Picture of St Mary the Virgin, Gamlingay

Gamlingay in Saxon Times

Copy of article published in the Gamlingay Gazette - Nov '98

Archaeological finds at Station road

By Michael G. Stubbert

I n the late summer and early autumn of last year, archaeologists from the Hertfordshire archaeological trust carried out a dig on land owned by Merton College Oxford at the new site intended to extend the area of the industrial estate at Station Road Gamlingay.

Removal of the top soil allowed the team on site, by tracing the small changes in soil colour, to discover a considerable range of occupation of the site. A large surface scatter of flint tools dating from the Mesolithic period starting in 10,000 BC through to the late Bronze Age of 700 BC gave an early clue to seasonal use of the site during those times, but beneath the surface lay an even more interesting series of finds. When the areas of soil colour change beneath the top-soil layer were investigated it was found that the area was occupied in the early and mid Saxon periods, from the 5th century to 8th century AD. As well as buildings, a droveway, ditches, pits and cattle pens, there was found an early Saxon-Christian burial ground dated to the seventh century. This remarkable discovery contained 119 graves of individuals ranging from small children to elderly persons, obviously part of a stable population, from what would have been a series of scattered hamlets and farmsteads that eventually coalesced to form the village described in Doomsday of 1086 as one containing 65 inhabitants.

None of the burials contained grave goods, thus firmly establishing that the burials were Christian rather than pagan. The orientation of the graves was found to be east-west, a further indication of a non pagan interment. To further confirm the matter all the burials were inhumations, no cremation evidence was found. A number of the burials had probably been in timber coffins or at least part timber lined pits, but the majority had been carefully prepared for burial in a shroud as was the custom of the time. It would perhaps have been more exciting to have found pagan burials with some prone rather than supine attitudes and with the occasional severed head, each grave containing interesting artefacts, but the fact that the burials are Christian is more significant in archaeological terms. The skeletons have been carefully stored and will in due course be examined by specialists who can best be described as, forensic pathologists who will determine the age, sex, diet and probable cause of death.

The buildings were for the most part what are described as grubenhauser type or “sunken feature buildings”, SFBs in archaeological parlance. The name describes the form of the building which is one with a sunken pit floor or sub-floor. It is thought that buildings of this type were usually industrial in the sense that weaving, tool making and such were carried out within or next to them. It is not thought that they would have been dwellings in the normal sense, but could have been a cluster of ancillary farm buildings, as the remains of a granary indicate or even the Saxon equivalent of an industrial estate. Clearly the area has been destined for such a use since time immemorial!

On the site of this early Saxon “industrial “ estate were found the remains of weaving looms, in the form of loom weights. The presence of a droveway and the finding of an iron heckles spike is good indication of the processing of wool; so the site could well have had almost a production line basis with all stages of textile industry represented, from the removal of wool from the back of the sheep through to the eventual finished product.

The site yielded evidence of metalworking, with lead strips, lumps of copper alloy slag and iron slag. All of this indicates small scale production of at least metals if not the tools or weapons that might be made from the metal. It may be that the metal produced only served the village or cluster of hamlets that formed the village at the time.

In rubbish pits and in the base of the sunken “floors” of the grubenhauser a range of artefacts was found that suggest that the site of the village may well have been in use in Roman times. Perhaps the rumours of a roman villa at Gamlingay are rather more than rumours.

Amongst the flint tools found buried on the site were a number of tranchet axes. As these are usually associated with the felling of trees it may be that evidence of Bronze Age occupation may also be found in the pits of that time found on site, as is suggested by the unproved existence of crop marks that suggest disc or ring barrows. Whatever is eventually decided upon as the true history of the village in early times, it has evidently been occupied for a long time, as the bones of our seventh century forebears attest.

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