Land South of Stotfold, Bedfordshire
Although fieldwork is our most visible activity, the work that is carried out behind the scenes during the post excavation phase of a project is equally important. All work carried out by archaeologists needs to be followed up by a report that explains how the work was carried out, what has been found and how the results add to our knowledge of the past. The post excavation phase of the larger excavations can be complex involving many different specialists, a range of scientific techniques and painstaking analysis of all the data collected. Organising a programme involving so many people, each of whom requires different bits of information to carry out their work and editing everything together into a report can take a number of years.
Some sites, particularly the larger excavations, not only present interesting stories of past life but also provide exciting new information for the experts researching different periods or themes. One such site is the project we know as Land South of Stotfold. These excavations at Stotfold have particular importance, as few comparable sites dating to the late Saxon period are so well preserved, and none has been excavated on anything like this scale. The site has in effect given us a “bird’s-eye view” across a landscape of late Saxon homesteads and their fields. As the post excavation phase of draws towards its conclusion we are able to summarise the main findings from the excavation.
Archaeological excavations were undertaken by Albion Archaeology prior to the residential development of c. 17.5ha of land located between Stotfold and the A507 Stofold bypass. Approximately 6ha of land were subject to open area excavation, largely situated on a plateau adjacent to the town.
The investigations revealed activity dating from the middle Bronze Age to the post-medieval periods. However, the vast majority of the activity was associated with middle Bronze Age–middle Iron Age and late Saxon–Saxo-Norman settlement. .
Middle Bronze Age – Middle Iron Age Settlement
The activity of this period was represented by areas of enclosed and unenclosed settlement activity that included three distinct burial areas.
Two broad chronological phases were identified. The earlier phase comprises monument/burial complexes, two unenclosed settlement foci, a trackway and likely field boundaries on the periphery of the settlement; all likely to date to the later Bronze Age. The later phase comprises an area of enclosed settlement at the western end of the site likely to date to the early – middle Iron Age. Some of the more interesting finds include some colourful and rather rare glass beads deposited with a cremation burial dated to the late Bronze Age.
Middle Saxon Settlement (7th–8th centuries)
It is not till the middle Saxon period that the site becomes settled again, though it appears to have been much smaller in size than its later Saxon counterpart. The small number of features which can confidently be dated to the period largely comprise six buildings, including two sunken featured buildings, one of which contained a number of (largely unfired) loom-weights.
Three dispersed inhumations were located somewhat away from the settlement focus; C14 dating of the inhumations, together with the dates suggested by some of the artefacts recovered, indicate the settlement dates to the 7th and 8th centuries.
Late Saxon Horse Enclosure (c. 9th century)
A boundary defining part of a particularly large enclosure extended at least 450m across the site from WNW to ESE. Not appearing to fit in with any elements of the later Saxon settlement, its function is somewhat enigmatic — one idea being explored is that it could have served as a horse enclosure, being handily located near to the ancient routeway now followed by the A1, from which the name Stotfold (stud-fold) is derived.
Late Saxon Settlement (10th–12th centuries)
The late Saxon settlement appears to have been established during the 10th century and lasted into the 12th century, though it appears to have been at its peak during the later 10th and 11th centuries. It extended for at least 7.5ha and included at least 50 buildings, set within numerous curvilinear and rectilinear enclosures — it represents one of the best examples of settlement grid-planning of the period, using a short perch of 15 feet.
The overriding impression is that of a typical rural settlement of the period, though with a number of wealthy individuals. Five or six principal ‘farmsteads’ were evident, defined by particularly large ‘halls’ measuring up to 25m in length that are likely to have been owned by wealthy ‘free-men’. A number of individuals were also wealthy enough to have owned a riding horse, as represented by numerous items of horse-riding equipment, including spurs and harness attachments. A particularly distinctive feature of the settlement was a square enclosure constructed to surround the grave of possibly one of the more important members of the community — the buried individual suffered from scoliosis of the spine, a condition also evident on the recently discovered skeleton of Richard III in Leicester.
The economy of the community would have been based around agriculture — free threshing wheat, probably mainly used for bread, was the main crop, while cattle were by far the most important species in the pastoral economy of the area, providing the majority of the meat as well as being valued for their marrow, hides, milk and working qualities. Other activities represented include: textile processing (represented by fibre processing spikes for wool or flax); weaving (represented by 3 pin beaters, probably on a two-beam vertical loom); and leatherworking (represented by an awl, socketed bone point, a slicker (used in the tanning process), and butchery evidence on cattle bones).
The settlement appears to have shifted northwards, away from the excavation area, during the 12th-century, to the vicinity of Brook End, to the west of our excavations.