Dr Arthur Robert Waddell (1854-1924) and his Australian wife Helena (Dorothy) Henrietta (née White, 1873-1938) lived in a house on the Great North Road called Roseland at Hinxworth, north of Baldock, before moving to Cambridge about 1921. Inspired by Robert Clutterbuck’s (1772-1831) account of Roman discoveries in 1724 at Hinxworth (Clutterbuck was Lord of the Manor there), he set out to see if any more antiquities could be found. The earlier historian Nathaniel Salmon (1675-1742) had described the original finds as some earthen vessels or large urns, full of burnt bones and ashes… a human skeleton… bodies… not above a foot under the surface… and with urns great or small near them, and pateras of fine red earth, some with the impression of the maker on the bottom’. As he was writing just four years after they were found, there is every reason to trust his description, which sound as if they included Bronze Age vessels (‘earthen vessels or large urns, full of burnt bones and ashes’) and Roman samian ware (‘pateras of fine red earth, some with the impression of the maker on the bottom’).
Dr Waddell settled on a disused gravel pit to the east of Newinn, the earlier name of his house Roseland, in the southwestern corner of the parish on the north side of the Cat Ditch. Although we do not have Waddell’s own account of the work he carried out, there is a paper by W Percival Westell (1874-1943) of Letchworth Museum that seems to be based on Waddell’s notes as the style – and some of the conjectures – are quite unlike anything else Westell wrote.
According to the publication, ‘The root of the word “Newinn” is of great antiquity… it is suggested that something sacred can be read into the name of the meadow’. This is patent nonsense (Newinn means exactly what it seems to mean at first sight) and, for all his faults, Westell was not given to such wild conjectures. Indeed, the entire paper is full of strange ideas that are quite foreign to his usually meticulous and down-to-earth accounts. We can probably assume that much of the paper – apart from the catalogue that forms over half of the text – was effectively Waddell’s work.
One of Dr Waddell’s misapprehensions was that the greater the depth, the older the material found. The publication includes a schematic section through the site, which shows ‘No Finds’ 6 inches (0.15 m) below the surface, but ‘3 Roman Cinerary Urns, Jugs, Vases, & Samian Ware’ at 1 foot (0.3 m). There was then a blank zone, followed by ‘Seven Cinerary Urns, Native British Ware, circa 50 AD’ at two feet (0.61 m), with ‘Fragments of Bronze, Iron, & Pottery’ below at two feet six inches (0.76 m). A ‘Bronze Age Food Vessel used as Cinerary Urn’ was recorded at 3 feet (0.91 m), with the skeletal remains at 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 m).
The sequence led Waddell to conclude that the skull that was ‘partly embedding itself in the gravel… [and] lay face downwards’ (unpublished photographs show that in reality, it lay on its left side, next to what was clearly a broken humerus), while he claimed that seven skeletons aligned with their heads to the south were ‘tens of thousands of years old’. He also thought that they ‘had not been buried until the bones were bare of flesh… [and] may have been killed sacrificially, and buried in a spot regarded as sacred’. This is again fanciful. All the indications are that most of the burials – the Bronze Age cremation burial apart – belonged to the Late Iron Age and early Roman periods. The probable cemetery comprised twelve cremation burials and eight inhumation burials in the area investigated.
Unfortunately, if Waddell had kept the pots together as assemblages from individual burials, his notes seem not to have included these details. Westell simply published a list of objects separated into groups according to date and form, assisted by W H Lane and Erik Shimon Applebaum (1911-2008). One of the eight samian vessels – a bi-lobed cup of form Dragendorff 27 – contained ‘ten bone counters having concentric rings’. Five of them are illustrated here. Bi-lobed cups date from the first century AD to the 150s (or possibly later in the Rhineland factories); this one was stamped with the potter’s name Sabinus. As more than ten potters with this name made samian vessels at one time or another, it is impossible to be more precise about the date of the cup, although Westell suggested AD 80-120.
Bone counters are relatively common finds on sites of Roman date. The earliest were made from glass, but bone types began to dominate during the second century. Their decoration varies from plain (but with an indentation from the lathe used to turn them), countersunk on the upper face, with concentric rings on the upper face or with a domed upper face. The plain types are the earliest (from before the Roman Conquest in AD 43 to the first half of the third century), while those with countersunk upper faces are probably second century and later. Grooved types occur throughout the Roman period, while convex upper surfaces are a late feature that continue into early medieval (‘Anglo-Saxon’) types. Some plain forms have traces of Roman numerals and letters.
These counters were probably pieces in a board game. We know of several Roman era board games, including XII scripta or Ludus duodecim scriptorum (‘(game of) twelve markings’) and ludus latrunculorum (’game of robbers’). The first was perhaps like backgammon and involved throwing a die to determine how the pieces moved; each player had fifteen pieces (the ‘markings’ were on the board, in three rows of twelve). The second was a game of strategy in which one player had to trap their opponent’s pieces between two of their own; the trapped piece would be removed, as in draughts.
Latrunculus referred to an individual piece in the ludus latrunculorum, and eventually came to refer to counters in any game. Unfortunately, none of the rules for any of these games has survived: although you can buy reproduction sets today, the rules have all be ‘reconstructed’ (‘made up’ would be a better term!) by scholars in the past century and a half.
There is no consensus about whether board games developed in pre-Roman Britain or if evidence for them before the conquest shows contact with the Classical world (which we know was extensive). Counters often turn up in graves, sometimes just one or two short of a full set, and occasionally there is evidence for a gaming board, often just in the form of hinges. The burial of a mature or older adult dating from about AD 65-80 found at Clothall Road, Baldock, in 1968 had an opened gaming board, interpreted at the time as a ‘folding tray’, but no latrunculi.
Games were not just for children, then. At Stanway, Colchester, a grave found in 1996 contained a gaming board with its glass pieces still almost in place. The game was played over a grid of perhaps twelve by eight squares, with twelve blue pieces lined up along one edge and twelve white along the other. One of the white pieces had moved forward one square, while two of the blue had also moved; one, opposite the moved white counter, had moved on space, while the other had moved two spaces. A thirteenth, smaller white counter lay near the centre of the board, while the thirteenth blue counter sat upside down a square in front of the second blue counter from the left. The grave also contained a set of iron and copper alloy medical instruments forming a basic surgical kit of Romano-British type. The man who owned the game was therefore likely a doctor about the time of the Roman conquest.
Why would a doctor have a game in his grave? There is a further group of objects that we need to take into account. Eight metal rods with cylindrical sections but flattened triangular heads lay next to the board, with three of them resting on it. The excavators thought that the rods – four copper alloy, four iron, so different colours, with two of each type shorter than the others – were part of a divination set. The rods would perhaps be used to ask the gods about the medical intervention: did they approve or not? We think that the prospective patient would grasp the rods and perhaps drop them, like the traditional Chinese I Ching, where the pattern made by fifty yarrow stalks would enable the operator to answer the questioner. Perhaps the patient would take some from the doctor, which may explain why some are shorter, a bit like the method of ‘drawing the short straw’.
Medicine in the ancient world was tied up with religion, as were all aspects of life, something we might today regard as superstition. Although evidence-based medicine had a long tradition, especially in the Greek world of the eastern Mediterranean, it was still under the purview of the gods. People would only many major decisions after consulting oracles. Perhaps the ‘game’ was less of a pastime than part of the doctor’s equipment for asking the gods about what sort of treatment to give their patients and what outcome they might expect.
We have less information about the person whose grave at Newinn contained the ten bone latrunculi. Thanks to what seem to have been fairly chaotic excavation techniques, we do not know if the burial contained a gaming board. It is possible that the ‘fragment of square belt ornament’ and ‘fragment of thin bronze plate’ (Westell though this last might have been part of a shield) could have been elements of one.
What seem to be simple parts of a board game may have had deeper meanings to their user. We will never know anything about the person buried at Newinn: were they a doctor, a priest or simply someone who enjoyed playing the ludus latrunculorum or something like it?
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews
The present parish of Kimpton lies in the south-west of North Hertfordshire District, the main settlement area today occupying a valley running west to east. A now lost river, the River Kyme, once flowed through the valley but now runs in a culvert beneath the High Street. Before that, the High Street cannot have existed, and it periodically suffers floods after heavy rain, most notably in 1795 and 2001. We do not know when the river was diverted underground, but it must have been before about 1600, when the earliest maps fail to mark it.
Where was the village when the river still flowed along the valley bottom, to join the Mimram on the edge of the parish? Maps provide an obvious clue: the parish church of Ss Peter & Paul lies to the northeast of the village centre, on a south-facing slope. Lidar shows that it sits inside an artificial-looking embanked rectangular enclosure very similar to a group at Pirton shown in recent years to be early medieval in origin. At Pirton, they have been dated to the end of the early medieval period (8th or 9th centuries) and probably belonged to people of high status, perhaps the type referred to as þegns (thegns or thanes) in documents of the period. In this case, the church may have originated as a proprietary church, belonging to a local landowner.
Proprietary churches caused much discussion in the eighth century over how bishops might manage the priests there, something the owners often resisted. With ecclesiastical reforms in the tenth century leading to the development of the familiar parish system between then and the twelfth century, proprietary churches were gradually brought into the system as the main parish church. This is possibly what happened at Kimpton. Although the present building dates mostly from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the writer observed work on the church in 1989 that revealed a foundation trench on a different alignment running beneath the wall of the Victorian vestry and earlier than the original north wall of the church. This is a good sign that there was an earlier building – not necessarily the precursor to the church – here in the past.
Another clue is that the road to Welwyn, which continues the line of the High Street to the east, runs slightly uphill to the south of the River Kyme as it emerges from the ground just before its confluence with the Mimram. Perhaps the original route kept to the slightly higher ground before migrating into the valley bottom after the river was covered over.
A more radical solution might be to look for evidence of earlier routes through the parish. The present road layout existed by 1766, when Dury & Andrews published their map of Hertfordshire, although there were then very few buildings on the south side of the High Street. Apart from the High Street, many routes run north to south across its line, including the road to Whitwell and ultimately Hitchin, which runs alongside the eastern edge of the church enclosure. At least one of these lines, running north from Blakemore End, has been seen as Roman.
R H Reid, a member of the group of amateur Roman road hunters who called themselves the Viatores, proposed in 1964 that a road ran from the Roman city of U̯erolami̯um to Ickleford and on to Bedford and, eventually Irchester in Northamptonshire. He excavated a section across the proposed line at Heron’s Farm, south of Gustardwood, in August 1959 and showed that this was a properly engineered Roman road. It had a base of pebbly clay 0.10 to 0.23 m thick, topped with a tightly packed layer of gravel, flint pebbles and angular flint between 0.13 and 0.25 m thick. There was a camber (the curvature of the surface) of 0.36 m across the width of 5.5 m, and a supposed shallow ditch to the west, although the published section does not inspire much confidence, showing it to be about 1.1 m wide and only 0.2 m deep. Nevertheless, this section of the road is real enough.
Lidar data confirms the line of the road north through Blackmore End to south of Kimpton Hall, where landscaping (perhaps medieval gardens) has obliterated it. It then follows the northern part of Hall Lane, where it has worn into a hollow way as it descends into the valley. The line is lost north of the High Street and Kimpton Park, established in 1346, has hidden any traces that might have shown on Lidar. The route that Reid proposed went north towards Whitwell and through Gosmore to Hitchin. Not one stretch of this line can be shown to be Roman, and parts belong to an eighteenth-century road past Stagenhoe.
R H Reid proposed a second road through Kimpton, running from Coleman Green to Baldock. He took it on a strangely contorted route along the eastern parish boundary, past Abbotshay in Codicote, and east of Rye-end Farm. There is nothing on the supposed line to show a Roman origin until it reaches Rush Green, where it falls into line with the previously known course. Instead, Lidar data shows a clearly engineered road on the western edge of Prior’s Wood in the southeast corner of the parish, which aligns almost precisely with the section north-northeast from Rush Green. Beyond the northern edge of the wood, it turns to a more northeasterly alignment, probably to negotiate the valleys of the River Kyme and River Mimram.
Reid also suggested third route, which he called a ‘lateral way’, between Friar’s Wash and Ayotbury, largely following the southern parish boundary. There is nothing to show that this is Roman, and many of the claimed sections of agger (the raised foundations of engineered roads) are nothing more than denuded field banks. We can discount this as an ancient road.
But what of the road through Blackmore End? Where did it go after crossing the River Kyme in the valley bottom? Aerial photographs show a complex of buried ditches west of Park Wood, including some double ditches that look like tracks or roads. They are evidently the remains of a village or hamlet and their form suggests a Roman date. Projecting the main double-ditched feature to the southeast reaches Kimpton High Street exactly where the road through Blackmore End reaches it. It is reasonable to conclude that this was where the road headed, not in the Hitchin direction but aiming towards Breachwood Green. We must leave tracing it further in this direction for another occasion, but it would pass very close to the likely site of the sixth-century burial mentioned a few weeks ago.
There are no reported finds from the area of the cropmarks, either made by detectorists or casual walkers. The cropmarks indicating the settlement were best visible on Google Earth™ in 2012 but can be seen on several others by enhancing the contrast, which shows that the marks are not random difference in crop growth but instead reflect buried features. They appear to show a settlement consisting of enclosures separated by trackways, although there is not enough detail to give us a complete plan.
One final point to note is the name of the River Kyme. The river-name expert Eilert Ekwall was in no doubt that Kyme is a back-formation from the village name (in other words, it was never an independent river-name). Although Cyma is a genuine Old English personal name, there is river-name Kyme in Lincolnshire, which Ekwall derived from a hypothesised Old English *cymbe, ‘a hollow’. If the river-name came first – which is what we usually find, as in nearby Luton, named from the River Lea – could Kimpton be the tūn (‘enclosed farm’) on or close to the River Kyme? The next possibility is that because many river-names belong to an older stratum of place naming than Old English village names, *cymbe may not be Old English but from the Celtic dialect Brittonic. An earlier *Cumbi̯a (‘valley-river’) would develop regularly into *cymbe, and this possibility seems the most likely etymology.
This analysis of the landscape of Kimpton points towards an understanding of how settlement shifted over time. The earliest village, in Roman times, lay to the west of Park Farm, next to a road that came up from the south before crossing the River Kyme and turning to a more northwesterly alignment. This was perhaps the first village community in the valley.
Later, perhaps in the eighth or ninth centuries, a local lord established a chapel in his defended enclosure that later became the parish church. As the River Kyme vanished underground, perhaps partly through human agency and perhaps partly through a lowering of the water table, so a new route along the valley bottom became the focus for the settlement by the later Middle Ages, developing into the focus of the current village.
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews
Guest Post by Dylan Bailey
For the past two weeks I have been volunteering at North Hertfordshire Museum, helping to find and catalogue various items which lie within the museum stores.
I began by adding to the work of a previous volunteer, who had sketched and made note of several dozen flints and artefacts. Here, I could see history come to life in front of me. From the head of a Roman statue to a Mesopotamian seal, in my own hands I held intimate pieces of the past, impossibly well preserved and unbelievably beautiful. I was instructed to go through the museum accession register, and find any more details that could be added to the notes of my predecessor.
Once I had finished that, I moved onto the flints. Here, I got an insight into the exact mechanicals of how a museum worked, examining the stones and trying to determine their geographical origin.
I was also involved in searching the old Letchworth museum for artefacts, including a World War One medal, as well as cleaning a variety of sculptures found there, and filling out the museum accession record. I was also given a go at posting on the museum’s twitter page!
My time working at North Hertfordshire Museum has been thoroughly enjoyable, I have learnt a considerable number of skills and techniques that I will be able to apply to other jobs in the future.