Digging begins in a bid to uncover Suffolk’s ‘lost city’
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
A new dig in Dunwich is hoping to reveal all the secrets of Suffolk’s lost city.
A community archaeology project is starting to shed new light on one of East Anglia’s most compelling stories of colossal coastal change – the medieval decline of Dunwich from a proud, internationally important port to a place of abandonment and abject poverty.
Most of Suffolk’s famous “lost city” lies beneath the sea and sediment up to a kilometre offshore from the now much-loved remnant hamlet that Dunwich has become.
Divers using hi-tech techniques have carried out seabed studies in recent years and now Access Cambridge Archaeology, part of the University of Cambridge’s Division of Archaeology, is undertaking a nine-day dig at sites around the hamlet. It is hoped that centuries-old secrets that help tell the true story of the major port’s fall from grace will be revealed and that members of the existing local community will be involved and inspired to learn more about their area’s extraordinary history.
The dig is being funded to the tune of £15,000 by Touching the Tide, the Suffolk coast’s Heritage Lottery Funded Landscape Partnership Scheme, and is being carried out in conjunction with Dunwich Museum and the Dunwich Greyfriars Trust.
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Touching the Tide (TtT) project manager Bill Jenman said the dig, which ends on Tuesday, fitted perfectly with TtT’s exploration of the many aspects of coastal change.
“The story of Dunwich is a classic one as far as coastal change goes but most people’s understanding of that story is framed by a few photos taken between the late 19th Century and about 1913 of All Saints’ Church on the cliff edge before it went over,” said Mr Jenman.
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“That gives them the perception that the story is all about coastal erosion but before that time, at the tail end of the 1200s and into the 1300s, there were massive storm surges that had massive effects. Dunwich then had a population of about 4,000 people and 400 houses would have gone in just one night of a sea surge. Over time the harbour was blocked by shingle and silted up – the whole economic rationale for Dunwich’s existence was gradually lost.
“It is a classic example of coastal change, but it wasn’t just down to erosion. Dunwich declined with abandoned houses, lots of poverty and probably lawlessness. It happened at a time of unstable climate and unstable climate means massive storms – maybe that is something that has a resonance for us today.”
The dig’s lead archaeologist, Dr Carenza Lewis, said four trenches were being worked by the dig team. One, adjacent to the hamlet’s main beach car park, was near the site of a medieval monastic hospital on the old harbour edge. It was possible a harbour revetment had been built and backfilled by rubbish.
“As archaeologists we love rubbish as it can be a fantastic sample of everything that was being used at the time,” she said.
Other trenches were being worked on a clifftop area outside the Greyfriars friary precinct walls, in an area between Greyfriars and St James’ Street and at a site along a medieval continuation of the street.
Finds so far have included a medieval glazed and decorated floor tile and a roof tile, said Dr Lewis. “We are doing well on finds – we are getting more than I would have expected from relatively small trenches dug by hand,” she added.
Daily summaries about the dig are being given at the beach car park at 3pm and an open day giving full information about it will be held on Saturday, from 10am to 4pm.