archaeology

You will have seen, if you follow our blog or have come on one of our tours, that many staff are busy at work behind the scenes making preparations for the new museum. This does not mean, however, that we have withdrawn from the wider world. The “Discovering Ickleford” Heritage Lottery Funded project has recently involved our Learning Officer Cas and Cultural Services Manager Ros working with the local community and schoolchildren there. David Hodges, one of our curators, is working with local football clubs to develop a travelling exhibition about the history of football in the area to go with some of the fantastic objects in the football collection. Our Archaeology Officer, Keith, is out on the annual dig with the Norton Community Archaeology Group exploring the site of a Bronze Age Henge.

hidden landscapes exhibition poster

Hidden Landscapes Exhibition Poster

One of the other projects in which we have had some involvement is culminating in a exhibition which opens on 9th August. “Hidden Landscapes” presents the findings from the Hidden Landscapes Project, carried our by visual artist Christina Bryant. Christina spent 12 months exploring chosen sites located along the urban fringes of Letchworth Garden City. Her interest is in the spaces that straddle the urban and the country, the ‘wilderness’ that lies just beyond the codes and surveillance of the town. Her focus was on areas showing evidence of current or recent human occupation, recording, mapping and surveying the rubbish and debris from the selected locations. She met with me, as a museum curator, to talk about curation and display of objects, and worked closely with our archaeology officer Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews in order to understand and use the painstaking methods of an archaeologist to help explore what links us with our everyday landscape.

The exhibition runs from 9th – 30th August at the Letchworth Arts Centre, and on August 15 at 7.00, Christina will be at the Letchworth Arts Centre speaking about what she has uncovered. The exhibition is a fascinating blend of drawings, maps and finds from the various sites which include: Norton Common, the old quarry on Wilbury Hills and the A1(M) underpass.

Christina is keen to get local people involved with the project as much as possible. In addition to the exhibition, she is organising a ‘wilderness excavation’ at one of the sites on Saturday 17th August, 2-4pm, which anyone will be welcome to attend. This will give people a chance first hand to experience her project.

 

A Roman marble head

A Roman marble head, found in a shed in Radwell; it is a portrait of Germanicus, who died in AD 19, twenty-four years before the Roman conquest

This is the title of a talk I gave last night for the Hitchin Society as part of the Hitchin Festival. I have given a talk every year since 2004, when I started in my post with North Hertfordshire Museums, and each time I try to highlight a different aspect of Hitchin’s fascinating past. As the years have gone by, I have widened the scope to include the rest of North Hertfordshire, focusing on the buried sites and standing buildings that contribute to understanding our history. This year, though, I decided to do something different.

As my work is now much more focused on the objects in our collections, as we prepare for the displays in the new museum, I decided that this is what I would talk about. These are the “small things” of my title, a term inspired by the pioneering work of American historical archaeology, In Small Things Forgotten, by James Deetz, originally published in 1977. James Deetz used the often overlooked details of archaeological finds to piece together narratives to cover gaps in the story of how the Thirteen English Colonies became the United States of America.

A Dressel 1A amphora, dating to before 100 BC, found in a chieftain's grave in Baldock: it is the oldest Roman amphora found in Britain

A Dressel 1A amphora, dating to before 100 BC, found in a chieftain’s grave in Baldock: it is the oldest Roman amphora found in Britain

I wanted to look at a longer chronological sweep, from the invasion of Julius Caesar in 55 BC through to the present day. This is a period when we think we understand how and why things changed, when we slice history up into over-neat categories such as Roman Britain, the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, Norman England and so on. Worse, from my point of view, is when we talk about these periods as if each one is populated by a different ‘people’: “the Romans”, “the Anglo-Saxons”, “the Normans”, “the Tudors”. Using labels in this way can make it seem as if there was a discrete time from 1485 to 1603 when everyone thought of themselves as “Tudor”, for instance: know that they did not.

Life doesn’t work like that. For the most part, the world changes slowly and imperceptibly. Things that can seem like dramatic events – the Roman invasion of AD 43, the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 – because they figure so prominently in our histories rarely affect the lives of ordinary people. This is where the “small things” help to correct the picture we get if we rely on documents alone.

Looking at the objects in our collections, we can see how the changes that really do affect people take place gradually, over many years. In other words, they are processes that transform lives almost without being noticed. During the ninety-eight years between Julius Caesar and Claudius’s conquest, North Hertfordshire was in no sense part of the Roman Empire, yet people began to use Roman style objects, importing goods from places that were inside the Empire. Our kings issued coins with legends in Latin, people began to use samian ware for dining, they drank wine that they served in pottery flagons. By the time that the Roman “conquest” occurred, local people were so thoroughly “Romanised” that we can’t detect the conquest archaeologically. Our region has no forts and no military remains because there was no need to coerce people into being “Roman”: to a large extent they already were and they may even have welcomed the conquest.

A Roman cogwheel bracelet; popular in the fourth century, the type is found along the Danube and Rhine frontiers as well as in Britain

A Roman cogwheel bracelet; popular in the fourth century, the type is found along the Danube and Rhine frontiers as well as in Britain

The same story can be seen at the other end of the Roman period, when trade with the Empire shifted from across the English Channel to across the North Sea, initially to the Rhineland. During the fourth century, there was increasing trade with Free Germany, outside the Empire. Mercenaries recruited from this area served in the army in Britain (the largest standing army in the Roman world by that time) and some may have brought families with them who settled permanently in Britain. By the fifth century, when Roman rule came to an end, germanic decoration was commonplace on a whole range of objects and this process continued as more settlers (whom we would call Anglo-Saxons at this period) arrived to join those already here.

The “small things” of our collections show that our neat period labels may be convenient – as human beings, we love to categorise the world around us – but they don’t reflect historical reality all that well. This is part of the challenge we face for telling the story of our District in the new museum: choosing appropriate and interesting “small things” that will engage and challenge our visitors.

On Wednesday 5 June 2013, I was telephoned by a Mr King, who explained that a deep hole had appeared in his brother’s field in Kelshall, 4.8 km (3 miles) south-west of the centre of Royston. It had appeared during the beet harvest earlier in the year and the harvester had almost fallen into it. As it was close to a public footpath, the brothers were concerned that it might pose a danger to walkers (as well as hindering their ability to farm the field). They were keen to get an opinion on what it might be, so I arranged to visit the site on the morning of 7 June.

On the day of my visit, there was only a low growth of crop in the field, around 25 cm high, but this was enough to make the hole invisible from all angles. It only became visible as a slight depression in the field surface from around ten metres away. This alone made it dangerous, as it would be easy to stumble into it in poor light, especially if one were not paying attention: a running dog would be even more vulnerable.

kelshall_well

The hole in the King brothers’ field at Kelshall

The hole proved to be a vertical shaft cut directly into the chalk. It was circular and had a diameter of around a metre. Above the chalk, there was a depth of about 70 cm of topsoil over the top of the chalk, more than double what I would expect in a ploughed field at the highest point in the village. This gives a valuable clue about the nature of the shaft. The bottom of the cut could not be seen in the strong June morning sunlight, so Mr King and I tied a stone to a measuring tape I had brought with me and we lowered it into the hole; it hit something solid at a depth of about 4.3 m, although I learned from the farmer that when it had first appeared, he had measured it as more than seven metres deep.

The edges of the shaft were clearly deliberately cut, with blade marks visible in places. This rules out a natural explanation, such as a sinkhole. At the same time, there were no hints that it had ever been lined, either with bricks or timber. No datable objects were visible in the soil around the top of the hole.

Cropmarks at Kelshall showing the location of an abandoned settlement

Cropmarks at Kelshall showing the location of an abandoned settlement

There were already clues about what the hole might be. Aerial photographs have revealed cropmarks of linear ditches, including a possible ditched trackway, running through the field, recorded in the Hertfordshire Historic Environment Record as number 6218. The field immediately to the west has also revealed cropmarks, including pits and ditches (Historic Environment Record number 16981). These suggest that this hilltop was formerly the site of human habitation and the presence of a ditched trackway suggests that it might have been occupied during the Roman period (AD 43 to 411).

This makes sense of the feature. During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Roman wells were investigated at Clothall Common in Baldock, most of which had the same character as this hole: cut directly into the chalk bedrock with no lining, at least, not below the topsoil. Most of them had been left at least partly open when the well stopped being used to obtain water (perhaps when the water turned sour, as can happen), and the top would gradually erode and fall into the shaft. This creates a cone (known as a “weathering cone”) around the top of the well: this is what made the topsoil appear unusually deep in this example, as we were looking at the soil inside the weathering cone, not just the topsoil.

So the King brothers have a Roman settlement on their land. The abandoned well, which had probably never been filled in properly, suddenly appeared in their field when the fills at the top suddenly slumped and fell to the bottom of the shaft. In looking at the aerial photographs, it is possible to see the position of the well in relation to the buried ditches. It appears to have lain close to the track through the settlement, which seems to have been more extensive than a single farmstead. We have a new Roman village to add to the map, thanks to Mr King!