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Willington in Prehistory

As might be expected in an area close to a major river, in this case the Great Ouse, the local parishes contain a good deal of evidence of settlement before the Norman Conquest. The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] details all these sites and find spots and is now on-line as part of the Heritage Gateway site. This article is taken from the various entries in the HER.

Tools form the earliest evidence of human activity in what is now Willington. A large group of Palaeolithic flint implements, including 25 handaxes were found in Willington [HER 674]. Unfortunately there are no details recorded about the exact find spot or date of discovery. A Palaeolithic flake tool was found at Station Pit, a gravel pit which also yielded animal remains [HER 675].

In May 1988 excavations occurred at Willington Plantation Quarry [HER 15222]. The habitation site began in the Neolithic but also had later features. The HER notes: "The excavations uncovered a square enclosure that was two metres wide, unbroken and with a central inhumation. The burial was that of a crouched young female who was accompanied by a single red deer antler. The central location of the burial suggests that it was the focus of the enclosure, thus the enclosure takes on the form of a funerary monument of a Neolithic date. From 1989 to 1991 further excavations recovered the remains of a late Iron Age/Romano British enclosure, two Bronze Age ring ditches, a second Iron Age enclosure, two penannular ditches crossed by a post alignment and an Iron Age double enclosure".

"The Bronze Age Ring Ditches were located south of the River Ouse and 200 metres apart. Whilst open the ditches appear to have been recut and when they did eventually go out of use they were not backfilled. In the middle Bronze Age a cremation was placed in one of the ditches. Four post holes that were uncovered suggested a structural component to the southern ring ditch, but this cannot be confirmed. The northern ring ditch contained several post holes, three of which may be related to Iron Age activity. Internally a large pit was located in the centre but pottery suggests that it is of an Iron Age date. A rectilinear Iron Age enclosure cuts the northern ring ditch. The enclosure was divided along lines corresponding to possible entrance to the north and south. It was open-ended to the east end and appears to focus on a large pit within the ring ditch".

"The pit and the unusual sub-divided enclosure, together with the location of the site and its relationship with the ring ditch, and the deposition of a pig's head and possibly legs, over a long period of occupation raises the possibility of this site being the remains of an Iron Age shrine. The penannular enclosures and post hole alignment are of an Iron Age date, although there is no stratigraphic information they are not thought to be contemporary. The enclosures are possibly the remains of a drip gully from a round house but the western enclosure is too large whilst the eastern enclosure is really too small. Cropmark evidence coupled with the excavation of limited remains recovered a D-shaped enclosure thought to be of an Iron Age date as was a double enclosure".

Willington contains a number of sites which began in one period and seem to have extended into a later period, or periods. Another such is a gravel pit on the Mill Farmhouse Estate on the right bank of the River Great Ouse [HER 10700]. A human skull was obtained from this pit and was believed to have belonged to a Late Bronze Age woman. About 3 feet 6 inches beneath the surface the following were found: a partially bored disc mace head of an hour glass type and of Neolithic date; a pestle type of hammer head in diorite, broken through the haft hole, the part preserved being 2½ by 1½ inches; early Bronze Age beads of silicified sponges or parts of sponges, the holes through them representing the central cavity of the sponge; a Neolithic macehead, pestle, beads and a female skull with other human bones. Lots of animal bones were also found. It is thought that all the finds are probably now in University College, Gower Street, London.

A triple boundary, running north to south between the River Ouse and the main road through Willington [HER 985] is prehistoric. The central line is a continuous ditch, the eastern is a ditch to the north and a pit alignment to the south, and the western is a pit alignment. The boundary appears to have been truncated to the north by a disused railway line which cuts it off from the river, and to the south by the road; if it continued to the south it would meet the Elstow Brook, a tributary of the River Great Ouse. It has therefore been interpreted as a symbolic boundary enclosing a small promontory between the two watercourses. A ring ditch is also visible to the south-east of the boundary. Ring ditches are usually identified as Bronze Age in date and may be, for example, the remains of barrows or of round huts.

To the east end of Willington Plantation another ring ditch is identifiable as a cropmark which is located within a trapezoidal enclosure [HER 16720]. In 1984 a double ring ditch was excavated at the site of Willington Quarry [HER 14455]. The HER comments: "As there were no relationships between the two ring ditches or the remains of any mound or bank the stratigraphy is unclear. There is also no evidence of a function for the monument as the mound has disappeared as have any signs of a central inhumation". Straight parallel double ditches running approximately north-west to south-east, including several small scattered enclosures, have been dated to the Bronze Age as well as the Romano-British period [HER 7204].

Another site occupied at different periods contains area of cropmarks, consisting of Bronze Age ring ditches, one a double ring, and small enclosures [HER 1478]. Excavation in advance of gravel extraction found evidence for a secondary cremation burial in one of the ring ditches, but no central burials. Other enclosures examined were interpreted as late Iron Age stock enclosures, one possibly with internal divisions or stalls. No stratified human remains were found, but a partial skeleton was found exposed, possibly disturbed by flooding. It could not be dated. A Roman enclosure was also excavated as was a Neolithic or Bronze Age pit.

A feature which belonged entirely to the Iron Age was a farmstead excavated in the 1980s [HER 14451] and the subject of an information sheet by Bedfordshire County Council. Also Iron Age was a sherd of pottery found with a flint core near the line of a gas pipeline off Chapel Lane [HER 14962], as was a gold coin said to have been found in the village about 1960 [HER 437]. Another Iron Age site [HER 10807] was excavated north of Church Road by Cambridge University Archaeological Society in 1957.

A number of cropmarks in the parish can only be tentatively identified as prehistoric with no more accurate dating without the evidence of artefacts:

  • HER 770: a scatter of linear features, with small curvilinear and sub-rectangular enclosures, with one ring ditch to the west of the complex.
  • HER 11392: a'ladder' of what may be long narrow rectilinear enclosures lies north of Hill Farm, possibly related to the pre-inclosure open field layout and dating to the Middle Ages. A separate curvilinear enclosure shown on various aerial photographs may be prehistoric.
  • HER 14457: in 1985 a large cropmark site was excavated, the site is about 220 metres south-east of a double ring ditch [HER14455 above]. Due to the very limited time span allowed complete excavation was not possible. The site produced an irregularly cut ditch enclosure of an oval shape on a rough east-west alignment. There were no internal features to the enclosure and it appeared to be of a single phase. There were very few finds recovered and as such a prehistoric date has been assigned to the feature.
  • HER 16751: a compact block of sub-rectangular enclosures located on a ridge top at Mox Hill.