Northamptonshire offers a delicious slice of English archaeology from prehistory to the present day. Its central location and its fertile soils mean that it has been settled on, fought over, and travelled across for millennia, and Current Archaeology’s coverage over the years reflects this richness.
CA 49 (September 1975) is an excellent starting point for examining the archaeology of Northamptonshire: it includes one of the magazine’s earliest mentions of the county, along with two of its oldest sites: Hunsbury Hill, a hillfort, and Briar Hill, a causewayed enclosure. Both were being examined at this time, revealing an array of evidence from the Neolithic to Anglo-Saxon eras. CA 58 (September 1977) returned to these locations, where extensive open- area fieldwork was undertaken for eight to nine months of the year for several years in a row, and CA 71 (April 1980) followed up exclusively on the latter site. Delightfully, CA 381 (December 2021) then reported that both places were featured in new displays at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, which had been redeveloped at this time in the best traditions of local museums bringing local history to life.
Another good example of this continuity of knowledge then comes from nearby Rainsborough Camp, a hillfort which features twice in the pages of Current Archaeology: first in CA 20 (May 1970) in comparison to similar such prehistoric sites further south in Oxfordshire, and then again 45 years later in CA 301 (April 2015), in comparison to similar sites across the Midlands. This is a textbook example of the best practices in British archaeology – the steady accumulation, and comparison, of knowledge held by local societies, researchers, and curators who understand and love their patch.
Another example of local labour then came in CA 159 (September 1988). There, at Brackmills to the south of Northampton, Anglia Water were installing a new pipeline when they happened upon an Iron Age pit burial (not unexpected in this area) with a torc around the person’s neck (rather more unusual). Further fieldwork revealed a wealth of not only Iron Age but also later Anglo-Saxon burials: 23 inhumations buried west to east – possible indications of an early Christian site.
Friends of the Romans
If there is one ‘great’ site of this county, then the Roman villa at Piddington, south-east of Northampton, has good cause to claim that crown. First featuring in CA 72 (July 1980), updates from there appeared regularly across the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, thanks to the strenuous efforts of the team there, who were led by the extraordinary partnership of Roy and Diana Friendship-Taylor, two of the most influential fieldworkers of this era. The team gradually uncovered the bulk of the villa, unravelling its complex tale of development, decline, and abandonment across the 1st-3rd centuries AD; see especially CA 82 (May 1982), CA 117 (November 1989), CA 146 (January 1996), CA 182 (November 2002), CA 297 (December 2014)), and the most-recent update in CA 356 (November 2019).
But Northamptonshire’s Roman roads lead to other, lesser-known sites too that are equally worthy of mention. From the two ends of Current Archaeology’s chronological spectrum, for example, CA 9 (July 1968) reported on a Roman bridge identified at Aldwincle near Thrapston, and CA 370 (January 2021) visited Priors Hall near Corby, when a villa, a linked industrial site, and an intriguing Roman-Celtic temple-mausoleum were identified there. [Ed: Watch this space for an update on the latter site in the very near future.]
(A)Raunds the houses
If there is a challenger to Piddington’s crown as the ‘prime’ site of Northamptonshire, then the multi-period site of Raunds in the north-east of the county, with its intriguing history of early medieval and later settlement, is a strong contender. As CA 75 (February 1981) reported: ‘it began with the discovery of two Saxon grave slabs; it went on to reveal a Saxon church that had been converted into a medieval manor house; this was followed by the excavation of the surrounding cemetery; and the project is now turning into the pursuit of the origins and development of the village’. Quite the tale!
Beyond issue 75, the magazine visited this site repeatedly across the 1980s and 1990s, including in CA 91 (March 1984), CA 97 (July 1985), CA 101 (August 1986), CA 106 (September 1987), CA 120 (June 1990), and CA 122 (November 1990), to name its most notable appearances. Chief among these is CA 106, which was dedicated to a wider examination of the archaeology of this area, and which, as such, is a standalone Northamptonshire special that everyone in the county ought to read and be proud of.
Additionally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the extraordinary Roman and early medieval site of Wollaston, which first featured in CA 150 (November 1996). Identified there was the burial of an Anglo-Saxon warrior, complete with weapons, including an ornate helmet. CA 154 (September 1997) reported on its initial discovery, while CA 354 (September 2019) covered its analysis and reconstruction.
Castles and canons
Northamptonshire’s later history is a literal tale of war and peace. On one hand, repeated updates from Northampton over the years have told the story of the county town’s growth and development, including its Anglo-Saxon origins as well as medieval and post- medieval prosperity. CA 46 (September 1974), CA 79 (October 1981), CA 85 (December 1982), and CA 91 (March 1984) all provide fine evidence of this narrative from the ‘rescue’ era, while CA 377 (August 2021) gives a more-recent perspective on finds from a town sometimes unfairly overlooked in favour of more-fashionable neighbours.
From the other end of the spectrum, there have then been reports down the years on fieldwork at various high-status sites in the county, including several castles and aristocratic dwellings. Most notable among these has been Fotheringhay, birthplace of Richard III, in CA 337 (April 2018); and – as an appealingly republican contrast – Sulgrave, the historic home of the ancestors of George Washington, first President of the United States, in CA 12 (January 1969). A pleasingly grandiose tale is then told in CA 320 (October 2016) of Apethorpe Palace, a Grade I-listed country house dating to the 15th century that was a favourite royal residence of James I. And, since we are in the mood to play favourites, I will end this column with my own personal favourite in the county: the gorgeous Canons Ashby, which features in CA 340 (July 2018). It is a jewel of an Elizabethan site tucked away in the south-west of the county, in the loving care of the National Trust. Do pay it a visit if you are ever in the area: you will not be disappointed.
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