Iron Age Settlement With Large Roundhouses and Roman Trinkets Found in the UK

Iron Age Settlement With Large Roundhouses and Roman Trinkets Found in the UK
The footprints of some of the Iron Age roundhouses (vans at top for scale). (Photo: Oxford Archaeology East)

Over the course of 2020, a patchwork of circles were dug out from below the topsoil of Tye Green, Cressing in England. The circles — each a ring of polygonal depressions — were the footprints of large structures, all that remained of a settlement that began in the late Iron Age and lasted through the Roman conquest of Britain. The site was recently excavated by Oxford Archaeology East for Countryside Properties with RPS Consulting in advance of residential development there.

The archaeological work, carried out with social distancing and other measures to avoid the spread of covid-19, turned up the remains of at least 17 wattle-and-daub roundhouses, some nearly 50 feet (15 meters) across, and semi-circular structures that the archaeological team say may have served as windbreaks, which would have protected hearths, furnaces, or other fiery elements of life at the time.

A little larger than the Lincoln reflecting pool in Washington, D.C., the excavated area of the settlement was encircled by a defensive ditch about 0.61 m deep, dug in the 1st century BCE. And when the Romans arrived in 43, a granary was built and the site expanded. Now, the detritus of two eras of Essex history is piled on one site.

A late 2nd-century coin from the possible shrine area of the site. (Photo: Oxford Archaeology East) A late 2nd-century coin from the possible shrine area of the site. (Photo: Oxford Archaeology East)

“The site is unusual in both the size of the settlement and the quantity and quality of the artefacts recovered,” said Andrew Greef, an archaeologist with Oxford Archaeology East, in an email. “Usually a rural Iron Age site would be far more modest in scale. The site at Cressing was clearly a substantial village, and the high-status objects recovered indicate that it was somewhere fairly important within the local landscape.”

On the western end of the dusty excavation area, a trove of these “high-status” artifacts was found across multiple deposits, suggesting the possibility of a feasting area or a Roman shrine. The excavation team found animal bones, oyster shells, and over 100 brooches spanning four centuries of settlement. Some brooches were plated in tin and silver. Coins, rings, and a rooster figurine were also found, the latter often being associated with the god Mercury in particular, though Greef said more analysis must be done before anything can be said for certain about the identity of the structure where the figurine was found, be it a shrine or something else.

One of the 100-odd brooches found at the site. (Photo: Oxford Archaeology East) One of the 100-odd brooches found at the site. (Photo: Oxford Archaeology East)

“It’s these finds, combined with the scale of the settlement and the substantial size of the roundhouses, which suggest it may be where some of the local elite lived,” he wrote. “A large defensive ditch is quite a statement and takes a lot of manpower to create, and the large roundhouse in the centre is about as big as roundhouses get.”

Parts of the settlement burned in the second half of the first century, based on rings of charcoal fill that ensconce some of the gullies around the roundhouses. In an article recently published in Oxford Archaeology, the team suggested that they may have burned at the hands of arsonists incited against local important families by Queen Boudica’s revolt in 60 and 61. The archaeological team also noted that the fires could just have easily been routine destruction, to make way for something new.

Next up is pottery and radiocarbon dating, to get a better sense of how things unfolded at the surprisingly wealthy Tye Green.