Ellen Munson

1 2 3 6
Local folklore in Hitchin for the past hundred years has insisted that there is a plague pit on Queen Street. According to Reginald Hine, quoting an (unnamed) ‘old historian’, ‘every man, woman and child in Dead Street (now Queen Street) died’ in 1665. The ‘old historian’ was probably William Dunnage, whose 1815 manuscript history of Hitchin states ‘1665 The Plague raged in a very violent manner; whereof great numbers of Persons died; from which circumstance it is generally believed that Dead Street took its name’. Hine’s exaggeration suggesting that all the inhabitants died from the plague is typical of his purple prose. He adds that in ‘1853 a large number of skeletons, buried only two feet deep, were discovered behind No. 40, Queen Street, with several coins upon them dated 1660’. One of the pieces of evidence for this was the name of the street.
However, Dead Street was a name used in other places for an urban back street: part of what is now called King Street in Royston (the part where you can find Royston Museum) was once known as Dead Street, as was King Street in Brighton. The Royston Dead Street also claims to take its name from the number of people who died there from plague. Both the Hitchin Royston streets were one of the back streets of their respective towns. Even more worrying is that our first record of the name in Hitchin dates from 1556, more than a century before the plague that supposedly lent it its ominous name. In placing the plague in his chronology under 1665, he seems to have forgotten that in the first volume of his history, he ascribed the name to the Black Death of 1349.
Moreover, Hine also records the number of burials made in the churchyard during 1665: 36 in August, 55 in September, 52 in October, 23 in November and 6 in December. These include the burials of the victims of the plague of that year, showing a peak in September. All were buried in consecrated ground, not in the yard or yards of properties fronting Dead Street. Indeed, burying people in gardens was not legal in the 1660s: even those who died from plague were buried in churchyards.
During 2004, the demolition of the former Sodexo House on Queen Street to make way for retirement apartments led to a flurry of press interest when The Heritage Network, monitoring the work, discovered human remains. Scare headlines in the local press suggested that disturbing the burials – assumed to be from the long-rumoured plague pit – would release noxious gases into the atmosphere and that there was a real risk to public health. There might even be an outbreak of plague in the town! These silly stories were published more than a century after Robert Koch had conclusively shown the miasma theory of transmission to be wrong.
In fact, the burials were from a disused Congregational burial ground that had supposedly been ‘cleared’ in 1969. Instead of removing the burials for reburial elsewhere, the company had merely emptied 45 of the 276 graves and dumped the bones into a pit on the edge of the site. The remains of at least 349 people were eventually found there by archaeologists, all dating between 1690 and 1869, long after the last outbreak of plague.
So, whose burials were those found in 1853? The answer came when a full-scale excavation took place in 2001 at 40 Queen Street, the site of the earlier discoveries. Here, the site was found to have been agricultural ground throughout the High Middle Ages, with a field boundary ditch falling out of use after about 1350. The abandonment of the field could easily have been a result of the population fall after the Black Death, between 1349 and 1361. The ploughsoil overlay the burials found during the excavation, showing that they were earlier than both the 1665 plague and the Black Death. No artefacts accompanied the skeletons, so it was not clear how much earlier they were.
Hitchin Quuen Street BurialsSix graves survived, of which only two were complete: later activity had truncated the others. All were aligned east to west, with the head at the western end. This is usually an indication that the cemetery was used by Christians. That made the original excavators from the Museum of London’s Archaeological Services suspect that the burials dated from the late seventh century onwards. At this time, the local area was part of the statelet of the Hicce, a people whose name ended up being that of their largest settlement.
There was enough bone in five of the graves to send off for radiocarbon dating. When the results came back, they surprised the team, as they all fall in the fourth to early seventh centuries: the median dates were AD 588, 609, 431, 609 and 609, but the range was AD 253 to 772. Dates at the extreme ends of the range are unlikely to be accurate. If we take the most likely dates from each, the range is reduced to AD 320 to 688. This meant that the earliest burials may have been made in the Roman period and the latest in the early medieval. The early medieval period is usually and misleadingly labelled ‘Anglo-Saxon’; these burials show why the label is wrong, as there were no Anglo-Saxon settlers in Hitchin in the fourth or fifth centuries.
This is the burial ground of a Christian community. Even if we go with the median date range (AD 431 to 609), the first Anglo-Saxons to be converted were in the Kingdom of Kent, and that was after St Augustine arrived in 597. What we are looking it as the burial ground of a Christian community, beginning to be used in the late Roman period and continuing well into the time of Anglo-Saxon domination of this area, unlikely to have happened before AD 500. In other words, it is the cemetery of people who would have thought of themselves as Britons or Romans (perhaps even both, just as people today can call themselves English and British at the same time).
By coincidence, Pre-Construct Archaeology was excavating a settlement barely 70 m to the north at 33 Queen Street around the same time. Although the results have not yet been published, a draft from 2011 tells the story of the site and look at its artefacts. At the street frontage, the excavators found a timber-framed house that was rebuilt on the same location at least twice after it was first founded. Pottery associated with the first phase of the building included fourth-century types. There was also Alice Holt/Farnham type ware, which is typically found in North Hertfordshire between 390 and 420, in one of the many pits to the east of the house. Other pits contained pottery suggesting that the earliest activity on the site (before the buildings) began after about 270. Clearly, the three phases of building cannot all fit into the ‘Roman’ period and must extend into the fifth century, if not later.
Activity on the two sites overlaps. We seem to have a community that began to grow up on Queen Street in the final quarter of the third century, and a cemetery that was established at some point after AD 253. So far, so good. However, the excavators of 33 Queen Street did not recognise any artefacts between the early fifth century and medieval pottery (after about 900). This is a period when industrial pottery production ended (perhaps some time between about 420 and 440) and coin use stopped, around 435.
Dating features of the later fifth and sixth centuries is not easy in North Hertfordshire (or anywhere, for that matter), and much of it depends on context. Although fifth- and sixth-century locally made pottery in the Roman tradition occurs in Baldock and some surrounding settlements, the excavators of 33 Queen Street did not recognise it there. This does not mean that it is not present: small sherds of this material can look like earlier Roman or even Iron Age types, and if the pottery analyst has not seen the local types, they may easily overlook it. It is quite possible that the Queen Steet settlement continued into the seventh century, as the burials suggest.
So these people were Christian Romano-Britons. Their presence in Hitchin forms a contrast with Baldock, where pagan practices continued into the sixth century. Although there is a late fourth-century Christian cemetery at The Tene in Baldock, there is so far no evidence that it continued in use into the fifth century or later. It is very tempting to think that the local Christians moved to Hitchin to get away from the pagans; perhaps they were following St Paul’s advice in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians VI.14 Μὴ γίνεσθε ἑτεροζυγοῦντες ἀπίστοις (‘Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers’ in the King James Version).
We may even be able to work out what these people called themselves in addition to Brittones (‘Britons’) and Romani (‘Romans’). We have long known that the placename Hitchin comes from the word Hicce, recorded as the name of a tiny stately in the ‘Tribal Hidage’, a possibly seventh-century document. It is usually taken to be a list of Anglo-Saxon peoples who were tributary to the King of Mercia. However, Hicce is not a Germanic word (nor is Gifle, the name of the people listed before the Hicce, whose name survives as the River Ivel). It is much more likely to be Brittonic, the branch of the Celtic languages spoken in Great Britain. The most likely form of the name to give Hicce would be something like *Succiī, ‘Pig-Breeders’, a typical Celtic ethnic name. We know that pigs were especially important to the local economy in the century or more before the Roman invasion of AD 43, and the *Succiī perhaps prided themselves on the quality of their pork.
Perhaps I could have entitled this piece ‘From Plague Pit to Pork Producers’!
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

On the morning of 2 March 1995, Anna Mercer (then the Curator of Letchworth Museum) opened an envelope containing a sale catalogue for Robert Room’s auction house in Bedford on behalf of Wilson Peacock. It detailed the contents of a sale of material from Wilson Peacock due to take place the next day. One the cover was a photograph of a rather dirty marble portrait head of obviously Roman date. It was lot 358, described as ‘9 in marble head, believed to be 1st century AD Roman’. It was among a collection of items from a house clearance at Radwell, just north of Baldock.

Anna telephoned the auctioneers to find out more about the head, wondering if it could be a local find. She learned that it had been sent to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for assessment and that they had examined it over six weeks. Their experts had suggested that it was Roman, dating from the first century AD.

Anna next rang Mark Stevenson of the Museum Services former Field Archaeology Section to ask for advice. Mark immediately thought of the well-known Scheduled villa site in the village and wondered if their might be a connection with it: had a farm worker uncovered the head during agricultural work such as ditch digging? Anna then rang back the auctioneers to explain that the Museum Service would be interesting in acquiring the sculpture but that it would not be possible to raise money to bid for it. The company agreed to let the buyer know of the Museum’s interest in the head, even if just to make a scientific record of it.

On the day of the sale, Mark was able to go to Bedford and inspect the sculpture, just 75 minutes before the auction was due to start. He recognised that it was undoubtedly Roman and that the paint covering it looked like types common in the inter-war years. He noted that it was damaged. There were traces of weathering on the left side and abrasion to the nose, a piece missing from the bottom of the neck, recent damage to the top of the right ear and patches of cement on the top of the head.

In the meantime, Anna contacted the Ashmolean Museum. The expert who had examined the head had recognised that it was most likely to be first-century AD Roman but had not considered that it might have been found in Britain. He instead believed that it was an eighteenth-century import, acquired during an aristocratic Grand Tour. Although he had offered to have the paint cleaned off, the auctioneers had decided against it. There was no paperwork, as all contact with Wilson Peacock had been oral.

The head sold to a private buyer for £2,860 (including the auction room’s commission). The auctioneer spoke to the buyer about the museum’s interest and it was arranged to lend the sculpture to the museum for three weeks. Mark collected it on 20 March and the next day, Anna and Jane Read (the illustrator for the Archaeology Section) took it for assessment at Verulamium Museum in St Albans. They brought it back to Letchworth on 24 March.

On 4 April, Mark and Jane took the head to the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge for advice on cleaning. Janet Huskinson examined it there and was able to confirm that it was definitely Roman. The paint covering parts of it (two shades of green, a blue, a yellow and a brown) was a type not used after the 1930s and its distribution suggested that someone had used the head as a brush cleaner! With the permission of the owner, Mark and Jane then took it back to Verulamium Museum for conservation on 6 April. The conservator, Phil Carter, kept notes on the paint and samples. He found that the patches of cement and plaster overlay paint in some places. The paint layers form a distinct sequence, with yellow at the bottom, overlain by green, then blue. The brown overlay the yellow abut there was nothing to indicate its relationship with the green or blue layers. He pointed out that the staining on the base of the neck seems to be from a copper alloy, not paint, and that brown marks on either side of the neck are from contact with iron.

By 25 April, it was clean, so Mark brought it back to Letchworth. The original buyer agreed to sell it to the museum, and it then entered our collections. Although it was not displayed for some years, it went into a case at Letchworth Museum in 2007 and was chosen to be one of the objects on display in the reception area of North Hertfordshire Museum, where you can now see it.

On 6 March 1995, a member of the team who had done the house clearance telephoned Mark to explain the circumstances of the discovery. He said that the former occupant, a Mr Guest, had lived in the cottage for about twelve years (which would have been about 1982 to 1994) but had entered a retirement home. The caller’s son had found the sculpture under a pile of junk in a lean-to outhouse and thought that it must have been there for at least 30 years, well before Mr Guest began renting the property. Further enquiries in the village revealed that before Mr Guest lived there, the tenant had been a Mrs Leaves. Before that, George Calvert had lived there since the late 1920s. He had been the groom for the estate from 1917 onwards and had also worked as a ploughman with the horses he looked after.

George Calvert’s work, which included maintaining field ditches and even occasionally dredging the River Ivel, provides a plausible context for the discovery of the head. The damage to the chin, nose and left cheek suggests that it has lain low down at the bottom of ploughsoil. However, the experts who first examined this head were mostly dubious about its local origin, preferring to see it as something brought from Europe by an aristocrat who had gone on a Grand Tour. This fails on the grounds that there are no nearby country houses whose owners might have been interested in such ‘antiques’ and none of the tenants of the cottage since the 1920s worked in such a place. Catherine Johns at the British Museum and Martin Henig of the University of Oxford, though, were more open to the idea that it could have come from the nearby villa.
The head is 236 mm high, 156 mm wide and 187 mm deep, carved from Carrara marble (although not of the best quality as it has some darker veins). The carving is continental in style and involved the use of a drill in places. Several larger drilled holes in the hair may once have held a gold or bronze laurel wreath, which are most commonly found on late first-century AD sculptures. The shape of the face is wrong for that period, though, as they tend to be squatter in appearance. It is unlikely to date from after the 120s, when carvings include irises and pupils rather than the blank eyes of this piece. The closest parallels seem to be with the Julio-Claudian emperors (from Augustus to Nero, 32 BC to AD 68), specifically with the reign of Tiberius (AD 14-37).

The most similar is a head from Bosham, believed to be of Germanicus (24 May 15 BC-10 October AD 17), nephew of Tiberius, father of Gaius Caligula, brother of Tiberius and grandfather of Nero. He was therefore related to all the Julio-Claudian emperors apart from Augustus. He is also a well-known character in Roman history. His name came from his father, Nero Claudius Drusus (38-9 BC), who died from an infection after falling from his horse in Germany: in recognition of his success, Augustus awarded him the title Germanicus posthumously, which his son inherited. Augustus was anxious about the succession as he had no sons (shades of the English Henry VIII!) and after the premature deaths of his grandsons Gaius (20 BC-AD 4) and Lucius (17 BC-AD 2), he adopted his stepson Tiberius as heir. Before doing so, he made Tiberius adopt Germanicus as his heir, hoping that the young man would eventually become emperor.

Germanicus married Agrippina, Augustus’s granddaughter, in AD 5 and the couple had nine children, although three died in infancy. He was appointed a quaestor in AD 7 (four years before the legal minimum age for this official post) and later that year accompanied Tiberius to Pannonia in the Balkans to put down a rebellion. A talented general, he won a significant victory in AD 9 and returned to Rome. In AD 11 he again accompanied Tiberius on campaign, this time in Germany, where they prevented an invasion of Gaul. He returned to Rome and became a Consul in AD 12. The following year, he returned to Germany, this time as commander, and was there when Augustus died the following year. On learning of the emperor’s death, the troops revolted for better pay and conditions. Germanicus was able to accede to their demands, deferring to Tiberius. Without permission, he led troops back across the Rhine and over the next two years was able to defeat Arminius (who had defeated Varus in AD 9 and captured three legionary standards) and recover two of the standards. Although this was a popular move, it was strictly illegal. As a result Tiberius recalled him to Rome at the start of AD 17, while still granting him the formal Triumph that his victories had earned.

In AD 17, Germanicus travelled to the eastern part of the empire. He started his work by reorganising the provinces and the troublesome clint kingdom of Armenia. He was supposed to work with Piso, the new governor of Syria, but the two men’s personalities evidently clashed. Piso refused to send extra troops to Armenia when Germanicus asked for them and replaced officers loyal to Germanicus with men loyal to himself. Germanicus travelled to Egypt (again breaking protocol, as senators such as himself needed the emperor’s permission), then returned to Syria, where he found that Piso had overturned many of his earlier orders. He fell ill, convinced that Piso was trying to poison him. He dismissed Piso from his post as governor (again, something he was not authorised to do), formally renounced their freindship and died shortly afterwards. Piso then returned to Syria (again, this was something a governor who had left his province was not allowed to do). The emperor was forced to investigate Piso’s disobedience and deferred the case to the Senate. Although Piso was not found guilty of the murder of Germanicus, the other accusations of insubordination, financial irregularities and fomenting civil war were upheld. Before he could be sentenced, he took his own life.

The later historian Cornelius Tacitus regarded Tiberius as a monster and tried to suggest that he had arranged Germanicus’s murder through Piso. This is unlikely on various grounds. After the body was brought back to Rome, Tiberius arranged numerous posthumous honours for his adopted son and delivered a formal eulogy in the Senate house. It is also more likely that Germanicus had contracted a fever while in the east: Piso and his household had left Syria some time before the illness took hold, so their was little opportunity for him to have poisoned Germanicus.

What would the portrait of a successful (if slightly insubordinate) member of the imperial family be doing in Radwell? If Germanicus had died when Britain was a province of the Roman Empire, we might be able to explain it as an imperial gift. For instance, a ‘family group’ of Claudius comes from the so-called Domus Romana, a high-status house in Rabat, Malta, possibly the official residence of the island’s governor. The group has detachable heads, suggesting that they could be replaced with more up-to-date likenesses and even discarded when family members died or fell from favour. The bronze and iron staining at the base of the neck may be indications of how it was attached to a body. If the head is an official portrait, it is unlikely to have been made or presented to anyone after Germanicus’s death in AD 19 (or, if a gift from Gaius in commemoration of his father, after the latter’s assassination in AD 41).

If it did come from one of the fields of the villa estate, as seems likely, the status of the object raises questions about the status of the site. If the portraits were an official gift, to whom might it have been made? There were no villas in Britain before the conquest of AD 43, but we know so little about the site at Radwell that we cannot rule out earlier activity there. Was it already home to an aristocratic family in the decades before the Roman conquest of AD 43 and a gift from the Emperors Augustus or Tiberius to a local ruler?

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Humans began cooking food tens of thousands of years ago. Cooked food is easier to digest and often tastier than raw, so people began experimenting with different ways to heat things instead of just roasting over an open fire. One early method involved heating pebbles and dropping them carefully into water in a skin or wooden container, gradually bringing it to a simmering point. Once they had invented pottery, they could put pots onto embers and heat the water directly.
Many early pots had rounded bases, which deflected the heat of the fire around the sides of the pot. Once people began to use turntables and potters’ wheels, though, their products had flat bases. As a result, pots polaced directly on the fire risked breaking from thermal shock as the base would heat quickly, but the liquids inside and the sides would stay cool, causing the bottom to break off. Cooks had to be very careful in using these sorts of pots.
During the early middle ages, potters in continental Europe discovered that if they made the bottom of a cooking vessel curved (often called a ‘sagging base’), it reduced the risk of thermal shock. After taking the pot off the wheel, they would carefully push inside the base onto a mould to give it its shape. This style had become commonplace for English pottery by about AD 850 and remained a feature of ceramic cooking pots throughout the Middle Ages.
What did people cook in these vessels? Most poor people – the majority of the population – lived on coarse bread and a dish known as pottage. Pottage is literally a dish ‘made in a pot’. It was a thin soup-like stew or broth made from whatever vegetables the household had available, which meant what they could grow in their cottage gardens. It would include things like onion, garlic and turnips, which will keep for some time, and seasonal vegatables like cabbages and leeks. Sometimes the cook would add grains such as barley or legumes such as peas (which can be dried and stored for a long time). They would rarely be able to afford to add meat or fish, although the more reckless might hunt rabbits (which belonged to the lord of the manor), with the risk of being caught and punished. The peasant’s diet was neither varied nor bursting with exciting flavours.
For the lord of the manor or for ecclesiastics, the situation was different. They could afford meat, fish, imported spices and all the best food available. A fourteenth-century English cookery manual, The Forme of Cury (‘The Method of Cooking’) gives recipes with ingredients such as almonds (including almond milk), cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, galangal, ginger, heron, lobster, mace, marjoram, nutmeg, olive oil, porpoise, pomegranates, quinces, raisins, saffron, sugar and walnuts. It also describes methods for colouring and gilding food, especially sweet dishes. Such things were far too expensive for cooks outside aristocratic households to make. Very occasionally a peasant might enjoy them when the lord of the manor held a feast to celebrate a special day.
The difference between the diet of peasants and the wealthy is the origin of the English distinction between the name of the animal (cow, pig, sheep) and the name of the meat (beef, pork, mutton). On the rare times that a peasant might be able to afford to kill their livestock, they would eat pigg; their Fench-speaking ovelords would eat porc regularly. As Middle English turned into Modern English and people became that little bit wealthier, they adopted the French terms for the meats they were now able to consume.
This cooking pot came from a peasant’s property at the north end of Caldecote village. According to the excavator, Guy Beresford, the deposit containing it belongs in his Period 3 (about 1100 to 1360), but the vessel shape suggests an early origin, in the eleventh century. At this time, peasant houses in the village had no foundations, their cob walls (made from sub-baked clay ‘bricks’) sat directly on the ground surface. The identical construction method was seen during excavations at Green Lane in Letchworth Garden City in 1988 and the Norton Community Archaeology Group unearthed part of the collapsed wall of such a cottage at Church Field in August 2009. At Caldecote, these sorts of buildings left almost no traces.
The economy of the village depended largely on arable farming, with wheat, barley, rye and oat grains recovered from the excavations. People also kept cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks and geese, although as we’ve already seen, they rarely got to eat them. Although the excavators found a few cat bones, there were no dogs at this time.
The pot itslef was not made in the village, but must have been bought at a nearby market. The closest at the time was Ashwell (Baldock had not been founded at the time it was made). It is a type known as medieval coarseware with chalk. The site at Green Lane had sherds from similar vessels, and others have turned up at Therfield Castle, Broadfield, Pirton, Ashwell and Stratton (Bedfordshire). The distribution suggests that it comes from a local (but so far undiscovered) kiln, probably in one of the North Hertfordshire parishes on the northern slopes of the hills.
So a pot like this would probably have held a bland, usually thin soupy stew of low nutritional value. Even so, it was an essential part of the family’s daily life. Although the women of the household did the food preparation and cooking, they would put the pot on the table, where everyone could take a share of its contents, using bread to mop up the mainly liquid pottage. Food and cooking are an important part of what brings people together, creating a social atmosphere at meal times, so a simple cooking vessel like this is imbued with meanings and stories of the people who used it.
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews
1 2 3 6