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Kensworth in the Iron Age and Romano-British Period

A reconstruction of an Iron Age round house at Flag Fen October 2011
A reconstruction of an Iron Age round house at Flag Fen October 2011

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. There is a very rich vein of information for habitation in Kensworth before our first documentary source - the Domesday Book of 1086.

The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD and gradually conquered what is today England, Wales and southern Scotland. This sudden event did not necessarily greatly change everyday life for many of the island’s inhabitants overnight or even for a few generations. Kensworth has a wealth of Romano-British finds, many of them coins found by metal detectorists.

Some early Iron Age pottery, as well as Romano-British pottery and prehistoric flint flakes, was found west of Church End by field- walking [HER 16,258]. In 2005 a metal detectorist found a copper-alloy object which is reckoned to be part of a handle from a metal vessel. The style is Celtic and so might be from the late Iron Age or early Romano-British period [HER 20,643]. At the same time a late Iron Age or early Romano-British copper alloy button and loop fastener were found [HER 20,665].

Two areas of the parish show landscape evidence of use in the Iron Age. A trackway runs from Kensworth to Totternhoe and on to Dunstable and Houghton Regis [HER 276]. It is believed to pre-date the Roman Watling Street [the modern A5] and seems to have run, in part, from the area of the Five Knolls barrow cemetery to Maiden Bower. Stones delineating the route in Kensworth were said to be visible in the 19th century.

A substantial Iron Age ditch, with two smaller ditches, was found in Kensworth during house building in 1964. The smaller ditches ran at right angles to the bigger ditch which was 2.5 metres wide and 1.8 metres deep [HER 1,458].

The Historic Environment Record has two very tenuous entries regarding Roman occupation in Kensworth. One of these [HER 1465] simply reads: “A reference to Roman occupation, although no supporting evidence is given”. The other entry [105] is headed “Roman Inscribed Stones”, identified in a roadside ditch near the church in the 1850s: the entry ends with the classic statement: “It is uncertain whether the original stones found were either Roman, or inscribed”!

Of course, one of Roman Britain’s great military roads, Watling Street, now numbered A5, forms the eastern boundary of Kensworth and aggers have been identified in the parish. An agger is a long, raised line, with ditches at either side, denoting the course of a Roman road. One of these aggers has been identified on the line of the A5 itself, south of the Packhorse Inn [HER 2703]. Another stretch has been identified close to the modern A5 south of Lodge Farm [HER 5146]. A section of this was excavated in 1958. A third agger has been identified east of Kensworth House [HER 5145].

A number of fragments of Romano-British pottery and stoneware have been recovered from the parish. Some pottery was reportedly found in the 19th century whilst digging graves in the churchyard [HER 106]. Fragments of a quern, for grinding corn, were found north of the village [HER 16,252] and south-west of Lodge Farm [HER 16,254] during field-walking. A scatter of pottery was found at Robertson Corner on Dunstable Downs [HER 16,256], another fragment of a quern north of Church End [HER 16,259] and pottery east of Church End [HER 16,260], all during field-walking.

The Historic Environment Record reports finds of sixteen Roman coins as follows:

  • A small bronze coin (officially categorised as Aes 3 coinage, we do not know by what name the Romans themselves called such coins), probably of Constantine I (306-337) was found in June 2005 [HER 20,615];
  • A silver siliqua, which had been clipped to remove some of the silver, was found in June 2005. It dates to the years 364-367 during the reign of Valentinian I (364-375) [HER 20,629];
  • Another siliqua, this one of Julian the Apostate (360-363), was found in June 2005 [HER 20,634];
  • A copper antoninianus from the mid 3rd century was found in June 2005 [HER 20,638]. The coin as too worn to tell which emperor or usurper issued it. These coins were given a superficial wash of silver to make them look like solid silver coinage but were simply copper beneath and attest to the rampant inflation in the empire at this time of mini-collapse before the empire was restored by Diocletian and Maximian from 284 onwards;
  • A copper antoninianus of Gallic usurper Victorinus (269-271) or Tetricus (270-273) was found in June 2005 [HER 20,644];
  • An antoninianus of Gallienus (253-268) was found in June 2005 [HER 20,651];
  • A denarius of the Flavian dynasty (69-96) was found in June 2005. The denarius was the silver coin of the Republic and early Empire (twenty five of which made a gold aureus) and so was a valuable coin. This example was a contemporary forgery, a copper coin given a wash of silver to pass it off as something better [HER 20,652];
  • A copper Aes 3 coin of the early 4th century, possibly a contemporary forgery, was found in June 2005 [HER 20,656];
  • A denarius of Faustina II, wife of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) was found in June 2005 [HER 20,663];
  • A copper antoninianus, probably of Victorinus, was found in June 2005 [HER 20,670];
  • A heavily worn copper or brass coin, perhaps a sestertius of Antoninus Pius (138-161) or Marcus Aurelius was found in June 2005. Sestertii were the largest size of Roman imperial coin and was valuable, four of them made a silver denarius [HER 20,674];
  • A copper Aes 3 coin of Constantius II (324-337) or Constantine II (317-337) struck under their father Constantine I was found in June 2005 [HER 20,675];
  • A copper antoninianus of the British usurper Carausius (286-293) was found in June 2005 [HER 20,680];
  • A worn antoninianus of the mid 3rd century, possibly a contemporary forgery, was found in June 2005 [HER 20,682];
  • Another worn antoninianus from the mid 3rd century was also found in June 2005 [HER 20,683];
  • An Aes 3 of Constantine I was found in June 2005 [HER 20,684]

All these coins were found on the same day at a metal detectorists’ rally in the parish. They are testament to the activity in the area, mostly, presumably, people going up and down Watling Street.

A number of other metal finds have been made in the parish. Four of these were made at the same rally and are as follows:

  • A copper alloy finger ring from which the stone is missing [HER 20,597];
  • A copper alloy harness decoration, circular with an outer rim [HER 20,620];
  • A circular mount with a corroded iron attachment beneath [HER 20,660];
  • An unidentified copper-alloy object, possibly a plumb-bob [HER 20,677].

In the 1890s a brooch, two rings and a piece of Roman chain-link armour were all found on Dunstable Downs [HER 2,038]. Finally, the Dark Ages, after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410, is represented by an Anglo-Saxon pot in Luton Museum is said to have come from building work at Kensworth Vicarage in the 19th century [HER 792]