Prehistoric St Michael's Mead
Whilst 'locals' may view new housing developments with apprehension, archaeologists regard them as an exciting opportunity to uncover what may be awaiting them underground. Prior to the building of St Michael's Mead, on some 50 hectares of mainly Thorley parish, a statutory archaeological evaluation was undertaken in 1994 by a team from the Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust (HAT). This revealed evidence of prehistoric occupation from the Neolithic, Bronze, Iron and the later Roman periods. By carefully untangling the different physical relationships of artefacts, postholes, ditches etc. it was possible to interpret the different phases of human habitation. Their research was published by HAT in a booklet entitled 'Thorley, The Prehistory of a Hertfordshire Village.' The text was written by Jonathan Last and Donna Cameron was responsible for the many drawings and illustrations - five of which have been included below.
The earliest evidence discovered was of a burial of a 45-year-old Neolithic man found 200 metres north east of Rumballs Farm. This grave, dated 2900 - 2750 BC, is contemporary with the first phase of Stonehenge. Little other evidence of a permanent settlement is apparent except for chipped flint flakes, the 'waste' from making arrowheads and basic scraping tools.
Around 800 BC there is evidence of the first farming occupation at Thorley. Excavations 500 metres to the north of Rumballs Farm revealed a small farmstead from the Late Bronze Age. Two roundhouses were identified with nearby fences, enclosure ditches and various pits. Organised arable and livestock farming was carried out as witnessed by the variety of domestic artefacts found around the farmstead - ceramic storage jars, grindstones and ovens. Evidence of ritual burials was also located with several cremated human remains and a whole lamb apparently deliberately buried. Metalworking was carried out with traces of metal residues from bronze smithing apparent but no finished tools were uncovered. These would have been carefully looked after and rarely discarded - although a socketed axe was found in the vicinity some years ago.
Moving on 500 years, Middle Iron Age activity was recognised in the shape of pottery remains. These pots show differences in design and additive which, when mixed with the clay, made it more workable.
Farming practices carried out by these Iron Age inhabitants of Thorley included the raising of cattle, sheep, pigs and horses as well as the cultivation of wheat and barley.
Small settlements existed until the end of the Iron Age and into the early Romano-British era. Thorley and the River Stort lay right on the boundary between the Catuvellauni tribe in Hertfordshire and the Trinovantes in Essex. A coin of Cunobelin, a Catuvellauni leader, has been found elsewhere in Thorley. Extensive funerary remains were found within an enclosure 500 metres north west of Rumballs Farm in the shape of cremations, animal burials and a possible mortuary structure.
These grave goods indicate a degree of Romanisation and the trappings of a new culture. An extensive enclosed field system was also revealed with precise rectilinear ditch enclosures: paddocks and vineyards are possibilities. Roman Thorley existed as a marginal settlement until the mid 4th century AD. Deep ploughing in 1954 in this area revealed a villa or farmhouse.
Rapid turnover and the relocation of limited settlement in Thorley contrasts with other such Stort valley sites and indicates the marginal nature of agriculture on these clay uplands compared with the more fertile areas nearer the river. The medieval village of Thorley eventually grew up to the south of St Michael's Mead and pre historic Thorley.
From the Archives