Excavations at Overstone, four miles north-east of Northampton, have uncovered traces of what has been interpreted as ritual activity dating back 4,000 years, centred on a natural spring.
The investigation was carried out by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) ahead of a new housing development called The Atrium @ Overstone, which will create 350 new homes in the Northamptonshire village. MOLA was working on behalf of Taylor Wimpey, Vistry Group, and archaeological consultants RPS.
The earliest feature uncovered during the project was Bronze Age in date: the circular outline of a long-vanished barrow that had been built c.2000-1500 BC. Within the burial mound, MOLA discovered five funerary urns, but none of these were found to contain human remains. Was this an accident of preservation, or might it suggest that the barrow had a more symbolic than practical function, perhaps serving as some kind of prehistoric cenotaph?
‘The fact no human remains were placed within the barrow suggests it may have had a more symbolic rather than functional use,’ said MOLA Project Manager Simon Markus. ‘It seems very likely this landscape was already a highly significant place for local ancient communities, and those pre-existing associations led people in the Bronze Age to pick this site for the construction of a ritual monument.’
Signs of a shrine?
If the landscape had been a significant place for local Bronze Age communities, this also seems to have been the case 2,000 years later in the Roman period, MOLA suggests. This period saw the construction of an unusual two-roomed stone building, which was elaborately decorated with colourful plasterwork, possibly from a painted ceiling. The building was relatively small, measuring 5.9m by 3.1m, and one of its rooms was subterranean, accessed by a flight of steps that still partially survives. As the excavation team have not identified any likely domestic or functional purpose for the structure, they suggest that it may have been some kind of shrine, possibly linked to the nearby springs.
No sign of artefacts or possible votive offerings that might hint at a ceremonial role have been found, but plentiful other evidence of Roman activity has been found on the site, much of it watery in nature. As well as quantities of pottery, the team uncovered the remains of several large water tanks. This could suggest that the springs had been used for crop-processing and other industrial activities, too, while their waters were doubtless a valuable resource for the local population – MOLA attests that the water remains drinkable today.
At the bottom of the tanks, a wealth of organic remains has been preserved, reflecting both human activities on the site and the environment in which they lived. They include a complete leather shoe, as well as pine cones, walnut shells, and even delicate blossoms from a willow tree dating back more than 2,000 years.
Analysis of the finds continues, focusing on the environmental evidence, and as the development progresses, the spring courses will be preserved within its green spaces.
RPS Deputy Operations Director Simon Mortimer said: ‘The developer-funded work undertaken across this site, coupled with other nearby recent excavations, is radically changing our understanding of whole landscapes around Northampton. The current residents are part of a long chain of occupation and ownership.’
ALL IMAGES: MOLA