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prehistory

Some aspects of local heritage are well known to most people: historic churches, Roman roads and castles are the sorts of places that we are all familiar with, even if only vaguely. A good example in North Hertfordshire is the Icknield Way, which is the name of local roads and paths and which is followed by the A505 from Baldock to Royston.

Icknield Way at Ickleford, North Hertfordshire

Icknield Way at Ickleford, North Hertfordshire

It has been described as “the oldest road in Britain”, consisting of “prehistoric pathways, old when the Romans came” and it “survives as splendid tracks and green lanes along the chalk “spine” of England”. This would make it one of the most important ancient monuments in Britain, if all this were true. But how much of what we think we know is based on actual fact? If we want to understand the past, we need to question every bit of received wisdom that is passed on from generation to generation.

The conventional view

The Icknield Way is usually thought of as prehistoric trackway of great antiquity, in use from perhaps as early as the Mesolithic (before 4000 BC) but more certainly from the Neolithic (4000-2000 BC). It runs from East Anglia to the Thames Valley. Although according to some, it starts at Grimes Graves near Thetford, others extend it north to Holme-next-the-Sea or east to Lowestoft; it ends near Wallingford on the Thames, although it is sometimes extended west along the Berkshire Ridgeway to Marlborough.

It was one of the “four royal roads” (quatuor chimini regales) mentioned by the Anglo-Norman historian Henry of Huntingdon. According to him, an ancient king of Britain “constructed four great highways in it, from one end of the island to the other”, of which “the first is from west to east and is called the Icknield Way”. Henry did not say exactly where Icknield Way ran.

In the 1320s, another historian, Ranulf Higden, named the four royal roads as Foss Way, Watling Street, Ermine Street and Rikeneldes (or Hikenhild) Strete. According to him, it bygynneþ in Meneuia in West Wales (“starts in St Davids, in West Wales”), streccheþ forþ by Worcester… by Birmingham… by Derby… by 3ork… (“stretches on by Worcester… by Birmingham… by Derby… by York…”) and so forþ anon to Tynemouþe (“so forward on to Tynemouth”). This is clearly not “our” Icknield Way and today, Ryknild Street is a name given to a Roman road through the West Midlands. The name Ryknield derives from Middle English atter Ikenild (“at Icknield”), so there was apparently some confusion in the High Middle Ages about which road was Icknield Way.

Early archaeologists knew that three of Higden’s roads were built in the Roman period but suspected that the Icknield Way might be much more ancient. O G S Crawford, who worked for the Ordnance Survey, came up with the idea of four prehistoric routes across Britain: according to him, the Icknield Way was used to distribute flint from Grimes Graves across the south of Britain. He added the Jurassic Thoroughfare, from Lincolnshire down to the Thames Valley, the North Downs Way and South Downs Way, both south of the Thames. These were the main routes in the south (actually, just in England) through a landscape that, by the Neolithic, was densely forested and largely impassable.

In Crawford’s day, knowledge of prehistoric settlement in Britain suggested that it was restricted to the ridges above the clay soils of the Midlands, where ridgeways gave access through the woodland. Icknield Way and the two Downs Ways followed chalk ridges, while the Jurassic Way followed a limestone belt. The soils that had developed around these soils were thin, supported thinner woodland and were more easily worked by pioneering Neolithic farmers.

The idea of prehistoric trackways was complicated by Alfred Watkins’s “discovery” of what he called ley lines. He believed that all ancient sites were largely of Neolithic origin, linked by “old straight tracks”, and could be discovered by seeking alignments of sites on Ordnance Survey maps. He “discovered” them in 1921, when he realised that the routes were marked by present day and ancient landscape features. The archaeological community could not accept such a dense network of Neolithic tracks, which went over the tops of high hills, crossed rivers at points too deep to ford and were as common in places where no Neolithic settlements were known. Ley lines do not exist, as shown by Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy’s study, Ley Lines in Question, published in 1983.

Nevertheless, the way that ley lines were taken up by enthusiastic amateurs who, from the 1960s, started to link them with mystical sources of an unspecified spiritual energy made archaeologists wary of even thinking about prehistoric travel. Although people clearly did move around and objects were traded, Crawford’s principal paths were accepted as the only major pre-Roman routes.

Of course, people had never forgotten that roads were built during the Roman occupation, even if their exact routes were often forgotten and many had fallen out of use. Thomas Codrington (1829-1918) was an engineer who published the first study serious study of Roman roads in Britain in 1903, which eventually ran to three editions, the last of which was reprinted in 1928. According to him, “Icknild Street… bears but little likeness to a Roman road… except between Newmarket and Chesterford”. His work was expanded by Ivan Margary in the 1950s; he worked with a group of amateurs, collectively known as the Viatores, who published an enthusiastically dense network in the south-east midlands. According to their research, Icknield Way as a Roman road. In contrast, Margary vacillated about its use in the Roman period, but included it in the third edition of his book, in 1973, partly on the basis of excavated evidence.
This included the site at Blackhorse Road in Letchworth Garden City, where John Moss-Eccardt’s excavations from 1957 to 1973 revealed the ditches of a road on the traditional line. They dated from the late first century BC on, while the road itself had worn itself into a hollow. Nearby, cropmarks show a road running on more-or-less the right line across the northern edge of Roman Baldock. Gil Burleigh’s excavations in the 1980s revealed one of the ditches on Clothall Common, where they proved to be of the same date as at Blackhorse Road, although a line of earlier Iron Age postholes, apparently a fence, ran across the road, showing that it was not on this line before about 100 BC.

Excavations at Blackhorse Road, Letchworth Garden City, in 1973

Excavations at Blackhorse Road, Letchworth Garden City, in 1973

The Icknield Way was also thought to have played a role in the Saxon invasions of the fifth century. One of the puzzles of archaeology was evidence for very early Saxon settlement in the Upper Thames valley, well away from the coast where these sea-borne invaders were believed to have landed. These early fifth-century remains cluster in the area where the Icknield Way crosses the river. Because there was equally early settlement in East Anglia, at the other end of the Icknield Way, the archaeologist E T Leeds hypothesised in 1925 that the West Saxons had invaded along the route, starting out in East Anglia and moving south-west to settle around Dorchester-on-Thames. This idea was always controversial and few other specialists in the period accepted it. It is also wrong, partly because the Icknield Way passes through a large area with no early Saxon settlement, which includes all of North Hertfordshire.

Locally, the Icknield Way is mentioned in an early medieval charter, as þa stræt to the south of Norton. Old English stræt, from Latin strata, was generally used to designate a road of Roman origin; the word became street in modern English. Elsewhere in North Hertfordshire, the road was recorded in a document of 1638 as Edeway in Lilley and in 1686 as Ede Way in Hexton. These names derive from the Old English term Þēod-weg, meaning “national road”, which suggests that its long distance character was known when people spoke Old English (600-1150). It forms the boundary between Lilley and Hexton. It’s important to note that the early documents don’t call it Icknield Way, which first happens during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189).

Critique from historians

Early in the present century, the apparently well established idea of the Icknield Way as an ancient track began to fall apart. It was realised that the “four royal roads” were a twelfth-century invention, never mentioned before the 1120s. Their origin had been set in prehistory by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Gesta Britonum (‘Deeds of the Britons’, better known as ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’) was a work of historical fiction that pretended to be real history and was taken seriously by some of his contemporaries. The idea of these was adopted by other writers who foisted them on the pre-Norman English kings, including in the Leges Edwardi Confessoris (‘The Laws of Edward the Confessor’), a hoax from the reign of Stephen (1125-1154).

The name occurs in charters from the tenth century onwards, as Ic(c)enhilde weg, Icenhylte, Icenilde weg, Ycenilde weg and Icenhilde weg. Only one of these (the last) is on the route today accepted as the Icknield Way: they apply to a ridgeway running between Wanborough (Wiltshire), Hardwell in Uffington, Harwell, Blewbury and Princes Risborough. This forty-mile stretch from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire is our earliest evidence for the use of the name Icknield to apply to a road or track. It does not occur anywhere in Hertfordshire or eastwards, and placenames such as Ickleford, Ickleton or Icklingham are not related to it. The problem is that although these early charters date from the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, they exist only in thirteenth-century copies, so we cannot be sure if the name was genuinely included in the original or if it was added by a scribe who knew about the “Four Royal Roads”.

Critique from prehistorians

Archaeologists’ understanding of prehistoric Britain has changed a great deal since Crawford’s time. We now know, thanks to more extensive pollen analysis, that the landscape was never densely forested and that in many places there was only scrubby grassland. We have found that even the heavy clay lands, once thought deserted until the Iron Age, were cleared and farmed from the Neolithic on. This means that the population of Britain, while small, was still larger than once thought.

Prehistorians now also believe that early trade did not depend on long-distance routes. Instead, items travelled through what is known as down-the-line exchange, in which they are passed between people time after time and eventually end up a long way from where they were made. This happened particularly with unusual or valuable objects. It almost certainly did not involve professional merchants engaging in a free trade system, which is something that has developed only in the last few centuries.

As our knowledge of prehistory has increased thanks to more aerial photography, geophysics, fieldwalking and excavation, we have discovered that the supposed concentration of sites around Icknield Way does not exist. Instead, we can see that this was the zone where pioneers of aerial photography were best able to document crop marks and earthworks. Since the 1980s especially, the distribution of sites has expanded away from what has been termed the “Icknield Belt” so that, at any period, we find people living and working across all the habitable parts of the British Isles.

Ancient travel seems to have involved both tracks and rivers. Water-borne transport was both efficient and easy, so it was perhaps the preferred method and we know that the bluestones at Stonehenge were transported from Dyfed to Wiltshire by sea and river, with only minimal overland transport. Movement along the coast was commonplace from the Neolithic onwards, when polished stone tools from places like Mounts Bay in Cornwall or Penmaenmawr in Gwynedd were exchanged across the whole of Britain.

Sarah Harrison’s research

This critique of the concept of the Icknield Way as a long-distance trading route derives from research carried out by Sarah Harrison, published in The Archaeological Journal in 2003. As well as looking at the documentary record, she examined the archaeological evidence for the route along its entire claimed length. She sought out sites along it where there ought to have been traces of a track and discovered that there is no evidence for its existence in prehistory and that the route is blocked in many places by large sites of different dates. These include long linear ditches that extend right across the supposed belt of land used for travel.

This was true of the accepted route apart from in one single stretch, the part between Royston and Dunstable that passes through north Hertfordshire and South Bedfordshire. Even so, the earliest evidence for a track on this line belongs to the end of the first century BC. Elsewhere, she found that places where the line seemed well established and had been accepted by the Viatores as a road improved in the Roman period, as at Aston Clinton, was not a route at all until much more recently. There, the “Lower Icknield Way” proved to be completely blocked by Iron Age and Roman features, including enclosures and fields. In south-east Cambridgeshire, it also seemed well established but is cut across by co-axial features, including tracks and boundaries that are continuous.

The Cambridgeshire Dykes, which cross the route, have long been known about. They include massive earthworks that survive as impressive landscape monuments, such as Devil’s Ditch and Fleam Dyke. They were long suspected to date from the fifth and sixth centuries AD and this has now been confirmed by archaeological excavation. They make no provision for a major route through them as all the gaps followed by modern roads have been cut more recently.

Ultimately, it seems that the Icknield Way was an invention of the High Middle Ages, connected with early twelfth-century writers. Sarah Harrison found that some of the “missing” sections were “filled in” during the 18th century because antiquaries “knew” that the road existed, so where they were unable to find it, they built it. She suggests that the “Upper” and “Lower” Icknield Way in Buckinghamshire were created at this time, while unrelated “branches” such as Ashwell Street and Hambridge Way were brought into the system. These were real but probably medieval trackways.

The idea of the Icknield Way as a long distance trading made a good story and convinced early prehistorians and before that, the pioneering antiquaries of the early modern world. They built their hypotheses around what they thought was established “fact”.

Ickleford and the Icknield Way

Ickleford is first recorded in the twelfth century as Ikelineford (it is not mentioned in Domesday Book as it was part of the manor of Pirton at that time). The name probably derives from Old English *Iclingaford, ‘the ford of Icel’s people’. Icel was the name of an ancestor of the kings of Mercia, who were known as the Iclingas. The name has nothing to do with Icknield Way, despite a superficial similarity, which only involves the first three letters of the modern form of the name.

St Katherine's Church, Ickleford

St Katherine’s Church, Ickleford

However, the meaning of Icknield (Ikenild in the twelfth century) is obscure. The idea that the Ickn- element derives from the British tribal name Iceni is fanciful (despite what Wikipedia claims!). The -c- would have become a -tch- sound: the name of the River Itchen in Hampshire probably derives from the same word as the tribal name, being Brittonic *Icēnā. Icknield is more likely to be an Old or Middle English word; the ican– element may mean ‘increase’.

Icknield Way in North Hertfordshire

In North Hertfordshire, the track that we now call Icknield Way was known as þa stræt (“the street”, meaning a Roman road) on the south side of Norton in 1007 and as Edeway in Hexton and Lilley during the seventeenth century. In other words, it was not being called Icknield Way in the medieval and early modern periods, yet this is the one section of the road we can show to be genuinely ancient. How do we resolve the apparent contradiction?

The answer is another ancient track, known as Avenell Way, rediscovered by Valory Hurst. It runs through southern Cambridgeshire, through Bassingbourn and Litlington, joining the A505 at Odsey. A section was excavated across it at Steeple Morden Quarry, close to Ashwell Station, where it was found to have originated at the end of the first century BC. At Odsey, its alignment south-west from Litlington continues as the line of the A505, gradually turning to a more west-south-westerly line as it approaches Baldock. This is what we know now as the “Icknield Way”.

East of Odsey, no archaeological evidence has been found for the Icknield Way. The line of the A505 turns to a more easterly alignment as it leaves Odsey, heading towards Royston. Here, the Roman Ermine Street crosses the Icknield Way at the town centre, and it has always been a puzzle that there is not the slightest trace of a Roman settlement at this point. As a supposedly major road junction, we might expect a trading post to have grown up, yet Roman activity in the town lay some distance to the south-west of the junction. Should we perhaps think of the road between Odsey and Dunstable as the Avenell Way?

If this blog post has seemed a bit negative, that’s because it has involved debunking a familiar and well loved concept that has turned out to be a misconception. The idea of the Icknield Way is firmly ingrained in local consciousness, with a long history of almost 900 years. The origins of the idea are an interesting story in their own right, but they involve medieval writers inventing a past that they thought ought to have existed but for which they had no evidence at all. In many ways, exploring a “wrong” idea can often be more informative than repeating a “correct” one, while the way this particular idea was used by early archaeologists helps to tell the history of the discipline.

The last words are best left to Sarah Harrison. “Icknield Way is one of the last bastions of the traditional archaeology”, which saw “prehistoric activity… confined to light land” and “‘trade’ meant much the same as it does now”. “It appears to have been at most a medium-range Saxon trackway” between Wantage in Wiltshire and Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire. “But for the creative minds of… medieval chroniclers it… would have been… forgotten” and “it is… curious that something for which there is so little evidence should be so secure a feature of British archaeology”.

How can we tell how people in the past thought? In literate societies such as ours, we can read the thoughts of other people, written down as words in diaries for instance, but for most of human history, people have not been able to read or write. Indeed, if you go back more than five thousand years, writing did not exist. Trying to work out how people thought in remote prehistory may seem an impossible task but very occasionally, clues survive that can help us.

Broken handaxe from Highbury, Hitchin

Broken handaxe from Highbury, Hitchin (Accession Numbers 1976.693 and 1976.686)

One example of just such a clue comes in the shape of a handaxe from Hitchin. Handaxes were not axes for chopping wood but were multi-purpose tools, used for well over 1½ million years in Africa, Europe and much of Asia. Hitchin is an important find-spot of these tools, many of which were discovered while digging for the clay that was important to the town’s brick-making industry in the late nineteenth century. Local geologists and antiquaries became intrigued by the discoveries and began to collect them. One of the most prominent of these was William Ransom (1826-1914), who amassed a considerable collection of stone tools from sites around the town (principally The Folly pit on Stevenage Road, Benslow, Highbury and Bearton Green pit). As well as the stone tools, he was interested in animal bones and collected specimens of bear, straight-tusked elephant and rhinoceros, which show that the handaxes were dropped in a warm, fertile landscape. These tell us when the layers containing them formed: during the middle of a warm period during the Pleistocene known as the Hoxnian Interglacial, around 424,000 to 374,000 years ago.

This means that the Hitchin artefacts are extremely ancient, dating from about 400,000 years ago. This was a time when Europe was inhabited by people of a different species from us, Homo heidelbergensis, probably the ancestor of the Neanderthals but not of ourselves. So, you would think that their behaviour would be very different. One of the handaxes from Highbury in Hitchin suggests otherwise.

Papel label on the back of the handaxe

Papel label on the back of the handaxe

This is a broken handaxe; according to a paper label stuck to it, “The point found 4 days before the larger point about 4 ft apart and 6 ft deep. Nr Hitchin 29.XI.1880”. In other words, the two parts of the broken tool were not found together. Why might this have happened? We know from studies of handaxes that they were constantly reworked to sharpen blunted edges and to repair broken tips. This has not happened with this particular handaxe: when the tip snapped off, both parts were discarded without reworking.

A twisted ovate handaxe

A twisted ovate handaxe; this type shows evidence for considerable repair and reworking

This looks very like deliberate throwing away. In fact, it looks almost as if one of the broken elements (it is impossible to say which) was thrown a short distance in temper and the user was too angry to rework the tool into something useful. This looks just like modern human behaviour: who hasn’t been so frustrated when something breaks that they throw it down in disgust? Yet we are dealing with a completely different species from ourselves. What this seems to tell me is that at least some extinct hominids behaved like us, had similar emotions and were not the lumbering brutes of popular culture. Just because they lacked the complex technologies of modern society does not mean that they were “primitive” or “savages”: different, yes, but just like us in so many ways.

Radiocarbon dating the henge

Excavating the animal bones in the base of the henge outer ditch

Excavating the animal bones in the base of the henge outer ditch

I sent a piece of animal bone off for radiocarbon dating before I went off for my holiday in Malta. The bone is part of the leg of a juvenile pig, placed on the bottom of the outer ditch of the henge before silting began. A radiocarbon date from it ought to give us some idea about when the ditch was last open (it doesn’t tell us about when the ditch was dug, as it could have been cleaned out many times over the centuries the henge was in use). As the only pottery from the ditch was of middle Neolithic type, I am hoping that the radiocarbon date will confirm a date before 2800 BC.

Comparing the Norton henge with Maltese megalithic temples

Sir Themistocles (Temi) Zammit

Sir Themistocles (Temi) Zammit (1864-1935), in a bronze by Victor Diacono in the National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta

Malta is well know for its Neolithic temples, which include some of the oldest stone structures in the world (only Göbekli Tepe, in south-eastern Turkey, is older: even the pyramids of Egypt are not as old). I visited one of the most famous, at Tarxien (pronounced “Tar-sheen”), for the fifth time while away. It was discovered when a farmer turned up large pieces of stone when ploughing a field early in the twentieth century. Sir Themistocles (“Temi”) Zammit, the island’s principal archaeologist at that time, spent several years excavating the monument and his work there turned up some of the best-known images of prehistoric Europe: spiral decorations, images in low relief of bulls and the lower part of a colossal statue of a very fat person wearing a skirt or kilt (usually assumed to be a woman, for no very good reason).

The Ġgantija phase temple at Tarxien, c 3100 BC

The Ġgantija phase temple at Tarxien, c 3100 BC

Although the earliest temple at Tarxien dates from the earliest phase of massive temple building (known as the Ġgantija Phase, after a temple complex on Gozo), the style reached its peak with a later Neolithic seven-roomed structure built to its west. This is more-or-less contemporary with the henge at Stapleton’s Field, dating from around 3100 to 2500 BC: our henge site was probably built around the same time as the earliest of the temples at Tarxien and was perhaps abandoned around the same time as the latest. Both were constructed by Neolithic farming communities and it is instructive to realise that in both places, the work required was enormous and would have put a real strain on agricultural productivity.

Being prehistoric

It is often tempting to think of prehistoric peoples as “primitive”. This is an attitude that goes back to the beginning of archaeology, when wealthy Victorian gentlemen who saw themselves as the pinnacle of civilisation viewed people in Africa, Asia and the Americas as “savages”. They compared the societies of these people with what they could discover about the European past and saw many similarities. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn between ancient societies and those that ethnographers study today, but we should not be so quick to make ill-considered value judgements.

The so-called “Fat Lady” of Tarxien

The so-called “Fat Lady” of Tarxien (actually a reproduction: the original is in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta)

The people who built the Tarxien temples and Stapleton’s Field henge were as intelligent and sophisticated as we are. Their lives were as rich and full of joy, conflict, love and pain as our own. The differences between us are largely those of technology and the scale of our societies. The globalised world of the past century or so depends on a range of technologies that make the movement of heavy objects so much easier and the communication of ideas so much faster than they were in the Neolithic. Neolithic farmers lived in dispersed communities; coming together for seasonal meetings at places like Tarxien or Stapleton’s Field was their main means of communication, of learning new ideas, and was probably an occasion for employing a lot of muscle power. These people were not constrained by the sorts of deadlines we have: like the builders of a medieval cathedral, they were content to spend decades, even centuries, building their monuments.

The outer ditch of Stapleton’s Field henge

The outer ditch of Stapleton’s Field henge

This is an important lesson from prehistory. The technology of Neolithic farmers may have been primitive in comparison with ours, but we can still be awe-struck in front of their achievements. As an archaeologist who has shifted untold tonnes of soil over the years, I am well aware just how much effort was put in by the people who excavated the outer ditch of the Stapleton’s Field henge to a depth of 1.5 metres and a width of 5 m using only antler picks and cattle shoulder-blade shovels.

I am hoping to be able to reveal the date of the pig bone from the henge around the end of May.