Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Archaeology of Orpington.
by John Parsons.

This year the Orpington Historical Society celebrates its coming of age and being one of its original members I thought perhaps people might be interested in an article on the 'Archaeology of Orpington'.

Orpington has an important position in Kentish archaeology, indeed, in British archaeology, because it is one of the few places in the country which has reported relics of man's ancestry throughout his whole archaeological existence. Many examples of their earliest industries have been found in the Orpington area. I refer to the presence of Palaeolithic tools such as stone axes discovered in the district. A hoard of such axes was unearthed on the Ramsden School site in 1956 and is reported in Arch. Cant. Vol. LXXI (1958) Pages 194-97. Indeed it was the 'Axe Age' when man manufactured these tools for the first time 'en mass' and so took his initial step into the Industrial Revolution that divided him from the animal world. It was with such tools that early man made other tools, built dwellings and cleared areas of forest -- besides defending himself.

The next archaeological period was the 'Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age'. It was at the Well Hill mesolithic site, Chelsfield, that the Orpington Historical Society conducted its first archaeological excavations in 1949. These found many minute flint implements on the hill top suggesting at least a sizable community there at circa 7,000 B.C. The President of our Society, Alderman E C H Jones, CBE, BSc, FRAl, has published a report on the site in Arch. Cant. Vol. LXV (1952) Pages 174-78.

The 'Neolithic or New Stone Age' at Orpington is again represented by flint axes, but in this case beautifully shaped and polished specimens. It is interesting to note that under the foundations of the Orpington Roman Villa, (excavated by the Society in 1952-57), were discovered traces of Neolithic occupational debris showing that this site had a long sequence of habitation. Arch. Cant. Vol. LXXI (1957) P. XIVI.

The 'Bronze Age' is represented by a unique site of a late Bronze Age settlement at Broomwood, St Paul's Cray, where a small domestic farmstead once existed on the spot now occupied by the recently built church of St Barnabas. Arch. Cant. Vol. LXXVI (1961) Pages 134-142.

The next archaeological period was that of the 'Iron Age' and again Orpington, at its Ramsden School site, produced evidence of an extensive settlement with encircling earthworks, bag shaped storage pits and drainage ditches being typical features of this period. Arch. Cant. Vol. LXXI (1957) P. XIVII

PHOTO:Orpington Roman Villa Excavations in 1957

Photo Caption: Figure 1. Orpington Roman Villa Archaeological Excavations -- 1957.

In 'Roman' times Orpington was very prosperous with several Roman Villas and other settlements within its present-day boundaries. Near the railway station stood a fine villa with mosaic pavements, heated baths and other refinements of that classical age. Unfortunately, most of the villa was destroyed during the building of the railway, council offices and roadways. The Orpington Historical Society managed to excavate the remaining portion of the villa under my direction in 1952-57 and detailed information on the history of the site was obtained. Arch. Cant. Vol. LXXI (1957) P. XIVI. We found for instance, that the roof of the villa overhung the walls by at least six inches because a line of rain-washed pebbles was found at this distance from the walls at Roman ground level. We noticed also that the walls were built upon foundations of crushed chalk which appeared to have been used in lieu of a damp course. (A similar damp course is evident in the large villa at South Darenth in the Darent Valley). The occupation of the Orpington Villa lasted at least until circa AD 405, judging by a coin of Arcadius found in situ in the final filling of a rubbish pit.

The 'Saxons' remained in Orpington as is evident by the cemetery recently discovered at Bellefield Road. These people were pagans judging by the many grave goods found during investigation by the Orpington Museum authorities. Later Christian Saxons erected the first church at Orpington on the site of the present parish church of All Saints. Foundations of the Saxon church were found, built with Roman tiles, during an examination of the present church in the last century. Following an extension to the church in 1954, an inscribed Saxon sundial was discovered and has been placed on permanent display in the church.

The 'Normans' came to Orpington if only to rebuild the parish church in their own individual style. Certainly Orpington at the time of Domesday was a large district divided into two sections, Greater and Little Orpington, indicating an increasing population. Although we have yet to excavate a Norman homestead, the sites are known as place-names in early records.

There is little archaeological evidence for 'Medieval' Orpington although a few fragments of pottery were recovered from the Priory and Barkhart excavations. Incidently, the early medieval pottery found under the Tudor foundations of the Barkhart Mansion during the excavations in 1956, was in association with the remains of a small hut, together with two circular smelting furnaces for lead, probably used by workmen re-leading the church windows of the adjoining All Saints during the period AD 1275-1300. The remains of the historical mansion of Barkhart together with. many other fine houses have been savagely destroyed during the past twenty or thirty years of 'progress', although some of them had stood solidly for the last 400 years. Their remains are now but a faded photograph, or some description in an ancient deed -- a most regrettable state of affairs.

It is hoped that during the next twenty-one years of the Orpington Historical Society's existence, it will exert a more powerful influence on individuals and local authorities to record and preserve the little that remains to us of ancient Orpington. In this respect I would draw the reader's attention to the effort now being made to prevent the demolition of the ancient Priory Gatehouse by the London Borough of Bromley. It was through this gateway (now locked and barred to us) that some of the most notable men in Kent passed -- Bancrofts, Sandys Spencer to mention just a few.

In this article I have endeavoured to show the depth of Orpington's history. How many other places can show a sequence of occupation from Palaeolithic times?

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