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HS2 archaeologists make discovery that exceeds all expectations

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HS2 archaeologists have made one of the biggest discoveries so far on the project.

For the past twelve months, a team from MOLA Headland Infrastructure have been excavating an Iron Age village, which later developed into a wealthy Roman trading town.

The dig took place near a small village in South Northamptonshire, and it was profiled on the BBC’s Digging for Britain series, hosted by Professor Alice Roberts.

The 80-strong team was working from information on the area known since the 18th century and HS2 survey and analysis work. The team says that what they found exceeded all expectations

The original use of the site, called Blackgrounds because of the black soil found there, started in the Iron Age when it was a village formed of over 30 roundhouses, was uncovered alongside an Iron Age road. Evidence from the dig shows that the settlement expanded over time. It became 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 believes locals likely lived at the site into the Roman period and adapted to a new way of life. This ‘Romanisation’ included taking on Roman customs, products and building techniques.

Running through the site is a 10m-wide Roman road – which is considered exceptional. It indicates that the settlement would have been very busy with carts simultaneously coming and going to load and unload goods. The wealth of the settlement is likely to have been based on trade, both from the nearby River Cherwell and via the Roman road. Over 300 Roman coins, discovered as if lost or discarded, have been recovered, an indication that a significant volume of commerce was passing through this area.

The layout of the site suggests the settlement was split into different areas, with foundations uncovered of buildings used for domestic purposes, as well as more industrial practices. At its peak during the Roman age, Blackgrounds would have been a bustling and busy area, shown through the evidence of workshops, kilns, and several beautifully preserved wells, uncovered by HS2 archaeologists. 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.  

Speaking about the site, MOLA 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 coins discovered at the site, the settlement’s inhabitants’ wealth can be seen in other finds uncovered during the dig, including glass vessels, highly 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 to become cosmetics.

A particularly interesting discovery in the dig has been half a set of shackles, similar to those recently found at an excavation in Rutland. Unlike those uncovered in Rutland, the shackles found at Blackgrounds are not associated with a burial but may suggest the presence of either criminal activity or slave labour.

The removed artefacts are being cleaned and analysed by specialists from MOLA Headland Infrastructure and the details of the buildings and layout of the settlement are being carefully mapped. Blackgrounds is one of over 100 archaeological sites that HS2 has examined since 2018 between London and Birmingham, which combined provide a detailed insight into the rich history of Britain.

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 aired on BBC Two on Tuesday 11 January at 8pm.

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