Building on an extraordinary past

Sustainability: Ecology & Environment

The archaeological findings at DIRFT have revealed a remarkable picture of the site’s pre-Roman history, as Mark Shepherd explains

Over the past 20 years, archaeologists have excavated different areas of the DIRFT site, but it was only when Prologis became involved that these findings could be synthesised and analysed.  The results have uncovered a new understanding of the Iron Age landscape and way of life.

Prologis RFI DIRFT has been designed with an eye to the future, but its foundations are buried deep in the past.   Archaeologists have shown that the site has been occupied since the Neolithic Period.  But, the most significant findings are from the Iron Age when the site grew into a farming and trading community - a settlement that prospered for several hundred years before the Roman invasion.

The development of DIRFT started around 20 years ago and since then, a number of excavations have been carried out across the site, all of which have been project managed by the RPS Group.  Prologis became involved when we started to plan the second phase of DIRFT.   We agreed to sponsor the synthesis and analysis of all the information uncovered by the various excavations and this work is now complete.

Discovering the Village

Piecing together a complex jigsaw of findings from across the site, the archaeological team discovered that the settlement had been one of the largest Iron Age villages in the country.  Further, they realised that the information they had uncovered provides a new insight into the nature of the pre-Roman landscape.   

The settlement was established around 500 BC when the last traces of Northamptonshire wilderness were cleared for farming.  From about 400 BC until around 100 BC, the settlement grew into a village with clusters of roundhouses, shelters and livestock enclosures.  These buildings would have housed extended families working as both farmers and craftsmen.  At its peak, the village contained around 100 circular buildings spread across five sites, all of which were grouped around approximately 100 acres of enclosed valley pasture.

Farming in the Iron Age

The findings show that the pasture was used for common grazing and since there is little evidence of grain storage pits or other structures, it is probable that that livestock farming was the mainstay of the local economy.  Remains of cattle, sheep, horses and pigs were uncovered, but the highest proportion of bones were those of cattle and horses.  Iron Age animals were much smaller than those of today and the team estimates that the cattle would have been a similar size to the Dexter breed, while the horses were around the same size as Exmoor ponies.   

It is likely that the arable fields were on the fringe of the village and carbonised remains show that spelt wheat, which was widespread in Britain at the time, was the prevalent cereal crop.  The earliest remains found on the site have been radiocarbon dated to 510-370 BC.  Since wild seeds were mixed with the grain, it is likely that the wheat fields also contained many natural plants such as buttercups, rye grass and ragged robin.  

Remarkably, it seems that Iron Age arable fields looked very similar to those of today, as did the hedgerows and woods.  Charcoal found in hearths and ovens, shows that fuel included wood from trees such as oak, ash, lime, Wych elm, hazel, willow, birch, hawthorn and cherry.  

Looking at this Iron Age system of managed fields, pasture, woods and hedges, it is clear that the people who lived and worked on the DIRFT site hundreds of years before the Romans arrived in Britain, created the rural landscape that has remained into the present day.