Over three weekends in June, July and August 2013, 32 test pits were excavated in Meldreth. Excavations were undertaken by residents of the village and members of the public participating in a CCH community archaeology project, run by Meldreth History Society, supervised by ACA and co-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the ‘All Our Stories’ programme and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
The results of the excavations show that parts of the area covered by the present settlement was quite intensively used by humans in the prehistoric period, with unusually large volumes of Bronze Age pottery recovered from at least four different sites likely to be indicative of settlement and/or burial. Pottery of Roman date favours the south of the present village, and suggests settlement here then took the form of a dispersed scatter of small settlements such as farmsteads with arable fields to their north. The most notable occurrence lies beyond the southern limits of the present village at Bury Lane Farm (MEL/13/10 and MEL/13/21), both of which produced seven sherds. It is also interesting to note that MEL/13/16 (in Chiswick End) and nearby MEL/13/2 and MEL/13/3 also produced material of this date, albeit only in small amounts, hinting at the possibility that Chiswick, so distinctly separate in the historic period, may have had a Romano-British incarnation.
No evidence was found for any activity dating to the period between the 5th–9th centuries AD, but Saxo-Norman pottery was found widely throughout the present village, with particular concentrations on the manorial site of Topcliffe as well in the south of the village around Flambards moated site. Most of this was St Neots Ware, with smaller amounts of Stamford Ware. The complete absence of any Thetford ware from Meldreth is striking, and possibly suggests that this activity is likely to be post-Conquest in date and that the medieval settlement originates in this period rather than earlier as Thetford Ware was no longer in use by 1100 AD, while St Neots continues in use until 1150/1200 AD and Stamford Ware until 1150 AD, possibly as late as 1200 AD. This raises the possibility that settlement at Meldreth in the later Anglo-Saxon period (ie before the Norman Conquest) may well have been late, minimal or non-existent. While this seems a little surprising, given the known importance of the church, it does chime with the absence of any reference to Meldreth in pre-Conquest written sources, which is in contrast to neighboring Melbourne. The similarity of these place names does hint that Meldreth and Melbourne were at an early date a single large ‘Mel’ estate which was gradually subdivided, a process which was still continuing in the Saxo-Norman period when new settlements were founded on land in Meldreth. These included a site of some importance, probably a manorial site established in the late 11th century, near Topcliffe Mill between the church and the stream. Another area of settlement, established at around the same date, also west of the stream, extended for at least 300m east of the present High Street. This settlement may have constituted a series of farmsteads, or a small village. While it is tempting to suggest that find-spots of Stamford Ware may correlate with manorial sites, not least because such a correlation certainly exists at Topcliffe, caution should be exercised in respect of other sites, as Stamford Ware is not exclusively found on higher status sites.
72% of the test pits in Meldreth excavated produced two or more sherds of pottery of high medieval date (early 12th – mid 14th century). This is considerably higher than the regional average of around 40% (Lewis Forthcoming 2014a), and suggests that Meldreth was then a large, flourishing community during this period. Zones which appear to be newly converted to settlement at this time include the area around Chiswick Farm, North End (near College Farm) and the west side of the High Street. Given that the property boundaries west of the High Street appear to follow the curving lines of earlier open strip fields (above), it may be deduced that settlement here was laid out over pre-existing open fields in the 12th or 13th centuries. Fine glazed medieval wares (Mill Green Ware (MEL/13/7 and MEL/13/25) and Surrey Whiteware (MEL/13/29)) are exclusively associated with the manorial moated sites at Topcliffe and Flambards, and the higher status of these sites is also hinted at by finds of a 12th – 13th century arrowhead from Topcliffe and a pewter mirror case of similar date from Flambards (MEL/13/30).
This growth ceases in the late medieval period, although Meldreth does not appear to be as badly affected in this period of widespread demographic and settlement contraction as many settlements in the eastern region. The pattern at Meldreth seems to be one of thinning out of the settlement, rather than complete abandonment of some areas, although there is some indication that sites nearer the stream and at the southern end of the High Street are more seriously affected, but this to some extent reflects the abandonment of Flambards. Both this and the other manorial moated site of Topcliffe see a complete cessation of the pottery sequence by the end of the 14th century, and indeed these sites are amongst the most severely impacted of all. In contrast, at Chiswick and North End, the volume of pottery is greater for the late medieval period than the high medieval. In the post-medieval period, the test pit data indicates that Meldreth stagnated when compared with averages across the region, with the southern end of the settlement particularly badly affected.