Excavations ahead of HS2 works have uncovered the largest Roman cemetery yet found in Buckinghamshire, as well as the remains of a small town of the same period, at Fleet Marston near Aylesbury.
Over 400 inhumations were excavated by COPA JV (working on behalf of HS2’s contractor Fusion JV), together with 25 cremations. Richard Brown, Senior Project Manager for COPA, told CA that the cemetery was located on a small hill to the south of the Roman settlement, and was divided into two areas (one sitting within the earthworks of an Iron Age enclosure).
The predominance of inhumations suggests a later Roman date, and they also represent a diverse range of burial practices. Around ten percent of the excavated individuals were missing skulls, with many clearly decapitations, evidenced by visible cut marks and placement of the head between the legs. Such ‘deviant burials’ have been interpreted as criminals or outcasts, though there is archaeological evidence that this was a normal, if less common, funerary custom. The scale of the cemetery could indicate a population influx in the mid-to-late Roman period, the team suggests. As for where these people may have lived, a ladder-like arrangement of enclosures has been identified close by on either side of Akeman Street, a major Roman road linking St Albans and Cirencester. These yielded traces of domestic structures and everyday objects like spoons and brooches, as well as evidence of industrial activity. There are also hints of trade and commerce, including lead weights and over 1,200 coins, while a widened section of road may have been used as a market.
It is thought that the settlement, which was occupied throughout the Roman period, may have been a staging post for travellers and soldiers heading to the nearby garrison at Alchester, which also lies on Akeman Street.
Further south were early Iron Age enclosures with wide, deep ditches, as well as evidence of early Roman quarrying and corn-drying or malting. Richard said that HS2 and COPA works in the wider landscape had uncovered a handful of other, previously unknown, Roman settlements and farmsteads connected to Akeman Street.‘The rural Roman map of the Aylesbury Vale is sparsely populated when compared to the Thames Valley,’ Richard said. ‘To some extent that would make sense when comparing the fertile, well-draining flood plain soils to the hard clays of the Aylesbury Vale, but the work on HS2 has shown that it is perhaps also a bias of where archaeologists are looking.’