Black Cat Quarry, Bedfordshire

The topsoil strip taking place at Black Cat Quarry. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
A Bronze Age barbed and tanged flint arrowhead. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
A bronze spearhead. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
Pottery with fingernail indents. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018

Since early 2014 a team from Archaeological Research Services Ltd have undertaken a large-scale program of excavations during the phased stripping of land at Hope Construction Materials‘ Black Cat Quarry in Bedfordshire. So far, six out of nine phases at the quarry have been stripped and archaeological remains have been identified that cover over 4000 years of human activity.

Some of the earliest remains include pieces of pottery that date back to the Beaker period (2400-1800 BC) – a period at the end of the Stone Age where settlers from north-western Europe introduced metalworking practices to Britain. Beaker pottery is distinctively decorated and is often associated with human burials – typically as a ‘grave good’ containing a potent drink to help the dead on their journey into the afterlife. So far Beaker pottery has been found in four isolated pits across the site with some pieces showing incised decoration and some with fingernail impressions.

A pit containing further flint arrowheads and Bronze Age pottery was also found at the confluence of two branches of an old river course (palaeochannel) that crosses the site from north to south not far from the large pit. These remains offer a tantalising glimpse into the Bronze Age at Black Cat. Were these items produced as weaponry or as hunting tools? Were they thrown away in rubbish pits or were there dedicated production areas for making items to be used by a larger local population? The spearhead strongly suggests a martial purpose and this could reflect the growing need for defending resources. Perhaps further settlement evidence will be discovered under Phase 5 as the quarry moves east towards the river later this year.

Evidence of land division was found on the higher gravel terraces to the west in the form of long linear ditches which appear to represent the remains of an Iron Age farming landscape. Further to the south these ditches were partly overlain by the remains of a multi-phase Roman period farmstead. The earliest phase of the farmstead largely consisted of a series of interconnected boundary and drainage ditches, likely associated with the control of livestock and the growing of crops. A large quantity of Roman pottery and animal bone was recovered from the site that suggests that the farmstead was involved in a mixed farming regime and was in continuous use for some time, until this phase of activity was brought to a halt by a large flood event that covered the lower lying areas of the gravel terrace with alluvium, including the site of the Roman farmstead.

Excavation of an enclosure ditch. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
A worked bone comb fragment and a bone needle. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
This individual had been buried with a complete pottery vessel next to their head. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018
A group of school children visited the quarry to learn about archaeology and what we had been finding. © Copyright ARS Ltd 2018

The Bronze Age developed from these earlier traditions when populations began to settle in areas where they could use new technologies, such as metalworking, to produce tools and even weapons to safeguard the development of a settlement. No extensive evidence of Bronze Age settlement has yet been discovered at Black Cat, although a very large, and unusual, pit was found in October 2014 that did produce a number of features and finds associated with Bronze Age life, including flint arrowheads, broken pottery, a charcoal pit and a bronze spear head!

A later phase of the farmstead shows that people returned to the precise site of the Roman farm and continued to live there, re-opening some of the main ditches and even constructing buildings. The foundation of a building was discovered within the later phase of the farmstead that contained a fragment of a quern stone (mill stone used for grinding cereals into flour). This suggests a period of re-building after the flood using materials that were left behind from the earlier phase. Other finds from the farmstead include a well-made twisted copper alloy bracelet, an iron axe head and the point from a blade or tool – all of which suggest that life was prosperous for a farmer in the Roman period at Black Cat.

Roxton Lower School head teacher Jane Trott said:  “It was an amazing opportunity for the children to experience archaeology first hand. They thoroughly enjoyed seeing the finds and then looking for their own. We were most grateful to Hope Construction Materials and ARS Ltd for all the preparation and for helping to make it fun.”

Further investigations will attempt to answer these questions as the quarry moves into phases further south and Black Cat reveals more of its hidden past. Post-excavation will work also continue to analyse what has already been discovered including the human burials.

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