A Medusa pendant, an Iron Age ladder, an Anglo-Saxon bone flute, and several fragments of Roman pottery are just a snippet of the 7,000 and counting artifacts discovered at an excavation site in Cambridgeshire, UK. The land has taken on many identities over the years, from prehistoric ceremonial site to Roman trade distribution center to medieval village.
A team of 250 archaeologists led by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) has taken on this mammoth task, which has unlocked over 6,000 years of local history from Neolithic times to the Middle Ages. It is one of the country’s largest and most complicated archaeological digs – ever.
The project is part of a £1.5-billion ($2.11-billion) Highway England scheme to revamp a stretch of road on the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridge. There are over 40 excavation sites in an area half the size of Gibraltar (350 hectares or 860 acres) and work is expected to continue until summer.
Nowadays, the land looks flat and rather unexciting, comprising mainly of farmland. Seven centuries ago, however, things would have been very different.
The area was home to a bustling medieval village covering 2.4 hectares (6 acres), the entire layout of which can still be made out today. Researchers say villagers most likely ditched the settlement during the 12th century when the woodland they relied on for animal grazing, foraging, and bark was walled off for a royal hunting forest. The remains of 12 buildings have been excavated from this now-abandoned village.
Beneath these buildings are the remains of up to 40 timber structures, once houses, workshops, and agricultural buildings. Researchers explain the area had been an Anglo-Saxon tribal boundary site containing large ditches, a gated entrance, and a beacon on a hill where a guard could keep watch over the entire region.
In among the debris was a carved bone flute.
“The workshops and animal enclosures give you an impression of the hard grind of everyday life, but when you get something like the bone flute you suddenly see into a world that also had art and music, dancing, and entertainment,” Steve Sherlock, head archaeologist for Highways England, told The Guardian.
In Roman Britain, the site would have been a trade distribution center essential to the region's supply chain. Trackways and Roman roads connected the settlement to nearby farmsteads.
The archaeologists also found evidence of three prehistoric henge monuments 50 meters (164 feet) in diameter, which they say would have been used for ceremonial gatherings. A Middle Iron Age timber ladder has been radiocarbon dated to 500 BCE.
“No previous excavation had taken place in these areas, where only a few cropmarked sites indicated the presence of former settlements, but we now know that extensive, thriving long-lived villages were built during the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, and Saxon periods,” senior archaeologist for Cambridgeshire County Council Kasia Gdaniec explained in a statement.