The rolling green farmland northwest of Cambridge was once crowded with bustling Roman settlements and industry, recent excavations suggest.
Cambridge Archaeological Unit has investigated 14ha outside the city, revealing Roman activity spanning four centuries, as well as archaeological features stretching back to the Middle Bronze Age (c.1500 BC). Zig-zag ditches thought to represent practice trenches from the Second World War also hint at more recent activity on the site.
Working ahead of the University of Cambridge’s £1bn North West Cambridge Development, which will house new homes, community facilities, and research space, the unit have been excavating the site since last October.
‘This incredible density of activity is much more extensive than had been previously thought,’ said CAU’s Christopher Evans. ‘There are three separate Roman settlements, linked with a complex network of roads and trackways, and inhabited semi-continuously from the 1st-4th century AD.’
One of these settlements comprised an early Roman farmstead with corn dryers, but activity was particularly intense in the late Roman period, with large-scale ironworking, Chris said.
‘We have recovered about 200-300kg of slag from iron-smithing so far,’ he said. ‘While these settlements, made up of timber buildings, were not high status by any means, this was clearly a very vibrant place. It would have been an optimum location, where they could live on the gravel surfaces and farm the more fertile clay.’
The gravel ridge had not just been attractive to Roman settlers, however. Four ring-ditches containing cremations and three domestic enclosures bear witness to the Middle Bronze Age colonists who first inhabited the area in c.1500 BC.
‘This is the other exciting aspect of the site, said Chris. ‘It is the first time this area has been looked at in any detail, creating a brilliant opportunity to investigate when the ridge was first colonised. Interestingly, we have not seen any field systems from this period — while the pollen results are not yet in, I wonder if we are going to find that the first occupation was seasonal, or more pastoral than agricultural in focus.’
Traces of the settlers themselves have been found in the site’s extensive cemeteries, with six distinct burial areas identified to-date, two from the Bronze Age and four Roman.
‘The Roman cemeteries are mostly a mixture of inhumations and cremations, generally small, family-sized plots with an average of 10 burials, though there is one purely inhumation cemetery which has 25,’ said Chris. ‘The final phase of the project will see us increase the excavated area to 18ha, and we are very excited about what else we might learn from this remarkable site.’
This article was published in CA 278