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.
“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.”
“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.