Prehistoric continuity in the Cambridgeshire landscape: Exploring recent excavations at Needingworth Quarry

For almost 30 years, the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) has been uncovering diverse archaeological features and finds at one of the UK’s largest sand- and gravel-extraction sites. Excavations have illuminated a landscape of prehistoric settlements, field systems, and monuments, located just three miles east of St Ives in Cambridgeshire. Matthew Brudenell, Charles Barker, Jonathan Tabor, and Chris Wakefield report on the latest discoveries.

The Grooved Ware vessel in situ, resting at the bottom of the pit in which it was placed.

The Hanson’s Over/Needingworth Quarry lies close to the River Great Ouse, amid a mixture of old river channels, former islands, and low-lying gravel terraces. This was once a watery environment, and in the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age the prehistoric land-surface actually became submerged when flooding created extensive fenland. A wide, shallow lake formed across much of the area, covering the archaeology and essentially preserving it for thousands of years. Buried beneath peat and lake sediments are the remains of a vast monumental landscape including five Neolithic long enclosures, at least three ‘hengiform’ monuments, and 11 Neolithic and early Bronze Age barrows. Accompanying this, clustered along a series of well-drained sand ridges, are settlement sites representing more than 2,000 years of occupation.

The CAU’s latest phase of investigation, exploring some 28ha at the Needingworth site, has revealed significant artefacts and archaeological features, including a middle Bronze Age enclosure situated within an extensive field system, prehistoric pit clusters, and a potential Neolithic house.

Neolithic activity

While the wider Needingworth Quarry has evidence of almost continuous activity starting from the Mesolithic period, the earliest archaeology encountered in our most recent phase of excavation dates slightly later, to the Neolithic. Traces of occupation and activity from this period are scattered across the site in the form of clusters of pits. These dark-filled, circular features contained worked flints and Peterborough Ware pottery, and, occasionally, more unusual artefacts such as axe-polishing stones.

One ordinary-looking pit revealed a stunning, complete Grooved Ware vessel that had been placed at its base. Despite being crushed flat by the weight of the soil above it, the large pot was in remarkable condition, with its intricate decoration still appearing crisp after 4,000 years below the ground.

The potential Neolithic house constructed from post-holes and beam-slots.

Complete Grooved Ware vessels are exceptionally rare, and its decoration – a mixture of incised concentric circles, with horizontal and vertical lines, creating alternating panels of fingernail impressions and diagonal grooves – is both intricate and highly unusual. This alternating design seems to have proved tricky for the potter, as some panels show they were started with one pattern before being changed to the correct one midway through decoration. Both the soil from inside the vessel and samples from the pot itself are currently being examined to reveal, it is hoped, what the vessel was used for.

Further evidence of occupation came in the form of a probable Neolithic house. Measuring approximately 11m by 8m, it was constructed from a mixture of post-holes and shallow beam-slots, some containing traces of how these architectural elements had been packed and supported. While the date of the house is still tentative (charcoal samples are currently being radiocarbon dated), the surrounding stratigraphy and its similarity to other examples from the UK suggest a Neolithic structure.

Bronze Age expansion

During the Bronze Age, the wider landscape was divided up with the establishment of fields, enclosures, and a droveway. Many of these features are sizeable, with the droveway measuring 1km and individual fields ranging from 200m to 400m in length. Environmental evidence from previous phases of excavation has identified cereal pollens relating to these field divisions, while animal bone from ditches and midden-type deposits would indicate a mixed economy of crops and livestock.

Also reflecting this period, the latest excavations have uncovered a substantial middle Bronze Age enclosure with a large entrance and a ditch containing notable amounts of animal bone. There is evidence of a bank running around the inside of this boundary, and surviving sections of stake-holes also indicate the presence of a fence. Inside the enclosure, midden-type deposits and post-holes suggest a settlement function, though signs of occupation in the form of roundhouses are found scattered more widely among the field systems.

A sewn bark container found in a Bronze Age watering hole.

Another key archaeological indicator of prehistoric settlement is the presence of lots of large watering holes. These distinctive pits have been dug through the site’s gravelly sand to reach the water table, and acted as a basic form of well for local inhabitants and their livestock. Owing to the quarry’s excellent preservation conditions, these watering holes are a fantastic source of uncommon organic finds. Our recent work has uncovered a number of wooden artefacts, including surviving revetments used to stop loose gravel from slumping, stepped log ladders, and even rope and a sewn bark container.

As with any archaeological investigation, excavation is only the beginning. Specialist examination of finds, scientific analysis of samples, and studies of the prehistoric environment will shed even more light on the lives of the people who occupied the Needingworth Quarry more than 3,000 years ago. This latest phase of work continues to highlight the value of thorough, long-term archaeological explorations. It is hoped our 29-year investigation will continue to reveal more of this outstanding prehistoric landscape and the striking material remains it contains.

All images: Dave Webb