During the Ice Age, this part of England was actually ice-free and, as sea levels were lower, much of the area was covered with forests of oak, yew and pine. Britain was joined to mainland Europe with rivers such as the Ouse and Nene flowing as tributaries to the Rhine. Changing climate caused the great ice sheets to the north to melt from around 10,000 BC. Sea levels slowly rose, the land bridge with Europe became flooded and eventually the river Ouse started to flow directly into the North Sea through the Wash.
During this period until approximately 3,000 BC the area that was to become the fens was populated by nomadic groups of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who left behind the occasional worked flint tool. Repeated flooding of this low-land area by sea water caused the forests to die. The resulting saltmarsh conditions impeded drainage causing build-up of alluvial deposits. The sea retreated, but with only sluggish movement of fresh water from surrounding uplands possible, there was a period of about 2,000 years of peat growth.
Between 3,000 BC and 2,000 BC the local population came to adopt livestock-keeping and crop-growing practices introduced from Europe by Neolithic farmers. Initially this would still have been on a semi-nomadic basis exploiting the rich pasture and crop-growing soils of the fens during the summer months and wintering on the pockets of higher ground in the area. Occasional evidence of their activity during this period is revealed through finds of pottery and more refined stone tools. The later part of this period is defined as ‘Early Bronze Age’. It wouldn’t have been marked by any dramatic changes in technology or living practice but slowly, as the climate became warmer and the area became drier, so the small communities became more settled.
Considerable evidence for the next period of occupation has been uncovered through archaeological investigations of an area which includes the RSPB nature reserve on the north side of the village. These took place during the 1990s and early 2000s in advance of the gravel quarrying operations by Hanson and were conducted by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (whose work has continued in this area further north keeping ahead of the quarry activity).
Low remnant mounds of prehistoric barrows were already evident in the fields on the west side of Long Drove and the archaeological study revealed this area to have been a significant settlement and ceremonial space between about 1,800 and 1,000 BC; Mid to Late Bronze Age. Much of the description that follows is from the original information board by the side of Long Drove (sadly no-longer).
“Environmental researches have shown that, prior to its straightening in recent centuries, the lower reaches of the River Great Ouse meandered in great oxbow bends across its floodplain. In effect, it was a delta-like landscape with its backwater channels encircling small islands. This would have been a particularly diverse environment, including marshland, water meadows, woodland stands, and with the potential for pasture lands and arable plots on the higher ground of the gravel terraces.”
Map of Bronze Age features, from Google maps and the Archaeological Data Service
As shown above, in the field to the West of Long Drove, opposite the RSPB nature reserve, is “the ring of a great settlement enclosure which was restored in the topsoil, with the archaeology lying protected a half a metre or more below.” Although this reconstruction is overgrown, its outline, measuring roughly 120m by 105m, is the dominant feature of the field. Before it and to the left (looking from Long Drove), the mounds of five Bronze Age round barrows can just be made out.
“Each are encircled with large ditches, the spoil from which would have generated the bulk of their turf and gravel mounds. These would have originally stood 1.5 – 2.0m high (roughly twice their height today) and each probably sealed a central cremation pyre burial, with later cremations inserted into the flanks of their mounds. The higher mound on the other side of Long Drove approximates the restored profile of another barrow. This is the only such monument that has been excavated in this area.” (This is within the access-restricted part of the Nature Reserve)
“The painting reconstructs the Bronze Age landscape as seen from the western (Needingworth) shore of the river, and is based on the results of more than a decade of fieldwork. Notice that the barrow group and the circular enclosure were actually sited on an island.”
“As is also shown, fields extend across both banks of the river, around which are dotted small hamlet-like settlements. In the foreground is a double ring-ditch burial monument, which became a site of a major cremation cemetery (inset right). Criss-crossing the low ground before the river are a series of timber-post ‘screens’ (excavated in 1996; see inset left). These appear to have done little more than frame sight-lines towards the barrows on the opposite shore, and perhaps channel movement. Together with the ring-ditches and barrow cemetery, they contributed to what would have been a ceremonial landscape.”
So, roughly around the time of and just after the last phase of building at Stonehenge, Over Fen was a significant area of ceremony and occupation by increasingly settled farmers living in small groups of extended families with their ‘ancestral roots’ marked by the burial mounds we see today. Some evidence of limited Iron Age and Romano-British activity (approximately from 400 BC to 200 AD) has been identified in the excavations further north, (nearer Earith) but, compared to the evidence of the Mid to Late Bronze Age, it is slight and doesn’t indicate permanent occupation. Maybe we can surmise, that as time moved on and the climate deteriorated with the water levels rising again in the fens, so these groups slowly migrated their living quarters to the higher ground around where St Mary’s church and the rest of the village have become established since the Early Medieval period.
Taylor, A. 1998 Archaeology of Cambridgeshire Vol 2: South East Cambridgeshire and the Fen Edge, Cambridgeshire County Council (available from Amazon)
Evans, C., Tabor, J. and Linden, M.V. 2016 Twice-crossed River – Prehistoric and Palaeoenvironmental Investigations at Barleycroft Farm/Over, Cambridgeshire (the Archaeology of the Lower Ouse Valley), McDonald Institute Monographs