Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region

A new exhibition running at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge explores the wealth of human stories that have been brought to light in the surrounding region, through excavations old and new. Carly Hilts visited the displays with curator Dr Jody Joy to learn more.

This year marks a century since Cyril Fox published his hugely influential Archaeology of the Cambridge Region. Fox carried out his survey using mapping skills honed in the army during the First World War, and defined the limits of his investigation by how far he could cycle from Cambridge in a day. As he set out on his travels, however, he can little have imagined how far archaeological understanding – or the arsenal of scientific techniques available to add to this picture – would advance in the next hundred years. To mark the milestone, Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has now created an absorbing new exhibition that uses Fox’s work as a springboard both to explore what discoveries old and new can tell us about the communities who inhabited this part of East Anglia over the centuries, and to illuminate the archaeological process itself: how we know what we know.

This gold-and-garnet cross was buried with a young woman whose 7th-century ‘bed burial’ was excavated near Trumpington. It, together with other artefacts from her grave, help to tell her story in a new exhibition exploring the archaeology of the Cambridge region. Image: University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Many of these snapshots are deeply personal, introducing individuals like the 16-year-old girl who was laid to rest at Trumpington in the 7th century – literally laid to rest, in this case, as she represents a rare example of an early medieval bed burial (see CA 343). The metal fittings that once fixed the bed’s frame are on show in the new exhibition, together with the fine gold-and-garnet grave goods that had accompanied the Trumpington teenager to the grave. These artefacts are paired with insights from recent scientific research – we now know that the girl was not local to Cambridgeshire but had spent her earliest years in southern Germany – together with a suggested reconstruction of how she may have looked. This latter aspect is a poignant addition; while skeletal remains can seem abstractly anonymous, the face attributed to the Trumpington teenager would not look out of place among the thousands of students who throng the streets of Cambridge today.

Intriguing questions of identity are also raised by a particularly characterful artefact: a little figure of a moustachioed man clutching a torc, which once adorned the tip of a Roman spatula and was found in the grounds of Wimpole Hall. Does this object reflect how Iron Age men actually looked in this area of Britain, a stereotyped ‘stock figure’ based more on Roman imagination than reality, or a mythological figure (at the time of discovery, it was suggested that the artefact could represent the god Cernunnos; see CA 348)? Remaining with the Romans, a series of ceramics inscribed with their owners’ names also offer wonderfully tactile links to long-vanished people.

Digging deeper

From there, visitors are drawn into discussions of how stories from the past are brought to light in the first place, whether chance discoveries by metal-detectorists and agricultural activity, or through professional excavations and scientific research. An array of Neolithic hand-axes neatly illustrates the insights that such analysis can bring; they were all found in Cambridgeshire, but their materials testify to commercial links stretching across England and Wales, as well as more ambitious journeys from Co. Antrim and Switzerland. Close by, we also learn about recent research centred on Must Farm, a late Bronze Age settlement that had burned down and then collapsed into surrounding sediments, preserving a remarkable prehistoric time capsule for archaeologists to rediscover (see CA 312 and 319).

The Trumpington bed burial (above) shows a recent artistic reconstruction of how its teenaged occupant may have looked (below)
Images: University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit / Hew Morrison ©2023

Eye-catchingly beautiful finds such as a spoon from the Mildenhall Treasure, its handle adorned with a dolphin, and an Iron Age scabbard decorated with flowing designs, help to explain the Treasure process (a poster from c.1950, imploring people to report their discoveries to the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, also highlights the situation before such legal safeguards were put in place). Meanwhile, an enigmatic lead tank from Burwell, one of only around 30 such examples known, is used to spark conversations about the current limits of our knowledge. Were these large, heavy Roman objects used for laundry, brewing, bathing, or (as some are adorned with Christian symbols) baptism?

Following a brief explanation of how archaeological recording techniques have evolved – from Victorian watercolours to interactive 3D models created through photogrammetry – the exhibition concludes with a number of important assemblages with fascinating and very different stories to tell. One of these is a group of early 1st-century grave goods from Snailwell, including amphorae, feasting evidence, the iron boss of a long-decayed shield, and a spiral arm-ring whose ends are adorned with beast heads. It is thought that their owner may have fought in the Roman army. Meanwhile, from the grounds of Girton College comes exciting new evidence helping to illuminate the transitional years spanning the late Roman and early medieval periods; recent analysis of burials from the site indicate that its funerary function ran continuously from the 3rd to 6th centuries.

Recent finds from Wintringham, near St Neots – including a cartoonish fragment of a medieval face pot – are also on show, while some of the final insights come from the centre of Cambridge itself. Within a case exploring evidence for the Augustinian friary that once stood on St Bene’t Street, we find fragments of stained glass and decorative floor tiles – objects that vividly evoke the vanished religious community – but there is also one last personal encounter to come. Alongside these objects, we learn about a young man, one of the friars who was buried on the site, who (analysis of his remains attests) had evidently enjoyed a comfortable childhood. After joining the monastery, his diet became much simpler – but he was clearly not willing to give up all material advantages, as the buckle that had secured the belt of his robes was made of elephant ivory.

As visitors leave the exhibition, its displays segue seamlessly into rooms holding permanent collections of local finds. Taken together, the result is a comprehensive and frequently thought-provoking window into Cambridge and the surrounding area, and the sheer diversity of stories preserved within the archaeological record.

Further information
Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region runs until 14 April 2024. Entry is free. For more information, see