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HS2 dig reveals remains of Roman trading town

11 Jan Archaeologists working for HS2 Ltd have uncovered what they consider to be one of the most significant archaeological sites on the project to date.

A Roman well uncovered during the archaeological excavation for HS2
A Roman well uncovered during the archaeological excavation for HS2

Over the past 12 months, a team of around 80 archaeologists from MOLA Headland Infrastructure have been excavating Blackgrounds Farm near a small village in south Northamptonshire.  They have found evidence of an Iron Age village that developed into a Roman trading town.

It has been known since the 18th century that there was something of archaeological significance at the location and this was confirmed by HS2’s initial survey and analysis. However, the scale and quality of the discoveries on site have surpassed expectations, the archaeologists said.

According to them, the original use of the site, known as Blackgrounds after the black soil found there, began in the Iron Age when it was a village formed of over 30 roundhouses, which have been uncovered alongside an Iron Age road. Evidence from the dig shows that the settlement expanded over time, becoming more prosperous during the Roman period, with new stone buildings and new roads emerging.

Considering the close proximity of the Iron Age remains, the archaeological team believe it is likely that local inhabitants continued to live at the site into the Roman period, adapting to a new way of life, and taking on Roman customs, products and building techniques.

Evidence of workshops, kilns and several well-preserved wells uncovered by HS2 archaeologists suggests that Blackgrounds, at its peak during the Roman age, would have been a busy place. In one area of the site, the earth has been preserved with a fiery red colour, indicating that the area would have been used for activities involving burning, such as bread making, foundries for metal work, or a pottery kiln. 

Running through the site is a 10-metre wide Roman road, considered exceptional in size, suggesting that the settlement would have had a lot of cart traffic. The wealth of the settlement is likely to have been based on trade, both from the nearby River Cherwell and via the Roman road. More than 300 Roman coins, discovered as if lost or discarded, have been recovered.

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MOLA Headland Infrastructure is a joint venture of Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) and Headland Archaeology.

Site manager James West said: “This is certainly one of the most impressive sites MOLA Headland Infrastructure has discovered whilst working on the HS2 scheme. A particular highlight for me has been understanding the emerging story of Blackgrounds, which we now know spans multiple time periods. Uncovering such a well-preserved and large Roman road, as well as so many high quality finds has been extraordinary and tells us so much about the people who lived here. The site really does have the potential to transform our understanding of the Roman landscape in the region and beyond.”

Alongside coinage, the wealth of the settlement’s inhabitants can be seen in the finds uncovered during the dig, which include glass vessels, decorative pottery, jewellery and even evidence of make-up. Traces of the mineral galena, lead sulphide, was found on the site – a substance that was crushed and mixed with oil for cosmetics.

The artefacts have been removed for cleaning and analysis; details of the structures and layout of the settlement are being mapped.

Blackgrounds is one of more than 100 archaeological sites that HS2 has examined since 2018 between London and Birmingham.  Mike Court, lead archaeologist for HS2 Ltd, said: “As we near the end of our archaeological field work between London and Birmingham, we have made some unprecedented discoveries, which we will continue to share with communities near our works. The opportunity to carefully examine a site such as Blackgrounds, and map out a long history of the site, brought to life through artefacts, building remains and roads, has enabled us to provide a more in depth understanding of what life was like in rural South Northamptonshire in the Iron and Roman Age.”

The history of the site, from the Iron Age to the Roman era, features in the new BBC Digging for Britain series, hosted by Professor Alice Roberts. The episode featuring the Blackgrounds dig will air on BBC Two tonight, Tuesday 11th January at 8pm.

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