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Willington Iron Age Farmstead

A feature which belonged entirely to the Iron Age was a farmstead excavated in the 1980s. The site contained two enclosures and appears to have been constructed as a single entity. The smaller enclosure showed evidence of heavier occupation. It was thought that the larger enclosure was to keep livestock, while the smaller would be for domestic buildings. This would link in with the trackway that funnelled in near the entrance to the large enclosure as it could aid the driving of animals. Bedfordshire County Council published an information sheet, the first in the series Discovering Our Past about the site in April 1986 [CRT130Willington14]. The sheet reads as follows.

An Early Iron Age Farmstead at Willington

Discovery

In 1984 archaeologists working near Willington uncovered traces of a small prehistoric farmstead down by the river. It had existed over 20 centuries ago, during the early part of the Iron Age, between 500 and 100 BC. The site was first found from the air, and we have photographs showing markings in the growing crops. These are caused by the greater depth of fertile soil over the filled pits and ditches of the farm, cut into valley gravels. We had to find out all that we could about the farm through modern archaeology, because those gravels were to be quarried away for building modern houses and roads, taking all the remains with it.

The Farmstead

The farm consisted of two enclosures. Cattle were penned within the larger one, and the family used the smaller as its living area. Around both were hedges which had ditches outside them. The archaeologists found over 100 postholes within the enclosures, representing the remains of wooden buildings and fences.

Careful study of these remains can tell us much about the people who lived here, and how they organised their lives. The buildings in the smaller living enclosure were replaced at least twice. The digging of the ditch probably created an earth bank on its outside edge. Many fragments of pottery tell us that the farm was occupied in the early iron Age. It was the home of a peasant family living altogether in a large round thatched house. They threw their rubbish and food remains into the ditches. The bones dug out of these ditches tell us they kept mainly cattle and horses, and also a few sheep, all smaller than modern breeds. Their animals were kept in the larger enclosure mainly during the winter months, and taken to more distant pastures during the crop growing season. These Iron Age people would have grown vegetables and cereal for bread. We have found loom weights, and this tells us they spun their thread, wove their own cloth and made up their own clothes.

Iron Age Farmers in the OuseValley

The Willington farmstead is like many others which existed close to the river all along the Ouse valley, sited on easily draining gravel near to water and on fertile land. They were established between 500 and 100 BC, and often continued through the Roman period. The local inhabitants lived in single and grouped farmsteads, before the development of the villages and towns that we know today.

Archaeologists have excavated similar sites at Odell, Bromham and Newnham; others are known from crop markings recorded on aerial photographs. The pottery sherds found at Willington show this farmstead was not occupied after 100 BC, but the land was still being farmed during the late Iron Age and right up to the end of the Roman period.

Closer to Willington farmsteads was the buried ditch of a flattened Bronze Age barrow, dating back to about 1500 BC. It is further evidence that the Ouse valley has been more or less continuously cultivated for the last 4,000 Years.

Acknowledgements

The excavation was carried out by kind permission of Redland Quarries. The digging was done by volunteers, members of a Manpower Services Commission Community Programme project, and Bedfordshire County Planning Department’s Archaeological Field Team. The work was funded by English Heritage; the finds are stored in Bedford useum.