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Luton in the Iron Age

An Iron Age spearhead found in Dunstable in 1927 and illustrated in William Austin's History of Luton
An Iron Age spearhead found in Dunstable in 1927 and illustrated in William Austin's History of Luton

The Iron Age lasted from around 700 BC until the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD and the subsequent gradual colonization of England and Wales.  It was preceded by the Bronze Age. At this time casting and use of iron implements became widespread and at least by the latter part of the Iron Age the tribes referred to by Roman historians had settled territories. The tribe associated with what is now Bedfordshire were the Catuvellauni, one of the most powerful tribes, it is believed, in the southern part if Britain in the century or so before the Roman Conquest. Iron Age evidence from Luton may be broken down into three types: visible features; excavated settlement sites and finds. This article has been prepared using the Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record.

The River Lea at Leagrave Marsh September 2009
The River Lea at Leagrave Marsh September 2009

Visible Features

The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record. Waulud's Bank, usually considered a Neolithic henge monument also includes an Iron Age fortified enclosure [HER 820]. Dray's Ditches [HER 113] are the remains of a substantial boundary earthwork constructed around 500 BC, consisting of three east-west aligned parallel v-shaped ditches, 4.5m wide by 2m deep; the southern two ditches appear to have been separated by a double palisade. These replaced two less substantial Bronze Age ditches. The Iron Age features appear to have been built to control traffic along the Icknield Way. This road itself [HER 353] may have been defined in its present course by the Iron Age. It enters the county from the south-west at Eaton Bray, and leaves to the north-east at Shillington.

Evidence for late Iron Age and early Roman occupation was found during building of a housing estate between Marsh Road and Birsdfoot Lane on Leagrave Marsh in the 1950s [HER 167]. Excavations found the remains of buildings on timber piles in what had been, not surprisingly, marshy ground, as well as traces of log platforms forming "islands". The site was located beside a crossing point where the Icknield Way forded the River Lea. Pottery evidence suggested that it was occupied from c.200 BC until c.80 AD, when the settlement appears to have moved to a site in the vicinity of today's Runfold Avenue [HER115], probably because it was on higher ground.

A four hectare development located on the north-east edge of Luton at Butterfield Green [HER 13417] showed the presence of Iron Age, Roman and Medieval remains. Field walking and trial trenching showed that the archaeological potential was concentrated in the western part of the site. Four ditches in to the west of the site were dated by pottery to the early-middle Iron Age, and it was also thought to indicate a possible settlement, due to the quantity of pottery. Remains further south suggested a settlement dating to the late Iron Age. A later geophysical survey was carried out [HER 15847] which produced evidence for a rectilinear and possible sub-circular ditched enclosure. This was followed up by a small excavation which produced a number of flints of a Neolithic and Bronze Age date as well as three ditches creating a boundary ditch, and pits that have been dated to the late Bronze Age to early Iron Age. The early-middle Iron Age evidence was concentrated in one area and comprised of a number of rectangular and curvilinear enclosures, one of which contained a round house. Within this area of settlement a number of post holes and pits were also uncovered, of which some of the pits were able to be phased to a period after the settlement had gone out of use.

An extensive flight of lynchets, probably at least Iron Age in origin lie on Bradgers Hill [HER 209]. They may even date back as far as the Neolithic. A trackway crosses the lynchets, and appears to be contemporary or earlier than them. Roman pottery has been found on the surface. The size of the earthworks suggests cultivation over at least a 400 year period.

Excavated Settlement Sites

A group of five late Iron Age cremations in cordoned vessels was found during building works in Rosslyn Crescent in 1962 [HER 1946]. Two 1st century brooches were found at the same time. Observation of further work in 1963 revealed four more cremations, in urns, with accompanying vessels, and a number of pennanular brooches. Nearby was a shallow depression interpreted as a hut, with sherds of 1st century Roman and Iron Age pottery on its floor.

A site just off Skimpot Road, between Cradock Road and Chaul End Road, at the bottom of a north facing escarpment of the Chiltern Hills running east of Blows Downs, was excavated in the 1980s due to a road scheme [HER 15287] and produced evidence for a small enclosure of an Iron Age date. Evidence was produced for a number of storage pits that appeared to have held grain, and a variety of animal bones were also recovered. Within the enclosure a double post hole may indicate the presence of a structure.

Finds

The Historic Environment Record records the following Iron Age finds:

  • A gold coin of Tasciovanus [c.20 BC to c.9 AD] was found near Dunstable in 1884, reportedly at Leagrave [HER 143];
  • Three Iron Age gold coins were found at Leagrave Marsh in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1870, an uninscribed coin and a coin of Tasciovanus were found, and in 1887 a coin of Addedomarus [c.15 BC to c.5 BC] [HER 164];
  • Drainage works in the early 19th century near Stockingstone Lane uncovered broken pottery, and coins of Roman and Iron Age date [HER 203];
  • Gaulish gold coins, perhaps two in number, were found at Cannon Lane; one was said to have been found in 1919 and one in 1949, both are now in Luton Museum [HER 356];
  • Finds from Ramridge End in 1938 included fragments of early Iron Age pottery as well as Romano-British material [HER 367];
  • A Catuvellaunian gold quarter stater was found off Stanton Road in 1971 [HER 2845];
  • A heavy gold coin of 1st century BC was found at Stopsley and showed a horse and pellet design [HER 10179];
  • Ninety sherds reperesenting at least six wheel thrown jars were found at Marlin Road. Most of the pieces were undecorated and had orange external and internal surfaces. One of the vessels had linear grooves on the neck. The pottery dated from 50BC-50AD [HER 15280];
  • During a survey of the allotments in Luton a small scatter of Iron Age and Roman pottery was recovered from a site to the north of Willow Way [HER 17762]