Layers of history dating from the Bronze Age to World War II trenches have been uncovered at one of the largest archaeological excavations in Britain - the site for the University of Cambridge’s £1 billion North West Cambridge Development. 

 

Experts from Cambridge Archaeological Unit who are leading the dig have uncovered five separate cemeteries, two funerary monuments, two Roman roads, ring-ditch ‘circles’ and thousands of finds including some 30 cremation urns, 25 skeletons, a military spearhead and an array of brooches, plus quantities of slag attesting to significant iron-working. They believe the site was first colonised for settlement in the Middle Bronze Age (c.1500BC) and subsequently saw Iron Age settlement (c.500BC-50AD); in Roman times (c.60-350AD) it would have been an optimum locale.

 

Christopher Evans, head of the archaeological unit leading the dig said: “The scale and scope of excavation work has not been attempted before. For more than a millennium, the landscape of the site has been uninterrupted farmland: we have discovered that vibrant prehistoric settlements inhabited the land and settlements grew with complexity in the Roman age.” 

120,000 cubic meters of topsoil has been moved and the excavation area covers 14 hectares of the 150-hectare development site for North West Cambridge and it is believed that the dig will uncover a landscape larger than Roman Cambridge itself. Complex networks of communities and the road alignments that have been discovered provide insights into the nature of the Roman landscape. Archaeologists believe the countryside was lattice-like, criss-crossed with roads and trackways that linked up with its many farms and settlements.

The surprise discovery for the team was an unusual series of zig-zag pattern ditches which are evidently World War II practice trenches. Their near-lightning like layout is reflective of the preparations for Cambridge’s defence in the early years of the war. 

 

Evans said: “In anticipation of what is destined to become a lively international University-community place we find that there had been a vibrant later prehistoric and Roman place, with a crossroads and probably a small market at its centre. Somewhere that was evidently once a thriving place in its own right is about to become one again! It all testifies that things change and that archaeology often erodes long-held landscape stereotypes: it’s part of what makes fieldwork so exciting.”

 

Cambridge Archaeological Unit is hosting a Roman Street Party where re-enactors, catapults and artifacts will be available for families and interested individuals to explore and enjoy. The event is the first Public Engagement event for the North West Cambridge development and is part of the Cambridge Science Festival. It takes place on Saturday 23 March 1100-1600 at the North West Cambridge development site (no parking available). 

 

Key points

1) In-land gravel ridge landscape was first colonised during the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1500 BC), when it saw settlement paddocks and funerary monuments; this followed by low density Iron Age settlement (c.500BC to AD50).

2) Incredible scale of Roman settlement (c.60 to 350AD) along the gravel ridge, with its communities farming along its flanking claylands. Part of site’s complexity (i.e. twisting alignments) relates to the fact that it was organised around different three road alignments - two being new discoveries - and this attests to the importance of between-settlement communication and transportation links within the Roman countryside. 

3) Extensive evidence of Roman industry, especially ironworking. The green and pleasant rolling farmland that has come, in historic and recent times, to characterise the West Cambridge lands was not always so. Certainly for the some three hundred years of its Roman utilisation - if not well before - it was a vibrant place in its own right, and which it is destined to become again through the University’s North West Cambridge development.