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Totternhoe in The Dark Ages

Brooch from about 700AD found at Shirrell Spring [X325/146/125]
Brooch from about 700AD found at Shirrell Spring [X325/146/125]

The Romans eventually left Britain, in 410AD. The period between this date and the Norman Conquest of 1066 was traditionally called the Dark Ages as, unlike the Classical World, there was perceived to be a paucity of written material available to shed light these 650 or so years. Today the term has largely fallen out of favour with historians for a number of reasons, not least the information now available from archaeology. Nevertheless the term still means something in most people's minds whereas the term Early Medieval is, for most people, less well defined.

Totternhoe has a considerable number of finds and sites associated with the eras before the Norman Conquest and, true to form, has more sites and finds from the Dark Ages than is common in Bedfordshire parishes. The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] lists these and is the source for this article.

One possible settlement site has been identified in the parish. Chalk quarrying near Maiden Bower (itself just in Houghton Regis parish) revealed two Bronze Age burials and an Iron Age pit. Approximately 30 metres west of the burials were the remains of a rectangular feature, about a foot deep, with a posthole at either end. The western end was excavated but the eastern end was largely quarried away before it could be recorded; however, the posthole at that end survived. The feature produced animal bones and two sherds of residual Iron Age pottery, and is interpreted as a sunken-feature building of early Saxon date [HER 1407]. If so it would be a very unusual find.

Four find spots of Dark Age artefacts have been recorded. Artefacts were reported in and around Shirrel Spring in 1920, including Neolithic flints, Roman pottery and coins, and a brooch dated to around AD700. The brooch is now in Luton Museum [HER 26]. It seems possible that the brooch was an offering to pagan gods at a naturally holy site - a place where water comes up from the depths of the earth. An 8th century silver coin known to historians as a sceatta was found in Castle Hill Road just east of the junction with Castle Close [HER 2819].

An Anglo-Saxon silver strap end, dating to the second half of the 9th century was recovered from an unrecorded site in Totternhoe [HER 17726]. The terminal consists of a formalised animal head with prominent eyes and a snout rather crudely executed in slight relief. Finally, it was noted in 1904 that: "Part of a Saxon shield has been found at Totternhoe" [HER 11215].