Archaeological dig uncovers ancient settlement at Wimpole

Small 5cm copper alloy human figurine held in a glove hand

As part of the exciting new visitor welcome and car park project in 2018, archaeologists investigated part of the ancient landscape of Wimpole; revealing a Late Iron Age to Early Roman (c.100BC – 150AD) rural settlement.

On a scorching day in July 2018, Oxford Archaeology East started the dig and over the next three months uncovered a site that surpassed their expectations.  The remains were extremely dense, representing several phases of changing land use over a few hundred years; from livestock enclosures to farming plots and settlement reorganisation.

Two roundhouses were revealed, one with its central hearth intact, although in general, structural remains on site were relatively scarce. This may have been largely due to the 19th century coprolite mining, which had disturbed much of the potential ‘core’ of the settlement.  Toward the ‘edge’ of the settlement was also a rudimentary corn dryer and a near complete but broken Roman pot found within a ditch indicates that local pottery was made on site at Wimpole!

This settlement at Lamp Hill seems to have been more than just simple subsistence living. The metalwork, as well as imported pottery and fragments of a glass vessel, suggests a strong trading network with a liking for military objects.

A Roman coin found at Lamp Hill
A small coin held in a gloved hand
A Roman coin found at Lamp Hill

So far we have perhaps in the region of 300 metal objects including coins, cosmetic implements, horse harness fittings, Roman military uniform fittings, a spearhead, an axe head, key handles, brooches, a ring as well as scrap lead and a number of iron nails and other utilitarian objects.

" The most striking find of the dig for me was a small 5cm copper alloy human figurine. The artefact dates to the 1st century AD, and whilst possibly of Roman manufacture, exhibits very Celtic traits such as his oval eyes. His hairstyle and moustache are clear, which might be indicative of current trends or perhaps 'typical' for depictions of this particular deity. "
- Shannon Hogan, NT Archaeologist

Further analyses of the artefacts and metalwork found at Lamp Hill during the 2018 excavation have led to some new discoveries. First, and foremost, the little figure originally thought to represent Cernunnos, the god of fertility, is no longer thought to be this deity. After a good clean and a number of specialist consultations, we now know this is a 1st century AD object and seems to represent an unknown Celtic deity. The torc in his hands is still clear and a small recess at the centre is suggestive of a decorative inlay, now lost. The figure probably originally served as the handle of a spatula. It may have been lost or deposited at Wimpole by inhabitants of early Roman Britain at the end of the Iron Age. 

Chris Thatcher from Oxford Archaeology East explained: “Finds such as this give a rare and fascinating insight into aesthetics and symbolism in the latest Iron Age. The extent to which his hairstyle is typical of contemporary styles will never be known for certain. However, we think the combination of him holding a torc - associated with status - and forming the handle of a spatula - either used to mix medicines, or wax for writing tablets - speak of influence and power. The fact that he was found on a site with so much other evidence for it being a local hub is wonderful and appropriate.”

Front view of the face and torso of an unknown Celtic deity made from copper alloy

Restored Celtic deity - front view

Rear view of the head and torso of an unknown Celtic deity made from copper alloy

Rear view

Across the rest of the site, there is strong evidence that activity here was at its height between the very Latest Iron Age (1st Century BC) into the mid to late 1st Century AD, with a striking peak around the time of the Roman conquest (AD 43) and, tantalisingly, the Boudiccan Revolt (AD 60/61) and its aftermath. A second, distinct period of lower level agricultural activity was evident in the later Roman period (3rd century), when the site probably become encompassed within a wider estate.   

It is, however, the Latest Iron Age and Early Roman activity that is so intriguing at Lamp Hill. At contemporary local sites, occupation is often relatively continuous from the end of the 1st Century BC into the 1st and 2nd centuries AD as Britain transitioned into Roman occupation. At Lamp Hill during this period, a sequence of increasingly large enclosures were set out that contained little evidence for domestic settlement but large and distinctive metalwork and pottery assemblages. This sequence culminated in the late 1st century AD whereupon there was a dramatic decline in activity.  

Work begins on the excavation of Lamp Hill at Wimpole Estate
Archaeologist digging at Wimpole's Lamp Hill site in Cambridgeshire
Work begins on the excavation of Lamp Hill at Wimpole Estate

Lamp Hill commands a panorama including Ermine Street, the line of Akeman Street and the River Rhee. Based upon the evidence for such intense activity at this location, it appears that Lamp Hill may have held more tribal significance in the region compared to other local rural sites. This status appears to have endured to some extent in the aftermath of the Roman Conquest; the final, largest Late Iron Age enclosures were initially ‘respected’ by the earliest Roman features, suggesting that those spaces held local significance for a time after their establishment and main phase of use. 

It should be noted that both later coprolite mining and the extent of the excavation boundary means that we are very likely only seeing a fragment of a much larger site. This may have been focused further north or east, away from the enclosures marking the crest of Lamp Hill.