‘It’s anyone’s guess as to what it was doing there’ - 7 treasures discovered in Suffolk and Norfolk
- Credit: Archant
From Roman statuettes to royal gold - four East Anglian archaeologists share some of their most interesting finds
Saturday July 11 marked the start of what would have been the Council for British Archaeology’s annual Festival of Archaeology. However, due to lockdown, the event will now be celebrating its 29th year via an online festival. To commemorate the occasion, we hone in a little closer to home, and uncover some of the historical gems that have been found right here in our very region.
Head to Suffolk, and there you will find Stour Valley Community Archaeology, a group of intrepid historians who came together around six years ago – and have already made an impressive selection of finds.
The group, which is open to people of all ages and abilities, says that no previous archaeological experience is necessary - ‘just a desire to discover, research and enjoy the fascinating archaeology of the beautiful landscape.’
David Orrell, chairman of Stour Valley Community Archaeology said: “The setting up of the group followed on from the excavation of a late Saxon/early Norman farm settlement outside of Bulmer, which was led by Carenza Lewis of Cambridge University, who also used to be part of Channel 4’s Time Team. The objective was to get everyone involved in the archaeology of their home area.
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“We’ve got around 30 members, but this will go up again when we restart, and membership ranges from family groups to active retirees who’ve got the time to dedicate mid-week.”
Over the last few years, the Stour Valley Community Archaeology group has been working hard carrying out excavations near Gestingthorpe, finding a large amount of animal bones and broken pottery in the process.
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“These date back to late Iron Age/early Roman period, in an area where flint cobbles have been manually laid down in a curving line.
“So far, we have excavated about 30 to 40 metres without finding an end in either direction. It would appear to be some kind of ritual site.”
While the group is still processing finds, its yet to make a decision on where to keep them.
“We’ve now got boxes and boxes of stuff, which all has to be marked with details of where and when it was found. Some we’ll keep to tell about our activities, but most pieces are so badly broken that they’re not really museum quality.”
In addition to a series of digs, the group has also been undertaking another project in the area.
“We have also carried out surveys of medieval graffiti in local churches, and programmes of test pit digging in local villages.”
Inspired by a project over in Norfolk, the medieval graffiti project is part of a wider community archaeological initiative, and aims to record and photograph the graffiti found in Stour Valley’s medieval churches.
“We heard about a historian, Matt Champion, who had done a study in this field and published a book on it.
“Matt visited us and did a demonstration in Clare church. We now submit our findings to a national database, which will join the growing data set of surveys inspired by the pioneering Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey.”
One particular design the group keeps uncovering in churches is a geometric ‘daisy’ pattern.
“It is one of the most common that we find. Although its meaning is not clear, it is obviously not idle scratching as a compass is required to make it.”
With a plethora of fascinating projects to keep Stour Valley Community Archaeology engrossed, the group has unfortunately had to put its programmes on hold due to lockdown.
“We’re waiting impatiently until it is safe to resume activities,” explained David.
“Many of our members are older and retired, so would be in the vulnerable group. We just don’t think a socially-distanced excavation is really practical.
“In any case, we’re on a hold with the site we’ve been excavating, as we have engaged a professional archaeologist to carry out a full site report.”
Elsewhere in Suffolk is the Long Melford Heritage Centre, another group of keen historians who have conducted a range of excavations in the local area. Housing their findings in a dedicated museum, the village’s long and rich history spans from pre-history to present day.
Long Melford Heritage Centre’s archeological dig director Kenneth Dodd said: “Over the past five years, our group of community members have been researching both stories of Long Melford families, together with investigating the ancient foundations of Long Melford’s beginnings through archaeology.”
The group has been utilising an array of techniques and resources in order to conduct research – including village archives, old maps, ground penetrating radars and aerial photography. “Members have been keen to prove interpretations of the evidence collected by excavation when possible,” Kenneth added.
“A number of excavations have taken place by commercial archaeological companies in Long Melford in response to planning requirements prior to housing developments. Although professional, their brief has often been limited, and as a result their findings are based on selective sampling.
“On the other hand, the Long Melford Heritage Centre archaeological group has the ability to conduct investigative archaeology without the constraints of fiscal and time limitations. Using the aforementioned methods, the group over recent years has added considerably to the knowledge of Roman Long Melford in particular.”
In 2018, the group partially excavated the remains of a Roman bath house – complete with bath that featured a mosaic base and a hypocaust room. “This has now become recognised as to being of national importance.”
Thanks to a drone survey, the team has recently conducted an excavation of a Roman road entering the Roman town, alongside the remains of a Roman building.
“The road itself had clearly been re-metaled twice in its life, and may prove to be a key East-West axis into the town, and possibly be the axis of a classic grid town planning system. All of this proves that Roman Long Melford was larger and of more importance than previously thought.
“Careful and meticulous hand excavation and sieving has retrieved several thousand sherds of Roman pottery, together with coins and domestic artefacts.”
Additional artefacts the team has uncovered include quern stones for grinding rye wheat, and hair and cloth pins made from bone, bronze and jet.
John Nunn, who runs the Long Melford Heritage Centre said: “In recent years, our team has also excavated an incredibly preserved Venus statuette. A volunteer was in the trench handing me the buckets of clay and soil when what appeared to be a lump of wet clay and chalk came out. I almost discarded it with the soil, but thought to break it into two – it was then apparent that it was in fact a statuette.
“The Venus statuette is important, as she was the favourite goddess of the Roman soldiers, and is usually found on military sites. It was made from pipe clay in central Gaul, France, in the first century AD.”
In the future, the Long Melford Heritage Centre hopes to conduct geophysics in the area, in order to confirm the existence of more buildings and roads through this Suffolk village.
Over in Norfolk is Dr Andrew Rogerson, an archaeologist who specialises in post-Roman settlements and has been residing in the region for nearly five decades. With many fascinating digs under his belt, he shares some of his most interesting finds – and how he managed to get one Norfolk town a moment in the spotlight over twenty years ago.
“I graduated from the University of Liverpool in 1970, and came to work in Norfolk full-time three years later,” he said.
“With four other people, I helped found the Norfolk Archaeological Unit, which was only the second archaeological organisation in the country to be set up to look after the archaeology of one county. The advantage of staying in one area is that you get to know it a lot better.”
Just a year later, in 1974, Andrew led an excavation in Great Yarmouth that saw him uncover an impressive collection of fishbones dating back to around the 11th century.
“The site of what was to become Great Yarmouth lay in the mouth of a big estuary in the Roman period, but then a sand bank grew across the estuary, as a result of natural longshore drift.
“Eventually, in the year AD 1000 or so, fishermen started spending some of the year on the sandbank. Where legend had it that the fishermen first settled, Lacons Brewery was built hundreds of years later. When it had been knocked down, we excavated before development and managed to reach the earliest layer human occupation. It was there and in layers above running up to AD 1300 that we found loads of fishbones.”
Also uncovered in this excavation were fish drying ovens, clay floors, remains of flimsy wooden hut walls, fish hooks and weights. “It was the biggest collection of archaeologically-recovered fishbones in the country at the time.”
Fast forward to 25 years later, and archaeological endeavours here in East Anglia caught the eye of Channel 4’s Time Team. An archaeologist’s dream. So how did Andrew’s stint on television come to fruition?
“Time Team first approached me about a site in Thetford, now the Grammar School - but before that it was a friary, before that a monastery, before that the cathedral of East Anglia and before that it was a church. After the Thetford excavation in 1998 had proved such a success, Time Team decided to look at another Saxon site in East Anglia.
“Firstly, it had to be something that was of potential Saxon importance, and secondly it had to be a site where little work had so far been done and which archaeologists wanted to know much more about. In the end, it was Time Team’s Mick Aston who said ‘let’s try Bawsey’ – and that’s how it started.”
Prior to the Time Team excavation in the summer of 1998, Bawsey had been associated with a number of significant metal detector finds.
“There had been lots of archaeological stealing too, nighthawking, which ended up with someone going to prison. The site was quite well-known, and we had lost some information from the illegal behaviour that had taken place.”
Accompanying Andrew on the Bawsey excavation was pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn, osteoarchaeologist Margaret Cox, historian John Blair, Helen Geake, Neil Holbrook, Sandi Toksvig and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall alongside presenter Tony Robinson and archaeologist Mick Aston.
“The artefacts from the excavations were not particularly stunning – as the area covered was very small and most of the spectacular finds had been made sometime before through metal detecting. But we did find a couple of interesting items.”
On the episode, the team had uncovered an assortment of finds including an arrowhead dating back to the Bronze Age, coins, a medieval tiled floor, areas of non-ferrous metalworking and several human burials, two of which dated to the 8th or 9th century.
One skeleton was of a young to middle-aged male who had died from sword cuts to the body and head, and another was of an adult female who, following a blade wound to the skull, had been unsuccessfully treated with trepanation, the partial removal of bone to relieve pressure.
“The site was in a quite a good condition, and we recorded quite a lot of in-position archaeological evidence to go with the many individual finds made previously, none of which had been found in undisturbed contexts.
“It was all very successful, and it only took a few days - well, the Time Team idea of three days,” Andrew added.
After the show, the Time Team findings were put to good use – as they were later documented and published.
“We tried to make sure that the stuff we uncovered ended up in an archaeological journal or book. In this case we have to thank a colleague of mine, Tim Pestell of Norwich Castle Museum.”
Before retirement, Andrew left the field behind him and began to analyse and record finds that others had dug up and brought to him.
“I’ve identified and recorded thousands of objects found by other archaeologists and metal detectorists, and was doing this from about the year 2000 until I retired in 2017. Occasionally, I was confronted by some very special things.”
For instance, one metal detector enthusiast had brought Andrew some gold torcs that had been found in a field in Snettisham, where nothing had been discovered for the previous 20 to 30 years. Dubbed the Snettisham Hoard, the majority of these torcs are now on display in the British Museum and Norwich Castle.
“However, the most extraordinary artefact brought to me was a little gold seal matrix found in a field at Postwick. It was double-sided and had a swivelling piece in the middle, which showed that it had been part of a finger ring.”
That incredible find later turned out to be the Balthild Seal Matrix, a gold signet ring that had probably belonged to Balthild, wife of Clovis II and queen consort of Burgundy and Neustria back in the 7th century.
“It had her name on it, and only persons of very high status wore gold signet rings at that time. It’s anyone’s guess as to what it was doing there,” added Andrew.