What we found and what next?

A120 stripping the site
Mechanical excavator used to remove the topsoil (click on the image for videos with more information)

During the summer of 2019, Cotswold Archaeology, working alongside GRAHAM Construction, begun work on stripping the topsoil within the construction footprint. From the trial trenching work, it was known that centuries of ploughing the fields had churned up the topsoil (and ploughsoil), to a depth of approximately 0.5m. Therefore, these upper horizons were removed easily and quickly with heavy machinery to reveal any remains surviving beneath. Although the work was targeted to four particular areas, where the potential for exposing buried archaeological remains had been predicted from the trial trenches, an archaeologist (video) monitored the topsoil strip along the full length of the scheme, in case previously unknown remains survived.

Site plan
The areas within the construction footprint of the new bypass and flood alleviation work

Immediately following the removal of the topsoil and ploughsoil at the westernmost excavation area, the tell-tale signs of a former farmed landscape were revealed. The remains of in-filled ditches that would once have sub-divided the landscape in to small fields and paddocks criss-crossed the excavation areas. The darker soil filling the ditches was recognisable and distinct from the surrounding natural geology, due to higher levels of organic material and the presence of artefacts indicative of a former settlement lying nearby. The network of ditches, many intercutting each other, demonstrated a continuity of use extending over several hundred years. In some cases the ditches seem to have filled up slowly, before being re-cut and re-used again; in other examples, ditches seem to have been backfilled more quickly and deliberately, with new ditches cut on different alignments, as the landscape was rearranged. From the provisional dating evidence, garnered from the discovered pottery fragments and Carbon-14 dating, the earliest ditches belong to the Middle Iron Age period, around 400 BC. However, it is during the Roman period, between AD50 and AD350 that this landscape was most actively managed and farmed.

In amongst the system of ditches, more discrete features were discovered comprising in-filled pits and a probable in-filled pond. Again, when excavated, the content of these features all indicate that a settlement would be located close-by. However, it seems that any evidence of late prehistoric or Roman period dwellings lie just beyond the excavation area in this particular location. Therefore, our understanding of the make-up of the settlement would have to be pieced together by evidence from other discoveries.

One of the most intriguing and potentially informative discoveries in the western excavation area was that of the corn dryer. When first unearthed the rectangular feature of compact chalky material presented an interesting conundrum, as it didn’t seem to take the characteristics of any readily recognisable archaeological find. However, as is always the case, a little patience and a few days of excavations allowed its form to be realised; the removal of the collapse and rubble allowing the layout of the exterior and interior dividing walls to be revealed. Lying near the edge of small stream valley, all that survived of the structure were the foundations and elements that would have lain below the ground surface. But this is still enough to identify it as a corn or crop dryer.

Most of the time archaeological discoveries are ‘rubbish’; literally abandoned remains and the detritus discarded by hundreds and thousands of years of settlement. However, sometimes the discoveries relate to very deliberate acts to bury possessions or the dead; and during the site work a small cemetery was discovered. Comprising inhumations (fully articulated burials) and cremations (burnt remains often within pottery vessels), the cemetery contained at least twenty human burials (video). Provisional dating from the discovered pottery, and also from Carbon-14 dating, indicates that cemetery was used for several hundred years c.AD70 – AD350. Located close to the burials, evidence of small pits or postholes could well be the remains of grave markers.

Samian ware platter with markers stamp (click on the image to view the finds gallery)

Over 10,000 sherds of pottery were recovered during the excavations. Some of the pieces from the cremation burials were particularly interesting, including the base of a ‘Samian ware’ platter dating to around AD70 – AD100. The makers stamp on the piece can be read as Patrici, who was known to have created pottery in an area not too far from modern day Toulouse, in France. Many of the cremation burials included parts of pots, jars and plates that had been intentionally broken (or ‘killed’) , a common feature of burials from this period.

pottery with hole in it
Intentionally broken pottery fragment

Whereas the numerous pottery fragments were found in many of the excavated features, nearly all of the 72 coins were discovered in just one location. Situated on a plateau of slightly higher ground, an in-filled pond was the site of the discovery. All of the coins were bronze and incredibly they all date to a very narrow time period, AD330 – AD350. This could imply that they were all deposited within the pond at the same time, or as a single event.

The quantity of ‘domestic rubbish’, the pottery fragments discussed above plus animal bones, the corn dryer and the cemetery all point to the presence of the remains of dwellings and a farmstead just beyond the area of excavation at this location. The discovery of a small piece of fragile window glass is potentially indicative of a farmstead of some status.

The remains of prehistoric and Roman period dwellings, that eluded discovery in the westernmost excavation area, turned up in two areas, approximately 2km to the east. Just to the north of Hadham Hall the remains of three roundhouses were discovered (video). The remains of postholes clearly set out in an arrangement typical of two prehistoric roundhouse were accompanied by two further roundhouses identifiable from shallow, circular (eavesdrip) gullies. The ‘posthole roundhouse’ houses have been dated to c.1500BC – 700BC, known as the Middle / Late Bronze Age period. The ‘gulley roundhouses’ date to between 300 BC during the Iron Age, to AD100, in the early Roman period. These pre-date much of the activity and the farmstead discovered to the west.

In summary, the work to date has revealed evidence of an occupied and richly exploited agricultural landscape. We already knew that the area around Little Hadham, lying between the large and established Iron Age and Roman period settlements at St Albans and Colchester, would have been a desirable location for settlement. The area lies along the route of a busy thoroughfare connecting a wider network of settlements; therefore the location would have played a role in the trading and transportation of goods too. The Iron Age settlement discovered in the eastern excavation area may well have been abandoned as the new farmstead in the west developed and grew during the Roman period. This farmstead that was discovered may well have had associations with the very important Roman period pottery manufacturing centre, located nearby. As the pieces of the puzzle come together and more detailed analysis of the discoveries take place, a fuller picture of how the place would have looked 2000 years ago will emerge.

As our work continues throughout 2021, further updates will be provided on these pages.