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

Human stone (or lithic) technology rarely produces tool types that are chronologically distinctive. The microlith (‘tiny stone’) is one of the few diagnostic types. Early Mesolithic peoples in Europe developed them as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. The traditional view was that they show the poverty of these people, living at a time when the big game animals such as mammoth had become extinct and before the bounty produced by farming.

Before the 1970s, this was the standard view of the European Mesolithic. We will find out later how and why our ideas about the people of this era – from about 11,000 to 4000 BC in Britain – were wrong for so long. The first person to subdivide the Stone Age was John Lubbock who, in 1865, introduced the terms Palaeolithic (‘Old Stone Age’) for the period when stone-using peoples were hunter gatherers and Neolithic (‘New Stone Age’) for the time when the first farmers still made their tools from stone. In 1866, Hodder Westropp proposed that there was a middle period, the Mesolithic, between the end of the glacial climate and the introduction of farming.

The idea of a Mesolithic was controversial, and many prehistorians denied that it existed as a separate period. By the middle of the twentieth century, though, it had come into regular use in northern Europe, while southern European prehistorians prefer the term Epipalaeolithic (‘beyond the Old Stone Age’). The main objection to the name is that it implies a teleological approach to history: the distinction is often made that Mesolithic societies are those who later develop (or are replaced by) farming, whereas those that remain hunter-gatherers cannot be described this way. This naming of the period wrongly presupposes the inevitability of farming, as if all societies follow the same historical trajectories, and that there is an evolutionary progression; a similar objection can be made about Epipalaeolithic, as if such societies necessarily developed from Palaeolithic. These views belong in the past, in Whig interpretations of history or in Marx’s universalising approach.

Today’s object comes from Hitchin and consists of a type of microlith usually described as geometric, as it is one of several forms that resemble geometric shapes. In this case, it is a scalene triangle, a three-sided shape where each edge is a different length. Geometric microliths are typical of the Early Mesolithic (about 10,000-6150 BC), when they were one of a number of flint tools made at this time. Microliths were not tools in their own right but elements of composite tools, in which two or more microliths would be mounted in a haft using a glue such as birch resin. People also made tools from bone and antler, but these rarely survive on dryland sites.

Priscilla Ransom (1871-1951), widow of Francis Ransom (1860-1935), gave three items, including this one, to Hitchin Museum, where they were accessioned on 1 May 1939. The entry originally read ‘Flint microlith’, but someone later added an s in pencil, so perhaps she brought in two more at a later date. It also gives the provenance as ‘Local’ and ‘The Chilterns’, added later in pencil, has been rubbed out. This is where the Ransoms were living from 1910, so it is unclear if they made the finds there. The house was built in 1894 and originally called Broadview, so it is unlikely that the Ransoms or the builders found the flints while they were digging its foundations.

To complicate matters (there is always a complication with these archaeological accessions), these same three objects appear in the Letchworth Museum Accessions Register on 26 February 1940, without a donor’s name. There, they are described as ‘A. Tattooing Lance (Riddy Field, Hitchin). B. Toe Cleaning Scraper (Riddy Field, Hitchin). C. Scraper & Borer combined’. The first is a lanceolate microlith, Hitchin Accession Number 92/1, the second is the one we’re looking at today, and the third is a rhomboid microlith, 92/2. According to the card index Sites and Monuments Record maintained by the former Archaeological Service of the museum, these finds were made in Riddy Shott. This was the name of the field immediately east of The Chilterns. Other early prehistoric finds in Letchworth Museum also came from Riddy Shott or Riddy Field, which may be the correct findspot for these three microliths. The name Riddy perhaps derives from Old English ryding, ‘an artificial clearing (an assart)’.

Riddy Shott is on the east side of the most prominent hill in Hitchin, known since the nineteenth century as Windmill Hill. The western side has a steep concave scarp into the valley of the River Hiz, while the western has a gentler slope down to the River Purwell. Many of the finds of Mesolithic material across north Hertfordshire have come from higher ground, as here. Does this mean that people frequented the hills more than the river valleys? Probably not. The valleys were rich in resources – reeds for basketry and thatch, foodstuffs (both animal such as fish or wildfowl, and plants) – that would have been attractive to these people. However, we also know from environmental studies carried out by Museum of London Archaeology in the early 2000s that the Hiz valley was damp and marshy at this time. There is no reason to think that the Purwell valley was any different.

The remarkable site at Star Carr, near Scarborough, developed from the 90th century BC on the edge of a now vanished lake. People were cutting down trees to make a clearing where they built houses, using timber to make a platform on the shore and dumping large amounts of timber into the lake. Over the next 800 years, they continued to cut down trees, live on the slightly higher ground above the water level and enlarge the area of activity. They processed animals for food, skins and tools made from bone and antler, used willow and aspen to make houses and waterside platforms, some of which came from coppiced woodland, made cord from nettles and used reeds growing at the water’s edge. The people indulged in occasional feasting, which was perhaps when they wore the famous antler masks made from deer skulls.

It is now obvious from the ongoing work at Star Carr that Early Mesolithic societies were anything but simple, impoverished hunter-gatherers. They could live in permanent village-like settlements, where they managed the landscape by coppicing woodland, altering the edges of a lake and undertake a broad variety of craft activities. Star Carr is unlikely to be unique. The number of tranchet axeheads found at Weston before the 1920s – more than six exist in the museum collection – suggests that the local Mesolithic people were exploiting the woodland there. We used to believe that these axeheads dated from the later Mesolithic (after about 6150 BC), when it was thought that the first houses were built, but the research at Star Cass shows this to be mistaken. Their use perhaps spans the whole of the period. The field name Riddy Shot may show that the land was formerly wooded, so this may have been another area where Mesolithic people were coppicing trees, millennia before medieval farmers made a more permanent clearing.

As well as managing the woodland, the Mesolithic people who dropped microliths at Riddy Shott must have taken resources from the nearby streams. Whether their activity there was as complex as at Starr Carr is unknowable on present evidence However, the 2003 geoarchaeological work in Hitchin town centre uncovered an organic deposit west of Biggin Lane that contained molluscs and charred grains, radiocarbon dated to the Early Mesolithic. Charred grains likely show human agency and point to food preparation taking place close by. Perhaps there was indeed a settlement away from the marshy land surrounding the River Hiz and, as at Star Carr, people were using the wetlands to dispose of rubbish.

Ethnographic evidence shows that hunter-gatherer societies need not be ‘simple’: some North American groups lived in town-like settlements, some had aristocracies, some focused on accumulated wealth through hard work. We fall back into teleological thinking if we assume that Mesolithic peoples were merely waiting around after the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age for farming to turn up. There was nothing inevitable about the westward spread of domesticated crops and livestock from the Middle East, a process that took millennia.

Moreover, the development of microlithic technology shows a huge technological jump from early ways of using flint. In the Palaeolithic, tools were made from single pieces of flint and were unusable once they were broken. Using microliths, tools became modular, allowing the user to remove and replace just the broken or blunted element. It was also a more efficient use of flint, allowing many more tools to be made from a single core. Indeed, as the Mesolithic developed, we see the increasing miniaturisation of microliths into what is known as narrow-blade types, where individual pieces might be only a few millimetres wide.

Our view of the Mesolithic has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. We can now appreciate that these pioneer permanent inhabitants of Britain modified their landscape, created village-like settlements and had a sophisticated technology. We can only begin to guess about the sort of complex societies they lived in.

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

‘Some months’ before June 1913, workmen digging between Breachwood Green and Darley Hall in Kings Walden found a collection of objects six feet (about 2 m) below the surface. The depth suggests that this was not simple foundations work or a drainage ditch but something more substantial. We don’t know exactly where the workmen were digging, or what they were excavating. As we will see, historic maps give us a clue about where it might have been.

What was discovered? According to the original account, published in The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries in 1913, there were four brooches (two identical), a girdle-hanger, a pair of bronze tweezers, fragments from the bronze rim of an organic vessel, and a fragment of pottery. The brooches consist of three small-long brooches and a fragmentary applied saucer brooch. These are all typical early-medieval types, unusual in Hertfordshire. The name ‘small-long brooch’ refers to the main division of early medieval brooches between long and circular forms. Long brooches are also known as bow brooches and developed ultimately from Iron Age La Tène styles.

Early sixth-century brooches, found by workmen digging near Breachwood Green.

The paired small-long brooches in the find were 69 mm long, with a square panel on the head and three rudimentary knob-like projections; that on the top has a moulded collar, while the others are plain. The bow is small and flattish (an indication of a relatively late date), with a projecting square projection at its high point, while the foot has a catchplate at the top, immediately below the bow, and a flaring foot with a flat end. Both brooches had traces of rust from the missing iron pins, and one had impressions of cloth at the back of the foot. These paired brooches are typical of female burials, not male.

The third small-long brooch was 70 mm long and of a different design. The head does not have a separate central panel, and it has trefoil lobe projections, with two corners of what would be the head forming spikes between the lobes. Around the edge of each lobe runs a double line of punch ring decoration, with just one line running past the base of each spike. Centrally, at the bottom of the head, is an incised counter-clockwise fylfot (swastika), a symbol well-known in various Eurasian cultures, perhaps first as a solar symbol and more recently for general good luck, before its unfortunate adoption by the Nazis in the 1930s.

The girdle-hanger, one of what would originally have been a pair or sometimes three, attached by a loop to the belt. It is 137 mm long and decorated with a stamped S pattern. The shape is similar to a latch-lifter, a type of key. Although they were not really keys, they likely symbolised a woman’s control of the home. An Old English riddle, number 61 in the Exeter Book of Riddles, includes the following: oft mec fæste bileac freolicu meowle, ides on earce (‘often a free maid, a woman, securely locks me in a chest’). Although the answer to the riddle is not clear – it might refer to a piece of man’s clothing or his helmet as she gives him the speaking object – it shows how women could oversee security in and around the home.

As an aside, it is amusing to see how Victorian translators could not understand how a woman might be in control of a home. An nineteenth-century translation of the Laws of Æthelbert (King of Kent about 590-616) refers to ‘a freeborn woman with long hair’. The Old English original friwif locbore actually means ‘a free-woman lock-keeper’, but as married women could not be homeowners in their own right before the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, early translators were confused. A male locbore would be described as a home-owner, but they could not grasp the idea of a female locbore and assumed, wrongly, that they were being defined by long hair! Women’s status had changed after the Norman Conquest of 1066, when the concept of couverture merged the legal status of a feme sole (‘single woman’) with that of her husband when she married, and she effectively disappeared as a legal entity.

The published paper does not give dimensions or an adequate description of the tweezers, although it describes them as ‘broader than usual’. This may mean that they are a typical early medieval type, which flares towards a broad terminal. Although the publication suggests that they ‘might have served to extract thorns’, they are now thought to be used in personal grooming, for pulling out short hairs (locks again!), craft activities such as sewing, and medical uses, including removing splinters or ticks. Tweezers have a long history in Britain, being first found in the Late Iron Age; early medieval types occur both in female and male medieval graves, mostly with adults.

The publication describes the curved bronze as being 7.5 mm wide, identifying it as the ‘lip of a drinking cup of wood’. Without evidence for the survival of wood, it is also possible that they were mounts for a drinking-horn. If they really are the rim of a drinking vessel of any sort, this raises the question of the sex of the grave’s occupant. All the objects discussed so far are associated with women or with both women and men. Bronze- (or silver-) rimmed vessels seem to accompany male burials; where wooden cups or bowls occur in definitely female burials, any bronze is part of a repair patch. Perhaps this grave is the exception that proves the rule.

The final object recorded is a potsherd. Described as ‘an urn fragment of a coarse brown ware, shewing three bosses on the shoulder pressed out from within and separated by incised vertical lines’, it was clearly an early-medieval buckelurn. These were vessels often used as containers for cremated human bone and were introduced to Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers, the earliest being found in East Anglia, where they are dated about 420-430. Radiocarbon dating suggest that they became less popular after the middle of the sixth century.

The date of the potsherd (about 420-550) agrees with the likely dates of the brooches. There is so far no standard typology for small-long brooches, and none can be dated more closely than within a broad range matching the potsherd, although those with flatter bows, like all three bow brooches from the site, are thought to belong later rather than earlier in the range. The fragmented applied saucer brooch is of identical date. The earliest girdle-hangers are from the later fifth century, and they continued being used into the early seventh. Overall, this suggests a date in the first half of the fifth century for the grave. The date (c 670) given in the Hertfordshire Historic Environment Record, based on a notice in the Transactions of the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, is more than a century too late.

We can thus be certain that the burial was of a woman who died in the first half of the sixth century AD. But where was it? When an oil pipeline from Humberside to Buncefield was proposed in 1990, it ran just to the east Darley Hall. As a result, the developer, Petrofina, commissioned a geophysical survey, carried out by Geophysical Surveys Ltd (Bradford), which failed to reveal anything resembling a cemetery. Further south, close to Winch Hill Farm, the investigation of a group of anomalies revealed a previously unknown Romano-British site with dating evidence from the second to fourth centuries, too early to be associated with the burial.

One possible clue to the location is that there is a group of hollows northwest of Breachwood Green and east of Darley Hall, marked ‘Old Clay Pits’ on the 1898 25-inch Ordnance Survey map surveyed in 1897, and they have been joined by a new pit to the south by 1937, when a new 2½ map was surveyed. This is where St Mary’s Rise was later built (perhaps in the late 1950s). By 1959, there were three more pits, further to the south, showing that extraction continued here throughout the early twentieth century.

The fact that they were clay pits offers an explanation for why the workers failed to spot a skeleton. Calculating a pH value measures the relative acidity of a soil, where 7 is neutral and the lower the number below that, the more acidic: clay ranges between about 5 and 7.5, and most local clays tend to the acidic side. In such circumstances, bone preservation is poor and can degrade to the point where non-specialists will not even recognise it.

What was notable at the time of discovery – and remains so to this day – is the rarity of burials of this character in Hertfordshire. Usually seen as the graves of incoming settlers from northern Europe, often inaccurately referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxons’, recent studies of DNA and stable isotopes in teeth have shown that many female burials of this type are of local women, descendants of the Romano-British population. The quality of the finds shows that she was a member of a wealthy family and that whatever ethnic identity we want to push onto her, this was not an issue for her contemporaries.

She may have considered herself a Briton or an Angle: we will never know. In many ways, this is an unimportant distinction. In looking for the origins of England, it is now clear that the early medieval English were a mixture of people of different ancestries, some whose families had been in Britain for centuries, even millennia, some who had made the perilous journey across the North Sea, some who had come from further west and some who had come the Mediterranean region.

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews