The story of Cambridgeshire’s coverage in Current Archaeology is an exceptionally rich one. In undertaking my background research for this latest column, I had my pick of sites spanning prehistory to the 20th century, right up to the excavation of a crashed Second World War Spitfire featured in CA 312 (March 2016). That issue also had one of the best-known prehistoric sites in the county on its front cover – that of Must Farm, a real superstar site to which I will return in a moment. There are several large-scale surveys, too, of projects that have impacted widely on our understanding of the county’s archaeology, most notably that in CA 339 (June 2018), when improvement works along the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon allowed archaeologists to investigate the landscape on a vast scale.
Finds and fury among the Fens
I have previously told the story of perhaps the most celebrated site in the county: Flag Fen, near Peterborough (CA 336, March 2018). That site, along with the similarly dated Must Farm – see CA 263 (February 2012), CA 312 (March 2016), and CA 319 (October 2016) – speaks to the extraordinary prehistoric riches that lie beneath the Fenlands to the north of the county. The ‘pre-prehistory’ of the archaeology of Flag Fen is worth examining for those interested in our discipline’s origin stories, for before Flag Fen there was the Fengate Project, which featured in, among others, CA 17 (November 1969), CA 46 (September 1974), and CA 56 (May 1976). You can also enjoy a wide-ranging review of Francis Pryor’s work around the Peterborough area in our celebratory special edition (CA 300, March 2015).
Beyond these most-famous sites and names, though, there is much more to reveal. The Fens hold many secrets, and CA 172 (a ‘wetland archaeology’ special from February 2001), CA 325 (on ‘fenland rituals’; April 2017), and CA 332 (on Anglo-Saxon settlement in the area; November 2017) are all worth a read if this particular landscape and locale is your preference. Similar prehistoric sites of note also featured in CA 264 (March 2012), examining the appropriately named Clay Farm Bronze Age complex to the south of Cambridge, while right up on the Cambridgeshire–Northamptonshire border lies Maxey: a huge Neolithic henge, 126m in diameter, that was part of a local landscape of such features, including at nearby Etton (see CA 96, April 1985). Current Archaeology paid repeated visits to Pryor’s fieldwork at Maxey across the 1970s, including in issues 18 (January 1970), 45 (July 1974), 49 (March 1975), and 77 (May 1981). In stark contrast, the magazine featured a very different Fenland news story in issues 258 (September 2011) and 260 (November 2011), when the then-leader of the local council, Alan Melton, challenged the requirement for archaeology to be undertaken within the planning system, a story that briefly hit the national press when he commented that: ‘The bunny huggers won’t like this, but if they wish to inspect a site, they can do it when the footings are being dug out’.
Change and continuity in the Roman landscape
There is a tremendous diversity of sites to choose from in CA’s coverage of Roman Cambridgeshire over the years, so the best that I can do is to provide some tasters of this richness to entice readers to explore further in their own time. For example, from the earlier years of the magazine, there are wonderfully evocative updates on the ‘rescue’ archaeology of Roman settlements at Godmanchester (CA 16, September 1969), Cambridge (CA 61, April 1978), and Stonea near March in the north-east of the county (CA 81, March 1981). The first of these featured the examination of a larger Roman settlement (including a fort, bathhouse, villa, and other ‘high-status’ features); the second reported on the remarkable discovery of a Roman ‘shrine’ with intriguing evidence of Iron Age to Roman transition; and the third covered a perplexing site where a massive Roman foundation was discovered which must have supported a very tall tower, and which again may have been linked to an Iron Age settlement only 200 yards away.
More recently, CA 269 (August 2012) featured a previously unknown Roman villa in Peterborough (again with intriguing Iron Age evidence), while CA 295 (October 2014) offered an extraordinary insight into life in the Roman fens at Earith, where the Cambridge Archaeological Unit spent ten years excavating an area of over 62 hectares in advance of gravel-quarrying. That fieldwork revealed a wonderful palimpsest: an open agricultural landscape of the late Iron Age/early Roman period that was transformed through a planned system of enclosures in the early 2nd century AD into a much denser period of settlement activity, including a dock or boathouse (in the 3rd and early 4th centuries AD), before a final contraction of the core area after AD 325.
Christianity and Community through the ages
One truly stunning site was first featured in CA 261 (December 2011), and then again in issues 283 (October 2013) and 285 (December 2013). The dig at Oakington brought the local community face-to-face with their forebears in the investigation of a settlement and associated cemetery, complete with rare examples of 6th-century infant burial rites. As CA explained, the site was first identified in 1926, with limited excavation at that time. Fieldwork in 1990, in 2006-2007, and most recently in 2010-2011 revealed more and more burials, including those of a pregnant woman, a warrior, and several child burials from a period when these are notoriously scarce. Meanwhile, at Trumpington, ten miles to the south on the western edge of Cambridge, finds of similarly impressive burials were made from this period, as reported in CA 266 (May 2012), CA 343 (October 2018), and CA 348 (March 2019). These included the exceptionally rare ‘bed burial’ of an Anglo-Saxon teenager wearing a solid gold cross, one of the earliest identifiably Christian burials seen in Britain.
To round off my review of the archaeological riches of Cambridgeshire, I conclude with two later sites that caught my magpie eye, both linked to (un)civil wars. The first of these is at Cheveley, near Newmarket, and dates from the ‘first’ English civil war: the 12th-century Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda between 1138 and 1153. CA 376 (July 2021) reported on the excavation of a smithy that was abandoned at the height of the conflict, its workers either displaced by the war or called into its service. Meanwhile, at Yaxley, on the southern edge of Peterborough (on the other side of the county), CA 344 reported on work examining the archaeology of the ‘second’ English Civil War, that of 1642-1651, during which the village church of St Peter’s was the scene of an extraordinary bombardment, using artillery to deliberately ‘slight’ the church in a symbolic destruction of its more Catholic iconography. Here, then, we have two sites, divided by 50 miles and 500 years, forged by similar and terrifying forces beyond the control of their immediate communities. This is a thought-provoking end for a review of a fascinating county.
Discover old issues
Read a selection of articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive384. They will be available for one month from 3 February. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI384’.