This post was first published by Croydon Advertiser on 06/08/2017.
The eight most important archaeological sites in Croydon and what’s been found at them
With its concrete towers, maze of roads and busy urban setting, it’s easy to forget that Croydon has a hugely rich history, the evidence of which is often buried under our very feet.
In fact, Croydon contains a wealth of secrets buried, only some of which have been uncovered so far. And the history of the borough goes back tens of thousands of years, with archaeological evidence showing the area has been occupied ever since the Stone Age.
Historic England has identified eight places as the most significant archaeological sites across Croydon – those where the most important finds have been made, or are likely to be made.
They include Stone Age huts, Anglo-Saxon burial grounds, an RAF base and even a medieval mansion complete with moats.
What historic treasures have been found in your neighbourhood? Find out below.
Croham Hurst Round Barrow
Hidden among the trees of Croham Hurst is one of the oldest confirmed sites of human habitation in the borough.
The prehistoric burial mound in South Croydon is thought to date between 2200BC and 1500BC, and though it was identified in the 1940s, it has never been thoroughly investigated and archaeologists aren’t sure how many burials are within it.
Historic England now says an investigation would damage the site.
Even more interestingly, nearby are five rectangular enclosures, which an archaeological dig uncovered, are the remains of huts that mean the site has been tentatively dated to the late Mesolithic – Stone Age – period because, although lots of flints have been found, no pottery has.
The huts seem to have had turf walls and posts to hold up a roof and fire pits, and archaeologists uncovered a huge amount of flints in the late 1960s, including some worked into tools like axes, scrapers, awls, burins and arrowheads.
However, there is some controversy about the dating of the huts, since a sample of charcoal from a fire there was dated to the 9th century, though it may have been contaminated. If the site is Mesolithic, it would be one of just a handful in England.
Riddlesdown – the Newe Ditch and Anglo-Saxon burials
The Newe Ditch is a mysterious feature on Riddlesdown Common which may be from the Bronze Age.
Archaeologists are unsure exactly what the long ditch was for, but think it could have been an enclosure for a nearby settlement or could be a territorial boundary marker, as it would not have been high enough to serve as a defensive wall.
When houses on Mitchley Avenue and Riddlesdown Road were built in the 1920s, at least eight skeletons were found, along with a knife dated to the Saxon period.
Three more burials were found in the garden of a house on Riddlesdown Road, while in April 2014 a number of human bones were found under the driveway of a house in the same street while the family were away on holiday.
They have since been radiocarbon dated to between 670 and 775AD, firmly within the Anglo-Saxon era, and are now on display at the Museum of Croydon at the Central Library in Katharine Street.
As a result of all the recovered skeletons, Historic England believes an Anglo-Saxon cemetery was located in the area of Riddlesdown Road, though they’re not sure how big it was.
The ridge that projects from the North Downs has been found to contain flints from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, as well as Bronze Age and Roman pottery fragments, axes and a razor.
Archaeologists have also identified a field system typical of the Romano-British era on the downs; and a large amount of pottery from between the 1st Century BC and the mid 2nd century AD supports the idea that it was used for farming.
Just over a dozen Anglo-Saxon burial mounds are located on the downs, and as well as skeletons, grave goods including silver pins, a knife blade, an iron spear, a bucket, a gold medallion, a bronze buckle and a drinking cup were found in them.
In one of the barrows, the skeleton of a 6ft 5in tall man was found with an iron sword and an iron shield boss, which archaeologists believe mean he was possiblY a local leader or man of importance.
The grave goods date to the 7th century, and because such impressive finds were found in a relatively low number of barrows, they believe only people of high rank in the local society were buried on Farthing Downs at the time.
According to Historic England it is possible they could have been local leaders from the Old Coulsdon area, which is mentioned in a charter dating from the late 7th or early 8th century.
Six other graves were found away from the barrows, including the burial sites of children.
Three of the graves contained children thought to have died at about two years old, with a small iron spear found in one of the graves.
Another contained the body of a young man, a 12-year-old boy and a middle aged woman who is thought to have been thrown into the grave after the other two burials were laid there.
Items including pins, beads, a comb, shears, iron knives and another miniature spear allowed the graves to be dated to the mid 7th century.
Archaeologists believe that because the burials were not placed in barrows, they were of a different social status.
A more modern archaeological feature of note is a series of anti-glider ditches that were dug across the downs in an effort to prevent German glider landings in the event of an invasion during the Second World War.
Lion Green Road
Lion Green Road in Coulsdon is one of the more recent sites to have been excavated, as the Museum of London carried out a dig on the site in 2015 when it was closed ahead of the scrapped plans to build a supermarket on the car park.
Skeletons with grave goods thought to be from the Anglo-Saxon period were first found on the site in the Victorian era, and since then iron knives thought to date to the 6th and 7th centuries have been found too.
As well as more skeletons, the 2015 dig found two postholes and a pit that archaeologists believe could mean some kind of settlement was built near the cemetery, but more digs would be needed to confirm that hypothesis.
The old railway bank to the west of the car park is also of archaeological significance as it was built as part of the Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway – an extension of the Surrey Iron Railway – built between 1803 and 1805.
Park Lane Anglo-Saxon cemetery
When Edridge Road was being built in 1893 and 1894, workmen uncovered several graves and about 100 objects, including weapons, jewellery, buckets, tools and cremation urns.
Sadly, many of those finds have been lost and were not well documented, but it is thought that well over 100 burials were discovered in the area of the road.
Excavations in the 1990s and at the turn on the millennium, before the block of flats at 82 Park Lane were built, found more than 50 burials, including inhumations and cremations, as well as weapons, jewellery and even a bronze bowl filled with hazelnuts.
Because of the significance of the site, a public inquiry in 1995 decided that steps had to be taken to protect any other burials on the site that might be found in the future, before a car park was built at the back of flats on Park Lane.
As well as the large number of Anglo-Saxon burials – dating between the 5th and early 7th centuries – archaeologists uncovered a coffin from the Roman era, suggesting the cemetery was used right through the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon eras.
Altogether, it is thought that as many as 350 burials may have taken place on the site, but it is still unknown how far it extends to the north and west.
Historic England says the site, which is of “national importance”, could help provide detailed information about whether the people living in Croydon in the early Anglo-Saxon era were part of the early Germanic migrations into Britain, if more digs were to take place in the future.
Russell Hill, Purley
The south side of Russell Hill would have been a good site of prehistoric settlement because the view along the valley below from its summit, and a number of prehistoric finds dating from the Stone Age to the Bronze age, have been found there.
Among those discoveries are pottery fragments, tools and weapons.
When the Royal Warehousemen’s Clerks and Drapers School – now Thomas More Catholic School – was built, several skeletons were found, while even more were uncovered when Pampisford Road was built.
Burials have also been found near the junction of Pampisford Road and Purley Way, and it is estimated that there are more than 100 burials in the Russell Hill area.
It is possible that many of the graves found in the area date from the late Anglo-Saxon period, once the area was Christianised, which could account for why relatively few grave goods have been found with the burials.
An excavation nearby at Thomas More School in 2001 found the remains of a ditch that was thought to be part of a ring surrounding a burial mound, but archaeologists aren’t sure whether the mound would have been from the early Bronze Age or Saxon periods.
The site is also close to the Mere Bank, a late Bronze Age bank that is thought to have denoted a boundary that ran from Purley up towards Croydon Airport.
Parts of the bank were flattened during the construction of the airport, and historians believe any possible cemetery on the site could have been a Bronze Age burial ground that was reused by the Anglo-Saxons hundreds of years later.
Medieval mansion at South Norwood Country Park
A medieval mansion, complete with two moats surrounding the house, was built within the site that now makes up South Norwood Country Park in the second half of the 13th century.
The house was built on a gravel platform and the moats are thought to have been a feature to bring prestige to the occupant, as well as safety.
The house is thought to be documented in a deed relating to the grant of a house and 20 acres of land to Robert de Retford, who was an itinerant judge for the king between 1296 and 1318 (during the reigns of Edward I and II).
A 1496 deed mentions the moat and gardens, but not the house which has led historians to believe the house had been demolished by then, which may be because the area was prone to flooding.
In the 17th century, the moats were re-cut, while oak trees were planted over the site. But 200 years later, an OS map of 1894 shows the moats had been infilled and the site levelled, after it was redeveloped for use as the South Norwood Sewage Farm.
After the closure of the sewage farm, an archaeological dig in 1972 found medieval pottery fragments suggesting a wealthy family had lived on the site.
Timbers from bridges crossing the moats were also found as well as tiles and dressed stone.
Though not as old as the other sites, Historic England has designated the former Battle of Britain base as one of the most important historical sites in Croydon because it is thought to be the best-preserved Second World War air base in London and the South East.
The site was requisitioned by the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and was used for assembling and testing aircraft.
Though many of the ancillary buildings for the airfield have now been demolished, the Grade II listed officers’ mess and Naval Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) building are still standing.
Other historically significant parts of the site include the concrete runways, perimeter track and fighter pens which were all constructed shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939.
All but one of the fighter pens, designed to protect planes from bomb damage, while also housing an air raid shelter for ground crew, are still standing and are protected as Scheduled Monuments.
According to Historic England, the officers’ mess still has a number of battle scars sustained during a major German air raid on August 18, 1940, in which 10 people were killed and several aircraft and hangars were destroyed.
Kenley remained as an operational airfield until 1978, and several of the buildings, including most of the perimeter pill boxes, were removed.
But there remains a rifle range, one perimeter pill box and the remains of pop-up machine gun emplacements called Pickett-Hamilton forts are still near the runways.
Kenley remains as one of the best-preserved Second World War air bases in London because so many others have been redeveloped, like Croydon Airport, while many have remained as airfields and so have been modernised, like nearby Biggin Hill.
A report by Historic England said: “The survival of so many wartime features at Kenley provides a clear link with its wartime past. No other Battle of Britain airfield in Greater London or the South East has retained as many Second World War features.”