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Letter from England

Building a Road Through History

6,000 years of life on the Cambridgeshire landscape has been revealed by a massive infrastructure project

July/August 2019

Letter From England A14 Henge

Outside the village of Brampton, Cambridgeshire, a handful of archaeologists huddle with a small group of local volunteers. Some of these professionals have been working here for two years and are all that remain of one of the largest archaeological teams ever assembled in Britain. They are in the final stages of excavating a small medieval hamlet called Houghton and have invited members of the public to join them for their final few weeks. Houghton was once a bustling little settlement, its dozen or so properties arranged around a broad central track. The scattered postholes and pits from this long-forgotten village are emblematic of the entire landscape, which has seen waves of people come and go over the past 6,000 years. Each has left an imprint upon the terrain.

 

Dump trucks, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment rattle away behind the archaeologists, kicking up the dust that seems to perpetually hover above the mostly flat farmland that forms the backdrop to this once bucolic countryside. As it happens, the 800-year-old settlement is in the middle of a construction zone, a huge infrastructure project to upgrade and extend a 21-mile stretch of the A14 roadway between the towns of Cambridge and Huntingdon. Houghton is one of the final sites that must be cleared before the archaeologists’ work is complete and they surrender this tract of land to the advancing army of road builders.

 

England is so archaeologically rich that hardly any construction project takes place without encountering at least some evidence of its deep historical past. But, unlike what they encounter during most preconstruction or rescue excavations, here the archaeologists aren’t investigating a single site from a single time period, but dozens of sites spanning nearly the entirety of English history. According to Highways England’s Steve Sherlock, archaeology manager for the A14 excavations, the dig’s scale is unprecedented. “It’s the biggest road archaeological project in the country and the largest project of this nature that has ever been undertaken here,” he says.

 

Since it would be nearly impossible to conduct fieldwork along all of the A14 construction corridor, archaeologists conducted intensive preliminary geophysical work, field assessments, and exploratory excavations that included an astounding 17 miles of test trenches to see where potential sites might be located. They finally homed in on a targeted area of 1.4 square miles to fully excavate, an expanse slightly larger than New York’s Central Park. Ultimately, this epic endeavor would require a team of more than 250 archaeologists.

 

England’s long history is marked by a series of transformative events. Some of these are hard to pinpoint, such as the adoption of bronze or iron technology. Others are more easily recognizable, such as the Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman invasions. All of this history played out on the Cambridgeshire countryside, creating a giant palimpsest that has been built upon, erased, and built upon again, over a millennia-long cycle. As the roadwork has slowly cut a swath through the county, it has become possible to imagine how the landscape might have looked at different periods, almost like turning the pages of a flipbook. “The preliminary work suggested there was a lot here,” Sherlock says, “but there have been tremendously exciting surprises along the way.”

 

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