The Archaeology of Love’s Farm, St Neots

The Love’s Farm project represents a detailed archaeological examination of the later Prehistoric and Roman agricultural landscape on a previously unprecedented scale within the region. The site, located on heavy clay soils and adjacent to St Neots in Cambridgeshire, covered 60ha over half of which was stripped during the course of the excavations.

Following several years of evaluation work that identified the presence of this fascinating archaeological site, the Archaeological Field Unit of Cambridgeshire County Council (now Oxford Archaeology East) was commissioned by JJ Gallagher Ltd to carry out a programme of archaeological excavation in 2005-8 in advance of development of the site for housing.

Clay soils like those around St Neots mask sites and can mislead archaeologists. Heavy clay can limit the effectiveness of field-walking, aerial photographic interpretation and geophysical surveys. This was the case at Love’s Farm. It was the digging of trial trenches that revealed the true extent of the remains that had to be excavated.

In archaeology it is sometimes the case that the bigger the hole the better the result. At Love’s Farm we dug a very big hole and have revealed some very interesting results.

Excavation results

Excavation at Love’s Farm has completely transformed our understanding of the earliest inhabitants of the area around St Neots. Extensive remains of settlement and associated activities spanning over 5,000 years have been revealed.

Neolithic pits containing pottery, worked flint and a polished stone axe dating from around 3500BC were the earliest finds from the site. Evidence for the first farmers in the area was provided by the identification of the remains of a Bronze Age field system dating from around 1,500BC.

An agricultural community occupied the site for over 700 years from at least 200BC to around the 5th or 6th centuries AD. From the Iron Age through the Romano-British period and on into the Early Saxon period successive generations lived on this land, improving drainage, growing new crops, managing livestock, adding enclosures, buildings, roads and monuments.

The site was put under the plough in the medieval period and Adam Love was allotted the Farm which was to bear his name as a result of Parliamentary Inclosure in 1770.

One of the most striking results of this excavation is the wealth of new evidence that has been revealed about the evolution of the countryside.

The discoveries show for the first time the extent to which the west of the county owes much of its current appearance to events that took place over two thousand years ago.

We can now see that elements of the hedgerows, field boundaries and footpaths laid down as long ago as the Bronze Age are still visible in the modern landscape.

Everyday life: Housing

Glacial melting pockmarked the surface of the western claylands with frequent shallow depressions. The preferred locations for the earliest settlers were such depressions on south-facing slopes, ideally those with an easterly aspect.

Even the slightest depression seemed an attractive proposition for single dwellings whilst larger hollows allowed room for several houses. The roundhouses of the period would have appeared huddled in these sheltered dips in the landscape, perhaps masking their presence from a distance.

The water-retaining properties of the clay meant that immediate access to running water was not an issue. Water holes were dug to collect and store surface water for domestic use.

Iron Age dwellings were scattered across the landscape whereas the Roman houses and other farm buildings lay within larger enclosed farmyards.

Everyday life: Farming

Clay has certain advantages over other soil types if well managed. Not least amongst these are that groundwater is held within the subsoil/surface geology making the ground drought resistant.

Crop yields can also be considerably higher than on other soils. Modern yields are three times greater on the clay than on the light alluvial soils of the adjacent Ouse valley and are less prone to fail.

For those able to engage in the developing art of ditch digging the likehood of starvation would be significantly reduced.

In order to bring the clay into a suitable condition for farming and habitation it was necessary to control drainage. The digging of ditches created new boundaries and began the process of enclosure.

The Iron Age and Roman farmers grew a range of crops such as wheat and barley as well as keeping cattle and sheep for meat, hides and wool. Horses and dogs were also present.

Everyday life: Industry and trade

Cattle skulls and other bones recovered from the well.

Contact with the continent (Spain, Italy, France and Germany) was demonstrated by an extensive collection of fine late Iron Age jars, a colander and other kitchen wares that were dumped into a ditch close to where they would have been used.

There were also fragments from a range of Samian table wares imported from France as well as flagons, cups and other evidence of a relatively wealthy local population with access to foreign markets.

During the later Roman period it is clear that bone working was a craft specialism on this site as we recovered a large collection of sawn deer antler and cattle horn cores from an enclosure ditch and from the backfill of a stone-lined well.

Waterlogged leather was also found in the well including the remains of shoes of 4th/5th century date. Examples of shoes from rural sites are extremely rare and the Love’s Farm well contained previously unknown types.

Ritual and religion: Metalwork

Examples of metal votive objects

The metalwork from the Love’s Farm site has a distinct bias towards votive (religious) offerings rather than the kind of everyday items such as tools that would be expected on farms. Many of the metal objects seemed to have been deposited into boundary ditches or in the corners of fields rather than being associated with more formal shrines or temples: this provides important new information about religion in the countryside.

One area of the site in particular was the focus of such activity during the Roman period. A flood deposit which overlay a silted up waterhole contained more than thirty metal objects including rings, coins, armlets and brooches. One of the earliest objects was a fragment of a military armilla, an award for service given to ranks below centurion.

Some of the other finds from this layer, such as the rings, coins and a lunulla harness pendant, may have been lunar or solar symbols. The waterlogged context of the layer in which they were found suggests veneration of a deity of spring or stream, while the deposition of possible solar symbols indicates a sky-deity. The latter may have been Minerva in her sky-goddess aspect.

Ritual and religion: Magic

An example of ritual deposition

It was not just metalwork that was specially chosen for burial. Everyday objects such as quern stones (for grinding cereals), loom weights and pots were also selected and placed carefully in the ground.

Animal burial was also an important practice. Examples from Love’s Farm included a number of dogs and horses, the skulls of cattle and horses and the careful placement of red deer antlers within ditches and as a capping deposit within a 5th-century well.

The same types of objects and animal remains tend to be selected for special treatment on other sites in the area and this suggests that the items had some shared symbolic meaning to the people who buried them.

Worship of local gods, belief in magic and protection from supernatural forces are likely to have informed the actions of the local people and would have taken place at certain times of year or to mark special events such as moving house, marriage or death.


A drawing of the Minerva handle found at Love’s Farm

One of the most exciting objects discovered during the Love’s Farm excavations was a representation of the Goddess Minerva.

Made from bronze, the bust formed the handle of a wax spatula with an iron blade. Such spatulas were used for cutting up blocks of wax, which was not only used on writing tablets but also for salves and other medicinal preparations.

Minerva was a Middle Eastern goddess of wisdom and learning, and was an appropriate deity to preside over the preparation of wax tablets. She also had links to the healing arts in her role as Minerva Medica.

The representation found at Love’s Farm is comparatively crude, but the goddess is identifiable by her crested Corinthian helmet, which is set on the back of her head behind a high triple-peaked coiffure.

Her triangular nose is prominent but her mouth is only suggested by a slight groove and her eyes by small round pits.

The split socket is decorated by ring-and-dots set into a pattern known as a double quincunx.

A hair pin was also recovered that has had the tip flattened into a leaf shape – possibly the deliberate conversion of the pin into a model spear. The shank is bent into a double curve, perhaps deliberate damage at the time of deposition.

This object may also be a reference to Minerva, as the weapon is one of her principal attributes, together with her Corinthian helmet, aegis (collar or cape), and shield.

These two objects representing Minerva may signify her as the local deity. She was also the goddess of crafts such as spinning and weaving, both major elements in the economy of the site.

The style of the Minerva busts ranges from elaborate and fully classical to more simplified Romano-Celtic versions. Most examples probably date to the 2nd century, with some perhaps belonging to the early 3rd century.

The number of Minerva bust handles recorded from Britain has recently increased due to the reporting of casual or detector finds under the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Most come from rural, villa or sanctuary sites. Within the eastern region examples have been found at Stonea Grange and Cambridge in Cambridgeshire, and Stonham Earl in Suffolk.

It is possible that they were marketed as high-quality items for the civilian population, but they may also have been recycled as votive objects especially when, as at Love’s Farm, their iron blade has been removed.

The Monument

This feature stood out due to its prominent location on the crest of the slope, unusual layout and the striking arrangement of the radial ditch lines seemingly emanating from it. Its creation was part of a broader pattern of short-lived innovation or change that swept across the site in the 1st century AD.

The unusual layout and objects found, including a hairpin remodelled as a miniature spear (see the page about Minerva), indicate that this sub-circular enclosure may have been some form of shrine.

Landscape and diversity

It has long been held that the ‘cold clay lands’ of the River Ouse valley were inhospitable to earlier populations, remaining largely uninhabited. These clays were unforgiving to work and until recently were overlooked by archaeologists.

The countryside around St Neots was thought to owe its appearance to the 18th and 19th centuries AD. It appeared to have all the hallmarks of a modern post-enclosure agricultural landscape. One outcome of the Love’s Farm excavations has been to transform these assumptions.

The new work on the clay lands is starting to reveal a previously unseen, diverse and densely populated landscape. Our findings have been supported by experts in other fields who have generated an enormous amount of new data from geophysical survey, aerial photographs and further excavation within the St Neots area.

Aspects of the bigger picture that are beginning to emerge relate to the origins of an intensively settled agricultural landscape over 3,000 years old. This was comprehensively reorganised 2,000 years ago during the Late Iron Age and modified again during the Roman period.

The pattern of evolution of the landscape from the mid or later Bronze Age onwards has parallels further afield and includes many apparent similarities with other places including the Thames Valley.

Text and images copyright of Oxford Archaeology East, produced here with their kind permission.