Since 1990, as part of the planning consent for quarrying, there is a requirement to ensure that important archaeological remains are fully recorded before sand and gravel extraction begins. At Little Paxton quarry, Aggregate Industries has worked with Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit to explore the soil east of Diddington prior to the creation of today’s lakes.
The remains show that the area was occupied for over 4000 years. Many of the settlements were identified by aerial photography of the crops before they were harvested and the topsoil was removed. Finds were collected from within the ploughsoil, and by digging trial trenches. Three Iron Age settlements were excavated in detail, providing opportunities for comparison between settlements of different size, date, and layout.
Neolithic and Bronze Age — People arrive in Paxton
The well-drained gravel terraces of the River Great Ouse were favoured places to settle from the Neolithic period (4000-6000 years ago). One such settlement developed to the west of the northern end of Island Lake.
In the Bronze Age (2800-4000 years ago), the area became a focus for a burial rite involving the construction of earth mounds over cremated human remains. Flint artefacts, including arrowheads, scrapers and knives, have been found within the gravel deposits. In the Neolithic period, pit circles were constructed, each containing ritual deposits of flint tools and pottery.
A number of Bronze Age circular huts have been found, which may have been occupied when the cremation sites were constructed. Later, a number of irregularly-shaped ditched enclosures were laid out, some of these over earlier circular buildings which must have gone out of use. Ditches from which material was taken to build these burial mounds have been identified.
Iron Age — farming and trading with the continent
In the Middle Iron Age (1,950-2,800 years ago), the area was settled and farmed. Two groups of farmsteads were built, surrounded by banks and ditches for defence and drainage. During the Late Iron Age, further farmstead enclosures were established, some containing circular huts and square post-built structures with raised floors where grain was stored.
The increasing wealth of the area, and the establishment of trading contacts with the continent, is represented by the use of fine tableware, including Gallic mica-dusted wares. An important aspect of the later Iron Age economy was cattle ranching — groups of rectangular, ditched animal pens have been found at Paxton.
Excavations during 2000 have uncovered several rectangular enclosures, which may have been an animal pens. Other features identified were large, regularly-shaped pits, which may have been used for some form of small-scale industrial activity.
The settlement was probably abandoned because of flooding. The ditches were filled with alluvial silts and small pieces of brushwood. The settlement became covered with up to 30 centimetres of silt, which protected its remains from later plough disturbance.
After the abandonment of this settlement, another Middle-Late Iron Age settlement was established. A complex of ditched enclosures was built to the southwest of the abandoned settlement — the drip gullies of circular buildings, post-holes and pits have been found. Some of these had entrances which opened onto east-west drove-way ditches.
Finds from the Middle Iron Age excavations in 2000 mainly comprised coarse hand-made pottery and animal bone. Concentrations of pottery were found within the enclosure ditches, and drip gullies: these may have formed ‘special deposits’ placed for ritual or religious reasons, rather than merely being domestic rubbish. Animal bone included the remains of cattle, sheep and goats. Of particular interest was the discovery of fragments of antler tine, some of which had been worked. Other finds included stone quernstones used for grinding corn, and fired clay loom-weights, hinting-at a mixed economy exploiting livestock, wild animals, and crops.
The area continued to be farmed during the Romano-British period (1600-1950 years ago). Farmsteads enclosing circular huts, rubbish pits, wells, hearths, fields and trackways have been found at Paxton. However, by the early second century (1900 years ago), the settlement was abandoned, possibly because of flooding. A new settlement, contained within a ladder-shaped enclosure and surrounded by ditches, was established about 500 metres to the south.
During excavations of this area, traces of timber-framed buildings were found, including barns and animal drinking-troughs, so presumably part of the enclosure was used as animal compounds. Study of the pollen and insect remains suggest that the surrounding area was grassland, probably used for cattle grazing. The finds, including pottery, coins and roof tile fragments, suggest that this area continued to be occupied until the end of the Roman period, around 400 AD. Intriguingly, study of the crop marks (aerial photographs taken while the land was still farmed) on land to the east, closer to the river (where Pumphouse Pit was dug) by Cambridgeshire Archaeology Unit show the outline of a square building which may have been a Romano-Celtic temple. However, permission for quarrying in this area was granted before 1990, so there was no requirement to undertake an archaeological dig.