Excavations on National Highways scheme to dual A428 reveal fascinating details of rural Iron Age and Roman life
Headless animals, possible vineyards and a stylus are among the finds unearthed by archaeologists working on National Highways’ scheme to dual the A428 from the Black Cat roundabout to Caxton Gibbet.
Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have been working since 2021 to build a detailed picture of what life was like in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire during the Iron Age (800 BC–AD 43) and Roman period (AD 43–410).
They are investigating a vast area of land, the equivalent to 89 full-sized football pitches, making it one of the largest digs ever undertaken in the region.
New discoveries continue to be made both in the field and the lab, providing clues about the lives of past inhabitants.
Lorraine Bennetts, National Highways senior project manager, said: “These incredible discoveries show us that Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire were incredibly well connected with other regions across Great Britain and Europe.
“We are working with local schools and other local community groups to showcase these finds with craft workshops and virtual realisations so people can really understand our local history. We will continue to showcase our discoveries and learnings throughout the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvements.”
In the lab, environmental evidence is revealing luxuries were enjoyed by local people. Archaeologists may even have found grape pollen in cores taken from waterlogged soil, suggesting vineyards were grown in this area during the Roman period.
Experts have also been able to identify examples of Roman influence in the region. Artefacts recovered during excavations show how new goods were imported through the Roman trade network. Amphora—a type of ancient storage jar—may have brought olive oil to Cambridgeshire from Spain, and expensive dinnerware, named Samian ware, came from Northern France.
Remains of animals, including sheep and pigs, reveal much about people’s diets through history. Sometimes the way these remains were disposed of contain further clues, such as the mixture of bones and pottery dumped in two separate pits in different settlements – possible evidence of ancient feasts.
There have also been some surprises along the way, particularly in the form of a stylus.
The Romans would have used it to write on their waxed tablets, just like modern day digital tablets. Styli (or styluses) were formed with a pointed end to write on the wax, and a trapezoidal one to erase the written words by smoothing the waxed surface flat again.
Until recently, the only objects known from this area dating before the Iron Age were stone arrowheads, suggesting small hunting groups roamed Cambridgeshire over 3,000 years ago.
However, MOLA archaeologists have now found an unusual loom weight used in cloth making, which could date to the Bronze Age (2500–800 BC).
If proven to be from this period, it would represent a very unexpected find and suggest people were living in this area far longer than originally believed.
Simon Markus, MOLA project manager, added: “These excavations are super exciting, and give us the unusual opportunity to understand an entire ancient landscape. We make new discoveries every day and are passionate to share them with local communities across Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.”
Work continues to prepare for the construction of the new dual carriageway, which is predicted to cost between £810m and £950m.
Dualling the route would see a new stretch of road south of St Neots, which would cross the current A428 east of the town. It would continue eastwards to Caxton Gibbet from where the A428 is already dualled.
Both existing roundabouts will be upgraded into modern, free-flowing junctions with a new junction added at Cambridge Road, improving access to St Neots and its train station. National Highways says the improvements will help drivers save up to an hour-and-a-half every week.
The scheme is expected to open in 2027.
Timeline of the site
Neolithic (c. 4000–2200 BC) or earlier: the discovery of stone tools suggest people were in the area
800 BC: Start of the Iron Age
400–100 BC: Settlements start to appear during the Middle Iron Age
AD 43: Romans arrive in Britain. While settlements continue to develop in the same area, new traded goods and technologies appear.
AD 410: End of the Roman rule of Britain. By this time, some settlements are no longer inhabited.
AD 650: All the settlements that have been excavated so far have been abandoned by this time.