MICKELGATE, York, England – The Council for British Archaeology’s (CBA) annual Festival of Archaeology has gone online this year, in common with many other events, and archaeologists have been discussing their finds in Suffolk, the eastern part of the British Isles.
Suffolk takes its name from the Anglo-Saxons: it was populated by the “south folk,” following the occupation of this part of the country by the Romanized tribe of the Iceni, famous for its warrior queen, Boudicca (the “north folk” moved to Norfolk). The Saxons moved in after the Iceni lost domination of the area, bringing their language and customs with them.
Apart from their descendants, they left many traces of their presence, ranging from swords and axes to the magnificent ship burial at Sutton Hoo, probably the burial place of Saxon king Rædwald (if you’re interested in Sutton Hoo, then check out the forthcoming Netflix film The Dig, which features Ralph Fiennes as self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown).
The CBA’s Festival this year has featured the Stour Valley Community Archaeology group, who have been carrying out excavations near Gestingthorpe on a site which is likely to be a “ritual site,” which become something of a default term for anything that archaeologists can’t readily place, but in this instance it appears, thus far, to be accurate. Like Basil Brown of Sutton Hoo, the group is composed of enthusiastic amateur historians.
Chair David Orrell 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.”
Community archaeology is not just about digging on sites: it uses a variety of resources and techniques, including old maps, village archives, ground penetrating radar and aerial/drone photography. The increasing sophistication of the technology involved in modern archaeology has resulted in some remarkable discoveries, as recently seen in the case of the shafts found in the area surrounding Stonehenge and the use of drones to identify “parch marks” in heatwaves, not to mention some significant drone-based discoveries in Ireland.
In Suffolk, the Long Melford Heritage Centre archaeological group has been excavating a Roman bath-house and now a Roman road.
John Nunn, who runs the Heritage Centre, explained one of the recent finds, “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.”
Metal detectorists have also contributed to Suffolk discoveries. Dr Andrew Rogerson comments during the festival on the Snettisham Hoard, a collection of golden torcs 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,” Rogerson said.
This was the Balthild Seal Matrix, a gold signet ring probably belonging to the 7th-century queen Balthild, wife of Clovis II, and queen consort of Burgundy and Neustria.
However, more generally, police have asked communities to keep an eye out for illegal metal detecting, which hinders the archaeological process, unlike the valuable work of the community groups above.
The police appeal follows thefts from the Roman monument in the area close to the Military Road in Northumberland. An arrest has been made. Sgt Ian Pattison said: “We have been working with Historic England and Northumberland National Park Authority over the past few years and recently they have seen an increase of illegal metal detecting of ancient monuments.”
Don O’Meara from Historic England is quoted as saying, “The theft of archaeological material poses one of the biggest threats to our shared heritage. As well as damaging protected archaeological monuments and being theft from the landowner, it robs us all of the understanding of our past that these finds could bring.”
Stonehenge tunnel delays
The Wild Hunt regularly gives updates on the Stonehenge tunnel project, which was greenlighted at the start of 2020 by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, but which has recently been held up due to new discoveries in the area.
The discovery of the shafts around the site, possibly serving as a boundary to a sacred enclosure, requires extensive further investigation as the previously undetected monuments will shed valuable light on the area, as the ancient site continues to give up its secrets.
This could be good news, therefore, for the Stonehenge Alliance, who oppose the tunnel plans and who have mustered over 50,000 signatures on a petition. They say that the tunnel needs to be deeper and more extensive, and that “Anything shorter would cause irreparable damage to this landscape, in breach of the World Heritage Convention.”
Salisbury MP John Glen said, “I’m still optimistic that we will get to the final green light in November. I regret the delay but we’ve got to do these things properly.”
TWH will continue to follow and report on any new developments, both archaeological and in relation to the ongoing changes to the henge area.