Asteroids landing on the earth, planes crashing in the Second World War, and hidden Roman catacombs being used as caves for raves; these are among the theories that have circulated on Facebook recently to try to explain some of Stevenage’s hills, deeps and hollows.

The Comet: The Six Hills, photographed in 1895.The Six Hills, photographed in 1895. (Image: Archant)

The theories range from fantastical and funny to down right crazy. But there’s no smoke without fire, so in true Comet fashion we decided to try to settle the debate once and for all.

Let’s start with the six giant mounds that line what is now Six Hills Way.

The Six Hills: Handiwork of the Devil?

The Comet: A view from Six Hills in the 1930s, with traffic on the Great North Road to the left and Daneshill visible on the right between the trees.A view from Six Hills in the 1930s, with traffic on the Great North Road to the left and Daneshill visible on the right between the trees. (Image: Archant)

These large grassy hillocks have captured the imagination for many years.

A little bit of digging at Stevenage Museum confirms there is an old tale about the hills in Stevenage folklore. The story goes that one day, the Devil was sat overlooking the Great North Road and was in such a temper that he heaved up six great clods of earth and threw them at travellers on the road. It seems he missed, for the tale tells he then drew up a seventh clod of earth, and – you’ve guessed it – missed again, this time hitting the steeple of Graveley Church. To those of a superstitious disposition, this explains why the tower is still slanted to this day.

This myth no doubt satisfied the superstitious minds of Medieval people, but when Victorian gentlemen began turning their more scientific minds to the mounds in the 19th century, they began to realise there was much more to them.

The Comet: Five young men sitting on one of the Six Hills for a photo in about 1920.Five young men sitting on one of the Six Hills for a photo in about 1920. (Image: Archant)

Victorian vigour:

Wealthy Victorian gentlemen of the day were wont to amuse themselves by investigating antiquities all over Britain – and Stevenage didn’t escape their enquiring minds.

They agreed that the six hills had historical significance, but they couldn’t always agree which period they came from.

Some said they were Saxon or medieval in origin, others insisted that they must have their roots in Roman times.

One way to find out would be to get digging, of course, and early archaeologists began to sink shafts into the mounds to try to find out what lay beneath.

They may not have dug deep enough to discover the truth hidden inside but they did establish that –rather than being manufactured by a malevolent Mephistopheles – the mounds were built up from earth excavated from moats that surrounded them.

Archaeological analysis:

In an official investigation into the mounds carried out by English Heritage – the body now known as Historic England – when the monuments were officially recognised in 1923, archaeologists concluded the hills are some of the finest examples of Roman era burial mounds in Britain, and containted the greatest number of burials of their type in any one location.

The report, updated in 1996, used the term Roman but Romano-British would probably have been a more appropriate conclusion as these would have been burials of Britons who – although they might have come under the influence of Roman culture as the empire expanded – still preferred what was in fact a pre-Roman way of being laid to rest.

So who exactly was buried here?

It is likely that these were the tombs of wealthy Romano-British aristocrats, possibly chief bureaucrats or tribal elders.

Only people of some status would have warranted having entire mounds built over their tombs.

And the experts concluded that because the enthusiastic Victorian diggers did not delve too deeply in their search for the truth, the human remains probably still survive hidden inside the mounds alongside the potentially valuable grave goods – including coins, armour, swords and anything else they needed in the afterlife that would have been buried with them.

These fortunate individuals would probably have chosen to be cremated, and the remains would have been buried in a sealed chamber, or cist. This would have been made of wood, tile or stone which would then have been covered by the mound.

The hills would have been much more impressive than they are now – conical at the top rather than rounded – and they would probably have been surrounded by stone walls as well as moats that would have given the tombs security, and marked them out as high status places.

Remains of a mystery:

Of course the real mystery is who it was that was actually buried here, and it has to be said this is unlikely to be solved. There is little evidence of Roman remains in Stevenage other than the mounds, and no house belonging to the kind of wealthy person who was buried at Six Hills has never been excavated. An impressive hoard of 2000 solver coins was found in Chells when a house was being built but there is no evidence to link this to Six Hills. But in some ways isn’t it more intriguing not to know?

Much remains to be found out about the Six Hills, and only a properly co-ordinated excavation could hope to uncover the secrets beneath. But hopefully the truth doesn’t prove too disappointing to those who choose to believe fantastical theories about them, and to be sure, there is something very comforting about finding such ancient history in the heart of what is often written off by culture vultures as a ‘New Town’,

See future editions of the Comet for more articles on Stevenage’s hidden history including a discussion of the mysterious craters at Box Wood.

Some facts about Six Hills:

The mounds currently stand 3.5 metres high but were originally 1.5 metres taller.

They would have been conical on top and only weather has eroded them to make them rounded.

The mounds stand beside a cycle track which was once probably the Via Alba Roman road running from Sandy to St Albans.

Stone walls would probably have encircled the tops of the barrows.

There are less than 150 recorded examples of these kinds of mounds in Britain, making them of real historical value.