On the last day of June 2016 and in the wake of momentous happenings in British politics, 17 members of FEAG and Cambridge Antiquarian Society met at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit dig at Lancaster Way Business Park near Witchford in the Isle of Ely. The site was a former WWII aerodrome and still had an atmosphere from that time. Luckily sunshine was bucking the trend for showers that had halted digging earlier in the week, although there was a lot of water in the trenches and test pits. We shoehorned into the portakabin that was the nerve centre of operations for a preliminary talk on the dig from Al Wright: he described evidence of Middle Iron Age round houses with deep drip ditches, enclosures for animals with narrow entrances, a Roman trackway very likely with Iron Age origins and a large and very impressive banjo enclosure. We viewed site plans, drone photographs and a lidar map of the water courses and islands in the immediate area and towards Coveney and Ely. Al showed us representative finds such as Iron Age pottery with comb marks, a beautiful decorated bone comb for weaving and loom weights. Other finds indicated later Roman occupation or possibly the adoption of Roman culture by the local population (Roman pottery and a glass bottle top). Bone finds came mainly from sheep in the Middle Iron Age, very young animals and very old ones, probably because the younger animals were being used for food and the older ones for wool. Bones from the later Iron Age were mainly bovine.
Out in the field we saw water-filled trenches and test pits and soil marks indicating the drip ditches round three roughly east-west aligned round houses and traces of post holes at the doorways. There were also clear soil markings from the trackway that would have led across the dry land peninsula, suggesting trade was being carried out along the waterways. There were two deep wells possibly going down as far as the chalk aquifer. Although the subsoil was mainly sand and gravel (terminal moraine), there was clearly a heavy clay layer under that preventing drainage. This may have explained the size and depth of the ditches. The banjo enclosure was huge with a very large round deep outer ditch, two smaller round ditches (with clear indications of reworking at some period), a shallow round ditch that might have supported wicker walls and large post holes (possibly from two periods) indicating internal structure. This is unlike some other banjo enclosures (not many of which have been found in East Anglia) and, we were told, might indicate a higher status usage. The entrance for the banjo was on a slightly different alignment from that of the round houses, and so the enclosure may have been from a different period.
Al gave us a very informative description of the dig so far and the CAU’s current thoughts on this landscape. He also nobly fielded questions and comments from the group and took us up on the platform at the back of the banjo enclosure to get a drone’s eye view of the site. Clearly there was a lot going on in this area in the Iron Age and Roman periods and there is much scope for exciting future digs in the region.
Images: Vicki Harley