,’ she said. ‘The scale of the excavations mean we can get a really good look at the village and what was going on there.’

This broken bone flute provides rare evidence of Anglo-Saxon music-making.

Indeed, while Houghton’s inhabitants may be long gone, its physical traces can still be clearly seen, covering an area of 2.5ha. A trackway that the team has dubbed ‘Houghton Lane’ forms a spine from which plot boundary-ditches branch off. These enclosures contain the footprints of 12 timber buildings, picked out in post-holes and beam slots, which have yielded quantities of medieval pottery as well as plentiful evidence of what the structures may have been used for.

Above all, this seems to have been industrial activity, and particularly concentrated traces of metalworking – slag, fuel debris, panscale – have been found around one building that has been nicknamed ‘the Blacksmith’s Shop’. On the other side of the track lie a number of what the team has identified as retting pits – depressions into which you would put flax and water, and then tread or beat the plant material to separate fibres for clothmaking. The tank-shaped form of the pits, marked with distinctive waterlain deposits, points to their having this kind of function. ‘Clearly they were used for something to do with water; we have taken environmental samples to investigate this further,’ Emma said.

Enter the Anglo-Saxons

To the south of Houghton lie the remains of an even earlier settlement: over 50 Anglo-Saxon buildings covering an area of around 6ha. The village has no boundary ditches to surround it, but its entire layout can be seen in startling detail. The outlines of around 40 post-built structures and 15 sunken-featured buildings (SFBs, with cellar-like pits that were probably covered with raised floors), as well as a scatter of contemporary pits and wells, and even alleyways snaking between the structures, are clearly visible in the ground.

Why had this young woman been buried face-down in the gateway to a high-status Anglo-Saxon settlement at Conington in the 8th or 9th century?

‘Being able to see the full extent of this village is really exciting, but it also came as complete surprise,’ said Kasia Gdaniec, Senior Archaeologist at Cambridgeshire County Council. ‘Much of this landscape hasn’t been excavated before, and while we knew from aerial photos of cropmarks that we were likely to encounter Iron Age and Roman activity, here we have a whole Anglo-Saxon settlement that we simply didn’t know was there; it provides the missing piece of the settlement jigsaw for this area.’

The village’s phasing is still being unravelled in post-excavation analysis, and little pottery has been recovered from this part of the site to guide the process, but it is thought that most of the structures probably dated from the 6th-9th centuries, while a couple may be around a century later.

‘The crucial question,’ said Dr Steve Sherlock, Archaeology Manager for the A14 project on behalf of Highways England, ‘is whether we will find any sign of continuity or transition between the Anglo-Saxon settlement and the early Norman village. We also hope to find out whether this was a settlement inhabited by a small number of families, each occupying the site over a short period of time, or a larger, more scattered population.’

For the most part, the structures seem to speckle the landscape in a fairly random pattern – although some form short alignments, such as a stretch of three houses that the team has half-jokingly nicknamed ‘Cambridgeshire’s earliest street’. Few floor surfaces or artefacts survive in the buildings to suggest their purpose, but current thinking is that, while the post-built structures are probably dwellings, the SFBs are more likely to be outbuildings used for weaving or other work; the latter tend to be small and fairly shallow, and the village contains a number of examples where both kinds of structure are found immediately adjacent to each other – like workshops or backyard sheds located next to living quarters.

Perhaps surprisingly for a large or long-lived settlement of this period, no sign of any cemetery or chapel associated with it has yet been identified. Elsewhere on the site though, the living have left behind a number of interesting insights into the area’s Anglo-Saxon activities.

Three neolithic henge like monuments, the largest 50m in diameter, have been revealed during the project. This finely worked flint axehead, found near Brampton, also dates from that period.

One of these is part of a bone flute that was recovered from one of another cluster of SFBs in an excavated area further to the south. Dating from the 5th-9th century and carefully crafted from a deer’s lower leg bone, the flute would originally have been one of a pair, which were blown together like panpipes. Such finds are rare: only around ten are known in this country, but they open a welcome window on early medieval culture and how the Anglo-Saxons spent their leisure time, to complement the industrial activities that are more often represented on such sites.

Another unusual artefact is an ornately carved jet pendant decorated with the face of Medusa. Dating from the 2nd-4th century AD, this object was actually created during the Roman period (when such items were held to have protective properties, and were sometimes included in burials – see p.29), but was found with Anglo-Saxon objects, including part of a finely decorated 7th-century chatelaine – worn by women, such items were hung with domestic utensils for easy access – made from antler or bone.

With its well-worn and well-rubbed appearance, might the pendant have been a treasured family heirloom passed down the generations to the early medieval period – or could it have been found or collected by an Anglo-Saxon individual who kept it as a curio or lucky charm?

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 339. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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