Brownfield site yields unexpected finds in Cambridge

When a team from Oxford Archaeology and RPS Consulting were called in to evaluate a brownfield site at King’s Hedges, on the northern outskirts of Cambridge, they did not expect to come across much as the site had already seen significant development. To their surprise, however, a number of exciting Roman finds were discovered, including a large Roman coin hoard and, most unusually, the vertebra of a plesiosaur (below) – a large marine reptile that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs – found among a cache of Roman pottery.

Image: Oxford Archaeology

The excavation was carried out in advance of redevelopment of the site by Cambridge Investment Partnership and, although the team did not anticipate their discoveries, the finds were not completely unexpected as the surrounding landscape is rich in Roman archaeology. Three kilometres south of the site is the Roman settlement of Duroliponte (Cambridge), a couple of hundred of metres north is a Roman villa, and only 20m away is Akeman Street, which connected Cambridgeshire with the Norfolk coast. (It is also within a couple of kilometres of the Roman farmstead recently found at Milton – see CA 404).

The main finds came from a number of ditches and pits, possibly associated with the nearby Roman road and field boundaries. Five inhumations were uncovered by the team, which add to a number of burials that had previously been found just south of this site. This suggests that they may have been part of a cemetery located along Akeman Street, either associated with Duroliponte or the nearby villa. Large amounts of Roman pottery, dating from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, were found in the ditch-fills as well as associated with the burials.

The Roman coin hoard emerged towards the end of the excavation. It contained 336 coins, heavily corroded and in need of conservation. It is believed that they largely date from the 4th century AD. The hoard’s location, near a major road and series of field systems, may have been chosen in the hope that it would have been easier for the person who buried it to find it again.

The most unusual discovery during the course of the project, however, was the plesiosaur vertebra, which was found in one of largest dumps of pottery, solidly within a Roman context. While analysis of the bone is ongoing, there appear to be some areas of wear, indicating that it had been well handled. This raises intriguing questions about how such a bone may have been perceived in the past. Was this a treasured talisman? A mere curiosity? Or did it provide the inspiration for mythical creatures?