ABOVE Overlooking excavations near Chipping Warden that have uncovered traces of a large Roman trading centre.

HS2 works uncover major Roman trading settlement

Excavations in advance of HS2 construction in Northamptonshire have uncovered the remains of a previously unknown Iron Age village that grew into a flourishing Roman trading settlement. Carly Hilts spoke to James West to find out more.


Archaeologists working for HS2 near Chipping Warden in south Northamptonshire have uncovered the remains of a large Iron Age village and the prosperous Roman settlement that succeeded it.

Antiquarian digs in the 1830s had previously uncovered traces of Roman buildings around 150m south-west of the area currently under excavation, but the presence of earlier roundhouses was only revealed during the present project, thanks to extensive geophysical surveys and trial trenching within the area of the HS2 works.

ABOVE Overlooking excavations near Chipping Warden that have uncovered traces of a large Roman trading centre.
Overlooking excavations near Chipping Warden that have uncovered traces of a large Roman trading centre.

Since then, some 80 archaeologists from MOLA Headland Infrastructure have uncovered the footprints of around 30 Iron Age structures, which are thought to represent a mix of dwellings and possible windbreaks sheltering working areas. These remains date back to c.400 BC, and the settlement appears to have survived past the Claudian invasion of AD 43, subsequently prospering to become a large trading centre in the Roman period. As these later features lie so close to the Iron Age structures, overlapping them in part, MOLA Site Manager James West suggests that the local community had not been replaced by Roman incomers, but that they had gradually adopted Romanised ways, including changing their building style to incorporate more substantial stone foundations and rectangular designs.

As the settlement expanded, the main focus of the Roman-period occupation seems to have shifted to the south-east. There, excavated remains suggest that it was divided into distinct zones dedicated to domestic and industrial activity; in the latter areas, the team has found well-preserved kilns that may have been used for pottery production or bread-making, as well as reddened areas of earth that might hint at metalworking taking place.

INSET The remains of a large Roman building excavated on the site.
The remains of a large Roman building excavated on the site. Photo: MOLA.

The main feature of the Roman settlement, however, is a strikingly substantial road measuring 10m wide. ‘Most Roman roads you find are up to 4m wide, so the size of this one makes your eyes boggle a bit – you wonder why it needed to be so big,’ said James. ‘We think it was to facilitate trading – it could accommodate two carts coming and going at the same time – you can imagine a really bustling market scene with lots of carts unloading goods, livestock, and other produce.’

It is commercial activity – both along this road and via the nearby River Cherwell – that is thought to lie behind the settlement’s success, James added. Excavated pottery includes fragments of Samian ware, imported from Gaul and decorated with hunting scenes, as well as the arm of a set of weighing scales and a particularly ornate scale-weight depicting what is thought to be a female deity, both of which reflect economic or administrative activity taking place on the site. The discovery of more than 300 coins, mostly dating to the 4th century, also indicates the settlement’s growing wealth, James said.

ABOVE This scale weight is thought to depict the head of a female deity.
This scale weight is thought to depict the head of a female deity.

‘We believe the big expansion came in AD 250-350, which ties in with the coinage,’ he said. ‘Coins are not only a big indicator of trade, but of the community becoming more Romanised – coins were not such a big thing in this part of Iron Age England, where there was more of a barter economy, but in the mid-to-late Roman period coinage really gets going, particularly during the reign of Constantine and his dynasty, and most of the coins we have found on site are from that period.’

Luxury and labour

At least some of the trading centre’s inhabitants seem to have enjoyed the fruits of this success: high-status finds include items of jewellery and glass drinking vessels, while the team has also found traces of Roman make-up. A small patch of lead sulphide, known to the Romans as galena, was discovered on the site; this mineral is known to have been crushed and mixed with oil for use in cosmetics, but this practice is rarely seen in the archaeological record, James said. ‘There have been traces found in Derbyshire and Yorkshire, but we mainly know about its use from the written record – it is great to have physical evidence of something we know was happening but don’t tend to see,’ he said.

Another aspect of Roman life that is rarely seen in the material record – and a reminder that not all the people living on this site would have enjoyed such a comfortable life – came in the form of a shackle, part of a pair that would have originally restrained the wearer’s legs. Thought to have been worn by convicts and enslaved labourers, Roman shackles are seldom found in Britain, though examples are known from burials in York, London, and, most recently, Great Casterton in Rutland (CA 377). The Chipping Warden discovery did not come from a grave, but adds to this small but growing body of evidence. ‘We know that slavery was widespread in the Roman Empire, but to find archaeological traces of indentured labour is very rare,’ James said.

As well these as vivid insights into the living occupants of the site, the team uncovered burials spanning the settlement’s entire period of occupation. From the Iron Age, they found a small number of cremations, while infants had been interred in the ditches of some of the roundhouses. In the Roman period, James added, burials were scattered across the settlement, found in different levels and reflecting a diverse range of funerary customs. ‘They face in all different orientations; some have been beheaded; some have grave goods, some have no offerings – there is a lot going on,’ James said.

ABOVE RIGHT Part of what would have been a pair of leg shackles.
Part of what would have been a pair of leg shackles.

‘We think there may have been a possible cemetery on the eastern side of the site, and that the original settlement was concentrated to the west, but as it expanded it went across this area of burials. Then, when the settlement retracts again at the end of the Roman period, people started to bury there again,’ he added. ‘In a proper Roman town, you would have demarcated cemeteries outside the walls, but because here we have local people becoming Romanised, they may not have followed this custom or been as aware of hygiene regarding the location of graves – this could also explain the diversity of burial customs seen on the site.’

We hope to bring you a fuller feature about the site in the summer. If you want to find out more in the meantime, see https://mediacentre.hs2.org.uk/news; the excavation also recently featured on Digging for Britain (series 9, episode 4), which is available on BBC iPlayer.

PHOTOS: HS2 Ltd unless otherwise stated