The Pit Huts of London

The layers of sand, gravel and black horizon covering Southern England have blatantly baffled and befuddled Gradualist Geologists.


Similarly, the sand, gravel, brick earth and Saxon black earth encountered in the City of London have consistently confused and confounded the Gradualist Archaeologists.

Geology and Summary

The natural subsoil of this site comprised a mixture of brickearth and sand and gravel at a height of 9.50 m – 10 m above O.D.

The site, however, lay at the southern edge of the Taplow Terrace of the Thames, just south off which originally existed the steep slope down to the edge of the the Thames and the flood-plain terrace.

The first major use of the site seems to have been the extensive dumping of brickearth (Periods 1 and 2) in preparation for the construction of a stone building during the first century A.D. (Period 3).

Following the demolition of the building there seems to have been some extensive clearance of rubble from the site, which was in turn followed by the dumping of more brickearth (Period 4).

Excavations on the Site of St. Mildred’s Church, Bread Street, London, 1973-74
Peter Marsden, Tony Dyson and Michael Rhodes
London & Middlesex Archaeology Society – Volume 26 – 1975

Milk Street. TQ 3235 8124 (A Boddington, S. Roskams and J. Schofield).

Substantial wooden buildings of the late 1st century aligned on a road located on the west of the site were followed by several phases of subsequent building in the 2nd c., including a mosaic.

Both Boudiccan and Hadrianic fires were examined and traced over parts of the site.

The Saxon black earth above was carefully excavated and seems to be imported, perhaps for agriculture.

Excavation Round-up 1977 – Beth Richardson
London Archaeologist – Volume 03:06 – 1978

The sand, gravel, Saxon Special Deposits and Saxon Pit Huts found in Southern England have also been baffling and befuddling the Gradualist Archaeologists.

Another burial at Sutton Courtenay was deposited in a large pit nearly two metres in diameter. In it, the body of an adult female lay at a sharp angle, head downwards, with ‘arms half-outstretched . . . towards the remains . . . of an infant . . . Behind the woman’s head and over the body of the child there was a layer about six inches thick of earth and gravel which must have been stamped hard . . . Behind the woman’s head were three animal skulls, two oxen and a horse’.

‘Special Deposits’ in Anglo-Saxon Settlements – Helena Hamerow
Medieval Archaeology, 50, 2006


The Saxon settlement at Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire,” lies on a gravel terrace on the south side of the Thames.

The occupation was noted by chance in the face of a gravel-pit and reported to the Ashmolean Museum.

The remains discovered in the course of commercial gravel-digging were intermittently explored by the late E. T. Leeds between 1921 and 1937.

The Saxon House: A Review and Some Parallels – C. A. Ralegh Radford
Journal of The Society for Medieval Archaeology – Volume 1 – 1957

Leeds continued to excavate at this site during the 1920s and 1930s uncovering 33 dwellings, which are now known as sunken featured buildings or grubenhauser.

These are buildings with a floor sunk into the ground and wooden posts to support the roof.

The Anglo-Saxon Settlement At Sutton Courtenay
Ashmolean Museum – University of Oxford

What was the purpose of this deep basement-room?

At the time its meaning escaped me, but the interpretation of it and its contents was made perfectly clear by later local discoveries of an earlier at Dorchester, Oxfordshire.

In 1936, 1937, and 1938, three deep pits, similarly excavated into the gravel to water-level, came to light in Messrs. Allen & Son’s gravel pit in that parish.

A Saxon Village at Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire – Third Report
E. Thurlow Leeds
Archaeologia – Volume 92 – January 1947, pp. 79-93


Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Saxon Pit Huts in the City of London have consistently confused and confounded the Gradualist Archaeologists.

During the Saxon period a sunken hut was constructed and occupied (Period 5), this evidently being part of a development which has also been located on a nearby site.

The dedication suggests that the church of St. Mildred (Period 6) may have had a Saxon origin, but this was not supported by the limited archaeological evidence which favours the twelfth century.

Discussion: The Roman Phases 1-4

In phase 1 there is little evidence of human activity on the site prior to the dumping of the brickearth in phase 2, this presumably meaning that the dumping occurred fairly early during the Roman period, and presumably during the the first century A.D., as first century occupation has been found nearby.

The dumping itself occurred in two major layers, each deposit being of almost equal thickness though of different extent. Again, there is little sign of any significant land use or pause in the dumping process, suggesting that the dumping was a continuous process and that the land surface was raised in two levels.

Although the reason for the dumping is uncertain, it is significant that the Roman stone building of Period 3 lies directly on the dumped brickearth without any intervening deposit of occupation or other debris as might be expected had the dumping been for some purpose other than to form an elevated level base for the stone buildings.

Excavations on the Site of St. Mildred’s Church, Bread Street, London, 1973-74
Peter Marsden, Tony Dyson and Michael Rhodes
London & Middlesex Archaeology Society – Volume 26 – 1975

Excavations at Medieval Cripplegate, London
Gustav Milne – English Heritage – 2001

It’s also no surprise that one of the most honest descriptions of the Saxon Pit Huts found “3-5 feet deep below the existing gravel surface” in the City of London was penned by W.F. Grimes in 1968.

In the central part of the site a greater depth of artificial deposits remained.

There was no brickearth, possibly because it had been removed in antiquity.

The surface of the natural gravel lay 5-6 feet below the cellar floor and was cut into by pits of various kinds, but the biggest disturbance was an irregular excavation, over 40 feet long as revealed in the the cutting, and from 3-5 feet deep below the existing gravel surface.

This hollow was filled mixed deposits deliberately introduced and containing dark occupation material in irregular layers.

It is most probably to be explained as a Roman gravel pit. dug, no doubt, while this area was still outside the built-up extent of London.

More important that this, however, were two later cavities, both dug partly into the quarry-filling.

As they presented themselves in the section it was thought they might be hut-pits and this interpretation was in due course confirmed when the ground on each side of the original cutting was opened up.

In this summary account many details have been omitted, but enough has been said to make clear the general character of the structures represented by these remains.

They were rectangular huts sunk perhaps to at least half their total height into the ground, their roofs, presumably pitched, supported by remarkably large timber uprights.

The Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London
W.F. Grimes – 1968


Similarly, it’s no surprise W.F. Grimes concluded the Saxon Pit Huts in the City of London were created “at the extreme end of the Saxon period” whilst simultaneously noting they also represented the “earliest structural evidence for Saxon London”.

But while the relationships of the London hut-hollows appear to be clear enough their actual date is less easy to decide, at any rate until the evidence from the site can be subjected to a more detailed examination that it has yet received.

From at least one pit which was later than the second hut came pottery which, being of eleventh-century date, shows that the huts had been given up and were at least partly filled by early Norman times.

The Financial Times huts must therefore be regarded as of at least late Saxon date, even if at the extreme end of the Saxon period.

As such they constitute the earliest structural evidence for Saxon London on the secular side; though fairly certainly they must be the successors of earlier huts of similar type which have yet to be found.

The Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London
W.F. Grimes – 1968

In other words:

The Saxon Pit Huts are the beginning and the end of the mainstream Saxon Period.

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2 Responses to The Pit Huts of London

  1. carol smith says:

    brick earth is another term for loess. Loess deposits are commonly found along rivers and former river terraces. You can find it in the middle of Burnham Beeches in the middle of nowhere and Brentford’s market garden tradition was based on local brick earth. I assume brick earth in London had a similar source – unless you have evidence it was composed of old bricks.

    • malagabay says:

      Brickearth is one of those ambidextrous words:

      On the one hand I’ve encountered sources that use the term generally to refer to loess / wind-blown silt.

      Loess is a clastic, predominantly silt-sized sediment that is formed by the accumulation of wind-blown dust.

      On the other hand it specifically refers to a mixture of “chalk, clay, and iron” that is used for brickmaking with “little or no admixture”.

      There are extensive brickearth deposits in Kent, particularly on the North Downs dip slope and on the Hoo peninsula, sections of the Medway and Stour valleys.

      The mineral content is critical in brickmaking and requires precise proportions of chalk, clay, and iron.

      Brickearth requires little or no admixture of other materials to render it suitable for the manufacture of ‘stock bricks’.

      In 1986 there were 4 active stock brick works in Kent, at Otterham Quay, Funton, Murston and Ospringe.

      My interest is in the brickearth deposits that contain “chalk, clay, and iron”… or [as you say] “old bricks”.

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