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Luton in the Romano-British Period

The reconstructed vessel from Turner's Knoll shown in William Austin's History of Luton
The reconstructed vessel from Turner's Knoll shown in William Austin's History of Luton

The Romans invaded Britain in 43AD during the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54AD). It took a number of years to subdue what is today England and Wales and the indigenous Iron Age culture merged gradually with a British form of the culture of the invaders. The Romans eventually left Britain, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 410AD (the Chronicle is made up of a number of different versions one of which says, for 410, "In this year the Goths stormed Rome and the Romans never afterwards reigned in Britain"). Luton has a considerable number of finds and sites associated with Romano-British occupation which may be broken down into three types: visible features; excavated settlement sites and finds. The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] is the source for this article.

Visible Features

The most obvious Romano-British features near Luton are the roads - Watling Street, or A5, runs through nearby Dunstable but the Icknield Way [HER353], a prehistoric road which had probably reached its modern orientation by the end of the Iron Age was also used in the Romano-British period: the Viatores, a group dedicated to identifying certain, probable and possible Roman roads in the country, have it listed as Road number 168. Icknield Way enters the county from the south-west at Eaton Bray, and leaves to the north-east at Shillington. It does not appear to have been metalled during the Roman period, and may have been a "service road" connecting villas and settlements to Watling Street. The road is the B489 from the county boundary to the crossroads formed by West Street, the A5 and Church Street in Dunstable. One stretch identified in Luton is at Leagrave Marsh (see HER 167 below).

The Viatores, in 1964, also identified a road running north-south through Marston Moretaine, Millbrook, Ampthill, Maulden, Flitwick, Flitton, Pulloxhill, Harlington, Barton-le-Clay, Streatley and Luton, numbering it 170b [HER 5020]. However, this seems to be conjectural and there is no definite archaeological evidence to substantiate it.

Two adjacent circular cropmarks south-east of Wigmore Hill Farm, south of Eaton Green Road are close to the probable location of a substantial Roman building [HER 10808]. The area has produced late Iron Age and Romano-British pottery. Excavation revealed a 2-10cm deep "occupation" layer of black soil with sherds, charcoal, nails, re-used hypocaust and flue tiles, a glass bead and metalworking fragments. A bronze coin, known as a follis or "bag-full" due to its low worth, of Licinius (AD 316) was found along with fragments of an early 4th century bowl. Other finds included quern stone fragments.

Leagrave Marsh with hats on poles sculptures September 2009
Leagrave Marsh with sculptures of hat blocks on poles September 2009

Excavated Settlement Sites

A number of Roman finds were uncovered in the 1830s during the building of New Bedford Road [HER 206]. These included several large jars, described as large enough to hold a gallon each, along with broken sherds of a cooking pot with soot on the outside surfaces. Large amounts of oyster shell were also found in associated pits.

Evidence for late Iron Age and early Roman occupation of Leagrave Marsh was found during building of a housing estate between Marsh Road and Birdsfoot Road in the 1950s [HER 167]. Excavations found the remains of buildings on timber piles in what had been 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 site at Runfold Avenue (HER115, see below) replaced it, probably because it was on higher ground. Finds included decorated Samian ware, high quality Roman vessels imported from Gaul, as well as parts of a number of Roman "triple vases" related to worship of household gods. A few late Iron Age and Roman coins were also found.

Coincidentally, the photograph above of Leagrave Marsh shows hat blocks on poles. These were made by artist Isabella Lockett.  She used the hat blocks at Wardown Park Museum for inspiration. Leagrave was known colloquially a  'the Blocker's Seaside' in the 19th century and thus the piece is named 'Blocker's Seaside'.

In 1882 a field called Burnt Close, lying just north of today's Marsh Road - Bramingham Road - Sundon Park Road roundabout and thus near Waulud's Bank, produced evidence for a Roman pottery kiln in the form of kiln furniture, prepared clay and broken pottery (presumably kiln waste) [HER 166]. This site lies near the Leagrave Marsh site noted above and may have been part of it. The successor to the Leagrave Marsh site lay in the area of Runfold Avenue, west of Birdsfoot Road [HER 115]. Features unearthed included a villa, a well, a furnace, other buildings, a cemetery with cremations and burials.

In 1908 workmen digging foundations of Waller Street found a large quantity of tile, some of it fused [HER 205]. More was found nearby in 1923. Sketches made at the time show the tiles to be part of a kiln structure; large amounts of pottery were recorded. The kiln was thought to be Roman, as much of the tile used in constructing it was Roman, but later tile was also present, and pottery from the site taken to Luton Museum is medieval in date.

A four hectare development located off Butterfield Green Road [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 west of the road. The use of the land extended back at least into the middle and possibly early Iron Age whilst Roman use was shown in two phases of field systems on the site which only produced a small amount of pottery, in comparison to the other phases. Medieval use was probably linked to Hayes alias Hooburne Manor.

Small scale excavations at Black Swan Lane produced evidence for occupation in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods. Residual pottery provided the main evidence for Saxon and Roman occupation although a post pit and a set of bronze tweezers, both of which can be dated to the 2nd-3rd century, support the period of Roman activity [HER 15290].

Finds

The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record notes the following Roman finds from Luton:

  • Two cremations in urns were found during house building at Richmond Hill in 1926 [HER 183]. Associated finds included a brooch of early 1st century AD and associated pottery included flagons, and pieces of Samian ware. Subsequent digging a nearby the garden produced another cremation, and further pottery. The finds are now in Luton Museum;
  • Two Roman vessels were found at Round Green in 1897, and a quern at Leagrave at an unknown date [HER 201];
  • Drainage works in the early 19th century near Stockingstone Lane uncovered broken pottery, and coins of Roman and Iron Age date [HER 203];
  • Roman flue and floor tiles were found after ploughing in 1911 at Farley Farm, north of today's High Wood Close [HER 204]. It has been suggested as the site of a villa, but this has not been confirmed;
  • A Roman storage jar was found in 1921 during road building at Turner's Knoll [see the photograph at the head of the page], between Turners Road South and Hitchin Road [HER 359]. Skeletons have been reported from the same area, but it is not clear if they are associated. The jar is in Luton Museum;
  • Finds from Ramridge End in 1938 comprised a Romano-British vessel, described as a cinerary urn (although there is no indication of cremated remains with it), along with fragments of early Iron Age pottery, flint implements, animal bone and three Roman coins [HER 367];
  • A scatter of Roman pottery is recorded as having been found on Stopsley Common, with charcoal and burnt bone [HER 698];
  • A Roman bronze coin dating from 310-377 AD was found on the site of new flats in Downs Road in 1970 [HER 1189];
  • Two bronze coins of Emperor Constantine I [306-337] were found at Bracknell Close [HER 1338];
  • A bronze coin of Emperor Severus Alexander [222-235] was found between Emerald Road and Leagrave High Street [HER 1339];
  • A small bronze coin was recorded as having been found in Leagrave at an unspecified date [HER 1394];
  • A collection of Roman coins, mostly of 3rd century date, is said to have been found near Round Green at an unspecified date [HER 1395];
  • A ditch containing Roman pottery was found during the construction of an electricity sub-station and lighting control centre at Luton Airport, east of Percival Way in 1960 [HER 1466];
  • A sestertius (the highest value brass coin - four to a silver denarius) of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) was found at Nether Crawley Farm between today's Saywell Road and Walcot Avenue [HER 1949];
  • A coin of the Emperor Augustus (31 BC - 14 AD) was found in the playground of a girls' secondary school in 1951 and given to Luton Museum [HER 1516];
  • A 4th century Roman coin of the Urbs Roma type was found between Beechwood Road and Wingate Road [HER 1939];
  • A Roman quern made of puddingstone was found between May Street and Cambridge Street at an unknown date and subsequently donated to Luton Museum [HER 1979];
  • A coin of the Emperor Gallienus (253-268) was found in 1925 between Wardown Crescent and Trowbridge Gardens [HER 1976];
  • A coin of Domitian (81-96 AD) was found in St Saviour's Crescent and donated to Luton Museum [HER 1977];
  • Roman pottery was reportedly found at Brache Farm in 1858 [HER 1980], and a coin of Constantine I (306-337 AD) from the same area, today's Alton Road. An amphora and the coin were donated to Luton Museum;
  • Roman pottery has been found at Rothesay Road cemetery and donated to Luton Museum [HER 1981];
  • Unspecified Roman coins have been found between Brays Road and Little Church Road in Stopsley [HER 1983];
  • A skeleton of a child was found in a gravel pit between today's Ravenhill Way and M1 in 1934, along with three sherds of Roman pottery [HER 1984];
  • Whilst spreading topsoil at Whitefield School late Iron Age and Romano-British pottery was found in the soil, it is not known where the soil came from [HER 1985];
  • Two parallel ditches were observed in water pipe trench sections in Cheviot Road and, although no dating evidence was found, it has been suggested that the ditches represent an unfinished Roman road [HER 2836]
  • Pottery and a copper alloy brooch were found in 1962 between Toddington Road and Andover Close, dating from the 1st century AD. Now at Luton Museum [HER 2837];
  • A rubbish pit containing pottery dating from the 2nd century AD was found while digging foundation trenches for a house in Bradley Road in 1970 [HER 2846];
  • Roman pottery was found north of Stockingstone Road in 1936 [HER 2851];
  • Two Roman coins were found at the end of the Second World War on Icknield Road and donated to Luton Museum. One coin was of the Gallic usurper Victorinus (268-271) the other of Eastern Roman Emperor Valens (364-378) [HER 3664];
  • A Roman quern made of puddingstone was found in Alexandra Avenue [HER 7490];
  • A follies of Constantine I [306-337] was found at Cranleigh Gardens [HER 7492];
  • Roman coins, including some of the Gallic usurper Tetricus [271-273] and other of the 4th century have been found in Luton Borough nurseries in Stockwood Park. The site has been described as a Roman Road [HER 10471];
  • Local archaeologist James Dyer noted a Roman road in a pipe trench in Whipperley Ring opposite North Drift Way, during the building of the housing estate [HER 10483]. This same road was excavated in the grounds of Farley Junior School on North Drift Way [HER 10465];
  • Roman building debris was found in Vicarage Street [HER 10599];
  • A 3rd century bronze Roman brooch with blue enamel was found in Bolingbroke Road and given to Luton Museum in 1974 [HER 11296];
  • Early Roman pottery sherds were found at a brickyard in Ashcroft Road [HER 11297];
  • A bronze coin of the British usurper Allectus [293-296] was found in Gardenia Avenue [HER 11298];
  • A bronze coin of Emperor Constantine I (306-337 AD) of the Sol Invictus type was found north of Leagrave High Street [HER 15277];
  • Ninety sherds representing at least six wheel thrown jars were found at Marlin Way. Most of the pieces are undecorated and have orange external and internal surfaces. One of the vessels has linear grooves on the neck. The pottery dates from 50BC-50AD [HER 15280];
  • A wheel thrown jar 11.5cm high by 11 cm wide from the late 1st to 3rd centuries AD was found between Westerdale and Green Close near the M1 [HER 15283];
  • A Roman coin of the Gallic usurper Postumus (259-268AD) was found in a garden at Trinity Road [HER 15849];
  • A coin of the British usurper Carausius (287-293AD), minted in Colchester was found at Sundon Park Recreation Ground [HER 15850];
  • Two pot sherds of the 2nd to 4th centuries were found in a garden in Woodcroft Road [HER 16232];
  • A Roman glass bead was found at a site in Catsbrook Road [HER 16233]. The bead was probably associated with the settlement site in the area noted above as HER 115;
  • Four Roman coins have been found on the Bushmead Estate. They include three bronze coins of Constantine I (AD293-306) and one Gallic usurper Victorinus (AD269-270) or Emperor Claudius II Gothicus (AD268-270). [HER 16234];
  • A follis of Western Roman Emperor Maximian [286-305] was found in Icknield Way [HER 16235];
  • A 3rd or 4th century bronze coin in poor condition was found in Hillary Crescent [HER 16236];
  • At Park Street, at the junction with Seymour Road in the 1990s, a spoil heap revealed late Iron Age and 1st century pottery. [HER 17734];
  • During a survey of the allotments in Luton in 1998 a small scatter of Iron Age and Roman pottery was recovered from a site north of Willow Way [HER 17762];
  • A coin of Emperor Constantius II [337-361] was found on the Brache Estate [HER 17780];
  • A Roman sestertius of Titus (AD 78-80) was found at Dewsbury Road [HER 17782]. This is probably associated with the Roman settlement noted above as HER 115.