Cambourne

3300 homes are being constructed at Cambourne3300 homes are being constructed at Cambourne
A record of over 1,000 years of uninterrupted settlement has been discovered in a huge archaeological excavation across six square kilometres (almost two and a half square miles) near Cambridge.
 
Up to 35 archaeologists have worked on and off for seven years at the site at Cambourne, nine miles west of the city, in advance of the construction of a new settlement with 3,300 homes.
 
Cambourne has given Wessex Archaeology, which carried out the work, an insight into the way the land was used in the Iron Age, during the Roman occupation and through to Saxon times to grow crops and keep animals, and how the Celts lived both before and after the Roman invasion.
 
This female head forms part of the spout of a Roman flagon.This female head forms part of the spout of a Roman flagon.
The objects found at Cambourne include a collection of Roman domestic items, dating mainly to the 4th century and including cutlery, keys, tweezers, brooches and pins.
 
Cambourne is remarkable for the fact that we have evidence of settlement in the same place from about 800BC to 800AD. Archaeologists rarely get such an extended picture of the use of the landscape.
 
This is made even more remarkable for the fact that no one expected anything to be found at Cambourne – archaeologists had first thought that no settlement existed on the thick clay soils until Medieval times.
 
This project site gives more details of work on what is one of the largest sites ever excavated in Britain.
 
View an online exhibition of this site
 

Archive

The archive for this project has now been deposited with Cambridgeshire County Council Heritage Services.

The background

View of the Cambourne development. Photo courtesy of Rog Palmer, Air Photo ServicesView of the Cambourne development. Photo courtesy of Rog Palmer, Air Photo Services
 
The expansion of high-tech industries in Cambridge (known informally as “Silicon Valley”) has brought a demand for more housing in the county. Developers have considered options for building since the 1980s.
 
In 1998 work began on constructing 3,300 homes by a developers’ consortium, now comprising Bovis Homes, Bryant Homes and George Wimpey. This will continue until about 2009.
 
Under planning procedures, developers must ensure before work begins that no archaeological remains will be destroyed by construction. So in 1989, years before the builders began putting up the first homes, Wessex’s staff started their work.
 
Aerial view of one of our excavations at Cambourne. Photo courtesy of Rog Palmer, Air Photo ServicesAerial view of one of our excavations at Cambourne. Photo courtesy of Rog Palmer, Air Photo Services
 
The initial phase was to produce what archaeologists call a desk-top assessment. This is an investigation of records of all the archaeological finds and important sites near the area where the houses are to be put up.
 
This assessment found that nothing of any great interest had been found at or near to the Cambourne site, and predicted there was little chance of anything being found under the ground. However, because the site was so large the county council recommended further investigation.
 
One of Wessex Archaeology's staff excavating a feature.One of Wessex Archaeology's staff excavating a feature.
Wessex Archaeology then carried out what archaeologists call an evaluation, in which a mechanical excavator was used to dig a series of trial trenches 50 metres long and two metres wide across parts of the site to see if anything lay below that would warrant a full excavation.
 
Three years of work and two hundred trenches revealed nothing, until one day in November 1999 when Vaughan Birbeck, a senior project officer, came across evidence of ditches dug during the Iron Age and Roman periods. These quite clearly showed that there had been a substantial settlement nearby. Other trenches he dug later showed more evidence of ditches and enclosures.
 
Cambourne was clearly not the archaeological desert people had assumed, and it was time to look closer at the site.
 
Now a total of 724 trenches have been dug, and 20 hectares (50 acres) of land excavated within an area of 600 hectares. The results of this huge investigation have intrigued archaeologists since.

 

1000 years of farming

Bronze Age (c800BC)

The beginning of human activity at Cambourne can be dated approximately to the Late Bronze Age (c800BC). We found some pieces of pottery and charred grain, chaff and hazelnut fragments, indicating that crops were grown and used here. The evidence suggests that the area was forested and that people had cut clearings and built farmsteads from around 800BC.
 

Iron Age (700BC-AD43)

Reconstruction of ploughing in the Iron AgeReconstruction of ploughing in the Iron Age
But it was from 700BC onwards, during the Iron Age, that intensive farming at the site developed. The Celts who lived in the area farmed fields of wheat, grew peas and beans, ate hazelnuts and fruit, and erected enclosures for settlements and droveways for their animals. We found the bones of sheep, cows and goats, and a few of pigs,horses and dogs.
 
The enclosures were areas of land enclosed by ditches; from the shells of snails we found in them, we know these ditches were frequently filled with water, telling us something about the climate at the time.
 
Iron Age / Roman enclosure with roundhouse. This site is known as "The Grange".Iron Age / Roman enclosure with roundhouse. This site is known as "The Grange".
Inside the enclosures were one or two round-houses about 15 metres (50 feet) across. These were made from wattle and daub (wooden stakes interwoven with twigs and smeared with mud to form a solid surface), and with a thatched roof. Inside would live a family and some of their animals, sometimes together in one large room, sometimes with the animals in a separate area. Some of the round-houses had hearths where fires were burnt. In all, 24 round-houses from this time were found at Cambourne in six small dispersed farmsteads. It is possible that a Celtic chieftain owned the land as part of a large estate and organised the landscape.
 
The evidence of the daily life of these Celtic farmers turned up as Wessex Archaeology staff dug the trenches. Pottery typical of this period was found, as were a bone needle, two ceramic loom weights for weaving cloth, and pieces of broken querns (a stone used to grind cereals by hand).
 

Roman period (AD43-410)

Reconstruction of an Iron Age roundhouse at Butser Ancient Farm, Petersfield, HampshireReconstruction of an Iron Age roundhouse at Butser Ancient Farm, Petersfield, Hampshire
What makes Cambourne interesting for archaeologists is the evidence for both continuity and change in the landscape. Although archaeological evidence is sparse for the first century of Roman occupation (which began in AD43), we know that by AD150 people were farming, often using the same settlements as before, though their enclosures were now more regular in shape and the field boundaries were altered.
 
As well as using the same farms, the Britons under Roman rule continued to farm in the same way, growing crops and keeping animals, mainly sheep, goats and pigs. We know something about the way they farmed from finding a ploughshare and a sickle. We found evidence of the droveways that they used to move their animals from paddocks into the fields and back.
 
In what is an unusual development, the local people adopted some aspects of Roman culture but decided they would stay true to their own traditions in other areas.
 
They were happy to use Roman pottery and glassware and to begin to eat off flat dishes, to use olive oil from Spain and to cook stews in pots. However, unlike most Britons in Roman Britain, they continued to live in round-houses built in the same way as they did before the Romans came. Though they would have seen the usual Roman style of housing for peasants – square buildings with mortar or earthen floors and wooden walls – they kept to the old ways. It is not the case that the Britons living here knew little of the Roman culture for the site was a few miles from the Roman road, Ermine Street, which ran from London to York. The people living here would have seen the fruits of trade from across the Roman Empire and beyond, but deliberately chose not to adopt the Roman style of housing.
 
The Roman pottery found at the site included Samian cups and bowls from central Gaul and Spanish amphorae (large two-handled jar used to hold wine or oil). Also found on the site were everyday items like nails and hobnails, keys, brooches, a finger ring, a hairpin, spoons and knives. Three impressive pewter plates were the most expensive objects found. However, for a settlement this size, the number of finds is relatively few and tells us that the general rise in prosperity in rural Britain in the later Roman period didn’t reach the people living at Cambourne.
 
As time passed the use of the landscape changed – we know this from our discovery of about a dozen skeletons from the later Roman period. One was of a man whose head had been removed from his body after death, a common burial practice in Roman times whose meaning is obscure. Often the head is placed with the body but in this case it was never found. In another part of the site, several skeletons were found in a ditch, and elsewhere some skeletons were found which had been placed in coffins which have since rotted away – this tells us that disused parts of the farms were being used as cemeteries in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
 

Saxon and Medieval (AD410-15th century)

The farmsteads that had been occupied for more than a millennium were still used after the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century. By the ninth century, however, the landscape was changing and people across Britain were beginning to move from isolated settlements into villages, to places like Caxton in the case of people living on the Cambourne site.
 
Medieval ploughs destroyed almost all the archaeological evidence in the area, so our knowledge of this period is patchy, but we believe the land had been turned into regular strip fields where villagers grew their crops until the land was enclosed and farmed privately in the first half of the 19th century and farmhouses were built.

The Finds

The objects found at Cambourne will be given to a local museum or library for display so that everyone can see them. Wessex Archaeology’s work at the site is coming to an end and its final detailed report on its findings will be written and a copy given to the local council to put in its Sites and Monuments record (SMR). View more finds on our Cambourne gallery on Flickr.
Roman PotteryRoman Pottery

Roman GlassRoman Glass

Roman pewterRoman pewter
Head of a Roman ladyHead of a Roman lady MetalworkMetalwork

 

A small selection of finds are displayed above. Click the images to see a larger photograph and a detailed description.

 

A selection of Roman pottery from Cambourne

A selection of Roman pottery from the siteA selection of Roman pottery from the site

 

1-2 Small drinking vessels (cups)

The grey one (2) was probably made locally to the north of Peterborough while the red "samian" cup was imported from Gaul (France).
 

3-7 Kitchen vessels

5&6 were probably storage vessels for dry goods such as flour or pulses although 5 may also have been used over a fire as a saucepan. 3&7 were also cooking vessels. Vessels of this type may have been used together, the shallow dish (7) being inverted and used as a lid over the deeper bowl (3) as a casserole. (4) is of slightly higher quality and represents a medium-quality vessel between the range of coarse cooking/storage pots and the fine table-wares such as (1).

Metalwork

MetalworkMetalwork

Items of personal jewelery and personal adornment
All are made of copper alloy. The brooches (2, 3, 4 & 9) are all of 1st century AD date while items such as the tweezers (1), hair pins (5) and finger rings (6 & 7) were used throughout the Roman period.
 
The girdle hanger (8) was a symbol of the status of a Saxon lady. It would have hung from her belt, a symbol of her position as a wife and mistress of a household.

Pottery head of a Roman lady

Roman FlagonRoman Flagon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This head forms part of the spout of a Roman flagon. It dates from about the 4th century AD, and it was made in the Nene Valley, north of Peterborough. It was found at the Jeavons Lane site at Cambourne.

It is not certain who the head is meant to represent.

Roman Pewter

Roman PewterRoman Pewter

These two pewter plates and the smaller, deeper dish are likely to have been deliberately buried as a "hoard", for safety and later retrieval.
 
They date to the later 3rd or more probably 4th century AD and are relatively rare and unusual finds because pewter (and other metal) vessels would generally be melted down and the metal reused when they became damaged or their owners did not want them any more.

Roman glass

Roman GlassRoman Glass

Pieces from one of five complete glass vessels (this jug, 3 cylindrical bottles and 1 hexagonal bottle) found inside a very large pottery jar at Lower Cambourne Green. The glass and pottery are all of a very late 3rd or 4th century date.
 
Although found in pieces, the glass vessels were probably complete when buried, presumably for safe-keeping but never collected, although it is possible that they were offered to the gods.

Site Photos

Click the images below to view a larger version

 

The Grange, Cambourne, Iron Age / Roman enclosureThe Grange, Cambourne, Iron Age / Roman enclosure
800 years of occupation: Iron Age and Roman village. The brown stripes are Saxon and   Medieval ridge and furrow. The black lines are Roman features.800 years of occupation: Iron Age and Roman village. The brown stripes are Saxon and Medieval ridge and furrow. The black lines are Roman features.
Archaeologist at work: A large team of archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology have  worked at Cambourne for over four years.Archaeologist at work: A large team of archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology have worked at Cambourne for over four years.
Housing under development: Up to 35 archaeologists have worked on and off for seven years at the site at Cambourne nine miles west of Cambridge in advance of the construction of a new settlement with 3,300 homes.Housing under development: Up to 35 archaeologists have worked on and off for seven years at the site at Cambourne nine miles west of Cambridge in advance of the construction of a new settlement with 3,300 homes.
Cambourne from the air: This photograph shows the Cambourne development from the air.Cambourne from the air: This photograph shows the Cambourne development from the air.
Excavations: Excavation and recording of a large ditch.Excavations: Excavation and recording of a large ditch.
Trial trenchesTrial trenches
   

 

eBook: Cambourne New Settlement

Cambourne New Settlement front coverCambourne New Settlement front coverTwelve excavations were carried out by Wessex Archaeology within the Cambourne Development Area. Situated on the clay uplands west of Cambridge, which have seen little previous archaeological investigation, the results presented here are important in demonstrating the ebb and flow of occupation according to population or agricultural pressure.
 
Short-lived Bronze Age occupation was followed in the Middle Iron Age by small farming communities with an economy based on stock-raising and some arable cultivation. The Late Iron Age seems to have seen a recession, perhaps partly due to increased waterlogging making farming less viable.
 
From the mid-1st century AD new settlements began to emerge, possibly partly stimulated by the presence of Ermine Street, and within a century the area was relatively densely occupied. Several farmsteads were remodelled in the later Romano-British period, though none seems to have been very prosperous.
 
Dispersed occupation may have continued into the early 5th century at least, followed by a hiatus until the 12th/13th century when the entire area was taken into arable cultivation, leaving the ubiquitous traces of medieval ridge and furrow agriculture.
 
Download a PDF (3.5MB) of the book.

Cambourne New Settlement: Iron Age and Romano-British settlement on the clay uplands of west Cambridgeshire... by Wessex Archaeology

Cambourne New Settlement - Specialist Reports

This section contains specialist reports for the book Cambourne New Settlement - Iron Age and Romano-British settlement on the clay uplands of west Cambridgeshire (ISBN: 978-1-874350-49-1)
 

Specialist Appendices to accompany the book

To read these reports online follow this link.
to download these reports is PDF documents click on the links below.

Exhibition

Archaeology at Cambourne by Wessex Archaeology