Our work on the National Highways proposed A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvements has been one of our highlights of 2023 – we've uncovered some fascinating finds, and the stories they tell are changing the way we think about rural life during the Iron Age and Roman period in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire! We’ve had such fun sharing our discoveries with everyone this year, so what better way to end 2023 than rounding up some of our favourites. Look carefully and you might even spot a couple of brand-new finds from the past two months

1. Iron Age roundhouses

We’ve excavated a lot of roundhouses on the A428, and in 2023 we even built one of our own. A virtually reconstructed roundhouse that is! With a crackling fire, and 3D models of pottery and other objects found during excavations, it gives a real taste of what it would be like to live in the roundhouse 2000 years ago. This is a great space for people to explore everyday life in the Iron Age. We’ve already tested it out in local schools, where children joined an archaeologist to sit around the virtual fire, discovering the archaeology of the A428, and sharing stories of the past. Watch this space for opportunities to explore our VR roundhouse in 2024!

A reconstruction of an iron age roundhouse made using computer generated imagery.

2. The mysterious dark patch

Forget the princes in the tower, our great mystery of 2023 was this dark patch of earth! And don’t worry, we solved it.

There were a lot of guesses when we first shared about ‘the mysterious dark patch’ on social media. Bone and pottery sticking out the top made some people think it could have been a rubbish pit. Others suggested it was the remains of a bonfire. But careful excavation revealed it was… a huge Iron Age watering hole! Which makes sense because this farmstead would have been home to cows, sheep, pigs and goats, and they all needed somewhere to drink.

A dark patch of earth is visible on the surface of the soil. Another image shows the excavated section with a watery puddle at the bottom.

3. Animal bone

Talking about animals – their remains tell us a lot about people’s lives in Iron Age and Roman Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Finding sheep on a farmstead tells us that the community who lived there weren’t just keeping these animals for their meat. They were likely using their wool to make clothes and milk to make cheese.

Sometimes the way these animal remains were disposed of contain clues about how Iron Age people celebrated special events. At two of our Iron Age settlements, we found mixture of bones and pottery dumped in pits – possible evidence of ancient feasts!

two archaeologists excavating the skeleton of a pig.

4. Roman Stylus

The Romans brought a lot of exciting new things to the A428, and this is one of them. The Romans would have used this stylus to write on their waxed tablets. Not that different to modern day digital tablets! Styli (or styluses) were usually made from metal because it was long lasting and relatively cheap to mass produce. The stylus would have a pointy end to write on the wax, and a scraper at the other end. The scraper was used to erase the written words by smoothing the waxed surface flat, so the tablet would be used again and again.

A small pencil-like Roman stylus being held by an archaeologist wearing a blue plastic glove.

5. Samian ware & amphora

The Romans also brought their extensive trade network to the A428, and it wasn’t long before some luxury goods were arriving to this rural area!

This includes amphora—a type of ancient storage jar— which may have brought olive oil to Cambridgeshire from Spain. We also found some rather expensive dinnerware, called Samian ware. This came from Gaul (modern day Northern France) and is a distinctive red-orange colour. We were lucky enough to find some bowls like the one below which were almost complete, as well as some with their makers stamps. This means our experts can track down which potter made the vessel almost 2000 years ago!

An upturned bright orange bowl (Samian Ware), broken in two pieces.

6. Grape pollen

Back in 2022, we discovered that Iron Age locals along the A428 might have been enjoying some locally produced beer. Well, this year we found evidence that during the Roman period, they might have been making wine too!

Our environmental specialists were closely examining soil taken from a waterlogged area and found grape pollen. This suggests that there were vineyards here during the Roman period. While we don’t know how successful their attempts to make wine were, other evidence of winemaking has been found at other Roman sites across southern England.

a bunch of green grapes on the vine.

7. Bronze Age loom weight

This large loom weight is older than you might think. In fact, it could be more than 4000 years old.

Loom weights like this would have been used in cloth making. They held the vertical thread called the warp tight, while the horizontal thread called the weft was woven between the warp from side to side. While they are known to have been used as early as the Neolithic period (c. 4100-2500 BC), in Cambridgeshire they are usually found on sites from the Iron Age, Roman and early medieval periods. We think this one is from the Bronze Age (c.2500-800 BC).

The loom weight is now with our experts for further analysis. If it does come from the Bronze Age this would be a really unusual find and suggest people have been living in this area far longer than we originally thought!

A small, stone coloured, donut shaped object being held by an archaeologist.

8. Roman brooches

We’ve found a few Roman brooches across our A14 excavations, including this one which has just come out of the ground! These brooches would have been used to hold clothes and cloaks together, but they were more than just decorative. Different styles of brooches were used in the later Iron Age and Roman periods to show off individual identities. Some brooches were even beautifully decorated with enamel. This one is now off to our finds specialists to see what it can tell us about the person who once owned it.

A soil covered brooch being held in an archaeologist's hand.

9. Flint tools

Flint was the top tool making material for most of prehistoric Britain. Especially before the Bronze Age and Iron Age when metal became more popular. Tiny, serrated flints like this were used the same way we use serrated blades today, for things like sawing or cutting small pieces of wood. This one may date back to the early Neolithic, over 5000 years ago, and it still looks as sharp as if it was made today!

A small serrated-edged piece of flint being held between someone's fingers.

10. Tiny pots

We can’t stop thinking about this tiny pot! It’s the size of 2-pence coin and we don’t know exactly what it was used for. Even stranger, it’s not the first one we’ve found…another vessel just like this turned up during our early A428 excavations in 2021. Because of their size we think they might have been used for rare and expensive, like spices. Or they could have been used for small amounts of medicine or make-up. There has even been the suggestion they were children’s toys! 

A tiny earth coloured pot on a table. A 2 pence piece is next to it for scale.

11. Antler tools

These large pieces of deer antler were spotted by our environmental experts last week. They aren’t just the remains of an animal; they could be prehistoric tools! These large fragments may be antler picks, which would have been used for digging out ditches, pits, and postholes.

They will be undergoing some closer examination, and we’ll update you when we know more!

A tray containing a selection of pieces of antler.

12. Black-burnished ware

This might not be the posh stuff (aka Samian ware), but it was Roman Britain’s favourite everyday pottery. And it has popped up everywhere on the A428 this year, from pits to watering holes. This type of pottery is called black-burnished ware. It was made in Britain from in the middle and later Roman periods (c. 100-410 AD).

The outside of the pot was rubbed with a hard, smooth object (such as a stone or a specially made tool) before it was fired. This means that when these sherds are cleaned up, they should look quite shiny, even after almost 2000 years in the ground! 

3 sherds of pottery laid out on the soil.

Join us on our journey!




Excavations are being undertaken by archaeologists from MOLA, as part of the proposed National Highways A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet Improvement Scheme.