The 2008 excavation

Norton

The village of Norton has been documented for more than a thousand years (it is first named in a charter dating from 1007) and the archaeology of the village centre suggests that it may even originate in the Roman period. Documents from after the time of the Black Death (1347-1361) suggest that the village was badly hit by the plague, with houses falling into disrepair because there were not enough people to rent them all.

At the north-eastern end of the village, Church Field contains earthworks that were surveyed in 1985 and show the original line of the village main street. This ran on the south side of the church directly across to Nortonbury, which had been established by 1306, when its then owner died. In the middle of the field was a crossroads, where the Stotfold to Baldock road crossed the village street. This would have been close to the very core of the medieval village.

Seventeenth-century map of the parish

Seventeenth-century map of the parish: north is to the right

Our site is in the south-western corner of the crossroads. Part of the trench has been located to run across the deserted road and another part crosses the floor of a long vanished building. The road is shown on this line on a map drawn around 1700 (shown on the right: Nortonbury is the big house toward the centre bottom, with the church immediately above it – the map is not to scale!). It had gone by 1766, when the next map to show the village in detail was drawn. Neither of them show a building here, which probably means that it had been demolished by the late seventeenth century (and possibly much earlier still).

There are traces of buildings across much of the north-western side of the field, showing that at one time, the village completely surrounded the parish church. These buildings lay within larger property enclosures, the boundaries of which can still be seen.

The excavation

Last year (2007), Norton Community Archaeology Group excavated a site in the south-western corner of Church Field. This had been the site of a barn known to have been in existence by 1732 and which was demolished in the 1930s, when the road was widened. The excavation showed that it had been built between 1672 and around 1720, but that there had been people on the site in earlier times. There were several features (things dug into the ground) dating from the High Middle Ages (around AD 1150 to 1350) and, before that, a pit from the Early Bronze Age (around 2500 to 1450 BC).

This year’s project is intended to tell us more about the medieval village by focusing on a site at its very centre. We hope to find out when the building whose remains can be seen in the grass by the crossroads was demolished (or fell down) and when it was built. There may be still earlier buildings beneath it, and we hope to find evidence from them, if they existed. As well as the buildings, there ought to be old yard surfaces associated with them and perhaps even pits or middens containing household rubbish. We may also discover old fence lines marking the boundaries of the property.

We also hope to find out when the road went out of use (we already know that it was some time between about 1700 and 1766) and possibly why it was abandoned. We may also find evidence for the date at which it was first established: there are hints from elsewhere in the village that it may have been in use during the Roman period (AD 43 to 411).

We have four weeks on site, which gives us twenty days to investigate as much as we can. We will be excavating everything by hand, keeping all the archaeological finds and taking samples from important soil deposits. Some of the work will be painstakingly slow and may not yield many finds; some of it may be much faster with numerous finds. We will keep digging either until there is nothing left to excavate or until we have reached the last day: what we don’t finish this year, we may be able to return to next year. There is no panic to get everything done by 31 August.

  1. Hello, I’m from David’s Bookshop in Letchworth and we were wondering if there were any way you could let your members know about a book launch we are having at the shop on Thursday, 14 October at 7:30 pm. Tom Williamson, Professor of Landscape History at the University of East Anglia, will introduce his new book, The Origins of Hertfordshire, which examines the history of Hertfordshire from late prehistoric times to the thirteenth century. It looks at the origins of the county and the early evolution of its landscape and, in examining the subtle and complex relationship between early territorial organisation and natural topography, emphasises the surprising degree of territorial and administrative continuity from the Roman period through to the time of the Norman Conquest. Hertfordshire is often described as an ‘unremarkable’ county, lacking a clearly defined identity and, lying close to London, extensively suburbanised. In fact it has a long and complex history and a rich archaeological heritage; developments in the remote past continue to shape its character and appearance to the present day.

    The event is free but it is necessary to reserve a place in advance by calling the bookshop on 01462 684631. Thank you so much in advance for your help, and if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ring.

    With best wishes,

    Sally Hewitt
    David’s bookshop
    01462 768 234

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