Frightened archaeologists discover dozens of skeletons buried beside an ancient road


Oxford Archeology said the finds, on ‘a major Roman road’ in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, would have been all the weary ancient traveler needed

The unearthed site – the ancient Roman equivalent of a roadside petrol station – is pictured in Hertfordshire

Stunned archaeologists have discovered the Roman equivalent of a roadside gas station – and dozens of skeletons – under a planned football pitch.

Experts say the ‘once-in-a-lifetime find’ would have had everything the weary former traveler needed.

“It’s kind of like a service,” said project leader Andrew Greef, of Oxford Archaeology.

“They really would have had everything you needed there, you could have stopped, you might have had some sort of hostel equivalent instead.

“We have a building which we believe may be a blacksmith, so if you needed to do a bit of work during your stay, everything would have been available for you at the roadside.

About 12 skeletons were found in graves at the site


Credit: Oxford Archaeology/Pen News)

The site has an early Christian cemetery on its edge


Credit: Oxford Archaeology/Pen News)

“And we also have possible remains of a temple, which could have served the religious needs of travellers.”

Artifacts from the site of Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, also indicate a history of trade, including Roman coins dating from the reign of Nero.

And the location of the first-century settlement means it would have been ideally placed to benefit from passing trade.

“We are positioned almost halfway between Roman Colchester and St Albans,” Mr Greef said.

A photograph captures the remains of a cremation at the site


Credit: Oxford Archaeology/Pen News)

“So we’re on a major Roman road, Stane Street, and it’s about a good day’s walk from St Albans.

“It’s also at a river crossing, which is a strategic location, and they would have used the River Stort to transport goods and materials, so you’re basically at a crossroads.

“And we get lots of evidence of trade and commerce there – we have metal objects, scales, we have lots of coins, lots of jars to transport goods.

“I think you’re looking at some sort of stopover point or something associated with supply and trade, rather than just your average settlement.”

While the site is believed to date back to the end of the first century, it also has an early Christian cemetery on its edge dating from the third of the fourth century.

The cemetery includes around 100 tombs – about half of which had intact skeletons – each positioned from east to west in the belief that the deceased would face Christ at the second coming.

The intact road itself was also unearthed, while a series of cellars were dug to its edge.

And the discovery of oyster shells in a ditch reveals not only the tastes of the site’s former visitors, but also its commercial links with the coast tens of kilometers away.

In all, more than 500 small finds have been unearthed at the site.

“For such a small area, the amount of archeology and the amount of finds is more in line with what you would find in an urban center like London,” Mr Greef said.

A selection of coins has been discovered by the experts


Credit: Oxford Archaeology/Pen News)

“It’s really important, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to dig roadside settlements along the main roads.

“The usual reason is that they became a later town. This one is quite different in that the medieval settlement and Stort crossing is further south.

“So these remains have been relatively intact under the enclosures – they may have never been cultivated.

“That’s what makes it unusual: the wealth of material that has survived and the fact that there was very little subsequent activity that bothered it.”

Project officer Neal Mason, also from Oxford Archaeology, said it was a “once in a lifetime find”.

He suggested it was possible that the site was populated mainly by foreigners, citing the Saxon style of cellars as an example.

And he speculated that the residents could have been Roman veterans who received land after completing their years of service.

There is also evidence of a military presence, including spearheads and a caltrop – a metal device designed to always have an upward pointing tip which has been called the “Roman landmine”.

Caltrops, also known as Roman mines, were used to stop horses


Credit: Oxford Archaeology/Pen News)

Mr Greef said: “One thing that is really intriguing is the amount of military-related artefacts and understanding how that relates to how the military would have used the site.

“So that’s something we’re going to look at in more detail in the post-excavation process.”

Oxford Archeology has been commissioned to document the site by the East Herts District Council (EHDC), which plans to install a new 3G artificial sports pitch there.

However, the Roman settlement appears to be larger than the current excavations – with part of the temple or sanctuary beyond the footprint of the intended land.

The remains of the cemetery – which seems to date from the end of the occupation of the site – will be cleaned and finally stored at the Bishop’s Stortford Museum.

Remains of an earlier cremation were also found at the site, along with a significant number of animal bones, indicating that livestock were kept there.

EHDC Councilor Eric Buckmaster said: “This excavation reminds us all that we are not the first to tread this earth.”

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