Digging for Britain at Alconbury Weald: Rare insight into life towards the end of the Roman era

  • 03.01.2024
Digging for Britain at Alconbury Weald

Last summer, Alconbury Weald welcomed Professor Alice Roberts and the Digging for Britain team to Oxford Archaeology’s latest excavation, which provided a rare insight into society in the later Roman period, before the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Dark Ages in Britain.

In episode 2 of Series 11 of Digging for Britain – which aired on BBC2 on 3 January 2024 and is available to download on iPlayer - Professor Roberts reflects on a “time of incredibly heightened anxiety many centuries ago” as the Roman Empire was coming to an end.

The finds discovered reveal a rare flurry of activity during one of the most tumultuous periods in Britain’s history. Chris Thatcher from Oxford Archaeology explained that “it is rare to find such a concentrated burst of activity during that time, especially in a rural context.”

The excavation revealed numerous pits cut into the top of a large boundary ditch. These were filled with a range of artefacts, from late Roman coins to over 100kg of pottery in better condition and in greater quantities than would be expected from the disposal of waste within a settlement.

The archaeologists investigating the site believe the evidence is indicative of people visiting the site rather than living there. Instead of a random scattering of discarded pottery fragments, whole, intact pots were buried deliberately, along with other artefacts including brooches, rings and miniatures symbolic of other objects. During Professor Robert’s visit, a complete pot was discovered and saw the light of day for the first time in over 1600 years!

The deliberate burial of these artefacts has led the archaeologists to believe that these items were buried as offerings, perhaps to the gods, during a time of great upheaval and anxiety.

Between 350-400AD the Roman Empire was in a state of turmoil in Britain; the agricultural and military economies had shrunk and incursions from new groups – such as the Picts and Saxons - would have resulted in widespread disruption and fear. This climate of uncertainty could have led to a greater number of offerings as indicated at Alconbury Weald as the Roman period came to an end.

Analysis is now underway, and the team at Oxford Archaeology fully expect the huge quantity of material recovered to reveal even more detail about the story behind this fascinating excavation.

Previous archaeological excavations have revealed that Alconbury Weald has been home for many people through the millennia, from evidence of Prehistoric settlement and Iron Age roundhouses through to Roman artefacts and Medieval remains.

Rebecca Britton, Communities and Partnerships Director at Alconbury Weald, said: “Alconbury Weald has a fascinating heritage — from its very earliest settlers through to its more recent military history — and all of the archaeology through each phase of development is helping us piece together the full history. It’s great to be able to add another fascinating piece of the jigsaw and extraordinary to find such ancient pieces from such a troubled time of British History so close to the Cold War hangars and the 20 th Century development that reflects a similar time of fear and uncertainty during the Cold War.

“We’re very much looking forward to Oxford Archaeology’s further analysis of the finds, and the full report from this excavation so that we can continue to stitch the history of the site into the new development: from street names and park and play area designs, to exhibitions, events and activities. The next phase of Alconbury Weald will include a heritage area and development of a Heritage Trial, and we continue to work with the Alconbury

Weald Heritage Group and other heritage partners to ensure each layer of history is captured within the plans, and engages residents and the local community.”

Find out more on Digging for Britain (Series 11, Episode 2) on iPlayer.

Digging for Britain at Alconbury Weald

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