Probable Romano-Celtic Temple and Aligned Enclosures at Biggleswade Common

Overview

Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
1473403
Date first listed:
11-Jan-2021
Statutory Address:
North-East of Biggleswade Common, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
North-East of Biggleswade Common, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District:
Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)
Parish:
Biggleswade
District:
Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)
Parish:
Sandy
National Grid Reference:
TL1962047296

Summary

A probable Romano-Celtic temple and aligned enclosures now bisected by a tributary of the River Ivel at the north-east of Biggleswade Common. The evidence suggests that the complex was in use between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. It includes a rectilinear double-ditched enclosure likely to form the temonos within which the cella and ambulatory of the temple once stood.

Reasons for Designation

The probable Romano-Celtic temple and aligned enclosures at the north-east of Biggleswade Common, Bedfordshire, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Period: Romano-Celtic temples are characteristic features of religious life during the Roman period in Britain;

* Rarity: only around 150 examples of such sites are recorded to have been identified and all such sites are therefore considered to have national importance;

* Survival: the survival of earthworks is an unusual feature of this monument and suggests that parts of the monument remain relatively well preserved;

* Potential: there is a high potential for the site to yield significant archaeological information relating to the date, function, and relative relationships of the various elements of the monument, and for palaeoenvironmental evidence to have survived.

* Group value: the sites of religion and ritual found close to the River Ivel near Biggleswade Common have a strong group value that enhances our understanding of this area as a prehistoric ritual landscape with continued significance during the Roman period. These include the Round Barrow and Cursus (Scheduled Monuments).

History

Biggleswade Common has been in use as common land since the medieval period. It follows part of the course of the River Ivel and some of its tributary streams in a long horseshoe to the west, north and east of Furzenhall Farm, covering approximately 110ha. The watercourse at the northern boundary of the common was straightened into a man-made drainage ditch in around AD 1799. Anti-glider defences were dug into the surface of the common’s eastern arm in the Second World War, and at its south-eastern termination searchlight emplacements were installed. There is no history of intensive modern ploughing on the Common, which is used today for public access and the grazing of livestock.

Aerial photographs taken in the 1940s provide the earliest record of the Common’s significant archaeological potential. The combination of aerial photography, including further surveys carried out in 1991 and 2002, and LIDAR imaging reveals a complex landscape of earthworks and cropmarks in and around the Common. These images, combined with visible earthworks on the ground, provide evidence for prehistoric ring-ditches, a cursus monument, trackways and indicators of multi-phase settlement, and a possible Romano-Celtic temple in and around the Common.

Romano-Celtic temples were built to meet the spiritual needs of the communities they served by venerating the god or spirit considered to dwell in a particular place. The temple building was regarded as the treasure house of its deity and priests, rather than as a congregational building. Any religious activities, including private worship, communal gatherings, sanctuary and healing, took place outside. Romano-Celtic temples included the temple building and a surrounding sacred precinct or temenos which could be square, circular, rectangular or polygonal in ground plan. The temple building invariably faced due east and was the focus of the site, although it did not necessarily occupy the central position in the temenos. It comprised a cella, or inner temple chamber, an ambulatory or walkway around the cella, and sometimes annexes or antechambers. The buildings were constructed of a variety of materials, including stone, cob and timber, and walls were often plastered and painted both internally and externally. Some temenoi enclosed other buildings, often substantial and built in materials and styles similar to those of the temple; these are generally interpreted as priests' houses, shops or guest houses. Romano-Celtic temples were built and used throughout the Roman period from the mid-1st century AD to the late-4th/early-5th century AD, with individual examples being used for relatively long periods of time. They were widespread throughout southern and eastern England, although there are no examples in the far south west and they are rare nationally.

The double-ditched rectilinear enclosure that straddles the watercourse at the north-eastern corner of the Common is analogous in shape and size to the plan of known Romano-Celtic temples, such as those at Uley (Scheduled Monument 1002076) and Lydney (Scheduled Monument 1017373). The probable Roman date for the site is supported by evidence identified through site visits and excavations conducted in the 1950s. Artefacts from the surface indicate signs of a Roman settlement, with finds of 1st and 2nd century AD Samian ware identified by D E Johnston 1955-1956. Excavations by Johnston in 1959 produced 3rd to 4th century AD pottery and slight evidence of buildings with some traces of earlier occupation. The excavations failed to find any evidence of structures or buildings in the inner enclosure, and it was suggested on that basis to be a possible cattle pound. Large quantities of bones and an abundance of oyster shells were among the rubbish found in the enclosure ditches. During the excavations the presence of peaty-like deposits and preserved wood was noted. In 1986 a Watching Brief during dredging of a drainage ditch resulted in the planning and recording of several ditches. An area in the middle of the strip was found to be still covered with topsoil, and showed a spread of material including a Roman roof tile and pottery, and an excavated pit yielded Roman pottery and one patch of sandstone rubble which may have been the remains of a tumbled wall. These findings strongly suggest a Roman date for the site from the 1st to 4th centuries. However, the site has yielded remarkably little structural evidence of buildings.

The complex was established between two branches of a watercourse, the straightened path of which now bisects the centre of the site. The site itself may have been deliberately identified as a place that had an established ritual significance. The wider area contains a Neolithic cursus, and of a number of prehistoric ring ditches, including some evidence of possible ring ditches within the site of the temple.

To the north-west and south-east of the double-ditched ‘temple’ enclosure are areas of multi-phase rectilinear enclosures. These appear to be aligned in relation both to the former path of the watercourse, and to the temple itself. The relationship between these complexes of enclosures and the central enclosure is not entirely clear, but the similarity in the general alignment and nature of the ditches suggests they could be associated.

Details

PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS: A probable Romano-Celtic temple and aligned enclosures now bisected by a tributary of the River Ivel at the north east of Biggleswade Common. The evidence suggests that the complex was in use between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. It includes a rectilinear double-ditched enclosure likely to form the temonos within which the cella and ambulatory of the temple once stood.

DESCRIPTION: The site of the likely temple and the associated enclosures lies at the north-east of Biggleswade Common, bisected by a manmade drainage ditch within which flows a straightened tributary stream of the River Ivel. The southern part of the site is within the Common itself (an area called East Furzenhall Common) while the northern part is in separate ownership (called Warren Farm), though both parts are used as agricultural pasture or meadowland.

Within a kilometre of the site there is a Neolithic cursus and, separately, a Bronze Age round barrow surrounded by a multi-phased complex of enclosures. To the north-west of the site on the high ground of the green sand ridge, approximately 1-1.2km distant, are the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age promontory fort at Sandy Lodge (Scheduled Monument 1015006) and the slight univallate hillfort at Galley Hill (Scheduled Monument 1015555). Less than 2 kilometres to the north-west at Chesterfield, in the parish of Sandy, a Roman town was settled, and just under a kilometre due west of the site was a Roman road running between present day Baldock and Sandy.

The temple and nearby enclosures are evident at ground level as a series of banks and ditches that survive as shallow earthworks. The earlier course of the stream is also indicated in the topography, following a serpentine path from east to west across the south of the site. These earthworks combined with cropmarks seen in aerial photographs and the use of LIDAR imagining form a clear picture of the site’s key elements. There is a substantial double-ditched rectangular enclosure at the heart of the site. This is surrounded by further conjoined ditched enclosures which appear to represent separate or additional phases of development. One group of sub-rectangular conjoined enclosures is attached to the north-western side of the central enclosure, and the second group of larger rectilinear conjoined enclosures abuts the south-eastern corner.

The central enclosure measures 60m by 60m, has straight sides and angular corners. This is surrounded by an asymmetric enclosure that measures between 76m to 80m north-east to south-west as it tapers slightly to the south, and 70m north-west to south-east. There are no obvious entrances, but one in the south-western side may be obscured by the modern drainage and field boundary which bisects the site. The outer north-eastern ditch extends beyond the south-eastern corner forming an additional enclosing ditch which bends around the NW to surround the inner enclosure on two sides to the south-west and south-east forming an L-shaped enclosed space at least 30m wide. Within this space are further earthworks and cropmarks indicating fragmented ditches and banks and a possible ring ditch with a diameter of 11m. LIDAR data suggests the inner enclosure ditches sit on a raised area surrounding a slight rectangular depression at the heart of the enclosure, all of which is seen as a gradual mound in the earthworks.

The northern edge of the site is in separate ownership and is less clear, possibly reflecting different agricultural practice occurring here historically including more recent ploughing. Cropmarks suggest a sinuous ditch which curves around to the north cutting through a low curving bank which appears to mark the edge of the site and a branch of the former watercourse. The ditch appears broader and more irregular than the rectilinear ditches of the central double ditched enclosure. The southern edge of this long low bank is marked by a narrow straight east-west aligned ditch which extends past the northern corner of the outer ditch of the double-ditched enclosure.

There are two distinct complexes of enclosures to the north-west and south-east of the central enclosure. The north-west group lies between the outer ditch of the double ditched enclosure and the low northern curving bank. This comprises a cluster of conjoined rectilinear ditched enclosures with at least two phases. It is not clear whether this cluster of enclosures abuts the central double-ditched enclosure or pre-dates it and continues beneath it. Two ring ditches, measuring 6m and 7.5m in diameter, each sit within enclosures at the south and north of the site.

The second group of rectilinear enclosures lies to the east and south-east of the central double-ditched enclosure. They comprise slightly larger rectilinear enclosures than those to the north-west. They are visible as slight earthworks in the southern half of the site within the common. Fragments of further enclosures can be seen in the northern half of the group as cropmarks on aerial photographs, but no trace could be detected on the LIDAR.

Several ditches extend southwards from the south-eastern group of enclosures in the direction of the eastern arm of the common, but it is not clear if there is a relationship between the probable Roman enclosures to the north and the numerous undated linear earthworks on the common to the south-east.

Sources

Other
AN AERIAL ASSESSMENT OF EARTHWORKS AND CROPMARKS OF A POSSIBLE ROMAN TEMPLE COMPLEX NORTH OF FURZENHALL FARM, BIGGLESWADE, BEDFORDSHIRE - Historic England, 13 November 2020
Site visit report 09 May 2006 / 20 June 2006 - Historic England

Legal

This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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