Roman remains resurface in construction of the controversial HS2 railway line

Two significant finds have been announced this year by archaeologists working for the HS2 railway line. This is in addition to the over 100 different archaeological sites that have been examined since the HS2 project commenced in 2018, including an Iron Age coin hoard which was excavated last year.

What appears to have been an affluent Roman trading town has been unearthed on the borders between Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. The remains of an unusually wide Roman road, measuring 10 metres in width, has been discovered. The large size of the road suggests that the settlement was a trading town. Objects found there, such as a measuring scale adorned with a female deity, more than 300 coins and at least four wells, support the theory that this was an affluent area. The remains of both domestic and industrial buildings have been found, as well as evidence of workshops and kilns, indicating activities such as metalwork and pottery may have taken place.

James West, a site manager from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola), who have managed the project, said: “This is certainly one of the most impressive sites [we have] discovered while working on the HS2 scheme […] Uncovering such a well-preserved and large Roman road, as well as so many high-quality finds, has been extraordinary and tells us so much about the people who lived here. The site really does have the potential to transform our understanding of the Roman landscape in the region and beyond.”

Meanwhile in Buckinghamshire, an early Roman figure carved from wood has been discovered by the archaeologists working on the HS2 project. The figure, which is around 2 feet high and 7 inches in width, was located in a water-logged ditch, near to some shards of pottery which date back to between 43 CE and 70 CE. Iain Williamson, an archaeologist working on the project, said: “The preservation of details carved into the wood such as the hair and tunic really start to bring the individual depicted to life. Not only is the survival of a wooden figure like this extremely rare for the Roman period in Britain, but it also raises new questions about this site, who does the wooden figure represent, what was it used for and why was it significant to the people living in this part of Buckinghamshire during the 1st century AD?”

Whilst these major finds in the field of Roman archaeology are exciting, the controversy over the HS2 railway and the decision behind digging up large areas to construct it remain. The archaeologists on this project work on ‘preservation by record’, which means that whilst the objects will be saved, the original sites will be destroyed due to the construction of the railway. Penny Gaines from the Stop HS2 campaign, is critical of this approach. She told The Independent that: “Once the site is damaged or destroyed, it’s damaged or destroyed forever. They’re [HS2] destroying the possibility of coming back to look at these sites.”

Helen Wass, HS2’s head of heritage, has identified the conflict between preservation and construction, stating: “Archaeology is a double-edged sword. We wouldn’t be doing it if construction wasn’t happening. You can’t have one without the other. We make sure that if construction happens, we record our heritage to the best of our ability.”

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