The village of Ancaster sits in a gap - to which it gives its name - in the Jurassic limestone ridge which runs roughly north south through Lincolnshire. This limestone edge continues south west across England to form the Cotswolds and along its length it has been, and continues to be, an important economic resource providing both high quality building stone and Ironstones for the steel industry.
About 2 million years ago, prior to the start of the great glacial period, the River Trent ran almost due east, across the vale of Belvoir and through the Ancaster gap before descending onto the wide fertile plain of Doggerland which now lies beneath the southern part of the north sea. Extensive glaciation consisting of at least seven stages of ice advance and retreat, completely changed the drainage pattern for the eastern side of England and as a result the route of the Trent changed, moving northwards, first passing through the Lincoln gap and finally settling on the course it follows today.
As the ice retreated at the end of the last ice age extensive tracts of wind blown glacial sand were deposited along the flanks of the Lincolnshire edge and particularly in the river gaps at Lincoln and Ancaster. This not only provided good land for settling but has unfortunately covered up much of the early postglacial landscape, making it difficult to identify areas of early settlement. As late as 1695, Abraham de la Pryme was complaining that some parts of the foreground along the scarp resembled the “sandy deserts (sic) of Egypt and Arabia.”
Probably as a result of the extensive areas of wind blown sand, no known finds have been made from the Palaeolithic era in the Ancaster area. However as an important river valley cutting through the Lincolnshire edge the gap would have provided a vital migration route for animals and it is certain that the Palaeolithic hunter gatherers would have travelled this same route in pursuit of the herds.
Due to the lack of any Palaeolithic material, the earliest recorded finds from the Ancaster area date from the Mesolithic and consist of scattered flints. These were found over half a dozen sites close to the village and this was primarily the result of the work of one man - Clive Rasdall – who undertook an extensive programme of field walking around Ancaster in the 1960s. It was notable that along the Lincolnshire edge the Mesolithic sites all seemed to be concentrated around areas of sandy soil such as that found in the Ancaster Gap which appeared to indicate a preference for such environments. But work done by the Grantham Kings School Archaeological Society in the 1960s identified a concentration of sites around Barrowby which did not fit this pattern and it is now generally accepted that it is the surface topology and distribution of water courses which has the main influence on Mesolithic distribution.
Evidence for early Neolithic settlement and activity in the Ancaster gap is scant. There are no long barrows such as are seen further east in the Lincolnshire wolds and even scattered finds such as axe heads or flint tools are rare. However as the Neolithic develops and we approach the Bronze Age, evidence for occupation becomes more common with a number of Beaker vessels being found around Ancaster.
Some early Bronze Age material has been found from around the Ancaster area including a number of complete collared urns and other typical Bronze Age pottery. However as with the Neolithic there are no habitation or monument sites identified and no barrows although these are common in other parts of Lincolnshire. No bronze objects have been found in the area and it is not until well into the Iron Age that we start to see any real signs of long term settlement and occupation of the gap.
One item of note which dates to the Bronze Age was found near the village of Sudbrook just to the west of Ancaster. This was a golden torc which was found by metal detectorists in the 1990s.
The early part of the Iron Age is not well represented at Ancaster. It is not until around 500 BC, the Middle Iron Age and the development of the La Tene culture that we start to see extensive settlement in the area.
One site in particular is of importance and this was that found at the Castle Lime Pit at Ancaster Quarry in the 1960s and subsequently excavated by Jeffrey May from Nottingham University.
May points out that the settlement was carefully placed on a slight shelf on the southern side of the Ancaster Gap some 30m above the valley floor. This would have provided both a good point at which to observe the approach of enemies along the gap and also safety from possible seasonal flooding. There is no sign of defences around the settlement although the western side is bound by a steep sided glacial outwash valley which might have provided some measure of security. However, on the southern and eastern edges the ground dips away shallowly with no apparent defensible features.
According to the overview of 1st Millennium settlement in Lincolnshire conducted by Leicester University;
“These excavations revealed the presence of a Middle Iron Age settlement overlooking the Ancaster gap. The features discovered included roundhouses, complete with ovens and fireplaces.
In common with other Iron Age sites across the country, the features uncovered were dominated by pits (75 in all). The fill of these pits included evidence for lime burning or quarrying for pure clay, whilst the vast majority contained what appeared to be domestic refuse. A number of bell shaped pits similar to those found on numerous southern sites were also found, indicating a degree of grain storage. Other evidence for arable production came in the form of two post structures (interpreted as drying racks for straw or hay,) Burnt wheat and barley grains were also found, along with a large number of saddle and rotary querns, unfinished examples indicating that they were probably manufacturing them on the site.
Bones of Cattle, sheep, pig and horse were all found on the site. The age of death of the sheep and cows indicates that they were kept for a mixture of meat and secondary products, including traction.
The pottery discovered was the typical coarse, hand made scored ware which is commonly found on Iron Age sites in southern Lincolnshire.”
It is thought that this site represented a small farming community and there is evidence of pot making, quern making and yarn spinning from the site as well as the normal activities associated with small scale arable and livestock farming.
About 2 miles southwest from Ancaster there is the Iron Age hillfort of Honnington camp which is probably the best preserved of the 4 hillforts known in Lincolnshire. No excavations have been carried out there and dating is problematic.
One notable type of pottery found in the area has become known as Ancaster bowls. These are La Tene decorated pottery of the 3rd century BC and consist of round shouldered bowls with concave necks and slightly everted rims. They are usually decorated in the upper part of the body with a band of incised decoration and/or rouletting.
In the later Iron Age, occupation appears to have migrated from the southern slopes of the Ancaster gap onto the gravel floor of the valley itself. This was again excavated by Jeffrey May between 1964 and 1969.
The Iron Age settlement May excavated lay immediately to the west and partly beneath the later Roman town of Ancaster. As a result it has been severely disturbed and interpretation is very difficult. However there were clearly a series of hearths, shallow ditches and banks typical of a small settlement.
There were notable differences in character between the two Iron Age settlements. Unlike the earlier site, the later settlement contained relatively few pits. In addition the style and nature of the pottery was very different consisting of a much wider array of both coarse hand turned and finer wheel turned pottery with strong links to types found in Essex and Kent. The pottery seems to indicate there was an extended period of occupation with early hand and wheel turned pottery which was often very fine and burnished. This was later replaced by Gallo-Belgic type wares such as butt beakers and plates which included both imported continental material and local copies.
A number of brooches and coins were also found on the site.
The pottery and coin evidence appears to indicate that the site was occupied throughout much of the 1st century BC and was finally abandoned either just prior to the arrival of the Romans or specifically to make way for the Roman settlement in the mid 1st century AD.
Whilst Ancaster Gap was certainly a fair sized settlement in the late Iron Age, it does not appear to have been the main settlement in the area. That status lies with Old Sleaford which is some 8 miles east of Ancaster. This was not only a substantial settlement but also a centre for minting of coins with over 3500 fragments of minting mould slabs having been found. Together with Ancaster and a number of other smaller Iron Age settlements in the area, the Ancaster Gap region appears to have been a major centre of middle to late Iron Age activity.
It is not absolutely certain when the Romans began occupation at Ancaster but as noted above it probably resulted in the displacement of the existing Iron Age settlement and its destruction in stages as the Roman fort and settlement expanded over the next three centuries.
The earliest Roman occupation of the area appears to have been a marching fort located not on the valley floor around the existing settlement but slightly to the north where the valley floor starts to rise. This camp was discovered by aerial photography in 1974 and it covers an area of about 28 acres. It would have been built by the advancing Roman army as they progressed along the newly created Ermine street.
It was long thought that Ancaster was the Roman town Causennis in the Antonine Itineries. However work done in the early 1980s re-evaluated this claim and showed that the distances between the settlements made it unlikely that Causennis was Ancaster since it was too far north of the previously mentioned Roman town at Water Newton. It is now thought that Causennis is actually Saltersford to the south of Grantham and that the true name of Ancaster is yet to be discovered.
Whatever the name of the town, it is clear that the marching fort was established here to serve a number of functions. As has already been noted, the Ancaster gap area contained a concentration of Iron Age settlements and was the centre of a number of industries. The specific area around Ancaster was also the junction of a number of prehistoric trackways running along and across the Lincolnshire edge, at least two of which would later become major Roman roads – Ermine Street and King Street which joins Ermine Street just to the south of the village.
The marching fort was never intended as anything more than a temporary military base. However of the larger Roman fort and town there is little sign above ground. This is in spite of a description of Ancaster by William Stukeley in the 18th century which notes that “Castle Close [is] full of foundations appearing everywhere above ground, the ditch and rampire encompasses it”
The ditch and rampart mentioned by Stukeley are still clearly visible along the southern and eastern sides of the Roman town but it was not until the excavations carried out in the mid 1960s that the location of the main town and fort were properly identified. During the creation of a new cemetery to the west of the modern village two ditches were uncovered running east west. These were excavated and the northern ditch was found to be V shaped in profile with turves on its northern side probably indicating the presence of a turf bank. The southern ditch was found to be of a slightly different configuration, having a vertical southern (outer) face which was designed to prevent attacker escaping once they had entered the ditch. This type of ditch was known as a fossa punica. Again the northern inner side contained turves indicating the presence of a bank.
This double bank and ditch arrangement is considered to be the remains of the permanent Roman fort which is thought to have been entirely on the west side of Ermine Street. Finds dated the ditches to between 45 and 65 AD and this would fit in well with the occupation of the area by the IX Legion which left Lincoln in 71AD.
On the eastern side of Ermine Street, opposite the fort, the civilian vicus developed as an essential part of Roman military life. This would have provided all the services for the soldiers and their families and such settlements are found outside almost all permanent roman forts. It is possible that this was also where some of the native British inhabitants resettled after being displaced by the building of the over their earlier settlement.
Initially this vicus was undefended and we have no clear evidence of its extent but in 1980 the building of a new bungalow resulted in the discovery of a stone building that was almost certainly part of this civilian settlement.
The excavation was begun when a human skull was found by builders whilst digging the foundations of the new bungalow. No more bones came to light in the foundation trenches but what was to become the new garden was thoroughly examined and it produced more human remains. On the bungalow site there were substantial walls but since there were plenty of large nails, the excavator assumed that the upper walls were of timber. They were certainly plastered and decorated. As is often the case there was evidence of infant burials under the floors including one that was in a stone lined grave. A total of 6 babies under 6 months old and a seventh that was pre-term were found. Some bones were built into a wall of a later building. These were the only burials found inside the bounds of the town or fort as Roman tradition normally forbade burials within the settlement.
Late in the second or early third century there was a massive programme of improving defences of settlements throughout roman Britain. The reasons for this are not clear although it is suggested it is related to the attempts or the usurper Clodius Albinus to become emperor in 197AD. This resulted in the removal of large numbers of legionaries from Britain and may have left the locals feeling decidedly exposed. However in the case of Ancaster it does not appear that the building of walls around the town commenced until between 225AD and 280AD which would be too late for using Clodius as a reason.
It is not clear exactly how high the new town walls were but judging by other towns which undertook similar upgrades to their defences it was probably between 18 and 24 feet. In other respects the defences were very substantial consisting of an earthen rampart built up against the stone walls. The ramparts were about 30 feet thick and the walls themselves about 6 feet thick. At this point there is no evidence of ditches outside the rampart but these may have been destroyed when later large scale ditches were added late in the 4th century. The area encompassed by the walls was about 9.1 acres and the new building overlay earlier structures including much of the adjacent fort on the west side of Ermine street.
There was a further round of defensive improvements in the late 4th century AD. This was probably undertaken at the time of Count Theodosius’ rebuilding of the defences of Britain after the devastating attacks in 367AD in what was known as the ‘barbarian conspiracy’. The improved defences included fan shaped towers at the corners. As they were not built at the same time as the other defences they were not keyed into the existing walls and excavations on the north west tower showed there was actually a 5 foot gap between the tower and the existing wall. Similar fan shaped towers are not known in Britain but are seen in some of the Danubian Roman provinces and so it is suggested that an engineer brought this innovation from those provinces to undertake the building of these defensive structures
None of the major buildings which are believed to have existed inside the town have ever been excavated or located by geophysics. Instead finds have been limited to the defensive circuit and to occasional finds during development in the village. In addition at least two cemeteries have been located, one to the south of the town and one to the west under the modern cemetery. This latter has been extensively excavated by Maurice Barley and a total of 92 bodies located. The results have not yet been published but it is known that there was a mixture of men women and children and that grave goods were found in almost none of the graves. Almost all of the graves were aligned east west and this – combined with the lack of cremations and grave goods – leads to the conclusion that these were Christian burials of the late third or fourth century. A number of other burials have been found around the village including as mentioned the fields to the south of the modern crossroads. Almost all of these appear to be late Roman in age and so far no evidence has been found of early pagan Roman burials.
There has been quite a lot of evidence of Romano-British beliefs found in Ancaster. These have included an inscription dedicated to the previously unknown god Viridio, a sculpture that is thought to be of the god Jupiter and a sculpture of the 3 seated mother earth goddess.
Since 2009 FARI Archaeology have been looking at two specific areas of Ancaster. To the immediate south of the village a series of investigations have been undertaken at Ancaster House whilst to the west, a planned extension of the cemetery has required additional geophysical surveying and an assessment of possible full scale excavations in advance of the development of the car park and paths.