Bartlow in Roman Times
(Substance of a short sketch given on the site by C G B to
the Cambs and Hunts Archaeological Society in May 1932)
The interest of Bartlow, from the point of view of a student of the period of the Roman occupation, lies in two almost distinct parts.
First the “Hills”, late example of an earlier custom and culture, raised between 90 and 120 AD and secondly three, perhaps four, small farm houses with their usual associated coins and artefacts, being apparently quite typical of Roman provincial civilisation under the later Empire in the west.
Romano British barrow burial, according to Dr Fox, represents a survival, mainly in the most effectively Romanised areas of Britain, of a La Tène custom; this survival being prolonged far beyond that of the distinctive La Tène art in these regions. It may be that the erection of barrows persisted as a tradition in certain families or certain districts and was thus carried on into Roman times. But in any case the custom appears to have died out in the course of the 2nd century. Its usages and rites are unknown to us, but certain sacrificial vessels are an important and constant feature. And the contents of the Bartlow tombs can trace connection with those of Stanfordbury, some 50 years earlier, which included La Tène fire dogs and spits as well as more civilised utensils, and with even earlier deposits. So that these later tombs seem to reflect the same feeling with regard to the dead, and the same ceremonial observances under Roman rule as in the days of independence.
The Bartlow Hills consist of two rows of barrows, four large hills being in one row and three small ones in the other. The large hills are of uniform and regular construction, the largest, 45 feet high and 144 feet in diameter at the base, is almost the most important in England, being second only in size to Silbury Hill near Marlborough. The line of small hills is also regular in dimension and arrangement, although now almost obliterated.
They were evidently built of chalk excavated from a neighbouring pit and from surface soil scraped up in the vicinity. Their construction is curious. They were built in alternate layers of chalk and soil, quite regular and varying in thickness from 6 to 18 inches and the outside of the mound was then carefully turfed over and must, when completed, have presented an appearance very much like that at the present day.
All the mounds here have been explored. The first excavation took placed in 1815, undertaken by Sir Busic Harwood, a doctor who had acquired money by attending the princes in India. The barrow he selected was the one now separated from the other three large hills by the cutting of the LNE Railway. The barrow was dug into from the top and much mutilated; when the workmen reached ground level they are reported to have been much disappointed at finding only a few earthenware urns and one or two metal objects enclosed in the remains of a wooden chest. No careful account of the articles seems to have been taken and they were scattered among various persons in the neighbourhood.
In 1832 the line of small barrows was opened under the direction of John Gage and in 1835, 1838 and 1840 the row of large mounds was also explored and a most careful and detailed report was drawn up by Gage, assisted in part by Dr Faraday, later to become so famous for his discoveries in another sphere.
In every mound were found interred the cremated remains of one person, as far as could be judged, contained in a glass urn or bottle, surrounded by sacrificial vessels and household articles, some of great beauty and value. It is sad to record that of all Gage’s fine collection no single specimen remains; after lying safe so long they were removed by Lord Maynard to Easton Lodge in Essex, where they were destroyed by fire in 1842. The only articles found in the hills which survive are a few brought together in the Saffron Walden Museum, taken from the hill opened in 1815 by Sir Busic Harwood.
The chief and most constant features in each tomb were
1. The urn containing the cremated bones of the dead
2. A lamp
3. A strong box or coffer
4. A jug and in close association with it a basin or dish with a handle
The articles were evidently placed in a strong wooden chest and the mound raised above: but in the southern of the smaller barrows this chest was replaced by a brick tomb.
As might be expected, the contents of the largest hill were richer than its neighbours. The bronze jug was chased, and inlaid with silver; the handle of the patera was fluted and terminated in a ram’s head. The lamp instead of being a plain iron affair was excellently modelled in bronze with a hand guard in the shape of an acanthus leaf. Strange to say this lamp still contained its fibre wick and the solid fat used a fuel. There was also the iron framework of a folding chair such as was used by the Roman magistrates: finally there was a really magnificent globular bronze urn with a rectangular handle, gilded and enamelled with a foliage patent in red, blue and green. Such use of enamel, apart from its other merits, makes this urn unique in the annals of Roman Britain.
This was the richest of the barrows, although the others were far from poor either in material or quality of design: perhaps the most noteworthy find in them was a gold signet ring with an intaglio of two ears of wheat* which, together with a bronze coin of Hadrian, was found amongst the ashes and bones in the glass urn of the southern low barrow – the one where the wooden chest had been exchanged for a brick built tomb.
In another of the small barrows were eight Samian cups and saucers as well as the usual contents, and in each there were individual additions to the main items in the way of small vases and pots. Apart from the coin of Hadrian it is possible from the shapes of the vessels and the potters’ marks to date all the deposits quite definitely as between 90 and 120 AD.
This indeed is one of the most puzzling features of the site, that these important interments should appear in such number not as a consecutive series in a family burial ground, but in all probability if not precisely contemporary, at any rate separated by comparatively few years.
In January 1930 the old excavation tunnel of 1840 in the northernmost large hill fell in at the entrance and going along it I found that the hill had been dug down from the top at some time and the shaft filled up with rubble. In this rubble lies a skeleton, largely cleared by rabbits. It is laid out on its back in a natural position, covered and surrounded with large flints. We know a good deal about this hill, for Camden in his 1590 edition speaks of three large hills remaining and one dug down and 18th century prints picture it with a damaged top. In 1815 Sir Busic Harwood excavated it and found the deposit, the fragments of which can still be seen in Saffron Walden Museum; in 1840 John Gage had a look and decided that there was nothing left and in 1864 Mr Houblon restored it to be a suitable companion to its less hardly treated neighbours. There is no doubt whatever that the skeleton is not an original burial, but lies in a much later shaft, the filling of which must have taken place long after the hill itself had consolidated. But who the man is and how he got there must remain a mystery. I suppose the easiest solution is that an unsuccessful treasure hunt was carried out some hundreds of years ago and the pit thus formed, disused and remote, formed a very useful place in which to put away an inconvenient body.
The incident, however, was obviously capable of inspiring all sorts of theories and when, last summer, a cavity appeared in the top of the southernmost hill, Mr Lethbridge and I hoped we might be on the edge of some interesting discovery. After a good many weeks of work he, with the aid of some other kind helpers, dug a slice right out of the hill from the top to the bottom. We found Gage’s tunnel and we found the chamber from which Gage had removed the deposit, but not the least trace of the secondary interments which had been thought possible.
There is as you possibly know an old tradition that these hills were raised after the battle of Ascendun, it is mentioned by Holinshead as long ago as 1570. Both he and Camden speak of skeletons being found in stone coffins here and “many chains like to the water chains of the bits of horses” being in the hills. It is said that when the railway was built in 1860 skeletons were found, but I was never able to get any precise confirmation of how many skeletons or what happened to them or whether there were any other remains.
On the other hand, since 1900 nearly all the ground has been most thoroughly and intensively dug over.
* A similar device occurs in coins of Cunobelin
The whole area round the hills has been planted with trees: this involved some thousands of holes, dug through the soil and into the chalk below, the foreman in charge of the work was intelligent and keen and he brought in a number of coins – of which I shall speak later – and yet no trace of any sort of an urn field or of any inhumation graveyard was found.
Nearer the actual junction of the two brooks was a gravel pit: it produced numerous Romano British rubbish holes, a great many coins and a good deal of pottery, but again no signs of burials. Running east from this pit parallel to the stream and behind the old stone and turf bank, a tunnel was dug to a green house; it showed nothing. In the garden greenhouses and walls, tanks and a pond have been made, again pottery, coins, oyster shells and even a bronze pin or two, but nothing to be connected with a burial field.
RC Neville in 1852 trenched the park and found the remains of the house there, but he found nothing else.
The area thus intensively disturbed by people keenly desirous of finding traces of further interments extends all round the hills to a quite considerable distance and I must say I think it is frankly open to question whether there is very much left to find.
I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion that just as so many unexplained events or remains were formerly habitually attributed to the Devil, so these conspicuous mounds attracted the simple explanation of a great battle and received the attribution of most of the discoveries in the neighbourhood; including, I dare say, things really belonging to the Saxon cemetery at Linton Heath, possibly to the old graveyard of the Church here, and almost certainly in the case of a small thing in the Saffron Walden Museum, a piece from the big Romano British cemetery at Withersfield.
It is easier to anticipate the obvious questions which arise than to answer them.
1. When were they built? Between 90 and 120 AD
2. Why? It was a recognised burial custom in these parts.
3. Over whose ashes were they raised? The only evidence as to this is the richness of the grave goods and the magistrate’s chair. Obviously a Romano British Magnate and presumably his near relations.
4. Why was this place chosen? It apparently accords with Romano British ideas of suitability, lying as it did, before the railway was made, in the angle formed by the Ashdon and the Bourn brooks. These Romano British mounds were usually raised near roads or running water (Linton Heath, Hildersham, Via Devana, etc).
5. Where did the people live? We don’t know; it was not usual to bury near the house. No building at all comparable to the style and richness of the burials has come to light nearby, but the district obviously contained rich and important families at that time or before it. Chesterford, 6 miles off, has produced British as well as Romano British coins, Horseheath, 2 miles away, showed a hoard of silver coins from Nerva to Antoninus. A large hoard of British gold pieces was found at Haverhill and an important almost precisely contemporary Romano British cemetery was at Withersfield.
On the whole all that can be said is that at the time stated some important native family, native because of the method of burial and of the rites used, was buried here. The tombs are, if not exactly contemporary, certainly not more than 25 to 30 years apart in age and, for reasons which we are unlikely ever to discover, the site was not in use as a burial ground at any other time, either before or after the erection of these barrows which we have been discussing.
Leaving the hills, we may now turn to the general occupation of the site. There is evidence of four buildings of the Romano British period within a radius of a mile and of these three were dug by the orders of, and to a certain extent under the supervision of, RC Neville in the middle of the last century. I cannot do better than quote the remarks of Professor Haverfield about them: they contain, he said, little beyond apartments for heating and bathing. Similar small houses have been found elsewhere in southern Britain; it is conceivable that they originally included rooms built in wood or clay, which have now vanished, besides the stone-built rooms intended for fires and heating, which have alone survived.
The Bartlow house was excavated in 1853 (perhaps not fully). The block 43 feet by 48 feet contained in the north half two heated rooms and their furnaces, the south half was rougher and less habitable. The floors of the rooms were simple and the walls adorned by the usual stucco. An adjacent structure contained two small tanks, possibly for drinking purposes or for washing wool and the like. The coins found indicated a long occupation.
The dwelling between Bartlow and Hadstock was larger. The block 60 feet by 85 feet contained hypocausts with bathrooms at the north end and less substantial structures or yards at the south end. Three bathrooms were traceable, but one of them had been built in place of another. The small finds and coins showed a range of occupation from 250 to 370 AD.
The third building, near Copt Hill, was a small block 17 feet by 52 feet, of which the North part was heated, while two(?) rooms were outbuildings or yards; trenching showed no traces of other stone foundations round it.
No actual remains of the fourth house have survived, but the old gravel pit on the east of the road just to the north of Bartlow station has produced its rubbish pits, filled chiefly with broken pottery and oyster shells and it must have stood somewhere near the present actual course of the road. Since fairly extensive digging close by has failed to reveal any traces of walls one may probably conclude that the building was not large enough to overlap the combined areas of the pit itself and the road, as these sites alone have remained unexplored or have been so much dug down as to have removed all possible remains.
In addition to these buildings, actual or presumed, there is an old earthwork running for about 350 yards parallel to the stream and some 30 yards south of it (termination at present in the rookery at its eastern end and opposite the gardener’s cottage at its western). According to Gage, it had an extension at the western end which looked in his day as though it made a rectangular enclosure, in this enclosure was a small mound, which he dug without finding anything. What, if anything, this may signify, we do not know; the bank itself is of the usual Celtic-Romano British type, having a flint core with a turf covering. The simplest explanation seems to be that it was virtually a wall to the farmyard or home paddock of the two buildings previously mentioned.
If we now consider the small objects found in this area since 1900 I think we can discuss them as a whole. The excavations took place a long time ago and no efforts were made to preserve any actual traces on the ground, no objects of particular interest, rarity or intrinsic value are mentioned and no doubt any small things which took Mr Neville’s fancy were removed to Audley End. I do not think that we can assume that any essentially valuable evidence has in fact been destroyed.
Taken as a whole the small things found have without exception fitted in precisely with an ordinary humdrum Romano British site occupied by a farming population during the third and fourth centuries.
A thimble, some bodkins, an ivory hairpin or two; scraps of a bracelet, small unassignable fragments of Samian; pieces of smotherkiln ware from near Peterboroough, with an occasional base or rim. Further quantities of larger and coarser pottery both brown and black.
A rubbish pit containing ox and goat bones and the greater part of the skeleton of a woman – it is curious how casual the Romano Britons were about the disposal of surplus bodies.
An iron cramp, tiles and a few tesserae, I think complete the list. It can be increased, as I know, by digging: especially on the site in the park (Neville’s dig of 1853), but there are small grounds for supposing that anything is likely to appear which will not fit in with what has already come to light.
Finally, we come to the coins: and it is worthy of note as a proof of the very exhaustive nature of the surface excavation and search that no less than thirteen comparatively uncommon English coins have been found, although Dr Palmer will probably tell you that this village was not in those days at all large or important and although it was customary for our Teutonic ancestors either to have less money or to look after it better than their Celtic forerunners.
These coins are
Henry III one penny 1
Edward III one groat, one silver penny and one penny 3
Venetian 14th century 1
Elizabeth one silver penny 1
James I sixpence 1
Charles I farthing 1
William III two silver shillings 2
George I farthing 1
Nuremberg tokens _______2
I do not think I need trouble you with a detailed list of those found relating to the Roman period. We know that a large number were found before 1900 and these are unrecorded, but a steady trickle still comes in every year. Practically the whole series has been found on the site of the two houses near the hills, but this is presumably due to the fact that digging holes for trees and gardening lead to a much closer examination of the soil than ordinary farming operations, such as have taken place near the other houses.
The collection at present* amounts to 334 coins, all of which have been examined by the British Museum. The earliest specimen is Claudius, 42 AD, and the latest Honorius. Of the 334, 35 are illegible, although they can be assigned to the 4th century with some plausibility. Fifty are barbarous imitations, nearly all of coins of the Constantine dynasty. The remainder can be assigned to their respective Emperors.
Up to Gallienus say 253 – 268 there are 13 coins
Gallienus to Constantine say 268 – 306 74
Constantine to Valentinian 306 – 364 82
Valentinian to Honorius 364 – 400 80
These figures speak for themselves and the only notable feature is the high proportion of those of the Valentinian/Theodosian dynasty. It seems as though this corner of Britain escaped the catastrophe of 367 when the raiding Picts, Saxons and Attacotti overwhelmed the bulk of the country and apparently destroyed the system of civilisation built upon the great landed estates.
In addition to these coins Dr Palmer has kindly allowed me to see 29 of his, which almost certainly came from this site: their range is similar to my own, there being 1 Trajan, 1 Antoninus Pius and 24 from Gallienus to Magnus Maximus.
Finally, an interesting collection of clay moulds was found in one of the rubbish pits belonging to the house not precisely sited. In all there are 18 of these and each is either an obverse or reverse of coins known to belong to the reign of Septimus Severus or his dynasty. It is interesting to remark that no coins of this dynasty have actually been found on the site and that in point of fact the coinage of this dynasty is almost always scarce in Britain. Whether the moulds indicated an endeavour to produce counterfeits unlikely to be detected owing to the rarity of the prototype, or a reasonable effort to supplement an insufficient supply by a token currency, must remain an open question.
The find is not conclusive as to the date of the house, and although it is clear that no upper limit can be assigned to the residential occupation of the site, I am inclined to believe that the great burials were not in any way connected with the four small and conventional houses whose occupants endowed the area with so much of their monetary wealth.
One of the attractions of archaeology is that where exact proof is lacking, each is entitled to his own opinion, but I follow good leaders in the late Professor Haverfield and Dr Cyril Fox in suggesting that the residence or the occupant of the great barrow has yet to be discovered.
* May 1932
Old photographs discovered
This photograph was discovered recently. The original photograph was very small, about half the size of a postcard and had at some stage in the past been damaged. It appears that somebody had tried to make good the damage to the photograph by drawing in part of the School roof with a pencil.
The photograph shows Bartlow School building as it was either just before, during or just after the Second World War. During the war Catriona Ogilvy remembers helping make sandwiches in the School house which was used as a NAAFI. After the war the School house was sold and became a private residence. A first floor was added giving rise to the building that we see in the village today.
We have found a photograph of the Vicarage in Bartlow. It was taken in 1927 but was sold by the Brocklebank family, dismantled in 1928 and rebuilt in the United States. Bartlow Vicarage in 1927 taken from the site of the present vestry
Bartlow Church taken at the same time from the in front of the Vicarage looking at the Church and before the vestry was built.
This photograph was taken from the signal box in 1968, just one year after the closure of the railway line. It was found by a railway enthusiast. You can see unfortunately that the glass was already smashed.
We have received the following from Norman Bartlett who now lives in Canada, but whose Great Grandparents lived in Bartlow. His Great Grandparents are buried in Batlow Church.
Postcard of Bartlow
My Grandad, second from left taken outside Booking Hall
My Grandad in the switching station
Found this in my late Mother's home; this is my Grandad standing outside the Bartlow switching station according to my Mother .
One of my mother's photos
1906 Bartlow Village England . My Mother is the little girl , front left. The rest are her sisters and brother.My Great Grandparents are : Henry Samuel Parmenter 1865 - 1928; Eliza Parmenter 1868 - 1951; both buried in Bartlow Churchyard