Leading archaeologist retires

By James MortlockFOR Stanley West, archaeology has always been more than the painstaking scraping away of layer upon layer of history to piece together the past.

By James Mortlock

FOR Stanley West, archaeology has always been more than the painstaking scraping away of layer upon layer of history to piece together the past.

The eminent archaeologist, who marked his retirement from the Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow yesterday with a farewell party, was fascinated by the struggle faced by the people of the time and used what he found to build up a picture of their life.

Dr West, who led the reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon village using the archaeological finds of the 1950s and 1960s as a guide, said: "We're talking about people and their struggles - not just artefacts. I had the opportunity to bring our Anglo-Saxon forebears into focus from the fifth Century AD.

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"We're dealing with the aspirations and struggles of these people - how they set up home in the first place and succeeded. It was their economic drive and success which led to the setting up of the East Anglian kingdom and the royal house which is illustrated by Sutton Hoo.

"These people had enormous impact on history and that has been well worth recording. It's been a privilege to have had such a hand in it."

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Dr West, who has retired to move to Gloucester to be closer to his family, became renowned when he oversaw the excavation of the Suffolk site and began to put forward ground-breaking theories on Anglo-Saxon architecture.

He was inspired by a kindred spirit in the shape of Basil Brown, the man who unearthed the Sutton Hoo burial ship.

"I was first introduced to the Anglo-Saxons by Basil Brown and he inspired me. He was one of the great indefatigable enthusiasts who raised people's interest," said Dr West.

"The site at West Stow was a sewage farm and as loads were shifted pottery was found and Basil identified it as Anglo-Saxon. The site was quite clearly a settlement, not a graveyard, where the majority of archaeology had concentrated in the past."

So began an annual three-month dig at the site that went on for seven years, during which time the remains of almost 70 homes were uncovered and Dr West began to develop ideas that had not been considered before.

It was widely believed that the Anglo-Saxons lived below ground level, but the archaeologist found evidence suggesting their homes were far more similar to our own.

They did have a storage pit below ground level, but it was beneath a floor and walls of oak and the homes were thatched with reed or sedge.

In 1973, thanks to the help from the local authority, Dr West began his historic reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon village at West Row and selected a typical group of five or six "family unit" homes around a more significant hall-style building as the basis for the work.

Funded with an initial £1,000 from the local council, Dr West started a project that is still the only one of its kind in the world.

He praised the council, now St Edmundsbury Borough Council, for its continued support and added: "They have been absolutely marvellous. They have supported the development which is remarkably special - we have a unique site here."

Terry Clements, the council's cabinet member for sport and leisure, said the area had much to be grateful for, thanks to the work of Dr West.

"His inspired interpretation of the West Stow evidence has made an enormous contribution to the understanding of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and the way they lived here in East Anglia around 1,500 years ago," he added.

"His work as a member of the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village Trust over the past 30 years has been invaluable. The village is now one of the UK's most highly-regarded archaeological sites, but without Dr West's contribution, the reconstructed village wouldn't exist."

Dr West, who was born in Canada to parents from Suffolk who returned to the county shortly after his birth, was modest about his achievement, but said he would miss the village.

"I will miss it hugely - it's a very emotive subject for me. I have put a lot of myself into it, but I have been well rewarded," he added.

"I put my ideas into practice, which is not normal for archaeologists. But I have been at it for nearly 57 years and it's time to go. There were Saxons in Gloucestershire, though, so watch out."


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