Central Bedfordshire has a rich and varied archaeological heritage with nationally significant sites and monuments dating from the prehistoric through to the post medieval periods.
Our earliest archaeological remains relate to the Palaeolithic over 125,000 years ago and the 19th century discoveries made at Caddington by Worthington G. Smith are internationally recognised.
Central Bedfordshire is a largely rural area and within many of our agricultural fields pits, ditches and structures relating to prehistoric settlements and ceremonial monuments survive below the surface. These remains often appear as cropmarks seen from the air and archaeological investigations such as those undertaken at Broom Quarry in the parishes of Old Warden and Southill have shown that our forebears invested heavily in the development of their communities laying the foundations for our modern landscape.
Two major Roman roads pass through Central Bedfordshire; these are Watling Street (A5) and the road linking Godmanchester and Baldock via Sandy that lies partly on the line of the A1. Small but important Roman towns developed at Dunstable and Sandy, whilst religious centres and sizeable settlements are known from our river valleys. We may not have discovered any sumptuous villa sites yet but buildings such as those found at Shefford and Totternhoe show the existence of a ruling class not afraid to display their wealth and status.
Many of our modern villages and towns are mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086 AD. Recent archaeological work in Ampthill, Marston Moretaine, Stratton and Henlow has confirmed that these settlements did indeed originate in the Saxon period. Leighton Buzzard may also have had Saxon foundations, at Domesday it had both a church and market and two of the most richly furnished Saxon cemeteries ever discovered in Bedfordshire are known from just outside the town.
Medieval Central Bedfordshire may well, in many ways, have resembled the modern landscape. Our major towns of Leighton Buzzard, Ampthill, Biggleswade and Dunstable were all established as such by this time and despite disturbance from later developments archaeological evidence for the everyday lives of their inhabitants can readily be found in our towns and villages. Central Bedfordshire was once home to at least seven religious houses, including the Gilbertine monks and nuns at Chicksands, the only English monastic order.
The lands surrounding Central Bedfordshire’s villages and towns would have been farmed in open field systems, with each parish practising communal crop rotation. The private and Parliamentary Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries helped create today’s large agricultural fields but traces of the earlier agricultural practises such as the distinctive corduroy-like ridge and furrow earthworks can be seen in many places.
Common land like the Dunstable Downs and north of Biggleswade also survive and retain importance to our modern communities. It is in areas like this that relics of the First and Second World Wars survive; from practice trenches to search lights they are all considered archaeological sites.
Central Bedfordshire’s unique archaeological heritage is part of what shapes the foundation of who we are. Our heritage helps create a sense of place and cultural belonging. As well as over 3,000 archaeological sites and monuments we have 82 nationally designated archaeological sites of the highest significance; known as Scheduled Monuments. Our Scheduled Monuments are protected by law under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979 and include prehistoric burial mounds; a Roman high status building, medieval moats and the ruins of Houghton House. Arguably Central Bedfordshire’s most important Scheduled Monument is Maiden Bower near Dunstable, which is one of only 7 sites in England which boasts both a Neolithic causewayed enclosure and Iron Age hillfort.
Promoting, enhancing and protecting our archaeological heritage is the responsibility of the Archaeology Team of Development Management at Central Bedfordshire Council. The main services we provide are:
- Advice to Central Bedfordshire Council, Luton Borough Council, developers and land owners about the archaeological impact of development proposals. This is a statutory requirement in line with Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 5: Planning for the Historic Environment
- Providing Briefs for archaeological investigations and monitoring archaeological fieldwork projects to ensure they meet regional and national standards for best practice.
- Advice to Central Bedfordshire Council, Luton Borough Council, Parish and Town Councils and other land owners on managing archaeological sites, monuments and historic landscapes.
- Advice to other statutory bodies such as Natural England, Anglian Water, the Highways Agency and the Forestry Commission on the management of the archaeological resource. This includes contributing to the development of agri-environment schemes.
- Specialist input into strategic plans and policy such as the Local Development Framework and including Green Infrastructure planning.
- Advice and information on the promotion and interpretation of archaeological sites and historic landscapes, developing opportunities for outreach activities and community involvement