Ancient relics from Iron Age discovered during road upgrade

A Roman period rotary quern – this used circular motions to grind down materials.

A Roman period rotary quern – this used circular motions to grind down materials. - Credit: NATIONAL HIGHWAYS

Historical buildings and relics dating back to the Middle Iron Age through to the Roman period have been unearthed by archaeologists working on the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvement scheme. 

Since July 2021, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) and the Cambridge Archaeology Uni, have been busy excavating as part of a wider programme of archaeology work on the proposed National Highways project.

At a site known as Field 44 near the village of Tempsford just over the Cambridgeshire border in Bedfordshire, the team has uncovered evidence of an ancient farm, which has offered an incredible glimpse through time to see how life has changed over the last 6,000 years. 

The farmstead’s story spans across a 700-year period from Middle Iron Age to the Roman conquest and beyond. Flint arrowheads were discovered dating back to the Neolithic (c. 4000-2200 BC) and Bronze Age (c. 2600-700 BC), suggesting people were hunting animals in the surrounding landscape well before the farmstead existed.

Flint arrow heads from the Bronze Age and Neolithic period.

Flint arrow heads showing the barbed and tanged example (left) is typical of the Bronze Age, whilst the leaf shape (right) dates from the Neolithic period. - Credit: NATIONAL HIGHWAYS

The first communities at Field 44 

The first evidence of a settlement is from the Middle Iron Age (c. 300-100 BC), with the unearthing of two large round houses dating back to that period. They measure more than 15 metres in diameter and contain evidence of the remains of butchered animals, pottery, loom weights and personal items. This demonstrates that people both lived and worked in them.  

This is one of two northern roundhouses found on the site near Tempsford, in Bedfordshire.

This is one of two northern roundhouses found on the site near Tempsford, in Bedfordshire. - Credit: NATIONAL HIGHWAYS

The Roman invasion 

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After the Roman conquest in AD 43 there is evidence the settlement expanded and continued to be occupied for around 400 years. During this time, farming was an important activity at this settlement. This is proved by the discovery of an oven used to dry grains and make malt for brewing, as well as by further grains and cereals found elsewhere on site. 

The settlement was also a place where goods were being produced and traded. Archaeologists identified a Roman pottery kiln with vast numbers of failed pots, termed ‘wasters’. It is thought that livestock, craft items and agricultural surpluses will have been traded and transported off site to larger distribution centres in the area. 

A Roman kiln would have been used to dry grains and make malt for brewing.

A Roman kiln would have been used to dry grains and make malt for brewing. - Credit: NATIONAL HIGHWAYS

Dr Steve Sherlock, archaeology lead for the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvement scheme, said: “The farmstead and artefacts we have unearthed near Tempsford are a hugely exciting and significant find as it helps to further shape our understanding of what life in Bedfordshire was like over a period of 6000 years, and we can see how the site developed through different periods of time. 

“What is particularly exciting is that the site was initially established beside a substantial boundary ditch, and we think this boundary was used to define perhaps a tribal area. This large ditch seems to have been maintained and occasionally redefined, whilst Iron Age settlements here and elsewhere respect the feature.

"The excavation in Field 44 will therefore inform how we examine other sites in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire as we continue with the programme of excavations.”