Settlement in the Stevenage area from the prehistoric to the Roman period

by Jonathan Hunn


The prehistoric settlement of the area within the bounds of Stevenage and its vicinity (defined as an 100 kilometre area centred on the New Town) remains vague and indistinct at the present time of writing. This is not surprising given the nature of the material we are dealing with and the prevailing soils and topography of the area. It is possible to draw up a list of what is known for this period, but in spatial terms it doesn’t amount to a great deal. It is also important to remember that when Stevenage was expanding in the post war years what evidence might survive would tend to escape the notice of most observers. Even today the area is not noted for either its prehistoric monuments or its  artefacts. To judge from a recent extensive field walking programme to the west of the A1(M) the area showed an apparently low level of prehistoric activity and settlement (Zeepvat 2000). This low level of occupation was probably reflected  in the area to the east of the motorway, that is, in Stevenage itself.

During the course of the preceding century the great majority of excavations in the Stevenage area have concentrated on late Iron Age and  Romano-British period sites. For example, the Romano-British sites at Wymondley (Applebaum 1972; Farris 1986 and  Westell 1937); at Boxfield Farm, Chells (Going and Hunn 1999) and nearby at Lobs Hole (Hunn forthcoming); at Baldock (9km to the north) on a late Iron Age and Roman settlement (Applebaum 1932; Burleigh 1980, 1982; Stead and Rigby 1986; Westell 1927); 10km to the south at Welwyn on a variety of late pre-Roman Iron Age sites and Romano-British sites (Andrews 1905; Arnold 1952-54; Hughes 1938; Mayes 1908-9; Rook 1968a, 1968b, 1970, 1973; Selkirk 1978; Stead 1967; Ward-Perkins 1937, 1938). More recent work has taken place on an enclosure site at Hollard’s Farm, Codicote (Burleigh, Went and Matthews 1990; Hunn 1996, 83-86) and on a small Roman villa at Little Wymondley (Went and Burleigh 1991; Hunn 2001).  

The accumulated evidence for this period all suggests that the Stevenage area was characterised by a variety of relatively small, discrete communities dispersed throughout the landscape. The quality of this information is often uneven and imprecise. It has been argued elsewhere that there might be a correlation between such variables as morphology, size, location and range of artefacts that could be used to assess a site’s relative standing in the contemporary landscape (Hunn 1996, 9). However, it is necessary to be aware of the importance of chronology when attempting to classify settlements on the basis of size and morphology. Of the three excavations that have taken place in the Stevenage area in recent years (Little Wymondley, Boxfield Farm and Lobs Hole) only the last one could be said to have been fully excavated. The late Iron Age sites such as Hollard’s Farm near Codicote, Stanborough, Nutfield, Astonbury, Datchworth Common and Great Humphrey were only partly sampled by excavation.

Prehistoric period

There are few tangible remains of this period surviving in the present landscape. An exception to this are two Bronze Age barrows in Graffridge Wood which lies to the west of Old Knebworth. One of these is classified as a ‘bell barrow’ and is about 10m wide and 1.2m high (SMR 51) while the other is described as a ‘bowl barrow’ with a diameter of 23m and 0.5m high (SMR 11508). Similar types of monument survive only as crop marks but even these are relatively limited in number. There are a few to the west of Stevenage (SMRs 6645, 7760 and 7958) but the majority lie along the valley and slopes of the river Beane, to the east of Stevenage. A barrow cemetery has been identified to the east of Aston (SMR 6440) but otherwise the distribution is fairly undramatic. No Bronze Age settlements have been identified and hitherto, field walking programmes have been too restricted to be able to indicate what is happening in the wider landscape. In 1999 a 230 ha area was field walked to the west of Stevenage. Although worked flint was present throughout the survey area its presence did not suggest that prehistoric occupation or activity was of any significance (Zeepvat 2000, 16).

Late Iron Age

This is the earliest period in the Stevenage area when settlement patterns first become discernible. In the late Iron Age period settlement appears to be characterised by farmsteads enclosed by ditched enclosures (see below). However, only one late Iron Age site (Lobs Hole) has been comprehensively excavated and a second enclosure (Boxfield Farm, Chells) belongs to the Roman period, though laid out in the native style. The site at Lobs Hole was located at the north western corner of Stevenage between Martin’s Wood and Box Wood. There appears to have been some pre-enclosure activity on the site in this period. Only the deeper features seem to have survived in the form of gullies and a post-hole. The associated finds were so sparse that it is difficult to interpret the nature of the occupation. It is possible that the indigenous population became more settled and then enclosed the settlement by a rectangular bank and ditched boundary sometime in the early 1st century AD. An alternative interpretation is that new arrivals chose the site as a permanent settlement and built the enclosure for purposes of security and prestige (in part). Only part of the 1st phase enclosure survived the subsequent re-cuts of its boundaries. The earthwork is classified as a regular single-ditched, short quadrilateral enclosure (after RCHM(E) category in Whimster 1989, 40-41). The enclosure was square with an overall dimension of approximately 50m x 50m and was aligned NNW-SSE. It seems probable that it had an entrance at its south-west corner. The ditch varied between 2.2m and 2.7m wide and between 1.57m and 1.75m deep and contained mostly grog-tempered pottery and bone belonging to the mid 1st century pottery. Internal features, apart from some post-holes in the northern corner, were not visible and it is assumed that structures, if they existed at all, were comparatively shallow. There were few personal or utilitarian objects recovered apart from grog-tempered sherds.

Group 1: Roman villas

Purwell (SMR 0467); Weston (SMR 1588); Frogmore Farm ? (SMR 0509); Gravelly ? (SMR 4423); Aston End ? (SMR 0796).

Group 2: Religious sites

This type of site is understood to be with a temple complex or localities that were particularly venerated. None have been identified though areas such as the ‘Six barrows’ were certainly deemed to be important enough for such impressive funeral monuments to have been erected.

Group 3: Romanised Farmsteads or small villas

Little Wymondley (SMR 2607)
This was partly excavated in 1991 by North Hertfordshire Council Museum in advance of the Wymondley by-pass and by ASC Ltd in 2001 during the construction of a new electricity cable route. This revealed a rectangular masonry building 42m x 14.5m. This may have replaced a wooden framed building which lay immediately to its west. There was evidence that it was internally furnished with tessellated floors, painted walls and possibly a small mosaic. There was evidence for the existence of other buildings but these were not necessarily contemporary. There was a rectangular structure [618] which was c.8m wide and of unknown length belonging to the 2nd century. There was a third structure identified which consisted of two concentric rings of post-holes [366]. The outer ring had a diameter of 6.1m and the internal ring had a diameter of 4.3 m (14.5 sq.m.). There was an area of what may have been drying frames or loom shed [402] to the east of the main rectangular building. Further away to the east two, possibly three T-shaped malting kilns were found. In addition, a well [918], a pond [493] and half a dozen cremations were found, together with a yard surface.

Excavation in 2001 revealed evidence comprising Romano-British occupation dating from the 1st  to 3rd  centuries (NGR TL 21695-26850). The evidence comprised two buildings with masonry foundations, two kilns or ovens, a yard surface and several post-holes and pits. The rectangular building was 14.3 x 6.5 m (internally) with foundations  0.58 m wide and 0.9 m deep. The circular building had an internal diameter of 7.25 m with wall foundations 0.6 m wide x 0.3 m deep. The two ovens or kilns were each about 1.1m in length by 0.48m wide and 0.44m deep and pre-dated the rectangular building. Their fill contained a variety of charred cereal grain, charcoal, occasional iron slag and hammerscale. About 100m west of the buildings a pit revealed a rich assemblage of fired material including cereal grain and fired clay which had the impressions of saplings and split wood.

Group 4: Lesser Romanised Farmsteads

Boxfield Farm (SMR 4506) see Fig......

This was partly excavated between 1988-89 by the Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust (Going and Hunn 1999). This work revealed a Romano-British farmstead enclosed by ditches which defined an area of 1.8 ha (4.6 acres). The enclosure appears to have been divided into as many as ten sub-divisions. The habitation area seems to have been located on the western side of the site. The evidence consists of possible rectangular and circular buildings constructed sequentially and associated within an area of occupation in the form of post-holes, pits, gullies, ditches, a palisade and well. Other associated elements were a ‘corn-dryer’ set within a circular building and a cemetery. The finds belonged, almost exclusively, to the Romano-British period. They comprised over 650 objects (iron, lead, copper-alloy, glass, stone, shale, bone and ceramics; 314 coins (from accidental loss) and a coin hoard of 2,600 coins of mainly mid 3rd century date. There were 382 kl of pottery, 104 kl of animal bone and 175 kl of clay fired building material.

Group 5: Native Settlements*

Lobs Hole (SMR 9222); Shephalbury  (SMR….)
In the Roman period settlement at Lobs Hole continued with no apparent change in material status. In the mid to late 1st century the enclosure doubled in size to 90 m x 48 m (internally from ditch to ditch). From the end of the 1st century onwards there was a continual process of boundary modification and the appearance of a variety of internal features (shallow pits, a pond, post-holes and semi-circular construction gullies). This activity appears to have tailed off in the early 3rd century and would appear to have ceased altogether by the middle of the century. The material evidence derived from discarded objects (ceramics, copper alloy, iron etc.) indicates a native settlement with little or no obvious signs of ‘Romanisation’. Apart from industrially produced pottery, some occasional coins and copper alloy objects, there is little to indicate that this site was in the middle of Lowland Roman Britain. The site would seem, on balance, to have been engaged in pastoral farming and, to judge from the range and quality of the finds, possibly to have been more subsistence based than market oriented. Its proximity to the Boxfield Farm (Chells) enclosure (which outlasted it by 150-200 years or so) might suggest that its territory became merged sometime in the early 3rd century.

An unclassified late Iron Age enclosure site exists at Shephalbury Park (NGR TL 2564-2220). This consisted of four phases of negative features, the largest of which comprised a 34m length of v-shaped ditch which was between 2.9m and 3.4m wide and a depth of between 0.95m and 1.42m. The lowest fill contained 1st century pottery.

Group 6: Industrial Sites

No discrete industrial sites have been identified in the Stevenage area.

Table of sites

Tentative classification of Romano-British sites in the Stevenage area (arranged in alphabetical order)
(data type: cm = crop marks; bd = building debris; mda = metal detector activity; exc. = excavation; fw = field walking; tt = test-trenching; rf = random find; cf = ceramic finds; sd = settlement debris; q = quernstone)

Identified sites
 No.  Name  SMR No.   NGR   Material   Data Type   Group 
 1  Aston  1331  TL 279-243  bd  rt  3
 2  Aston  7653  TL 285-201    cm  5
 3  Aston  9320  TL 275-226  cf  rf  4
 4  Aston End  0796  TL 273-241  cf  bd  1
 5  Benington  4430  TL 287-240    cm  ?
 6  Boxfield Farm  4506  TL 266-259  sd  cm/exc  4
 7  Clothall  2189  TL 282-291    cm  5
 8  Corey's Mill  9318  TL 227-268    mda  4-5
 9  Datchworth  1898  TL 272-200  sd  cm  4-5
 10  Frogmore  9269  TL 292-211  cf; q  rf  4-5
 11  Frogmore Farm  0509  TL 285-210  sd  fw  1
 12  Graveley  4423  TL 238-291    cm  1
 13  Graveley  9321  TL 236-283  sd  rf  4-5
 14  Knebworth  1251  TL 228-228  cf  fw  4-5
 15  Knebworth  0409  TL 243-201  cf  rf  4-5
 16  Little Wymondley  2607  TL 218-268  sd  fw;exc  3
 17  Little Wymondley  0101  TL 228-283  sd  fw  3-4
 18  Lobbs Hole  9222  TL 263-263  sd  exc.  5
 19  Luffenhall    TL 295-289  cf  rf  4-5
 20  Nine Springs  0468  TL 208-294  sd  fw  3-4
 21  Purwell  0467  TL 207-291  sd  fw;exc  1
 22  Robin's Hill  2923  TL 277-250  cf  cm; fw  4
 23  Shephalbury    TL 256-222  sd  exc  5
 24  Stevenage  0359  TL 250-241    cm  4-5
 25  Stevenage  0426  TL 233-224  cf  fw  5
 26  Stevenage  0434  TL 290-267  coins  rf  ?
 27  Stevenage  0438  TL 243-242  cf  rf  4-5
 28  Stevenage  0439  TL 246-236  cf  rf  4-5
 29  Stevenage  0441  TL 249-236  cf  rf  4
 30  Stevenage  0442  TL 262-242  sd  rf  3-4
 31  Stevenage  0444  TL 263-216  sd  rf/bd  3
 32  Stevenage  2230  TL 242-250  coins  rf  ?
 33  Stevenage  9319  TL 243-243  sd  rf  4-5
 34  Stevenage    TL 245-223  sd  rf  4-5
 35  Walkern    TL 297-262  sd  rf  4-5
 36  Walkern  1706  TL 284-260  sd  rf  3-4
 37  Walkern  2910  TL 285-274    cm  4-5
 38  Walkern  4429  TL 280-246    cm  4-5
 39  Walkern  4498  TL 278-276    cm  ?
 40  Walkern  4499  TL 289-271    cm  ?
 41  Weston  1588  TL 272-307  sd  bd;rf  1
 42  Weston Park  1592  TL 260-290  sd  rf;bd  3
 43  Weston  1799  TL 279-294  cf  rf  4-5
 44  Wymondley  0471  TL 216-286  sd  fw; exc  see note*
 45  Wymondley  4406  TL 215-258    cm  4-5
 46  Wymondley  4494  TL 228-288    cm  4-5

Settlement patterns and territories in the Stevenage area

There are several zones within the Stevenage area (previously defined) that may permit us to estimate total settlement numbers. If the same sort of density was extrapolated from those zones to the negative zones then the total numbers may be achievable (within broad parameters). At present we have only 44 sites in the Stevenage area and some may consider that to be on the generous side. However, certain zones may indicate a very much higher number of sites. These zones are as follows:

Central Stevenage

Within an area of approximately 3 there were 7 potential occupation sites. That is, an average of 2.3 settlements per kilometre square.

Middle Beane Valley

Within an area of approximately 6 there are at least 10 occupation sites. That is, an average of 1.6 settlements per km sq.

Wymondley Area

Within a 8 area there are 1.25 sites per km sq.

North east corner of Stevenage (i.e. Lobs Hole/Boxfield Farm)

2 sites per 1 area

That is, 18 have 28 sites which equals 1.5 settlements per 1 km sq.

If this was projected for the entire Stevenage area then there would be 150 settlements. Of these estimated settlements there is evidence for 46 (i.e. 30%). On current calculations we have the range of between 1.25 and 2.3 for settlement density (i.e. between 125 and 230 sites).

The proximity of the two enclosure sites (Boxfield Farm and Lobs Hole) could be argued to suggest that density of settlement was higher than might be expected throughout the Stevenage area. If this were so then we might expect settlement numbers to approach the 200 mark. However, it would seem more reasonable to expect that there would be variations in settlement density according to topographical and (though harder to interpret) social factors. It would be premature to rely too much on the present information to suggest any kind of differential patterning. But from those areas (previously listed) that indicate greater concentrations of settlement there is not much that can be discussed for the present.

In addition, to observations previously made (see above) there is a further question that should be posed concerning the wider issue of the Romano-British geography of the Stevenage area. That is, can the settlement pattern be described in anything more than in general terms as being simply ‘dispersed’? Or alternatively, one which may be characterised as being ‘a dispersed rural settlement pattern’ located midway between Baldock (8 km) to the north and Welwyn (8 km) to the south (Braughing lay 12 km to the east and Durocobrivis (Dunstable) some 22 km to the west)? The answer is a provisional ‘yes’ but with two qualifications. Firstly, it would be unwise to over-simplify the settlement evidence in terms of single or extended family status. There are three areas where this might not be so.  The Nine Springs site between Purwell and Wymondley (SMR 0468) has been field walked and suggests a 6 ha (15 acres) scatter of occupation debris (Burleigh, G. pers comm). The Wymondley site 1000 m to the south east (SMR 0471) has occupation debris covering 8 ha. A third site at Robin’s Hill (SMR 2923) has been field walked and this had occupation debris extending over 6 ha. All these sites are like small village type settlements. An alternative explanation is that they may be the result of shifts in the location of small family dwellings over time. Their real composition has yet to be established but this author is of the opinion that we should not be surprised to find extensive concentrations of multi-family groupings. Whether these can be described by Anglo-Saxon terms such as villages or hamlets is another matter. It may be significant that two of the cases cited above (Nine Springs and Robin’s Hill settlements) are either very close to or in the general vicinity of higher status sites such as villas (group 1). Our understanding of the relationship between these two types of settlement is poor. If there was such a relationship then this pattern may be replicated elsewhere.

The relationship between rural settlement types (groups 1-6) and multi-component type settlements (e.g. hamlets, villages, towns) has, hitherto, not been addressed in the Stevenage area. This is hardly surprising given the low quality of information available. Nevertheless, some form of appraisal, however limited, is required if there is to be any progress in the settlement study of the area. With the exception of Roman towns or ‘local centres’ (Baldock, Braughing, Dunstable and Welwyn) previously mentioned there is no settlement of sufficient size to warrant such a description. The concept of the village as representative of a centralised community sharing in the activity of exploiting the local resources and exercising some form of ‘communal management’ over them, has yet to be demonstrated in Roman Britain. Our objectives require to be more basic such as distinguishing the different components of particular settlements. Hingley (1989, 75) quoting Hallam writing in 1970 mentions the results of work in the Fens in which the following settlement types were characterised:

single farms - 1 farm
small hamlets - 2-3 farms
large hamlets - 4-6 farms
small villages - 7+ farms

Applying such categories is, on present evidence, not achievable. However, this question may be addressed by the study of surface scatters and the supplementary sample excavation on rural locations. Such an approach will become more urgent as the need for urban expansion grows.

With the exception of the three sites previously cited (Nine Springs, Wymondley and Robin’s Hill) all the evidence falls within the 6 rural groups previously discussed. However, two of these groups (groups 2 and 6) are so far absent from the Stevenage area. Whether there was such a phenomenon as an ‘industrial site’ as distinct from purely agrarian activities is debatable. Certainly, on present evidence there were none though fulling and tanning processes may have occurred along the course of the River Beane. With regard to religious sites, these are also absent though they should be expected to exist despite the proximity of Baldock with its connotations of market and religious activities. Although centres for communal and/or individual worship have yet to be identified those for the dead figure more prominently in the Stevenage area. The six Hills barrow group are eloquent testimony to the power and status of some of the local families in the Romano-British period. Where they may have lived and, for that matter, worshipped have so far not been conclusively demonstrated. Their location adjacent to a north-south route was a relatively favoured position, but that brings us no closer to answering the question - why? There are no high status sites in the immediate vicinity so the question of such a relationship may never be demonstrated. It is conceivable that they represent the burial of local worthies in a centralised place for reasons that would have been significant to contemporaries. That is, that the area was held to have some special significance to the local community. Such an area may have been the focus of periodic acts of veneration over long periods of time, that is, until the establishment of Christianity which would have eventually superseded any pagan vestiges of spiritual belief.

At present, the Six Hills barrow group can only be seen in isolation from their contemporary setting. The same applies to the two settlements of Boxfield Farm and Lobs Hole. Neither of these sites appears to have any close spatial relationship to any of the villas in the area. The closest, Aston (0796) lay just under 2 km to the SSE from Boxfield Farm, and Weston (1592), if indeed it was a villa, lay over 2.75 km to the north of the Lobs Hole site. At present we do not know, nor may it ever be established, what the relationship was between these two sites and those of a higher status. Both sites (Boxfield Farm and Lobs Hole) were less than 500 m apart and their inhabitants would have been on relatively intimate terms. This would have been especially so, if both were predominantly pastoral farmers and in the case of Lobs Hole probably exclusively so. Accordingly, their territories (in terms of zones of exploitation) would have tended to overlap and to have been possibly more extensive than had they been more arable orientated. No sites have been located immediately to the north of Lobs Hole where field walking in the vicinity of Botany Bay Farm, in the early 1990’s, failed to locate any other Romano-British settlements. To the west the spread of Stevenage in the 1960/70’s would have obliterated a Lobs-Hole type site without leaving much evidence. This leaves the sloping sides of the valley of the River Beane to the east. A water course 1 km to the east and north east might have conveniently demarcated their pasture lands from those of the Walkern sites (SMR 4498, 2910 and 4499) between 2 and 2.75 km to the east. Alternatively, the territory could have been, in effect, ‘inter-commoned’ between the valley and plateau-land communities.

To define the Lobs Hole settlement territory in anything more than general terms is not possible on the present evidence. To do that we need to be reasonably certain that we have located all the individual settlements in the vicinity and to have identified their chronology, status and range of function. Models have been provided elsewhere that have proposed certain territorial parameters (Hunn 1996, 54-55).

The amount of land actually cultivated would doubtless have varied according to the particular circumstances of individual owners/tenants. We are ignorant as to the percentage of fallow and/or waste ground that would have existed within a given locality. The model makes several assumptions: firstly, that there is a relationship between wealth/status and territory; secondly, that the higher the settlement population the higher would be its potential (in terms of labour resource) to exploit a larger area of territory.

This then brings us to the question tenurial arrangements. There are several tenurial models that may have been applicable. The first is one whereby the tenants were dependent on an estate. That is, one similar to the simplified model of a medieval manor and its dependent peasantry. The second one consists of an independent farming community loosely based on kin groups and the third one is a combination of the two. At present the evidence, such as it is, points more to the landscape being managed along hierarchical lines than on independent owner occupiers.

Related pages

History of Stevenage

Contact details

Stevenage Museum
St Georges Way

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