Have you ever wondered why Stevenage streets have Roman names?

PUBLISHED: 11:35 25 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:02 25 February 2018

A drawing of a drinking cup found at Chells embossed with a hunting scene.Picture: Hertfordshire Archaeological Service

A drawing of a drinking cup found at Chells embossed with a hunting scene.Picture: Hertfordshire Archaeological Service

Archant

Have you ever wondered why street names in the Chells Manor area of Stevenage bear the colourful and evocative names of Roman gods and emperors?

An artist's impression of what the Romano-British people living at Chells may have looked like. Picture: Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust. An artist's impression of what the Romano-British people living at Chells may have looked like. Picture: Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust.

To the eastern side of town just off Gresley Way there is Valerian Way. This unassuming residential street bears the name of none other than emperor Valerian who ruled the vast Roman empire from 253 to 260 AD. and was infamously captured by the Persian King Shapur I after losing the a major battle at Edessa.

The capture of its leader shocked the Roman world. Even more so, the stories put about by Roman writers that he died at the hands of the Persian king after being forced to swallow molten Gold. But in typical Roman fashion, the sources may have exaggerated such reports and other scholars believe Shapur settled Valerian and his soldiers inside his empire and put their expertise to good use in building a great dam.

Another road bears the name of Trajan, the emperor who in many ways represents the epitome of Roman power. In the early second century AD, he took the empire to its greatest extent, conquering Dacia and pushing the frontiers eastwards into Parthia.

There is also Minerva Close – named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and War, Neptune Gate, related to the Roman god of the sea, and Jupiter Gate alluding to the great leader of the Roman gods, equivalent to the Greek Zeus. There is Gordian Way, named after the emperor Gordian who ruled from 238 to 244 AD and Julia Gate which bears the named of the infamous daughter of the first true Roman emperor, Augustus. To the emperor’s great distress Julia was a woman of such lax morals that she had to be exiled to an island in the Mediterranean.

An artist's impression of what the Roman farmstead may have looked like. Picture: Hertfordshire Archaeological Service. An artist's impression of what the Roman farmstead may have looked like. Picture: Hertfordshire Archaeological Service.

Fortuna Gate bears the name of the Roman goddess of luck and Pacatian Way is named after a little known emperor, Pacatianus, who ruled in 248 AD in troubled times for the empire before being killed by his soldiers.

So what is the meaning of this little corner of Classical history in Stevenage.

The truth is that during an excavation here in 1986, archaeologists turned up an incredible hoard of silver coins which were embossed with the names of the gods and emperors mentioned here.

Some of the coins are incredibly rare including that of Pacatianus.

Pat of the coin hoard found at Chells Manor in 1986. Picture: Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust Pat of the coin hoard found at Chells Manor in 1986. Picture: Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust

They also uncovered the remains of a farmstead of a significant size on what later became Boxfield Farm.

In truth, the farmstead was first discovered in 1972 when archaeologists noticed a series of crop markings appearing on an aerial photograph of the Chells Manor area.

The outlines appeared to show a series of ditched enclosures which more usually would be dated to the pre-Roman period.

It wasn’t until 1986 when the site was threatened with a new housing development that Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust moved in.

In an amazing piece of luck, the first trench dug by the archaeologists was found to contain a pottery jar with a hoard of more than 2,500 silver coins inside it.

A full excavation was carried out in 1988 and 1989 and many Stevenage volunteers and school pupils helped out alongside the archaeologists.

Features of the Roman farmstead were soon uncovered including a well – some 13 metres deep, a cobbled yard and a stone corn drier, all located within a series of ditched enclosures.

Many incredible finds were made at the site.

The well was filled up with many pots dated between 140 to 180 AD which presumably had been dumped there.

To the north of the farmstead, the remains of 25 people were found in the form of ashes buried inside cremation pots. Finds that may have been offerings to the gods buried with the dead included one spectacular complete drinking cup made of amber coloured glass.

Most of the cremations were adults with two possible juveniles and two infants. These were undoubtedly the people who had lived at Roman Chells.

A selection of fine table ware including wine jugs and cups were uncovered, indicating the people who lived here may at one point have been fairly wealthy. Some of it was prized red Samian ware imported from Gaul.

A series of bone hair pins found may also show women living here were concerned with Roman fashion – as might cosmetic spoons, brooches, and tweezers.

So what did the people of Roman Chells do? Archaeologists have been able to establish that the main crop farmed here was spelt wheat and also grain and barley. Animal bones show that cattle were kept for their hides and their meat. Sheep and goats would also have been here.

The presence of red deer and roe deer bones shows that the families living at Chells hunted for food.

The farm may well have produced goods to trade at the nearest market which was probably based at Baldock.

But Chells could also have been in contact with other larger Roman settlements like those at Sandy to the north and the thriving town of St Albans to the south west.

The remains of large amphorae - storage jars for wine, olive oil and fish sauce – were found at the site, suggesting people at Chells were also buying goods at market which had been imported into Britain from across the Roman empire.

The farmstead occupied an area of irregularly shaped fields linked by trackways and would have been pockmarked by similar farms including those at Robin’s Hill, Collens Woood and Walkern.

A similar farmstead at Great Wymondly has also been excavated.

Many sites where Roman or Romano-British people weer buried have also been found nearby. The most obvious of these is the six hills burial mounds after which Six Hills Way in Stevenage takes its name, built next to the Roman Road from Baldock to Welwyn.

Chells Manor wasn’t a grand house or a hugely impressive site, but it shows how the majority of people lived in the countryside during the 400 years the Romans ruled Britain. A simple farming existence, yet tinged with hints of a grander Roman culture.

So next time you are walking near Chells Manor, spare a thought for the Roman farmers who ploughed the fields beneath your feet here nearly 2,000 years ago.

Some of the finds from the Chells Manor dig can be viewed at Stevenage Museum in St George’s Way.

Other significant Roman sites nearby include the impressive display of finds from Roman Sandy at the offices of Sandy Town Council and the Verulamium Museum in St Albans.

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