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Kempston in the Romano-British Period

19th century print of Roman pottery found in Kempston [X254/88/159B]
19th century print of Roman pottery found in Kempston [X254/88/159B]

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 considerable amount of activity in the area in the three and a half centuries or so of Roman occupation.

Gravel digging in the 19th and 20th centuries revealed numerous Romano-British finds on the north side of Bedford Road as well as finds from the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon periods. Finds indicated a Roman cemetery and with the skeletons were a large number of 1st or 2nd century vessels including the instantly recognisable orange Samian ware from Gaul, of high status and highly decorated. There were also six to ten brooches, four buckles, an ear scoop used for removing wax, two gaming pieces, a goad for oxen, three hair pins, two handles, a lock, two styli used for writing on wax (not that removed from one’s ear with the ear scoop), a pair of tweezers, a coin dating to the reign of Domitian (81-96) and three bottles for perfume or unguent. Perhaps the most exciting find was the site of what, in 1913, was reckoned to be an altar.

More Romano-British activity has been discovered at the site of the modern Cutler Hammer sports ground at the corner of Cemetery Road and Kempston High Street [HER 17731]. This site has been subjected to archaeological evaluation including a geophysical survey. The results yielded pits and ditches containing pottery which extends from the Iron Age into the Romano-British period. It is a similar story of continuous use at an area of gravel extraction south of the river further east [HER 16048].

Romano-British pottery was found at the modern housing site between Kempston Mill and Kempston Manor [HER 14853]. More Romano-British occupation has been discovered when a small housing development was being dug at the rear of 1 King William Road [HER 9724]. This produced an enclosure ditch and a quantity of Roman pottery. This site, like the last, was also occupied in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Viatores are a group dedicated to finding the remains of Roman roads in the modern landscape. One such road has been identified as running from Dorchester-on-Thames [Oxfordshire] to Alconbury House [Huntingdonshire] passing through the Bedfordshire parishes of Aspley Heath, Woburn, Aspley Guise, Houghton Conquest, Brogborough, Marston Moretaine, Wootton, Kempston Rural, Great Denham, Kempston, Bedford, Ravensden, Wilden, Colmworth, Bolnhurst and Keysoe and Staploe [HER 485]. Its passing through Kempston is disputed and there is no clear evidence for it.

Roman finds have been made at and around Kempston Bury since the 19th century [HER 163]. Systematic field-walking in the 1980s and excavations in 2006 produced a key, two weights, two querns used for grinding corn, and a 4th century coin. Another coin, of Constantius I Chlorus (293-306) was discovered near Kempston Mill [HER 16219] as well as slag which cannot be dated. Roman coins are recorded as being found on Kempston allotments [HER 1932] and a hoard was located at Hillgrounds. The coins date from 360 to 388 and the hoard may have been deposited about the time of the death of the last emperor of the whole empire, Theodosius I (379-395).

Metal detecting in Kempston has produced ninety nine coins, a spindle whorl and fragments of two brooches, all Roman [HER 15974].