Prehistoric Huntingdonshire, England

The early human occupation of Huntingdonshire1

If the topographical distribution of the finds and remains attributable to the Neolithic, Bronze and Early Iron Ages in Huntingdonshire be examined, it is seen that these are mainly segregated in three areas:

  1. The upland valley of the Nene – which forms in part the northern boundary of the county:
  2. The Fens: and
  3. The upland valley of the Ouse from St Neots, where the river enters the county, to the EarithSomersham spur, where it debouches on the Fen flats.


There is thus a belt of occupation on the northern and eastern parts of the county, while the central and western parts are comparatively barren. On a contoured map it will be seen that the contrast is between the uplands and the lowlands; the latter reveal ample evidence of settlement, while in the case of the former the evidence is slight and ambiguous. This is contrary to the usually accepted principle in this country, namely, that early humans inhabited the uplands, moving down to the lowlands as his civilisation advanced.

If, however, an attempt be made to recover the physiography of the county in primitive times, a very adequate reason for the distribution outlined above becomes apparent. It has been shown2 that in eastern Britain people of primitive culture avoid land with clay subsoil, because it is cold and wet; this soil may be with reasonable certainly equated with forest. Such people choose for their habitation sandy or chalky soils, well-drained gravel terraced on valley slopes near the waterways, or islands of similar geological character in the Fens.

The map illustrating this article shows the distribution of forest (clay lands) and of fen by means of stippling and hatching. Well-drained soils of whatever class are left white. It will be observed that practically all the finds of objects definitely attributable to one or other of the three prehistoric periods now under review are on or adjacent to the white areas, or occur in the fen peat, and that conclusions which have been arrived at in respect to the Cambridge region generally are applicable to Huntingdonshire.

Those finds which do not conform to this distribution require a special note. Wyman Abbott and Dr J R Garrood record occurrence in many upland (forest) parishes of flint flakes and small implements of the rudest character: these are, they especially note, very scarce in such areas. It is well known that the use of such chipped flints persisted in Eastern Britain down to the Roman Occupation;3 and the doubt which arises as to whether these finds are indicative of early occupation is intensified by the fact that, as the map shows, not one of these parishes has yielded, on the upland, a single undoubted Neolithic, Bronze or Early Iron Age relic. Two conclusions seem possible: either these finds represent, not early settlement, but the sporadic incursions of Neolithic Man, the hunter, into the forest areas; or, as is more probable, small flint tools which were made and used by settlers in small woodland clearings, or by woodcutters, in later Early Iron Age or Roman times, when, in Cambridgeshire and North Essex, the clearance of forest areas seems, to have been begun. In view of these uncertainties the finds in question are indicated by a special symbol on the map.

Finds of the three periods with which we are at the moment concerned, though interesting and affording a fairly complete record through the ages, are not numerous in the county; and the reason is clearly this, that the area available for occupation was limited and could not support a large population. Early humans required not only the convenient habitation site and water supply but also an open hinterland for pasturing his flocks; this he found on the eastern side of the Fenland; and the contrast between east and west in the numbers of find spots (see Fox, op. cit. maps i. to iii) is directly related to the difference in respect to open country. The same line of argument may correctly be applied to account for the limited occupation of the Ouse valley as compared with that of the Cam Valley.

The history of Huntingdonshire in early times is probably in large measure the history of successive invasions. There is evidence that rivers played a great part in determining the direction taken by newcomers and the extent of the area occupied by them. Moreover, in Fenland and Highland alike the waterways were, we are convinced, the traffic lines; no other hypothesis will account for the close similarities in form and decorative detail of pottery, etc., of successive prehistoric periods, found in all parts of the Fen Basin. It is therefore necessary that the original courses of the rivers in the Fens should be recovered as far as possible if we are to understand the mode of distribution of early cultures. The construction of the Bedford Level, and of the new channel of the Nene, entirely altered the Fen topography. The accompanying map (fig 1) shows the old course of the Nene and of the Great Ouse. It will be observed that the Somersham-Earith spur, which has since very early times been occupied by man, was readily accessible, and that convenient waterways between the Nene Valley and the Ouse Valley formerly existed which are not present to-day.

There is very little evidence of land traffic in our county in primitive times; the contrast in this respect between the western and eastern borders of the Southern Fenlands is very marked. This contrast has a geographical basis. Movement was easy and secure along the downland of Cambridgeshire, difficult and dangerous through the forests of Huntingdonshire. Such north-and-south traffic lines as existed may be expected to have skirted the marshlands, crossing the rivers at their lowest fords – the Nene at Peterborough and the Ouse at Hartford or Hemingford. There is also some slight evidence for east-and-west traffic (p.208).

Fig. I.

Sketch Map showing the Old Course of The Nene And Ouse.

Sketch Map showing the Old Course of The Nene And Ouse.


The variety and interest of the finds in the Peterborough area, both in Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, suggests that the point where the Nene enters the Fens may have been a trading centre for merchants from overseas; such traffic certainly began at a very early period in our history.

It is well known that in the Fen areas of Huntingdonshire bordering the uplands, as on the margins of the Southern Fenlands generally, ancient forested land surfaces are present under the peat. Many implements of stone and bone have been found in the Cambridgeshire Fens lying on clay, beneath such peat deposits several feet thick. The view that subsidence took place in the Fenlands in late Neolithic and early Bronze Age times is probably correct; and our picture of the primitive geography of Huntingdonshire, as applied to the beginning of the period now under review, requires some modification: the Fen areas were less extensive, the uplands more extensive. When subsidence ceased, shallow meres, of which Whittlesey Mere was until recently a survival, doubtless covered large areas of the Fenland; these we may suppose became gradually contracted by the growth of the peat.4

As regards the topography of the county in the Palaeolithic period, evidence of the existence of Old Stone Age man is found both in the gravels of the present upland valleys of the Ouse and the Nene and in the basin of the lateral valley, now unimportant, extending from Abbots Ripton to the Fens and connected with the old lowland course of the latter river. In addition to the present river system should be noted the fact that in the parish of Fletton there is the course of an ancient river (of which no indication can be seen on the surface), open in Palaeolithic times, which runs north-south through this parish and would appear to enter the Fens between the Fletton and Stanground churches on the north and to run to the ridge of boulder clay (now Yaxley and Farcet Broadway) on the south. The channel is from 20 to 25 ft. deep and 100 to 150 ft. wide. It is filled with coarse gravel and clay and cuts into the Oxford clay. A further branch of this river runs through Fletton parish across the Peterborough-Yaxley Road, south of the London Brick Company and Forders No 3 Yard, and thence in the direction of Orton.

The successive human cultures will now be considered.

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  1. In this article Mr Miles Burkitt, MA, FSA, is responsible for the sections dealing with Palaeolithic and Neolithic Cultures, Mr Cyril Fox, PhD, FSA, for the rest. Mr G Wyman Abbott’s unpublished researches have been largely drawn upon, and his name included as joint author.

  2. Fox, Arch of the Camb. Region p. 313-14.

  3. For example, the studding of Tribula for thrashing corn.

  4. See C. Reid, Submerged Forests, 1913, H Warren, Journ. Roy. Anthrop. Inst., N.S. xv,91 Proc. Prehist, Soc. A.E., iii,94, and Fox op.cit., p.7.