Archaeologists investigating the planned route of a high-speed railway between London and Birmingham in the UK have unearthed the remains of a Roman trading town in what is now southern Northamptonshire.
In its heyday, the city boasted of an assortment of workshops and businesses, with long-buried foundations that archaeologists spent the last year carefully exhuming from the dark – almost black – soil of the site. The artefacts at the site, from finely made jewelry and ceramics to over 300 Roman coins, allude to ancient wealth. According to archaeologists at the Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) Headland Infrastructure, most of this wealth likely came from trade along the nearby Cherwell River or the 10-meter-wide cobbled Roman road that runs through the middle of town. .
“This indicates that the colony would have been very busy, with carts moving in and out simultaneously to load and unload goods,” MOLA Headland Infrastructure said in a statement.
Life on the Roman Frontier
The inhabitants of the site, now called Blackgrounds for its dark soil, lived on the far western border of the Roman Empire, but they lived a distinctively Roman way of life. Rome’s influence here is apparent not only in Roman coins, but in Roman deities depicted on pottery and on metal weights for scales. Roman-style bronze brooches and traces of lead-based cosmetics found on the site reveal Roman fashions in everyday life. And in the end, at least some of the people who lived here were cremated and buried in Roman-style urns.
On a larger scale, the Roman organization is clear in the layout of the city. Archaeologists have noticed a distinct division between a residential area and a more industrial area. There, archaeologists found remains of workshops, as well as a patch of scorched red earth that suggests the presence of a baker, foundry or potter’s oven.
Other artefacts at Blackgrounds hint at less tasty Roman institutions. Half a set of metal chains can be evidence of enslaved people or imprisoned criminals. Additional finds include bone dice and game pieces, weaving tools, ceramic pots, and pewter dishes.
From the Iron Age village to the Roman merchant town
Blackgrounds was not always a bustling Roman trading town. Its history dates back to at least 400 BCE. Archaeologists have found the foundations of at least 30 Iron Age rotundas clustered along a road, evidence that people had lived here for centuries before the Romans arrived.
There is no sign that people left the site between the Iron Age and the arrival of the Romans; instead, it’s likely that people have lived in Blackgrounds for centuries, generation after generation, and gradually adopted a Romanized way of life. This is what happened in other communities across Roman Britain and in other provinces of the Roman Empire, after all.
Over time, the small Iron Age village developed into a town, and as trade brought more prosperity, people built buildings of stone – and eventually, a paved Roman road of stone “exceptional in size”, according to archaeologists from MOLA Headland Infrastructure.
High speed train to the past
It’s unclear what exactly happened to Blackgrounds when Rome withdrew from Britain around AD 400, but by the 1700s residents of the nearby villages of Edgcote and Chipping Warden were aware of the site like an ancient Roman city. Even so, the archaeologists were amazed at the magnitude of what they found. About 80 archaeologists from MOLA Headland Infrastructure have spent the past year excavating and mapping the Blackgrounds site. Most of the work – the careful conservation of the artifacts, as well as a more detailed study – remains to be done.
Blackgrounds is the largest of more than 100 archaeological sites discovered and studied along the proposed route of the HS2 high-speed railway since 2018.