Windfarm cable archeological dig unearths fascinating clues to our past
- Credit: Tom Potter
Archaeologists are unearthing the secrets of our past, before a modern engineering feat arrives to change the future.
The burial of cable along 37km of the Suffolk landscape will propel construction on one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms.
But first, evidence of life during Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval times is being exhumed.
So far, discoveries have included fragments of bronze age cooking pots, a belt buckle from the 10th or 11th century, a wind instrument carved from bone, evidence of defences dug to repel Viking invaders, and parts of 13th century green-glazed face jugs, probably made near King’s Lynn.
Discoveries at one of the sites, just north of Ipswich, indicate a riverside settlement between the Anglo-Saxon to high medieval era.
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Dr Richard Newman, post-excavation manager at Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, said: “We already know there were later medieval settlements in the area, due to the presence of surviving churches from the period.
“But why put a settlement where it’s likely to flood? The reason, we think, is that they wanted to be close to the river; that there was something here to do with milling. In fact, we found a millstone, and presume this could be where the miller lived.
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“The earlier stuff is more difficult to understand. There was clearly a bit of quarrying, and maybe fishing, or fish processing.
“These weren’t isolated people. The millstone we found was made from the lava quarries in the Eifel region of Germany.
“Suffolk would have been one of the most densely populated places in the country. There was intensive land use and an internal trading network, even as far back as the Anglo-Saxon period.
“At another site, we found huge ditches, more than two-metres deep, which would have created a massive barrier to movement. This wasn’t just a hedgerow ditch; this was massive. It must have been defensive – and was likely to be from the Viking wars.”
So far, Dr Newman’s favourite find has been a silver buckle, bearing two dragon heads and an ornate pin in the shape of a sword. It was unearthed during a metal detecting survey before digging began, on a site thick with colluvium and alluvium – material deposited by centuries of flooding – mainly from the river.
“It’s in such good condition, it could have been made yesterday, but probably dates back to the 10th or 11th century,” he said.
“I suspect it may have kept a scabbard in place.”
The project will result in a large archive, to be analysed before the records and finds are eventually stored by Suffolk County Council.
Environment chief, Matthew Hicks called the project a great example of partnership working.
“It has been a logistically challenging project, with so many sites and people involved, but everyone has pulled together to deliver a successful dig,” he said.
“Once the full reports have been produced we plan to make the artefacts available to local museums, giving people across the region and beyond a chance to interact with important features from Suffolk’s past.”
Dr Newman added: “Although people are naturally concerned about the impact of development, there are now requirements for archaeology to be carried out.
“Before it was a requirement, vast swathes of our heritage were undoubtedly lost.
“Before we got to this stage, a massive geophysical survey was undertaken along the route. We looked at maps, the Domesday Book, historic records, past finds, aerial photography, LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and stuff like Google satellite maps.
“Afterwards, almost 500 evaluation trenches were dug.”
As an agricultural county, Suffolk has long been subject to deep ploughing. On heavily ploughed fields, treasures are generally found in the dug soil – one of the reasons Suffolk is so popular among metal detectorists.
One dig site, divided by a road, held evidence of Saxon settlement on the side left as heathland, but nothing of interest on the adjacent ploughed field.
However, the site north of Ipswich has gone largely unploughed, meaning finds can be associated with structures and accurately dated.
Gavin Davis, fieldwork manager at John Moore Heritage Services, said: “The topsoil and subsoil tend to be removed by machine. Then we get to overburden lying on top foundations, which would have been covered by a timber structure. So, we have a building on mortar foundations, and have found evidence of an oven, as well as a corn drier and a millstone.
“From our environmental samples, we may also identify the type of grain used.”
The dig is one of the largest in Europe – at various points within 60 hectares of land, involving 400 archaeologists and 20 Ipswich and District Detector Club members.
Wardell Armstrong was commissioned for the dig by ScottishPower Renewables, ahead of work to lay cables connecting the 102-turbine East Anglia ONE windfarm to an electricity converter station at Bramford.
When operational in 2020, the offshore windfarm will have capacity to power almost 600,000 homes.
The cable laying begins in the next few months. Offshore work starts in 2018, with the turbines installed in 2019.
Joanna Young, from ScottishPower Renewables, said: “We decided early on to invest in underground cables to take power from the offshore windfarm to the National Grid, rather than building pylons.
“We need to make sure that we do this work in a sensitive manner, and it is important to record all items of archaeological significance.”