The archaeology of Black Cat Quarry: farming, flooding, and fighting in the Great Ouse valley

Recent excavations at Black Cat Quarry in Bedfordshire have revealed a story of farming communities spanning the Neolithic to the early medieval period, as well as the possible remains of an important Viking encampment described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Ben Dyson, who supervised the majority of excavations and undertook the post-excavation analysis for Archaeological Research Services Ltd, explains more.


The gravel terraces fringing the River Great Ouse in Bedfordshire have long been attractive for human occupation, covered as they are with free-draining, fertile soils. Agricultural development of this landscape began with the earliest farming communities of the Neolithic, and grew in intensity throughout later prehistory into the Roman period, and far beyond. Indeed, the region’s booming market garden economy in the 18th to 20th centuries represents a continuation of this intensive agricultural activity, which by then was taking place alongside ever-increasing exploitation of the area for the aggregate and brick-making industries, harvesting sand, gravel, and clay. Such works continue in the valley to this day, and archaeological investigations undertaken ahead of extractive operations at Black Cat Quarry have shed vivid light on how the local landscape was used and reshaped over thousands of years.

Excavations at a quarry site in Bedfordshire have revealed a diverse range of archaeological remains, stretching from the Upper Palaeolithic to the early medieval period. Here a Roman grave, one of 16 in a cemetery close to a broadly contemporary farmstead, is being recorded during the works.

Black Cat Quarry lies between the junction of the A1 and A421 (Black Cat Roundabout) and the River Great Ouse. Previous assessments had demonstrated that archaeological remains were present in this area, and so, before extractive works began on the site, Archaeological Research Services Ltd was commissioned by Hope Construction Materials (latterly Breedon Group plc) to carry out further investigations. These excavations ran between December 2013 and July 2019, exploring an area of almost 50 hectares. The results were illuminating, revealing evidence of human activity spanning the Upper Palaeolithic to the modern period, with particular concentrations in the Beaker period/early Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and the Roman period, as well as intriguing echoes of a Viking presence. Throughout this long span of time, one thing remained consistent: the lives of the successive communities who settled these fertile terraces were all closely tied to the landscape. Their success relied on making use of the area’s natural resources, but we can also clearly see how their efforts were affected – and sometimes thwarted – by their environment. Changes in land-use and notable phases of abandonment were often related to fluctuations in water-table levels, the movement of palaeochannels, and episodes of flooding.

This plan shows the key prehistoric features excavated at Black Cat Quarry, ranging from pits and burials to field boundary ditches and an enigmatic rectangle thought to represent an Iron Age shrine.

Occupying the Ouse

A single flint end-scraper fragment, found on a high gravel terrace and dated to the Upper Palaeolithic (c.50,000-10,000 BC), represents the earliest evidence of a human presence at Black Cat. It offers only a fleeting glimpse of the period before the end of the last Ice Age, but traces reflecting life after this watershed were much more abundant. An eclectic range of Mesolithic flint tools, from cutting blades and a micro-burin to a narrow rod microlith, as well as debitage (waste flakes from tool manufacture), have been found across all areas of the quarry, indicating that hunter-gatherers were exploiting the gravel terraces and floodplain from at least the 9th to 5th millennia BC. At this time, the wooded riverine landscape would have provided ample opportunities for these mobile groups, although in the absence of cut features it is likely that their occupation of the site was short-lived and transient in nature (or that the movement of palaeochannels or floodwaters has removed such evidence).

Agricultural activity on the site began in the Neolithic period, and as well as the pits and pottery sherds that they left behind, the crouched burial of one of these early farmers was discovered.

The onset of the Neolithic (c.4000 BC) and the advent of agriculture heralded the development of more permanent settlements, and at Black Cat, too, people were leaving more lasting traces (albeit confined to the northern part of the site), digging pits from which we have recovered hundreds of pottery sherds. One such feature produced a dozen fragments representing parts of two middle Neolithic Mortlake-style vessels, while a cluster of three late Neolithic pits yielded 320 fragments from at least five different Grooved ware vessels, as well as flintwork and part of an antler that was radiocarbon dated to 2475-2337 BC. About 50m to the north of this group, we also found the remains of one of the people who had settled this landscape, in the form of a shallow grave containing an early Neolithic crouched inhumation burial that was radiocarbon dated to 3878-3803 BC.

The early Bronze Age occupation ‘floor’ was initially circular, with a central pit, and was subsequently extended to the north, with the addition of a shallow pit and post-hole near its northern edge. This suggests the surface was once partially covered and served as a working area, prior to being deliberately infilled in the mid-2nd millennium BC, when a spearhead (below) was deposited there.

A short distance from these finds, further depressions signalled settlement in the Beaker and early Bronze Age periods. About 50m south of the late Neolithic cluster, we uncovered more pits (11 in all), two post-holes, and an occupation ‘floor’ containing more than 200 fragments of Beaker pottery from at least 15 different vessels. These features were split between a higher terrace and lower ground near a palaeochannel, and from the fills of two of the pits we recovered birch charcoal and charred hazelnut shell, which were radiocarbon dated to 2211-2033 BC and 2137-1941 BC respectively. Flint tools were plentiful, including scrapers, knives, piercers, fabricators, and both triangular and barbed and tanged arrowheads. We were also able to gain a vivid insight into what this community was eating, from animal and environmental remains. Faunal bone fragments comprised mainly cattle, along with red deer and other non-identified species that, by size, may have been sheep or goats. We also found the articulated remains of an adult dog, which presumably represented a companion rather than further evidence of consumption. As for plants, a small quantity of charred cereal grains (indeterminate wheat and barley), weeds of cultivation (for example, corn cleavers), and hazelnuts were also recovered. Together, these finds paint a picture of a long-lived agrarian settlement that cultivated the land for at least a 500-year period, potentially shifting its focus of occupation over time. Charcoal fragments indicate that the surrounding environment was still largely wooded, although the community was presumably clearing land in order to grow their crops.

This apparently flourishing settlement came to an abrupt end in the 15th century BC, however – with abandonment probably related to the fact that the local water table was rising at this time. The occupation ‘floor’ was deliberately backfilled during this episode, covering a shallow pit from which we recovered a charred beech twig that produced a radiocarbon date of 1611-1434 BC. There were also more enigmatic gestures associated with the site’s abandonment: a copper-alloy side-looped and socketed spearhead seems to have been deliberately deposited when the occupation ‘floor’ was backfilled. As spearheads of this type are often found in ‘watery’ contexts elsewhere in south-eastern England, might this artefact have been intended as some kind of closing act commemorating the end of the settlement’s use?

Iron Age infrastructure

What of the Iron Age? Our excavations revealed the remains of fragmentary field-systems covering both the higher terrace in the southern part of the site and the higher and lower ground to the north, demonstrating that agricultural exploitation of the landscape was still very much under way during this period. While we were not able to identify any evidence of a settlement associated with this infrastructure, it is likely that such occupation lay just out of reach of our investigation area, probably to the west or north. Pits containing Iron Age pottery were interspersed throughout the field system, increasing in frequency from south to north – something that might reflect Roman re-use and adaptation of the field system, which truncated earlier features in the southern part of the site.

Overlooking a large rectangular enclosure that has been interpreted as an Iron Age shrine. Sections of the outer ditch have been excavated at intervals, and the remains of a circular structure defined by an off-centre circuit of nine post-holes can be seen in its interior.

One of the more enigmatic discoveries from this period was a sub-rectangular enclosure on the northern fringe of the site, measuring 28m by 23m. It had an east-facing entrance, a circuit of four paired and one singular post-holes, and four pits. Tantalisingly, the enclosure shares some characteristics with Iron Age shrines or sanctuaries found elsewhere in the region and further afield. Pinning down its precise purpose proved difficult, though. While some evidence of recutting was identified within the enclosure ditch, we did not recover any associated artefacts or datable environmental remains to help establish accurate phasing or dating. Inside the enclosure, directly opposite the entrance and slightly offset from the centre, was the outline of a circular structure picked out by nine post-holes which enclosed an area with a diameter of 6m. It is plausible that this structure was rebuilt or redesigned around the same time that the ditch was recut, or the paired post-holes might represent a form of construction aiming to shore up a structure built on wet ground – clay-rich primary fills in the base of the enclosure ditch suggest that this low part of the terrace was prone to flooding.

Just some of more than 200 fragments of Beaker pottery from at least 15 vessels that were recovered from the early Bronze Age pits and occupation ‘floor’.

Further hints of possible ceremonial activity were found 4.5m to the east of the enclosure’s entrance, in the form of a pit containing late Bronze Age/early Iron Age pottery and flints. This discovery is reminiscent of an Iron Age shrine site on Hayling Island in Hampshire, where a pit containing numerous artefacts that were already very old by the time they were committed to the ground had served as a focal point for activities within the enclosure. While the Black Cat Quarry pit differs in that it lies outside the enclosure, its mix of contents suggest a possible connection, and it could still have been a place for ritual deposition associated with use of this space. The pit might be better understood as a well, where water provided a connection to the underworld, and the placing of already-archaic artefacts within this liminal space could have been associated with maintaining ancestral connections to a specific place – something that might have had particular resonance during a period of transitional power: that is, to Roman administration. It is possible that a late Bronze Age grave that was found in the same area had been a known feature within the Iron Age landscape, providing a tangible link to the past for its present inhabitants.

A torrent and toil on the terrace

It was the Roman period that produced the most extensive remains at Black Cat Quarry, spanning the early 2nd to early 5th centuries AD. This included a large farmstead, occupying a rectangular parcel of land measuring 100m by 80m on a slightly recessed part of a terrace in the southern half of the site. It was surrounded to the north, east, and south by an extensive agricultural hinterland that had been superimposed over remnants of the Iron Age field system, and pottery finds were equally impressive, comprising more than 2,700 fragments dating typologically between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Thanks to these, together with analysis of the substantial amount of animal bone recovered from the farmstead and its surroundings, and careful unpicking of its intercutting features, we now have a detailed view of the nature and development of this agricultural community.

An archaeologist draws features associated with the Roman farmstead’s three-phased building platform, which dated between the early 2nd and 4th centuries AD, and contained the remains of a single structure. A partially excavated enclosure ditch around the platform, associated with its second phase, can be seen in the foreground, revealing the depth of sediment deposited during the major flooding event that preceded the third phase.

It appears that the farmstead evolved in three phases. The first two, spanning the early 2nd to early/mid-3rd centuries AD, saw its focus concentrated around a single building platform lying between a paddock enclosure to the north-east and two bounded fields (c.80m by 37.5m) to the south. Its inhabitants were cultivating a range of cereals in the wider landscape, including spelt, emmer, barley, and rye, and the presence of quernstone fragments suggests that these were also being processed within the central area of occupation. The farmstead’s economy was not, however, limited just to arable agriculture. Recovered animal bones attest to the rearing of livestock, predominantly cattle but also sheep and goats. As the site entered its second phase, cattle remains declined in frequency – but we see an increase in evidence too for a young specimen cull-pattern and butchery, which suggests a degree of economic diversification, with animals being raised for both meat and dairy products. This was evidently a productive site, though its inhabitants do not seem to have been particularly wealthy – or, at least, they did not have extravagant tastes. The vast majority of the pottery recovered from this part of the site consisted of locally-sourced, sandy grey wares, with a small number of regional imports including coarsewares from Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, and Cambridgeshire. Higher-status and more exotic types such as Samian, mortaria, and finewares were consistently low, and there was a complete absence of flagons and amphorae that might indicate the use of imported oil or wine.

This plan shows the main Roman and early medieval features identified during the investigations.

By the early 3rd century AD, though, it seems that the rising water table was once again becoming a major issue. Modifications to the first-phase layout of the farmstead, including the construction of numerous gullies and an enclosure ditch around the whole building platform, reflect an effort to drain water away from the central occupied area; but these efforts were in vain. One drainage ditch of particular note extended over 100m beyond the first-phase eastern boundary, running towards a former palaeochannel on the lower terrace. It is likely that this ditch acted, in part, as a path of least resistance for floodwaters in the mid-3rd century, which eventually spilled on to the higher terrace, engulfing the farmstead and burying much of the central area in up to 0.4m of alluvial sediment. Pottery evidence indicates that the farmstead was abandoned at around this time, with its inhabitants probably retreating further onto the terrace to the west, while continuing to manage the drier lands immediately to the north and south.

Four of the Roman graves found on the site were decapitation burials – a common funerary rite in rural cemeteries of this period.

The local population had not completely given up on this central area, however. It was reoccupied in the late 3rd century, with new boundary ditches and paddocks cut into the alluvial sediments that had drowned its predecessor, and it seems that attempts were made to re-establish a building, or at least recover buried building materials, at this time. This phase also witnessed more intensive use of the southern hinterland for cultivation of cereals and cattle husbandry, with herds containing mainly older cattle and a significantly reduced number of small livestock. This is likely to reflect the challenges posed by poor drainage and flooding, prompting a shift away from animals susceptible to foot-rot when grazing on waterlogged pastureland, and an intensification of arable cultivation that required adult cattle for traction and manuring purposes. As for what was being cultivated, nearly 3,000 charred cereal grains representing spelt, barley, emmer, and bread/club wheat were recovered from one of the boundary ditches close to the building platform, but a lack of quernstone fragments or palaeoenvironmental evidence for cereal-processing suggests that this aspect of the work was now taking place off-site. Nevertheless, objects recovered from ditch fills including an iron blade, an iron axe-head, and a twisted copper-alloy bracelet suggest that the post-flood farmstead’s status had not diminished – on the contrary, it appears that life was now more prosperous for its inhabitants.

What about the inhabitants themselves? Just to the south of the farmland, we discovered a cemetery containing 16 inhumations, and radiocarbon dates from three skeletons suggested that they were contemporary with the farmstead’s use, placing them between AD 230 and AD 470. Here, too, there were hints of a prosperous community: their grave goods represent some of the highest-status Roman artefacts from the site, including two Lower Nene Valley colour-coated beakers and a glass beaker with pinched-out lugs, all dating to the late 3rd to early 4th centuries AD. The skeletons included four examples of decapitation burial, a common funerary rite in rural Roman cemeteries, and the human remains also speak of a high-protein diet and labour-intensive lifestyle. One of the more unusual individuals identified within the cemetery was a man with acromegaly: a condition caused by the pituitary gland releasing too much growth hormone. This causes bones, cartilage, and other tissues to increase in size, particularly affecting facial features and the hands and feet. Today this is a rare condition, and there are also few palaeopathological examples of acromegaly known worldwide – indeed, this is the first case known from Roman Britain.

Grave goods from the late Roman cemetery hint at a prosperous community. Here we see two Nene Valley colour-coated pentice beakers and a pottery jar, as well as a glass beaker, all of which accompanied inhumations.

Vikings in the Valley

Moving into the early medieval period, on the gravel terrace north of the Roman farmstead we found two sub-rectangular pits and an isolated post-hole lying within 114m of each other. Their contents were instructive: pottery dating to between the mid-4th and mid-7th centuries AD; fragments of a bone comb and needle that can be very broadly stylistically dated to the 3rd-13th centuries AD; and a piece of elder charcoal that was radiocarbon dated to AD 420-547. It is thought that the pits could represent the below-ground remains of Anglo-Saxon sunken-floored buildings, something that would fit with a general pattern observed in the wider region, where early medieval communities continued to occupy previously managed landscapes on well-drained, fertile soils.

Two sub-rectangular pits have been interpreted as the remains of Anglo-Saxon sunken-floored buildings. The discovery of artefacts like this bone comb and needle support a medieval date.

The final significant phase of activity on the site was reflected by a large and enigmatic landscape feature encircling the southern terrace. Its outline was partly formed from 29 segments of butt-ended and straight-sided ditches, with the River Great Ouse and a tributary known as the Rockham Ditch making up the eastern and southern sides. Considerable effort had gone into this enclosure’s construction: the ditch segments ranged from 2.75m to 53.8m in length, and from 1.06m to 3.69m in width, enclosing a total area of c.7.1 hectares. These features yielded very few artefacts – and none at all were recovered from the enclosure’s interior – but we were able to obtain radiocarbon dates from charcoal and a fragment of animal bone, producing results of AD 800-980 and 893-1020 respectively.

Trowelling clean a segment of ditch that is thought to have once surrounded a Viking winter camp.

What was this imposing enclosure for? The Anglo-Saxons are not known to have built ditch-defined camps next to rivers, but this is precisely what the Viking armies did in the winter months, settling down to focus their campaigns on warmer weather (see, for example, Torksey, Lincolnshire, and Repton, Derbyshire, in CA 281 and 352). Radiocarbon dating brings the Black Cat enclosure into the period after the Viking Great Army had landed in East Anglia (c.AD 865), and it is tempting to speculate that this site could represent the Tempsford fortress or battleground that is referred to in two separate entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The modern village of Tempsford lies just 1km to the south of Black Cat Quarry, and its early medieval ancestor is described thus:

AD 917
…the army came from Huntingdon and East Anglia and made the fortress at Tempsford, and took up quarters in it and built it, and abandoned the other fortress at Huntingdon, thinking that from Tempsford they would reach more of the land with strife and hostility. And they went till they reached Bedford; and the men who were inside went out against them and put them to flight, and killed a good part of them…

AD 1010
…during the same summer a great host assembled in King Edward’s dominions from the nearest boroughs… and went to Tempsford and besieged the borough and attacked it until they took it by storm; and they killed the king and Earl Toglos and his son Earl Manna, and his brother and all those who were inside and chose to defend themselves, and they captured the others and everything that was inside

Children and staff from the nearby Roxton Primary School visiting the Roman cemetery.

What next for Black Cat?

As well as providing illuminating insights into the area’s past, the archaeological works at Black Cat Quarry generated numerous opportunities for engagement with the local community, providing talks to members of Roxton Historical Society, Tempsford Museum, and the Women’s Institute. Children and staff from Roxton Primary School also visited the site to experience archaeology first-hand, meeting the Quarry Manager, touring the site, and even excavating test-pits.

The archive has now been deposited at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum in Bedford, and full excavation reports are available through the Archaeological Data Service, with a summary report due to be published in the Bedfordshire Archaeology Journal. This is not the end of the site’s story, however: multi-isotope and ancient DNA analyses are currently being undertaken on the Roman skeletons, which we hope will reveal more information about the origins and ancestry of these individuals. It may well be that this wide-ranging site still has secrets to reveal.

Further information
Black Cat Quarry is on the route of the National Highways A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvement scheme. Excavations of an Iron Age and Roman settlement to the east of the Quarry, close to Tempsford, were carried out in 2021 (see CA 385 and 387), and further work along the route continues in 2022.
We are grateful to Breedon Group plc’s Quarry Manager, Simon Bryant, for facilitating the on-site archaeological excavations prior to the commencement of extractive works, and for supporting the school visits to the site; and to Geoff Saunders, Archaeological Officer at Bedford Borough Council, for his support.
ALL IMAGES: Archaeological Research Services Ltd.