Archaeologists reveal Bishop’s Stortford’s past as a Roman ‘new town’ which originated around a carriage 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 early Christian residents are just some of the archaeological treasures uncovered during a dig alongside the River Stort.
Experts have dug a site next to the new Grange Paddocks Leisure Center where East Herts Council is installing a 3G artificial sports pitch this summer.
The development was the catalyst for what Oxford Archeology project manager Neal Mason described as a “once in a lifetime find”.
He said what made the site remarkable was that it revealed ‘everything you could hope for from a Roman site’ with the tombs, a section of Stane Street – the road built by soldiers who s stretches from Ermine Street to Braughing to Colchester – and a pagan sanctuary.
He and his team of up to 30 diggers began carefully scraping the ground in February and were thrilled with the finds at this “intense” site.
They believe its origins were as a transport interchange – a Roman equivalent of Birchanger Green services on the M11 – and a ‘new town’ that sprung up around it.
The land nearest the riverside path from Grange Paddocks to Sworder’s Field revealed a cemetery outside the settlement and 87 graves. Neal said the burials were oriented east to west, indicating they were Christian and likely dated to the last century of Roman occupation.
The absence of grave goods supports this belief. Archaeologists found nails, indicating that at least some of the bodies were buried in wooden coffins, but one of the most disconcerting discoveries was the huge difference in the condition of the graves. The contents of some are so degraded that they appear to be empty, while a substantial number of bones and a nearly intact skeleton were visible in others.
The secrets of the cemetery, like the rest of the site, are only beginning to be revealed. Many months of testing and analysis, including isotopic identification of teeth to track migration and cultural affinity, await us to learn more about the early inhabitants of Bishop’s Stortford – and where they came from. Each grave was photographed dozens of times using a process known as photogrammetry to create 2D or 3D digital models.
Just days before a guided tour for residents on Saturday, April 23, diggers found evidence of an older, more one-time death ritual – a cremation.
Neal said: “You can see inside the top of the run that there were small burnt bone fragments.”
Roman conquest began in earnest in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius and continued until AD 410. Camulodunum, now modern Colchester, was the province’s first capital.
A building inside the main site – probably a warehouse – was built in typical Germanic style with a series of cellars. Neal speculated that it might have been built by local auxiliaries or veterans who retired after 20 years of service and were rewarded with land.
The site’s military significance has been underscored by several finds, including possible evidence of cavalry.
Artifacts include a hipposandal – a precursor to a horseshoe that protected a horse’s hoof and was common in the northwestern lands of the Roman Empire – and a fearsome caltrop. The metal spiked device is a throwable “Roman land mine” that always lands with a vicious spike pointing upwards, ready to disable a horse and knock its rider down.
Analysis of the soil removed from the trenches will establish whether metal forging and other industrial processes have taken place.
The site, which would also have been important for trade, also housed a large enclosure or corral for cattle, evidenced by a large number of bones.
Neal said, “They would have had cows, pigs and sheep like us, but they would have been much smaller than modern breeds.”
In addition to 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 also produced hundreds of coins throughout the period of conquest, beginning with that of the reign of Emperor Nero, who ruled from AD 54 until his suicide 14 years later.
Early discoveries at the site also include a secondary “metallized” road and a section of Stane Street with its cobblestones clearly visible. Nearby, a building believed to be a roadside shrine was detected.
Neal said it was not possible to prove it was a pagan devotional site, but it was remarkably similar to those found elsewhere with a substantial thatched-roof building inside. a palisade. Only the discovery of an ex-voto would prevail, but he was satisfied.
“We had a visit from Roman experts and they’re sure it’s a sanctuary or a mausoleum – it’s far too small to be a house,” he said.
Sawbridgeworth’s Cllr Eric Buckmaster, Executive Member of the East Herts Council for Welfare and a Television team time fan, said, “I think it’s fantastic. It is also proof that we are not the first to live here, it is a continuum.
As he prepares to leave the site, ready for contractors to begin constructing the new all-weather sports ground, Neal summarizes: “From 1st century road to 5th century cemetery and with religious and military use , this site has many different layers and it keeps on giving. It was awesome.
The findings and analysis and conclusion of Oxford Archeology will eventually find a permanent home in Bishop’s Stortford Museum.
Rob Allwood, East Herts Council project manager, said there were plans to add an information board to the gymnasium and swimming pool building, explaining the history of the land and what was discovered before construction of the new recreation center. A QR code will direct visitors to more details.