Archaeological Investigations 1993/94
The New Hall Excavations 1993-94: A summary of the report
Prior to the construction of the new buildings for New Hall - the New Accommodation Block and the Kaetsu Centre - a large-scale archaeological excavation took place over the 1.5 hectares that was to be disturbed by foundations and car parking.
The area of Castle Hill and Huntingdon Road was once the centre of the small Roman town that formed the later City of Cambridge. For some decades the location of this town and its radiating roads has been known, but many questions have remained unanswered about the size and complexity of the settlement. The New Hall developments are the largest in the area for many years, and thus offered an opportunity to investigate the archaeological remains. Such investigations are now routine, since Planning Permission requires the full assessment of areas of archaeological potential, and New Hall was no exception.
The location of the excavations covered the area that former college members will remember as the Car Park and the gardens stretching along the boundary with Fitzwilliam College. Here the various excavation trenches revealed a dense mass of ditches, gullies, enclosures and fragments of roadways. From the remains found within the deposits of the various features, occupation on the site was important in three distinct periods, the Bronze Age, the Late Iron Age and the Roman. The early occupation in the Bronze Age was restricted to a ditch which contained, beneath deposits and a layer of cobbles, a cow skull facing west, with a pair of pig jaws on its forehead, two cow leg bones and a fine stone pebble hammer. Such a deposit looks suspiciously ritual, and may represent some sort of cult disposal in a domestic ditch. Elsewhere on the site, flint flakes and burnt flint and hearth stones indicate there was contemporary domestic activity. However, by the later Iron period, in the centuries just preceding the Roman occupation of Britain, the New Hall area was enclosed by a large ditch. From the excavations, this enclosure may have extended from near the Library in an arc west and northwards to the former Car Park entrance on Huntingdon Road, and probably underlay most of the New Hall buildings. Considerable quantities of typical Iron Age pottery were found, and similar to the Bronze Age deposit, there were hints of ritual deposits containing a complete sheep, a fragment of human skull, pottery and other domestic rubbish. Unfortunately, the later Roman activity, not to mention the massive destruction caused by the 1960s building, has left little clear evidence of the internal organisation of this important settlement, one that perhaps was the native precursor of Roman Cambridge.
Roman evidence was especially important, and included a range of ditches and roads, some of which are aligned to Huntingdon Road, and others which continued beneath it. The overall activity in the area was intense, but whilst none is clearly domestic in nature, there is good evidence to suggest that this extra-mural area of the Roman town was important for industrial and military activities. There was a series of paddocks and enclosures lying between the Huntingdon/Godmanchester Road and a second Roman Road lying to the south-west of New Hall, and aligned towards the Madingley Road. Dating evidence suggests it may be the earlier road. A cemetery of six individuals was discovered, one skeleton was associated with a fine bone comb. Nearby, a well was found with the complete skeleton of a calf placed on the top and it too seems to have had ritual significance. The economy of the site is well documented with informative samples of seeds, cereals, fruits, farm animals, oysters, horses and dogs, and it is the first major one to be studied and published. Later occupation on the New Hall site was unimportant and consisted mostly of 18th-century garden features, and it was only the construction of the College in the early 1960s that disturbed this area of Roman Cambridge.
The New Hall site is not in isolation, and there are now intriguing hints of other important areas nearby, which link with the Roman town on Castle Hill. There is extensive Roman settlement under and around Fitzwilliam College, and more Roman material has been found within the grounds of St Edmund's College. There is also a prominent Roman road across St John's College playing fields. The interpretations are still very much in the early stages, but the excavators suggest that the military presence in the area may be a para-military encampment, a supply base, a tannery and other industries associated with tar, cooking and burning. As more of the area of north-west Cambridge is developed and investigated by archaeologists in future years, some of the questions may find answers. The New Hall discoveries are important and provide an unexpected wealth of new data for consideration. The archaeological work was conducted by the University Archaeological Field Unit, under the direction of Chris Evans.
A few of the artifacts are on display in the College.