Saturday 14 March 2009

Cambridgeshire history - boxed collection

There was a hint of the last Indiana Jones film as we entered the Count archaeology store on Saturday; admittedly, it did not have the scale and grandeur of the US National treasure store. The crates with lost ark and sundry gold treasures were replaced by cardboard boxes of notes, bones, pottery and skeletons and occasional metal artifact from archaeological digs all over the county. However, these were treasures in themselves, patiently collected from innumerable digs and retained for our posterity.

From Blogger Pictures

Arriving near to the end of the open day gave an unrivaled opportunity to plumb the expertise of Quinton Carroll (Cambridgeshire Historic Environment Team Manager). Standing near a Roman lead coffin with skeleton, able to admire the sheen of 2000yr old Samian ware, with its pristine, legible potter's mark, three historical stories stood out.

For example, Cambourne surprised the archaelogists. Due to the hard clay soil there, it had been regarded as poor land unlikely to be lived on. Now we know it was being actively farmed in Roman times. Local people developed ingenious solutions to deal with difficult soil conditions - for example by excavating beds and using different soils - a Roman manual even gave specific instructions for best asparagus growing.

Then consider two key events for our region, the Viking invasion and the Norman Conquest. The Vikings took Ely, and Cambridge in 876 and submitted to the Saxon King Edward in 917 without a battle. Yet no physical archaelogical evidence of the Viking occupation exists. Similarly, the Norman Conquest left no physical evidence to distinguish it from the Saxon period. Most people carried on living as before, adapting to the change of leadership. A total contrast to Boudica's sacking of Colchester, London and St Albans which left a layer of ash recogniseable two millenia later.

Third, defensive points were successively used over the centuries. The river at Earith was a strategic defence in both the Civil War and as part of the planned defences should England be invaded in WWII. The river crossing at Cambridge was controlled at the current Castle Mound by the Romans, the Civil War and became the site of a bunker during the cold war.

I asked Quinton, which finds or artefacts stuck particularly in his mind. He remembered a bone comb found at a Roman dig. Cheap and easily replaced. Still, it had been repaired and used until worn to uselessness, giving a poignent link across the ages. In contrast, he also remembered the skeleton of a Roman woman slave worked to death whose body had just been discarded with the rubbish in a ditch.

But how are archaeologists affected by our current "living in interesting times" economically? It appears that since constructions companies are obliged to finance any archaeological work and this is done by private companies, the downturn has resulted in a 10% - 15% drop in archaaeology work. An unexpected side effect!

A final question at the conclusion of our visit; With all the current Health and safety in the workplace and at home, what will we leave behind for future archaeologists to find? Quiton wryly remembered that already, one site had been dated by a crisp packet - and of course there will be a plethora of finds all concentrated in large collections - our landfill sites!

For further information on Cambridgeshire's archaeological heritage, you can contact Quinton and his team at

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