Since early 2014 a team from Archaeological Research Services Ltd have undertaken a large-scale program of excavations during the phased stripping of land at Hope Construction Materials' Black Cat Quarry in Bedfordshire. So far, six out of nine phases at the quarry have been stripped and archaeological remains have been identified that cover over 4000 years of human activity.
Some of the earliest remains include pieces of pottery that date back to the Beaker period (2400-1800 BC) – a period at the end of the Stone Age where settlers from north-western Europe introduced metalworking practices to Britain. Beaker pottery is distinctively decorated and is often associated with human burials – typically as a ‘grave good’ containing a potent drink to help the dead on their journey into the afterlife. So far Beaker pottery has been found in four isolated pits across the site with some pieces showing incised decoration and some with fingernail impressions.
The Bronze Age developed from these earlier traditions when populations began to settle in areas where they could use new technologies, such as metalworking, to produce tools and even weapons to safeguard the development of a settlement. No extensive evidence of Bronze Age settlement has yet been discovered at Black Cat, although a very large, and unusual, pit was found in October 2014 that did produce a number of features and finds associated with Bronze Age life, including flint arrowheads, broken pottery, a charcoal pit and a bronze spear head!
A pit containing further flint arrowheads and Bronze Age pottery was also found at the confluence of two branches of an old river course (palaeochannel) that crosses the site from north to south not far from the large pit. These remains offer a tantalising glimpse into the Bronze Age at Black Cat. Were these items produced as weaponry or as hunting tools? Were they thrown away in rubbish pits or were there dedicated production areas for making items to be used by a larger local population? The spearhead strongly suggests a martial purpose and this could reflect the growing need for defending resources. Perhaps further settlement evidence will be discovered under Phase 5 as the quarry moves east towards the river later this year.
Evidence of land division was found on the higher gravel terraces to the west in the form of long linear ditches which appear to represent the remains of an Iron Age farming landscape. Further to the south these ditches were partly overlain by the remains of a multi-phase Roman period farmstead. The earliest phase of the farmstead largely consisted of a series of interconnected boundary and drainage ditches, likely associated with the control of livestock and the growing of crops. A large quantity of Roman pottery and animal bone was recovered from the site that suggests that the farmstead was involved in a mixed farming regime and was in continuous use for some time, until this phase of activity was brought to a halt by a large flood event that covered the lower lying areas of the gravel terrace with alluvium, including the site of the Roman farmstead.
A later phase of the farmstead shows that people returned to the precise site of the Roman farm and continued to live there, re-opening some of the main ditches and even constructing buildings. The foundation of a building was discovered within the later phase of the farmstead that contained a fragment of a quern stone (mill stone used for grinding cereals into flour). This suggests a period of re-building after the flood using materials that were left behind from the earlier phase. Other finds from the farmstead include a well-made twisted copper alloy bracelet, an iron axe head and the point from a blade or tool – all of which suggest that life was prosperous for a farmer in the Roman period at Black Cat.
The southern extent of the quarry as it currently stands has been dominated by a series of large ditches that form a large enclosure, or boundary, occupying the highest part of the gravel terrace and for some of its circumference utilises the courses of two flanking palaeochannels. A radiocarbon date from a charred twig found in one of these ditches has provided an Anglo-Saxon date. The only other Anglo-Saxon feature discovered on site so far was a pit in the very first phase of work that produced pottery and fragments from a decorated bone comb that are similar to other Anglo-Saxon examples found elsewhere. If there is Saxon activity in the area then it is possible that the southern enclosure could represent a series of ditches dug at strategic positions on higher ground close to water. The question is why were they needed? Was this a military encampment strategically located near to the River Great Ouse used by either Anglo-Saxon or Viking forces? Alternatively, could it have been the site of an Anglo-Saxon ‘fair’ or market. The use of the ancient river courses in the enclosure circuit and the strategic position next to the ‘Great North Road’ (modern A1) could again hint at a military use, perhaps even as a place of muster?
The most recent phase of activity has returned the archaeologists to the Roman period in a new area of the quarry located to the south of the Roman farmstead that was excavated in 2014. Drainage ditches around field systems, parallel drove-ways for the control of livestock and watering holes are again the main feature of the excavations, but a late 3rd century Roman cemetery has also been identified that contained the inhumations of at least 15 individuals, some buried with decorated pots and even a coin. Are these skeletons the remains of the people who lived within the farmstead and managed this fascinating landscape? How did they die? And are there any further pieces to the puzzle yet to be revealed as the quarry continues towards its southern boundary?
Roxton Lower School head teacher Jane Trott said: “It was an amazing opportunity for the children to experience archaeology first hand. They thoroughly enjoyed seeing the finds and then looking for their own. We were most grateful to Hope Construction Materials and ARS Ltd for all the preparation and for helping to make it fun.”
Further investigations will attempt to answer these questions as the quarry moves into phases further south and Black Cat reveals more of its hidden past. Post-excavation will work also continue to analyse what has already been discovered including the human burials.
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