Irchester historic Chester House Estate dig unearths pottery, Roman coins, beads and a building

The dig has seen community volunteers work with the University of Leicester’s archaeological department and University College London students

Friday, 25th June 2021, 5:30 am

Ancient pottery fragments, Roman coins, late Roman or early Anglo-Saxon beads and animal bones are just some of the treasures unearthed during a dig taking place at the Chester House Estate during the past fortnight.

The archaeological dig site in the grounds of Chester Farm, between Rushden and Wellingborough, has exposed much of the orchard area, partial street frontage and sections of the Roman road running from Higham Ferrers to Irchester.

Most significantly, according to resident Chester House Estate archaeologist Ian Meadows, is that “we now understand the layout of the occupation in the suburbs of the Roman town, here".

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Briony English and some of the finds from the Chester House Estate dig
Briony English and some of the finds from the Chester House Estate dig

Lindsay Butcher, community volunteer, said: “Being on the dig was brilliant and I feel so lucky to have been able to get involved - even though I know absolutely nothing about archaeology. The team were so knowledgeable and welcoming to beginners like me and my son. It felt amazing to be uncovering Roman items which hadn’t seen the light of day for nearly 2,000 years.

“I was excavating the stones forming a road in the Roman town and found a Roman coin and lots of ancient pottery fragments. It’s incredible to think all this is just hidden under our feet.”

The team have also sensitively excavated parts of the late Roman cemetery, uncovering, as well as the remains of children to adults, beads which could have been worn as a necklace or stitched to clothing or textiles.

The dig, the first public event since the pandemic and relaunch of the project, has seen community volunteers work in partnership with the University of Leicester’s archaeological department and University College London students, allowing the team to understand more about the historical landscape at the estate.

Saxon beads

Another discovery includes a 17th century building which is not found on the original 18th century map of the farm.

To date, artefacts dating back to the Mesolithic, Iron Age and Medieval periods have already previously been discovered. However, given that the Chester House Estate is the site of a Roman walled town, including a burial site, the team had anticipated discovering some fascinating finds during the two-week excavation.

Twenty-year-old Briony English from Moulton has been volunteering on the site.

She said: "It was amazing - it was so cool. I got to hold a woolly rhino bone and had to bail out water from the site.

A volunteer at work

"The Archaeological Resource Centre is incredible. I'm definitely going to volunteer there."

The dig follows the recent opening of The Archaeological Resource Centre - The ARC - at the Chester House Estate last month.Overseen by Ben Donnely-Symes, archaeological archives curator, 1,600 boxes of important historical material are being transferred to the centre and catalogued over the coming months, while visitors will be able to enjoy a timeline walk in the Roman walled town and explore a large indoor museum when it opens in October. 

The ambitious £14.5m attraction is due to open fully this autumn. The restoration and building project, paid for by the former Northamptonshire County Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is nearing completion with the recruitment of staff and volunteers under way.

Reborn from the ashes of Chester Farm, after being dogged by delays, financial troubles and a devastating fire, the three-phase opening schedule will gradually welcome visitors to the multi-function complex, set in 85 acres of historic grounds overlooking the River Nene, that promises to have something for everyone.

The site

Jack Pishhorn, Chester House Estate’s business manager, says: “At present, much of this rich heritage is buried so our challenge is to preserve it, bring it to life and tell its stories.

“As a public-funded project, we are committed to involving the community in everything we do, to create a legacy for many years to come. What’s happening here is history in the making.”

As well as containing the site of a walled Roman town and its suburbs, the farmhouse and newly-refurbished buildings will offer a wedding venue, artisan courtyard, shopping venue, cafe farm shop, children's play area, conference facilities and bed and breakfast accommodation.

Cllr Helen Howell, North Northamptonshire Council's cabinet member for economic development, town centre regeneration and growth, said: “The significance of Chester House Estate as a showcase for our county’s rich archaeological wealth can’t be underestimated and will prove an important draw for both local people and tourists for years to come. “

Cllr. Lizzy Bowen, her West Northamptonshire Council counterpart, said: “It’s hugely exciting that members of the local community can get involved in such an important and history-making endeavour right on our own doorstep, and we all look forward to finding out what will be discovered.”

For more information about The Chester House Estate, visit: www.chesterhouseestate.org. The dig concludes on Sunday, June. 27. It is hoped that the dig will resume in June next year.