Earliest evidence of Roman irrigation discovered in Cambridge

Akshay Karia 20 March 2014

Archaeologists carrying out excavations on the North West Cambridge Development have found evidence of the earliest known examples of Roman irrigation.

The discovery has been made by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit which is investigating the survival of ancient communities at this inland site.

The Head of the Unit, Chris Evans, explained that the planting beds were probably used to grow grapevines or asparagus.

He explained that: "The area has a ridgeway where the gravels meet the clay and the excavations have shown settlements and habitation on the site from as early as the later Neolithic period (c.2800-2200BC), right through the ages including the Bronze, Iron and Roman ages.

“Extraordinarily, after carefully peeling off the clays, we saw a series of ditches lining the wells and the horticultural beds. Clearly in dry spells, water could have been poured from the pit-wells into the ditches to reach the beds. This is a tremendously significant find that reflects the area's intense agricultural regime from the Roman period."

He also stressed the importance of the discovery: "People don't think about wells and irrigation being a significant invention but it was incredibly sophisticated.”

The excavations are taking place in advance of building work at the North West Cambridge Development, which is being turned into a large university site. Discoveries of five separate cemeteries, two Roman roads, a spearhead and an array of brooches among other things last March led to the conclusion that the settlement had existed since the bronze age. The Cambridge Archaeological Unit is also currently exploring a lost medieval village at the northern end of the site.

A second year Classicist expressed excitement at the findings: "Although it's not hugely relevant to my studies, it's always exciting to be reminded of the part your local area has played in history.

“It's also great when excavations turn up more information about the lives of people for whom we don't have literary sources – in recent years, the Cambridge Classics Faculty has been very keen to look into this area of research, especially on the Roman side. It just goes to show that there's still so much more we can do to explore these civilisations."