Living in North London as I do, Hertfordshire is the first county I usually hit when travelling – the M25 being my nearest motorway junction. Welwyn Garden City is also on a direct train line from home, so when I saw a conference advertised (one of the first events in this year’s Festival of Archaeology) there, it seemed like a ‘must attend’ event.

The conference was organised by the Welwyn Archaeological Society with the title “Archaeology in Hertfordshire: Recent Research”, and was held in honour of founder Tony Rook’s 80th birthday. We previewed the event here on the Journal last month.

I headed off early for the train, entrance fee in hand and arrived at the Terrace Suite in the Campus West complex in good time – in fact, I was the first attendee to arrive! At least I assured my place, having failed to pre-book.

In no time at all, the room filled up nicely – 65 people attended, and Kris Lockyear, Director of the Society kicked off the proceedings with his introductory message. This was followed swiftly by John Baker with the first talk of the day: “Hertfordshire Hundreds: Names and Places”.  Unfortunately this was cut short less than 10 minutes in by the building fire alarm sounding! We were all evacuated to stand in the car park in the rain. A fire service vehicle attended and after 15 minutes or so, we were allowed to return to the room, where John bravely continued his talk, an interesting look at some of the known and likely early ‘hundred’ places in Hertfordshire for early forms of government, first documented in AD939, but possibly utilising much earlier gathering places.

Waiting in the rain for the all-clear

Stewart Bryant from the Herts HER then gave a talk: “A nice place to live: settlement and landscape in Hertfordshire from 1500BC to 100BC”. The period chosen was looked upon as the ‘formative period’ for settlement within the county, and the point was made that the number of known settlement sites has increased by some 300% since 1990 – roughly equal to the period of Developer-funded Archaeology. Much was made of the geology of the area, very few sites having been found on the London Clay areas – as Stewart said, “Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, we have the same for clay!” but Tony Rook later in the day commented that “distribution maps only show where archaeologists have been”. The fact remains that a great deal of evidence of the later prehistoric in Herts survives. Much more than we currently know.

After a short coffee break (strong coffee!), Isobel Thompson posed the question “When was the Roman conquest in Hertfordshire?” The standard answer is ‘AD43’, but Isobel’s talk centered on several facts that suggest this is wrong. For instance, burials have been found in early Verulamium dated to AD43-53, but burials were not allowed inside Roman towns, so it could not have been ‘Roman’ at this time. It was suggested thatVerulamium may have originally been founded to control distribution of iron ore from the west – overlaying later Roman roads on an Iron Age map of the Herts area strongly suggests some re-engineering of earlier trackways. An amusing postcard was displayed, dated from 1907, showing Britons surrendering to Caesar, and for some reason the Britons are all dressed as Vikings! But as to the original question, no definitive date can be given, and AD43 “cannot be considered a useful marker”.

A team of three shared the next talk, which covered the “Dig Where We Stand” project, funded by the HLF. Sarah Dhanjal gave an overview of the project, which covers not just archaeology but all aspects of community heritage. Gabe Moshenska then gave details of the Hendon School Project, where students were given the chance to do ‘real archaeology’; surveying, digging and post-ex. Finally, Kris Lockyear explained how setting up a ‘Handling Archaeological Finds’ course held locally provided experience of different aspects of post-ex, and coincidentally provided a good opportunity to sort the finds archive! The point was pressed that local archaeological societies are community heritage.

Leading up to lunch, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews gave a talk entitled “Local landscapes for local people? The significance of the Baldock bowl”, and highlighted several sites within the Baldock area including the earliest monument in the area, a 7m wide (narrow) cursus, and a 55m diameter henge which if considered an early ‘formative henge’ is the most easterly yet found. The concentration of neolithic monuments and finds in the area prompted Keith to say “it’s like someone dumped a lump of Salisbury Plain in Hertfordshire!” Of course, the ‘R’ word was used and it was suggested that the area may have been somewhere that communities came together for various purposes.

After a shortened lunch (due to the earlier evacuation), Anne Rowe provided an insight into the history of tree use with “In praise of pollards – living archaeology”. Pollards are trees which have their branches ‘harvested’, usually around head height or so, on a regular basis over many years. As Anne said, “wielding an axe at the top of a ladder is not easy, or so I’m told!” It was interesting to hear of the vaste swathes of pollards mostly now gone, which were used to provide fuel, and to see examples of many surviving pollard areas – something to look out for when travelling around as many pollarded hornbeams and some oak still survive.

Simon West, in “Out of Town, and on the Edge?’ evaluated recent findings and evidence for Romanisation within the Verulamium area, particularly concentrating upon the situation of the Folly Lane burial and its continued importance into the Roman era.

Tony Rook, guest of honour on the occasion of his 80th birthday, then made an appearance and regaled us with entertaining tales of his early years at Lullingstone Villa. His later important finds in the Welwyn Garden City area, using what he described as ‘Snatch and Grab’ archaeology: “I’ve come about the drains…” were also covered in some detail, giving a brief snapshot of some highlights of his career. Kris Lockyear made a small presentation to Tony on behalf of the Welwyn Archaeological Society, which led us nicely into the afternoon tea break.

Tony opens his present.

Suitably refreshed, Pete Boyer provided some details about “Recent excavations at Station Road, Watton-at-Stone”. The dig covers many eras, with prehistoric flints and pottery, a Roman ditch, and an Anglo Saxon ‘enigma’ all coming to the fore. 4.5Kg of AS pottery (mostly dated 600-800 AD) is a significant find for the Herts area. The dig provided lots of funerary evidence, but no sign of an associated settlement – maybe this was lost under the nearby railway line?

Finally to close the day, Kris Lockyear told us about his dig close to the last presentation, “The late Iron Age and Roman site at Six Acres, Watton-at-Stone”. After a collection of nearby metal detector finds, the field in question had been used for teaching geofizz and showed some interesting results. sadly, as Kris noted, “the only constant in archaeology is Sod’s Law” and a modern water pipe dissects the junction of 4 promising features. but there is a lot more work still to do on the site which has provided a selection of Roman pottery.

…And that wrapped up an enjoyable and educational day. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t know there was such a breadth of archaeology in Hertfordshire – it’s all too easy to focus on the visible and forget about the rest, but the signs are there if you know what to look for! There are plans to issue the conference proceedings at a later date, watch the society website for details of that.