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Kempston in the Anglo-Saxon Period

19th century finds from Kempston Anglo-Saxon cemetery [Z48/116]
19th century finds from Kempston Anglo-Saxon cemetery [Z48/116]

Finds have made it clear that there has been human activity in Kempston for a very long time. This should not be surprising given the presence of a major and navigable river as it is thought that in earliest times rivers were the major arteries of travel and communication.

The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] contains information on the county’s historic buildings and landscapes and summaries of each entry can now be found online as part of the Heritage Gateway website. The HER records a large amount of Anglo-Saxon activity in Kempston, probably more than anywhere else in the county with the exception of Bedford.

Gravel digging in the 19th and 20th centuries revealed numerous Anglo-Saxon finds on the north side of Bedford Road as well as finds from the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British periods [HER 256]. The area contained two Anglo-Saxon burials, complete with disc brooch and spear and had also been used in the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British periods, raising the possibility that earlier burials encouraged later societies to also bury their dead here.

A much larger Anglo-Saxon cemetery had been discovered on an adjoining site in the 19th century [HER 258]. Occasional finds had been made in the 1840s and 1850s but the main discoveries date from 1863 and 1864. The cemetery was in use from the 5th century (the Romans left Britain in 410) to the 7th century. Both burial and cremation seem to have been practised in the 5th, 6th and early 7th centuries, giving way solely to burial by the end of the 7th century, perhaps suggesting the influence of Christianity – Saint Augustine, who brought Christianity to England, landed in Kent in 597.

Altogether 156 burials are recorded but it is thought that this recording was not particularly rigorous and there may have been as many as three hundred graves. The cemetery revealed a rich variety of grave goods, including: a number of Roman coins; a small quantity of animal remains; an armlet; an arrow; a number of leather bags; a bead; a number of buckets; three combs; a cosmetic set; a ear ring; a hair pin; a hook; three pieces of jewellery; a number of knives; two needle holders; a pin; a ring; a scabbard; a sheath; a number of shields; four spindle whorls; five swords; two boxes; a girdle hanger; two necklaces; some pendants and three glass vessels.

One of these glass vessels is shown above – it is the largest of the objects. Glass vessels of a similar type were also known at an early date in Snartemo in Norway and the type is now referred to as Snartemo-Kempston ware. It is very distinctive and found in a number of sites in England and northern Europe.

The greatest numbers of finds, however, are represented by pottery vessels, brooches, buckles and spears. This cemetery is commemorated in the naming of the 1970s Saxon Centre on Bedford Road. David H. Kennett wrote up the finds from this cemetery in very great detail in three volumes available in the Searchroom library.

The area around Kempston Mill was occupied in the Anglo-Saxon period [HER 4544] as shown by a number of ditches, gullies and pits extending from the 5th century into the middle ages. This suggests the mill mentioned by Domesday Book was in this vicinity. Finds, from the 9th century onwards, have included animal bones, a hook, two nails, a pin and slag from iron working. Two small copper alloy long brooches were found south of Ford Mill [HER 15919]. They probably date from the 6th century. Two Anglo-Saxon burial urns were discovered in gravel pits [HER 16048].

A small housing development behind 1 King William Road [HER 9724] revealed ditches, gullies and pits from the 10th century onwards. Animal bones and a quantity of pottery were also found.