Peakirk Village Hall recently hosted an evening talk, given by Dr Stephen Upex of Cambridge University. Having learned at a recent meeting of Tower Volunteers that there is a wall painting of The Three Living and the Three Dead in Peakirk Church, I went along with another Tower volunteer in the hope of finding out more.
Dr Upex did not mention the church or the wall paintings, but he gave a fascinating overview of the history of our area over the last 5-6,000 years.
If you come from out of the area, your friends and relatives might say, “Oh, Peterborough, the train goes through it,” when you mention your town. That is as much as they know. However, in past millennia, the area was “densely populated” (Tacitus, Roman author, 1st century AD) and a wealthy, sought-after place to live.
Dr Upex began by telling us that the land has been walked over for the last 60-70,000 years, and layers of history lie just under the surface. The most obvious evidence of this is from crop-marks, visible from the air.
The crops grow differently according to the soil they are growing over, where the subsoil has been disturbed. Most frequently the crops are darker because underneath there is a ditch, often with rubbish in it, which will leave the soil less compact and moister so that the crops will be richer.
By contrast, where the crops are growing over a stony Roman Road, the soil beneath is hard and dry, so the crops grow less strongly and appear lighter.
The crops grow shorter over the stony road surface under the soil
Darker marks over trenches and ditches show the outlines of buildings
The earliest archeological evidence is from the Stone Age, 5-6,000 years ago. At Etton, there is evidence of a causewayed enclosure in an old meander of the River Welland. It is thought to have been a Stone Age ceremonial site. In autumn, the people would gather, throw offerings of nuts and seasonal fruits, and make sacrifices of pottery and axes, which they would smash to put them beyond use.
There are also wooden henges (like Stonehenge, but made of wood). There is one at Maxey, and a Bronze Age burial mound south of Lolham Hall which has been flattened by ploughing and only visible from crop marks.
The Iron Age saw the development of protective enclosures, presumably because, after the Bronze Age, wealth and status (signified by bronze and copper beakers and weapons), showed that there was property to be defended.
Overtaking the Iron Age settlements, the Romans invaded in the 1st century AD. They built a fortress at Longthorpe, underneath what is now the golf course overlooking the Nene.
A tile from the ninth legion can be seen in Peterborough museum, suggesting that the doomed legion which set out to battle against Queen Boadicaa was based at the site.
Dr Upex noted that in Fenland there are no Roman stone buildings or large villas, suggesting that the area was a peasant farmed estate. Taxes were collected at Stonea, and then from Castor Palace.
Castor Palace (evidence of which can still be seen, in the Roman tiles built into the external walls of Castor Church) was the second largest Roman building in Britain, second only to the Governor’s Palace in London. It would have been visible for miles, particularly from the Roman town of Durobrivae in the Nene valley. This was a large and wealthy town which was built up around another fort defending a river crossing. Pottery finds, and the famous Waternewton Hoard show the wealth and status of this town, which is now completely invisible lying under fields.
Waternewton Treasure in British Museum
Jewelled chalice from Ravenna similar to Waternewton bowl
This shows how rich, fertile, and high-status the area was at the time.
After the Romans, the area became a new Anglo-Saxon boom town building up around the original cathedral (circa 600 AD), drawing in monks from around the area.
And so it developed throughout the middle ages, surviving the Norman Conquest, until the next major change of land use was enclosures in the eighteenth century, followed by the arrival of the railways in the nineteenth, right up to the New Town in the twentieth century.
How lucky we are to live in such a historic place.