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Oldest Roman irrigation system in Britain

Archaeologists uncover oldest Roman irrigation system in Britain


Excavations at a £1 billion housing development site at Cambridge University in England have revealed what archaeologists believe is Britain’s oldest-known Roman irrigation system.

In addition to evidence of settlements from as early as 2800 BC, and artefacts from the Bronze Age and Iron Age, archaeologists also unearthed planting beds and pit wells, dated between 70 AD and 120 AD, which appear to have formed part of an ancient irrigation system. Researchers believe that the beds would have been used to grow grapes for wine, or asparagus.

Chris Evans from the university's archaeological unit described the finding as an "unparalleled discovery" and "effectively the first irrigation system we've seen" [in Cambridge].

The Roman planting beds have been described as “zebra-like stripes” that are surrounded on their higher northern site by deep pit wells. Mr Evans explained that during dry spells, water would have been poured from the wells into the ditches to irrigate crops.

I'm not aware of an irrigation system of this kind before… There has been evidence of gardens and wells, but the extent to which there are planting beds arranged in parallel and along a slope, connecting directly to a water source, is new territory,” he said. "It points to the sophisticated knowledge of hydrology and the introduction of horticulture the Romans had.

It is unclear what this finding means for the planned development of 3,000 homes and accommodation for 2,000 postgraduate students, together with research and community facilities.  Excavations are currently continuing at the 370-acre dig site, and more findings may be yet to come.

Featured image: The newly discovered Roman irrigation system. Photo credit: Dave Webb

By April Holloway

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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