Two years ago, I put together a small exhibition for Baldock Museum on Roman Baldock. It meant not only choosing a selection of interesting objects not on display in North Hertfordshire Museum but also writing the text for panels on the wall. I wrote enough to put into a leaflet, which I intended to make available at the Museum. As well as telling the story of the ancient town and its people, it contained a brief catalogue of the artefacts in the cases. It so happened that the exhibition coincided with a major programme of work on Baldock Town Hall, which meant that the Museum was closed for a long stretch during the year it was supposed to be on open.
Now that North Hertfordshire Museum is also temporarily closed, it seems a good idea to make the leaflet available for people to read. It explains how the ancient settlement has been revealed over the past hundred years. Beginning with remote prehistory, it looks at why the settlement came to grow up in the hollow between the hills of North Hertfordshire. The main part of the leaflet talks about the development and decline of the Roman town, looking especially at its people and their beliefs. The catalogue gives further insights into the history of Baldock. There are 22 A5 pages in all.
Walkern may not be part of North Hertfordshire (although Box Wood in the north-western corner of the modern parish was a manor at the time of Domesday Book, part of which now lies in the North Hertfordshire parish of Weston), but I have been helping out its Local History Society for three years. My role has been to advise their project of test-pitting across the village, which is currently on hold because of the CoViD-19 outbreak. Last year, I gave the Society a talk summarising what had been discovered during three seasons of test-pitting across the village; the document you can download at the end is an expanded version of that talk.
The historical background
Walkern is a parish in Broadwater Hundred (one of the ancient divisions of Hertfordshire), first recorded as Walchra in Domesday Book. The name is Old English wealc-ærn, ‘a fulling mill’; these were sometimes known as ‘walk mills’ (wealc-ærn means ‘walk-house’) and were water-mills where cloth was thickened by being pounded. Intriguingly, Domesday Book does not mention a mill, but the mills it records elsewhere were usually flour-mills, as these were a source of revenue for the lord of the manor. The current water-mill at the south end of the village, where the main road crosses the River Beane, was built in 1828 but one is known to have existed early in the twelfth century when its revenue was granted to the parish church.
Writing in 1700, Sir Henry Chauncy wrongly, but picturesquely, gave the etymology as being ‘from the moist and ousing Springs which reinforce the River of Bean or Benefician, with a Stream that driveth a Mill out at the South End of the Town; for Wall in the Saxon Language signifies a most or watry Place; and ’tis recorded in the time of William the Conqueror under the Title of Terra Tainorum Regis.’
The church had pre-Norman origins, and it may have been the minster serving the territory of the Beningas, a people who gave their name to Benington. It became a barony under Henry I, with a castle. There was a medieval deer park of over 300 acres. The bad weather and cattle murrain of 1341 led to hardship, with large areas of the open field left unploughed.
Archaeological data is an important but often misunderstood element in local history. To many people, it is a collection of pretty finds; to others, it is an impenetrable mass of data about prehistoric times. Needless to say, both views are completely wrong. Archaeologists study the physical remains of the past, be they artefacts (including the pretty finds, if any exist), buildings, excavated pits and so on. They may be hundreds of thousands of years old or they may be only thirty years old: age is not important. The basic aim is to put all this data into a chronological sequence and to investigate what it can tell us about the past.
When looking at the archaeology of a single place, the best place to start is to see what is contained in the Historic Environment Record (or HER: they used to be known as Sites and Monuments Records or SMRs). This is a database maintained by the County Council’s Historic Environment Unit, which is used to help planners make decisions about the suitability of development applications.
The Hertfordshire HER for Walkern contained 109 entries when the test-pit project was launched in 2017. Over half of the information about the village came from cropmarks (33) and surviving buildings (24). Only 13 finds had been recorded, while only eight archaeological features had been excavated or recognised in foundation trenches.
Adding in data from the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (finds.org.uk) gives 78 extra data points. Most of these (41) are post-medieval in date (after about 1540); there is one prehistoric object, eight Roman, one ‘central medieval’ (about 800-1100), seven high medieval (1100-1350), eight late medieval (1350-1540) and 12 late medieval to post-medieval (1350-1700).
This is not a lot of data overall. There is almost nothing about prehistory (a possible prehistoric ditch has been recorded, while several cropmarks may show the ditches of ploughed-out burial mounds) and even the Roman period can boast just over a dozen entries when it is often one of the best represented periods. So, is it possible to say anything about the development of Walkern through time? With the results of test pits carried out across the village, we can begin to build the outline of a story.
The story of this burial, excavated in Baldock in 1989, is one of a real person who was a child when the Roman invasion of Britain happened and who died around AD 70. It shows how we can engage with the humanity of the distant past and why excavating burials is not just ‘grave robbing’ but an important way of learning about people.
The woman’s family lived in the Roman town of Baldock, where she had been born; we don’t know what it was called just as we don’t know the woman’s name. It was a prosperous market town, where farmers from nearby villages could bring their produce to sell and buy manufactured goods. Some were made locally, in the town itself, but others were traded across the whole of the Roman Empire. The townspeople were comfortably off and had a good standard of living. The town had an unusually large number of cemeteries, though not all of them were in use at the same time. Some graves contained people’s skeletons while others held the ashes that are left after a cremation, sometimes in a container or sometimes in a pile at the bottom of the grave pit. Some of the cemeteries were formal affairs, with fences or hedges, paths and memorial buildings. Others were just collections of graves in a corner of land or next to a roadside.
During the building of the Clothall Common estate in Baldock from 1980 onward, several of these cemeteries were discovered and excavated by archaeologists from Letchworth Museum, including the writer. The oldest date from about 50 BC and some continued to be used after AD 500. One of these cemeteries was excavated before Stane Street was built in 1989. It was a triangular cemetery that lay between two roads. It contained almost 100 graves, dating from about 10 BC to AD 100.
All but one of the burials consisted of skeletons. Most of them were laid on their backs in the grave, their heads at the north-eastern end. A few were in more unusual positions, laid on their sides with their knees bent or carefully arranged in very large graves. One grave contained the skeleton of a woman who had been laid to rest on her right side with her left arm bent at the elbow and her hand in front of her. Her head lay at the south end. Early on in excavating her grave, the tiny bones of a newborn baby became visible behind her right shoulder.
This made those of us working on site that day think that both she and her baby might have died during childbirth, which happened to a lot of women before modern medicine was available. Then, in cleaning between her hips, the bones of a second baby were found. It was stuck inside the mother’s birth canal the wrong way round; this is known as a ‘breach birth’ and was obviously the reason she had died. At this point, we began to think that she was the mother of twins. It was only when the archaeologists excavating the grave cleaned around her left hip bone that the bones of a third baby were found, still inside the woman’s body so no-one would have known that she was expecting triplets.
Later examination of the bones showed that she died when she was 40 years old, give or take a year or two. This was old for a Romano-British woman to be having children, as most became mothers when they were in their late teens. She was in good health and strong, although she had recently suffered an ankle sprain, and it was a problem with childbirth that caused her early death. All three babies were about a month premature, so she may have gone into labour unexpectedly. She certainly had no help from a doctor or midwife during the birth, as they had tools that would have helped her and probably saved her life. A few years later, a man in his 50s or 60s was buried across the top, his head resting above her outstretched left hand. Was he her husband and the father of the babies?
We know that there were doctors and midwives in Roman Britain who could have saved the mother, though probably not the babies. Unfortunately, good doctors in the Roman world were expensive and in days before there was anything like a National Health Service, only the very wealthy could afford decent medical treatment. Although the woman’s family was comfortably off, it wasn’t rich enough to afford a doctor. It’s more puzzling that she seems not to have been helped by a midwife and we can try to think of reasons why she wasn’t. Was she perhaps stuck out in a farmhouse a long way from town, with her family doing business in the market, so that when they returned, it was too late to get help? The babies weren’t expected for another month, after all. Or perhaps the midwives were busy with other people’s babies. We will never know the answer to these questions.
Her sad death is the first recorded case of triplets from anywhere in the world and we only know about them because all four died at the same time. Her reconstructed face is the first time we have been able to see what an ancient inhabitant of Baldock looked like. This is one of those cases where archaeology brings us into the stories of everyday life and death in the past.
18 March @ 4:30 pm - 10 June @ 5:00 pm