The Archaeology of Black Cat Quarry, Bedfordshire

Roman grave during excavation © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022
View looking east across part of the Roman field system and the Viking enclosure © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022
Copper alloy side-looped and socketed spearhead which was deposited in the mid-2nd millennium BC when the Early Bronze Age settlement was abandoned © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022

Archaeological excavations undertaken in 2013-2019 by Archaeological Research Services Ltd beside the River Great Ouse north of Tempsford in Bedfordshire uncovered evidence of human activity spanning the prehistoric, Roman and early medieval periods. The excavations took place in advance of gravel extraction at a quarry operated by Breedon Group between the Black Cat Roundabout and the river.

Covering almost 50 hectares, the archaeological work revealed evidence of human activity dating between the Upper Palaeolithic period and the boom in the market garden economy of the region from the 18th century onwards. Farmsteads dated to the Early Bronze Age and Roman periods were revealed, along with an Iron Age shrine, a Roman cemetery and the possible site of a Viking Great Army camp noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

A report on the results of the excavations has been published in Current Archaeology issue 388 for July 2022. The excavations also feature as a news item in British Archaeology for July/August 2022.

Details from the excavations at Black Cat Quarry

There was a scatter of Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic flint artefacts, as well as a shallow inhumation grave and four pits containing pottery fragments dated to the Neolithic period. The oldest significant discovery, though, was a Beaker/Early Bronze Age settlement, which two radiocarbon dates (2215–2030BC and 2135–1945BC) place at around 4,000 years ago. The settlement ended in the mid-2nd millennium BC when the groundwater level began to rise.

At least a thousand years later a rectangular ditched enclosure was created at the site, the layout of which is typical of better-preserved Iron Age shrines or sanctuaries. Later, a few hundred metres to the south, a Roman farmstead was established which spanned the early 2nd to early 5th centuries AD. In the mid-3rd century the water level of the River Great Ouse rose and flooded the site, which was re-occupied at the end of the century. To the south was a small cemetery, with 16 inhumation graves, four of which contained bodies which had been decapitated, possibly in a post-mortem ritual that was not uncommon in Roman times.

A series of ditch segments were dug on slightly higher ground to the south of the site of the Roman farm, forming an irregular D-shaped enclosure covering 7 hectares adjacent to the Great Ouse. No artefacts were found in the ditch segments but radiocarbon dates of AD800–980 and 890–1020 from charcoal and animal bone suggest they were dug during the Viking era. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a document which is thought to have been started in the 9th century, records a “fortress” at Tempsford built by the Viking Great Army in AD917, as it moved westwards from East Anglia. Viking forces are said to have returned nearly a century later to capture Tempsford. The enclosure at Black Cat Quarry could well be a Viking camp associated with these events.

Multi-isotope and aDNA analyses are being undertaken on the skeletal remains recovered during the excavations to find out about the origins and ancestry of the individuals. Keep checking our website for further reports on the fascinating archaeological discoveries from this site!

Archaeological Research Services Ltd