It’s taken more than 700 years, but the medieval villagers of Houghton in Cambridgeshire have had the last laugh: the foundations of their houses and workshops have been exposed again, as roadworks carve up the landscape they were forced to abandon when their woodlands were walled off into a royal hunting forest.
Their lost village has been rediscovered in an epic excavation employing more than 200 archaeologists, working across scores of sites on a 21-mile stretch of flat Cambridgeshire countryside, the route of the upgraded A14 and the Huntingdon bypass.
Much of it is now flat and rather featureless farmland, but the excavations have revealed how densely populated it was in the past, with scores of village sites, burial mounds, henges, trackways, industrial sites including pottery kilns and a Roman distribution centre. The archaeologists also found an Anglo-Saxon tribal boundary site with huge ditches, a gated entrance and a beacon on a hill that still overlooks the whole region.
Finds include prehistoric flint tools, seven tonnes of pottery, and more than 7,000 small personal objects including a Roman jet pendant carved with the head of Medusa*, a brooch in the shape of a chicken**, a beautifully carved Anglo-Saxon bone flute – and a startlingly well preserved timber ladder, radiocarbon dated to about 500 BC, found with a wooden paddle in a pit several metres deep.
Roman jet pendant carved with the head of Medusa*
An Anglo-Saxon bone flute from between AD 5th-9th century.
A 2.4 metre long Middle Iron Age wooden ladder which has been radiocarbon dated to 525 – 457 BC
A plaque dating to 43-400 AD is inscribed with Roman writing, perhaps a note or someone’s name. The text is called “cursive” which is more like everyday handwriting rather than the more familiar Roman capital letters seen on stone inscriptions.
“There is not one key site but a whole expanse – the excavation has given us the whole of the English landscape over the past 6,000 years,” said Steve Sherlock, head archaeologist for Highways England. “The Anglo-Saxon village sites alone are all absolute bobby dazzlers. The larger monuments such as the henges and barrows show up in crop marks and geophysics, but you can only really see things like the post marks of timber buildings by getting down into the ground and digging.”
Neolithic henge monument being excavated on the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon scheme
“The workshops and animal enclosures give you an impression of the hard grind of everyday life, but when you get something like the bone flute you suddenly see into a world that also had art and music, dancing and entertainment.”
At Houghton the archaeologists have been walking along alleyways first used centuries before the Norman Conquest. The deserted medieval village, with remains of 12 buildings, had even earlier – and completely unsuspected – origins. The buildings overlay remains of up to 40 Anglo-Saxon timber structures including houses, workshops and agricultural buildings.
“The medieval village was occupied between the 12th and early 14th centuries, and the most likely explanation for its abandonment was that they lost the use of their woods when they were enclosed as a royal forest,” said Emma Jeffery, senior archaeologist from Mola Headland Infrastructure, who has been working on the site. “At a stroke they lost their grazing, foraging and bark for uses such as tanning leather, so the economic justification for the village was gone.”
The distribution of sites suggests that many were aligned along a lost stretch of Roman road now under the A1. Others are clustered around the ancient barrows and henges, suggesting they remained significant features in the landscape long after their original use as gathering and burial places ended. Major centres of Roman and later pottery production were found around Brampton and on the banks of the Great Ouse.
The excavation of around 350 hectares has been one of the largest archaeology projects in the UK. Work continued through one of the coldest winters in decades, with the diggers pulled off the sites only when the recent blizzards and sub-zero temperatures hit. Work will continue into the summer and there will be open days at several of the sites, including the deserted village.
*Jet Medusa-head pendants are an example of the integration of Roman and British traditions. It is a powerful, Roman emblem, yet executed in a local material, if definitely of jet (in Roman, as in more recent times jet was obtained from Whitby on the Yorkshire coast) and thus, most probably of British workmanship.
The Medusa is usually represented as a staring female face with writhing snakes for hair, nearly always depicted with a frontal rather than a profile head. In Greek mythology, the hero Perseus beheaded Medusa and thereafter used her head as a weapon to turn onlookers to stone. Thus, in classical antiquity the image of the head of Medusa appeared as an evil-averting Gorgoneion, considered to be an apotropaic symbol of protection, also appearing in mosaics and sometimes placed on doors, walls, floors, pediments, antefixes, coins, shields, tombstones and sarcophagi, in the hope that the staring eyes and serpents would avert evil.
Black, shiny materials for jewellery were popular in both Britain and the Rhineland from the late second century AD to the end of the fourth century AD. Without detailed analysis by reflected light microscopy, all black jewellery from this period, irrespective of composition, has inevitably been described as being made of `jet’. However, some items have been shown to be made of jet-like substances, such as shale, coal, or lignite.
**Zoomorphic plate brooches were very popular in Roman Britain c. AD 100 – 200. These were often cast in whimsical animal forms from copper alloy, many with multicoloured champlevé enamel details as decoration.
The distribution of three-dimensional chicken brooches has revealed a distinct military spread in Britain (Allason-Jones, 2015: 76-77 and Fig. 4.4.) or, at least, a predominance in large towns and civitas capitals (Crummy 2007: 225). Figurines representing the Roman god, Mercury, often include a cockerel as one of his attributes and it is possible that the chicken brooches were worn by devotees of the god’s cult (Crummy 2005: 225). However, the Mercury statuettes most often show him with a standing cockerel, as the herald of a new day, but it is difficult to establish whether the brooch depicts a sitting cockerel or a brooding hen.
- Allason-Jones, L. (2015) Zoomorphic Brooches in Roman Britain: Decoration or Religious Ideology?, in: R. Marzel & G. D. Stiebel (eds), Dress and Ideology: Fashioning Identity from Antiquity to the Present. pp. 69-86.
- Crummy, N. (2007) Brooches and the Cult of Mercury, Britannia, Volume 38. pp. 225-23