Stonea Camp, Stonea – An Iron Age Fort in the Fens

Stonea Camp is a multi-vallate (phased) Iron Age Fort which appears to have been started during the middle Iron Age, around the 3rd or 2nd centuries BC, and continued in use with additions until the 1st century AD.

The Iron Age fort cover 7.5 hectares (24 acres), lying on the southern fen edge of Stonea island at a height of 2 m above sea level, probably built by the Iceni it is the lowest lying ‘hill’ fort in the British Isles.

There is little evidence of dense occupation of the site, rather it appeared to have been a focal point of a wider Iron Age landscape, which may even include an Oppida (early Iron Age Town) to the north). Stonea Camp met a violent and brutal end in the 1st century AD at the hands of the Roman Empire.

Iron Age Hill Fort public entrance at Stonea

The public entrance to the Iron Age Hill Fort at Stonea

Archaeologist Cyril Fox wrote of Stonea in the 1920’s…

“It is almost wholly ancient pasture and no difficulty should arise in respect of preservation. There are so few large earthworks in the Fenlands: and so little is known of the condition of life in early times that the preservation of this camp, for future careful exploration, is much to be desired.”

Aftermath of World War 2 & Dig for Victory

Despite the high earthwork banks and deep ditches, Government grants after World War 2 encouraged farmers to covert as much land as possible into arable agriculture and thus at Stonea a site which had stood largely untouched for almost 2000 years was flattened waits hedges were ripped up, banks levelled and ditches infilled.

Stonea Camp since the 1960’s

Stonea remained an arable field since the 1960’s, however the late 1980’s saw it returned to pasture.

County Farms Estate

Cambridgeshire County Council’s County Farms Estate have owned Stonea Camp (Stitches Farm) since WW1. The management of the archaeology changed in the late 1980’s/90’s and Cambridgeshire County Council Archaeology office with funds from English Heritage, Fenland District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council instigated a programme of research, investigation and reinstatement of the levelled earthworks as a result of the Survey of the County Farms Estate (Malim 1989). Stonea island contains not only Iron Age archaeology but has sites of earlier Bronze Age origin and later Roman and Saxon settlements.

Previous Archaeological Investigations at Stonea Camp

Over the years, rumours have abounded of farmers coming across skeletons, sometimes with spears whilst working around Stonea Camp. None of these however have ever been reported or given to archaeologists.

The key figure is Tim Potter who excavated Neolithic sites, Bronze Age Barrow and of course the Roman Town of Stonea Grange itself in the 1990’s. It was he who excavated the first trench at Stonea Camp itself in 1980.

Other significant investigations include David Hall’s Fenland survey, the findings of fens field walking programme have allowed archaeologists to interpret much of the ancient landscape around Stonea Camp and have revealed at least 19 other Iron Age settlements within less than 5 miles of Stonea Camp.

As part of Tim Potter’s investigations, the British Museum have conducted a number of scientific investigations of Stonea Camp, including phosphate sampling and geophysical survey, however neither of these techniques revealed much evidence of any settlement or occupation on the site.

Cambridgeshire County Council Archaeological Investigations 1990, 1991, 1992

Led by Tim Malim, Cambridgeshire County Council’s archaeological field unit carried out three seasons of investigations in the winter 1990, autumn 1991 and finally in summer 1992. These investigations focused on the banks and ditches of the fort, rather than the interior. These features were easily identified both from the air and on the ground as soilmarks and cropmarks. This way trenches could be located over them and sections excavated. The ditches varied in size, infilling and in some cases the basal fills were waterlogged, increasing the preservation of organic remains for reconstructing the palaeoenvironmental history of the site.

Gruesome discovery of a child's skull

The gruesome discovery of a child’s skull. The child was attacked with a sword.

Skeletons (1990)

The first season saw the recovery of several skeletons of adults and children from the basal fill of an interior ditch (Tr A). This included the skull of a 4 year old, cut twice by a sword. Initially dated to the 1st Century BC, it has been subsequently dated to the 1st C BC/AD and thus may be a victim of the Roman battle. Another adult skeleton was recovered from trench XVI.

Final Summer 1992 Season

The final 1992 season saw the largest dig at Stonea Camp, work focused not only on the large exterior ditches on the north and west sides of the Camp, but also in the interior and the most likely main entrance situated to the north-west of the enclosure. The western ditches were large and clearly close to water courses as fills there showed the main entrance of the site was located at the north-west corner, towards the nearby settlements and farmland. The western ditches also produce more human remains, this time a complete adult male aged 25-35, who had been thrown into the base of a wet ditch.

Stonea Camp – summary

Stonea Camp appears to have been the focus of a larger Iron Age settlement on March Island. Although there is little evidence to suggest it was permanently occupied, it acted as a focus for ritual activities. The high number of skeletons may relate both to Celtic rituals as well as violent battle with the Romans. Large numbers of brooches and coin hoards indicate it was a special place. Its location on the boundary of three Celtic tribes and the presence of coins from all three support this.