Archaeologists reveal Bishop's Stortford's past as a Roman 'new town' which sprung up around a transport interchange – the Roman equivalent of Birchanger Green M11 services
A roadside temple, a Roman landmine and the remains of some of Bishop's Stortford's first Christian residents are just some of the archaeological treasures unearthed in a dig next to the River Stort.
Experts have been excavating a site alongside the new leisure centre at Grange Paddocks where East Herts Council is installing a 3G artificial sports pitch this summer.
The development was the catalyst for what Oxford Archaeology project officer Neal Mason described as a “once-in-a-lifetime discovery".
He said what made the site remarkable was that it had revealed “everything you could possibly hope for from a Roman site” with the graves, a section of Stane Street – the road constructed by soldiers which stretches from Ermine Street at Braughing to Colchester – and a pagan shrine.
He and his team of up to 30 diggers began carefully scraping away the soil in February and have been thrilled by the finds on this “intense” site.
They believe its origins were as a transport interchange – a Roman equivalent of the Birchanger Green services on the M11 – and a “new town” which sprung up around it.
The land closest to the riverside path from Grange Paddocks to Sworder's Field revealed a cemetery outside the settlement and 87 graves. Neal said the burials were orientated east to west, indicating they were Christian and probably dated from the last century of Roman occupation.
The absence of grave goods supports that belief. The archaeologists have found nails, indicating that at least some of the bodies were buried in wood coffins, but one of the most perplexing discoveries had been the huge difference in the condition of the graves. The contents of some are so badly degraded that they appeared to be empty, while substantial numbers of bones and a virtually intact skeleton were visible in others.
The secrets of the cemetery, like the rest of the site, are only beginning to be unravelled. Many months of testing and analysis, including isotope identification of teeth to track migration and cultural affinity, lie ahead to reveal more about the first inhabitants of Bishop’s Stortford – and where they came from. Each grave has been photographed dozens of times for a process known as photogrammetry to create 2D or 3D digital models.
Just days before a guided tour for residents on Saturday April 23, the diggers found evidence of an earlier, more ad hoc death ritual – a cremation.
Neal said: “You can see inside the top of the run that it had small fragments of burnt bone.”
The Roman conquest began in earnest in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius and continued until AD 410. Camulodunum, now modern Colchester, was the first capital of the province.
A building inside the main site – likely a warehouse – was built in a typically Germanic style with a series of cellars. Neal speculated it could have been constructed by auxiliaries from the region or veterans who had retired after 20 years of service and been rewarded with land.
The military importance of the site has been emphasised by several finds including possible evidence of cavalry.
Artefacts include a hipposandal – a forerunner of a horseshoe that protected the hoof of a horse and was common in the north-western countries of the Roman Empire – and a fearsome caltrop. The spiked metal device is a “Roman landmine” which can be thrown and always lands with a vicious spike pointing upwards, ready to disable a horse and unseat its rider.
Analysis of soil removed from trenches will establish if metal forging and other industrial processes were taking place.
The site, which would also have been important for trade, was also home to a large enclosure or corral for livestock, evidenced by a huge number of bones.
Neal said: “They would have had cows, pigs and sheep like us, but they would have been a lot smaller than modern breeds.”
As well as the plethora of animal remains, a huge amount of pottery had been identified. Neal said: “For the Romans, pottery was like our plastic.”
The site has also yielded hundreds of coins throughout the conquest period, beginning with one from the reign of Emperor Nero, who ruled from AD 54 until his suicide 14 years later.
The earliest discoveries on the site also include a “metalled” side road and a section of Stane Street with its cobbles clearly visible. Alongside it, a building believed to be a roadside shrine has been detected.
Neal said it was not possible to prove it was a site of pagan devotion, but it was remarkably similar to those found elsewhere with a substantial, thatched building inside a palisade. Only the discovery of a votive offering would clinch it, but he was satisfied.
“We’ve had Roman experts visit and they're sure it’s a shrine or a mausoleum – it’s far too small to be a house,” he said.
Sawbridgeworth's Cllr Eric Buckmaster, East Herts Council’s executive member for wellbeing and a TV Time Team fan, said: “I think it’s fantastic. It’s also evidence of the fact that we're not the first people to live here, it’s been a continuum.”
As he prepares to leave the site, ready for contractors to start building the new all-weather sports pitch, Neal summed up: “From the 1st-century road to the 5th-century cemetery and with religious and military use, this site has many different layers and it just keeps giving. It’s been brilliant.”
The finds and Oxford Archaeology’s analysis and conclusion will ultimately find a permanent home in Bishop’s Stortford Museum.
Rob Allwood, East Herts Council’s project manager, said there were plans to add an information board to the gym and pool building, explaining the history of both the pitch site and what was unearthed before the new leisure centre was constructed. A QR code will direct visitors to more details.