Excavating Hertfordshire


This month’s column examines Current Archaeology’s reporting of fieldwork in Hertfordshire and, despite my best efforts, it is entirely devoted to the Roman era. This is not meant as a criticism, merely as an observation: there are thousands of sites known in the county, dating from prehistory to the Cold War (the county’s Historic Environment Record is clear on this point), but for one reason or another, CA has largely focused on the county’s admittedly stunning Roman remains. Just about the only non-Roman reporting comes from visits to the medieval and later abbey of St Albans – see especially CA 56, CA 101, and CA 300 (May 1976, August 1986, and March 2015). So let me begin with a request: if you are an archaeologist working in Hertfordshire on a non-Roman site, then please drop the editor an email and cc me in. We’d love to share your news.

RIGHT & BELOW CA’s coverage of Hertfordshire has focused primarily on the archaeology of the Roman period.
CA’s coverage of Hertfordshire has focused primarily on the archaeology of the Roman period.

When in Welwyn

While I was putting this column together, by good chance my old friend and former colleague Kris Lockyear, long involved in fieldwork in the county, dropped me a line asking about reports on Welwyn over the years, linked to his own research. I cover more on Welwyn below, but in return I asked Kris if there was anything going on in the county that I ought to mention here, and his reply was a wonderful insight into a thriving network of societies hard at work. There is, for starters, an exhibition on the history of the Welwyn Archaeological Society (WAS) running at Mill Green Museum in Hatfield until mid-May, and later in the year, on 22 October, the WAS and the St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society (the ‘Arc and Arc’) are running the fourth ‘Archaeology in Hertfordshire: Recent Research’ conference (see www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/archaeology-in-hertfordshire-recent-research-tickets-275943784287 for more details). Meanwhile, there is a regular series of online lectures organised by the Combined Hertfordshire Archaeological Societies (CHAS; see https://welwynarchaeologicalsociety.wordpress.com/chas), which can be attended via Zoom.

On then to CA’s coverage of Hertfordshire over the years. The easiest place to begin is at the beginning, with CA 1 (March 1967), which featured Gadebridge villa in Hemel Hempstead as the magazine’s first ever cover-story. The site began life as a simple farmstead in the 1st century AD and transformed over the centuries into quite a grandiose stone structure, with a swimming pool and bath complex, by the mid-2nd century AD. Sadly, the site isn’t open to the public (although it survives under grass within Gadebridge Park), but the Dacorum Heritage Trust undertakes excellent work to promote its history (see www.dacorumheritage.org.uk/article/the-gadebridge-roman-villa), and it went on to be featured twice more in the magazine, in issues 18 and 51 (January 1970 and July 1975).

The next notable mention of the county came in CA 3 (July 1967), along with the first of many appearances by a true Hertfordshire hero: Tony Rook. In the earliest of several investigations around Welwyn, Tony and the Lockleys Archaeological Society undertook the rapid rescue excavation of over 100 burials dating from c.AD 60 to 200. ‘Tony and the Lockleys’ were back in CA 27 (July 1971) at Dicket Mead on the eastern edge of Welwyn, examining the villa there, which – as at Gadebridge – began in pre-Roman times as a modest settlement and then underwent periodic transformations across the entire Roman occupation, before finally being deserted towards the end of the 4th century AD. CA returned several more times to this site, including in issues 60 and 135 (February 1978 and August/September 1993) to examine the villa’s bath complex on the route of the A1(M), which narrowly avoided destruction and was preserved thanks to the work of Tony and his colleagues. The baths can be visited to this day (see www.welwynromanbaths.co.uk), and, marvellously, you can even view a life-size sculpture of a bather modelled on Tony himself – see CA 284 (November 2013). How many other archaeologists can make such a splendid claim to fame? Most recently, CA 286 (January 2014) was back in Welwyn, where Tony – by this point in his 80s – was still hard at work, this time examining an Iron Age burial pit on the western outskirts of the city.

The virtues of Verulamium

Verulamium is a site so famous that it needs no introduction. I suspect that the bulk of CA’s readers have visited the site and the superb museum (see www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk/visit/verulamium-museum) on more than one occasion. Indeed, the Roman city has featured prominently in the magazine over the years. To pick just a few examples, issue 56 (May 1976) saw the magazine’s first visit there, and also to nearby Gorhambury. CA returned to pay a visit to the latter in issue 87 (June 1983), which is also well worth a visit when in the neighbourhood (see www.gorhamburyestate.co.uk/The-Roman-Theatre). It took until issue 120 (June 1990), however, for an in-depth examination of the city’s archaeology, thanks to the intervention of Ros Niblett, another of the great ‘names’ of Hertfordshire’s archaeology, who rightly received her own feature on an amazing life spent digging across – and beyond – the county in CA 209 (May/June 2007). CA 132 (January 1993) then featured a very different story of St Albans, again led by Ros, when a team from the city museum undertook the excavation of an indigenous princely burial made shortly after the Roman invasion on a site to the north of both the Roman and modern towns. Most recently, the county’s Community Archaeology Geophysics Group’s fieldwork featured in CA 310 (January 2016; see also https://hertsgeosurvey.wordpress.com).

Archaeologist Ros Niblett spent much of her career excavating in and around St Albans, a city which has also benefited from community-based investigations.

Baldock has a cunning plan

I conclude this Roman holiday in Hertfordshire by visiting a lesser-known site to the north-east of the county. In Baldock, Iron Age and then Roman remains of some note first featured in CA 86 (March 1983) and then, heroically, some 27 years later in CA 246 (September 2010), all in the face of then-sustained development in the area that was literally stripping the neighbourhood of its heritage. As CA 86 reported: ‘Baldock really sprang to prominence in 1968 thanks to the vigilance of Les Matthews, the indefatigable guru of amateur archaeology in Dunstable. He was visiting a friend who proudly displayed some new fire dogs which he had acquired for his inglenook fireplace. The fire dogs had a strangely Belgic look, and after inquiry he discovered that they had been sold to his friend by a local builder who had discovered them along with other objects on a building site.’ Issue 246 followed up on the sites and finds made in and around the town across this period, which were being written up at this time. Such a long story of endeavour seems like a fitting place to end my survey of a county full of determined archaeologists who truly stand the test of time.

Discover old issues
Read a selection of articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive387. They will be available for one month from 5 May. 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 ‘DIGI387’.