What 250 archaeologists found

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It was press day for archaeology on the A14 yesterday. I drove up to Brampton to see, getting a feel on the way of why the roads need improving (though signs saying “Delays until 2020” felt like a comment on more than just roads). I’m going to write a bit about this elsewhere one day, but for now here are some photos. The sheer size of the excavations are astonishing. This is creative work on an industrial scale, writing the national story in part of Cambridgeshire.

They have found a lot of stuff, including three “neolithic henges” (large, circular ring ditches with no apparent entrances and little else, from what I gather); barrows and cremation cemeteries; iron age farms; a Roman “trade distribution centre”, including (or in addition to) 40 Roman pottery kilns, all of which were fully excavated; three Anglo-Saxon villages, one of which was under excavation when we visited and which lies immediately adjacent to a successor medieval village (which they also excavated), founded in the eighth century and deserted in the 12th; and a “massive Anglo-Saxon tribal territorial boundary with huge ditches, an imposing gated entrance and a beacon placed on top of a hill overlooking the region”.

There are some curious absences, such as any sigs of mesolithic activity and apparently little in the way of neolithic settlement or bronze age field alignments, but given this was just a press day and post-excavation has just began, who knows what we might yet hear about?

That post-ex is underway is itself remarkable. Excavation began only in late 2016, “in a small way”, Russel Coleman (MOLA Headland Infrastructure project director) told me, “with just 50 archaeologists”, and they finish in July. At the peak they had 240 archaeologists actually out on site at once.

They are working along 21 miles of roadworks, but that alone does not convey the scale. As part of a policy of minimising environmental impact, Highways England is using what local materials it can in the construction. It happens that along the route there are good deposits of gravel and clay (the same clay used by Roman potters), and huge quarries have been opened up, all preceded by archaeological mitigation. This meant 17 miles of trial trenches even before excavation began. Then they opened up 40 large excavation areas (TEAs), covering 350 hectares. Archaeologists will wonder at the archive this generates: and sure enough, it’s going to be vast, including 150 tons of soil samples and 7 tons of pottery.

This is an impressive project, not just integrated into a well-run roads programme but big enough to have its own management challenges. Several of the UK’s leading archaeological organisations have joined together to run it. Over 70% of the staff are not British citizens, and they are furiously training new archaeologists. Because this is just the beginning. Larger infrastructure projects on the way, such as HS2, will need yet larger archaeological teams. And no one is quite sure where all the skilled archaeologists will come from.

First, my photos from yesterday:

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Emma Jeffery (senior archaeologist at Headland) with the 7C site plan. This one “site” (look for the archaeologists in the photo above) has within it iron age settlement, the best part of a medieval DMV (pink at the top) and an Anglo-Saxon village (most of the white area below)

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One of many Anglo-Saxon halls under excavation, with A14 roadworks behind

Then a few from Highways England’s press pack:

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This is a general view of the A14 works, but you can see an archaeological site in the bottom left corner (the little dots are archaeologists and excavated features). This is TEA 10A, with a small henge, later prehistoric enclosures and roundhouses, and Anglo-Saxon settlement (with sunken huts, of which there were few at site 7C).

Neolithic  henge monument under excavation for A14C2H (c) Highways England, courtesy of MOLA Headland Infrastructure.jpg

This is captioned “Neolithic henge monument under excavation”. Note how archaeologists in the ditch like to keep a distance between each other, it suppresses gossip and improves efficiency

Roman distribution centre under excavation for A14C2H (c) Highways England, courtesy of MOLA Headland Infrastructure copy.jpg

Here’s another site, the Roman distribution centre. You can spot the archaeologists from their yellow hi-viz suits

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