Digging the dirt on archaeology in East Anglia

Sutton Hoo burial mound at sunrise

One of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time, took place at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. With the release of the Netflix film, The Dig, we asked our team of archaeologists to dig the dirt on the true story behind the incredible discovery, as well as their ongoing detective work in the East…

Sutton Hoo’s Anglo-Saxon ship burial

The impressive sculpture of the helmet at Sutton Hoo

England’s greatest treasure

In 1939, with the Second World War looming, self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown, made a discovery at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk that would revolutionise our understanding of early English history. It was an Anglo-Saxon ship burial with the most extraordinary treasures, including a helmet that remains one of the most important Anglo-Saxon finds of all time.

Sutton Hoo burial mounds in the mist

Long lost secrets revealed

The discovery at Sutton Hoo not only stunned the archaeology world, but it set the scene for further exploration. Later archaeological campaigns have solved mysteries left by the original dig and revealed more about life in this Anglo-Saxon kingdom. We’re excited as to what we might still find, using techniques unavailable in 1939.

Visual of proposed viewing tower at Sutton Hoo

The most recent dig

In 2018, with help from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), we carried out the first archaeological dig within the Sutton Hoo Scheduled Monument in nearly 30 years, as we excavated the footprint of a new viewing tower. We found some mysterious ditches, that are likely prehistoric along with evidence from a 1980s dig here, in the form of a Wonder loaf wrapper!

More mysteries solved

At Sutton Hoo we have been exploring the prehistoric landscape for years – in fact there is evidence of a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement and farming under the Anglo-Saxon burial ground. It’s possible to trace the prehistoric fields from the mounds to an area behind the visitor centre. Over the years geophysics has revealed fields overlying one another, as well as what seem to be an Iron Age settlement and some Roman occupation… not to mention another Anglo-Saxon cemetery.  

Read the full story here.

Wimpole’s ancient beginnings

Archaeologist digging at Wimpole's Lamp Hill site in Cambridgeshire

Britain’s Roman roads

In 2018, Oxford Archaeology East spent three months excavating Lamp Hill on the Wimpole Estate, which is now the site of a new car park and visitor centre. Lamp Hill is close to the crossing point of two Roman roads connecting the Roman towns of Lincoln, Water Newton and Cambridge to London. A 1980s excavation led archaeologists to believe a Roman settlement was located here.

Archaeologist in the trench at Wimpole Estate's lamp hill

Not your typical settlement

The height of activity here dates between 100 BC to 150 AD, with some suggestion of a peak during and following the Boudican revolt of 60/61 AD. Lamp Hill produced low levels of typical ‘domestic’ material, suggesting it was not necessarily the focal point for a settlement but perhaps a communally managed agricultural site or gathering place for symbolic traditions.

An archaeologist in the trench at Wimpole's Lamp Hill

Our research continues

We will know more as the post-excavation analysis progresses. However, this large excavation at Wimpole Estate has already given us new insight into the ancient history of the landscape here and will further our understanding of Romano-British activity in the region. As well as two roundhouses, a near complete but broken Roman pot found within a ditch indicates that local pottery was made on site at Wimpole.

The most striking find

Among the 300 metal finds was an interesting assemblage of early Roman metalwork, including coins, brooches and military paraphernalia, which could indicate a ceremonial purpose to the site. The most amazing find was a spatula handle in the form of an unknown Celtic deity, demonstrating the integration of local Celtic religious symbolism and artistic styles into Romanised culture. 

Read the full story here

Anglesey Abbey’s medieval church

An open trench on the lawn at Anglesey Abbey, with the house behind

Excavating a medieval priory

Following a geophysical and magnetometry survey undertaken several years ago, in 2020 Oxford Archaeology East helped us investigate the remains of a priory church located beneath the south lawn at Anglesey Abbey. Although the pandemic cut the dig short, two trenches revealed the remains of church walls, a possible 18th century garden wall and finds associated with the site’s medieval history.

Stained glass found during the archaeological dig at Anglesey Abbey

A window into the past

The two trenches were positioned at the east end of the church and its north side where the priory cloister would have adjoined. A few fragments of early medieval pottery were found, but perhaps the most exciting find were shards of medieval patterned stained glass from a window. These pieces can be used to approximate much of the original pattern.

The remains of a dog skull discovered at Anglesey Abbey

Skeletal remains

Several 18th century objects primarily associated with kitchen waste were also found, including champagne bottle fragments and a set of weighing scales. One of the more memorable finds discovered buried in a pit against the corner of the 18th century garden wall, was the skeleton of a large, male dog, perhaps the former pet of Reverend Hailstone or an earlier owner.

Unearthing our past

We also found the bases of walls, which appear to form either the sides of the cloister walkway or perhaps the internal walls of the north aisle of the church. One tantalising piece of moulded stone is likely to be a lower step linking the church to ether the cloister (Day Stairs) or the prior’s dorter (Night Stairs). This project has enabled us not only to see how incredibly well the remains of the medieval church have survived, but also that there is so much more that we can investigate and learn. 

Read the full story here.

Oxburgh’s relics under the floorboards

Oxburgh underfloor archaeology

Between the cracks

In 2020, an archaeologist working on our roof project at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, uncovered thousands of rare items under the floorboards of the attic. The discovery revealed the rooms had been used for sewing, and for organising correspondence with evidence of pins, wax seals and fragments of late 18th-century handwritten documents in English and French.

Close up of the 15th manuscript found at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk

600 year old manuscripts

The star find was a 15th-century illuminated manuscript fragment on parchment. Despite centuries amongst debris, the glimmer of gold leaf and bright blue of the illuminated initials was still vibrant. The manuscript parchment and other objects found may well have been used in illegal Catholic masses and hidden deliberately by the family.

Curator, Anna Forrest holding Elizabethan textiles found in a rats nest

Rats with expensive taste

Two ancient rats’ nests were found to contain over 200 individual fragments of high-quality textiles including silk, velvet, satin, leather, wool and embroidered fabrics, which have been dated to between the second half of the 16th century and the 18th century. The quality of the pieces shows us the status of those who lived in the house.

Medieval treasure haul

Other finds included handwritten music from the 16th century and a complete book called the King’s Psalms dated 1569. There may still be more to find, as we still need to go through the bags of debris from under the floor! 

It’s not often we get to excavate inside and upstairs with a convenient warm radiator. In the King’s Room we’ve also been exploring the history of the room, whilst the floor is up. From the poshest room to one later used to store oats for horses. Finds here have included stained glass featuring a bird’s bottom and a token called a jetton, which were used in the 16th century for calculations and accounts. There’s also evidence of a carpenter’s workshop, with sawdust packed down where the carpenter stood at his bench.

Read the full story.

Revealing a history of secrets

Howe’s Hill pre-historic 

We’re currently working with volunteers and academics, as we try to discover more about the scheduled barrow (burial mound) at Sheringham Park. This is a rare and complex feature comprising a Neolithic oval barrow with a Bronze Age round barrow constructed on top of it. Unfortunately, the pandemic has interrupted geo-physical work, which would have used a number of techniques to explore the construction of this burial mound without excavating it. Both the Neolithic barrow and later Bronze Age barrow would likely have been visually important in their ancient landscape contexts but today they are surrounded by woodland. In fact we think a previous landowner may have planted a decorative scheme of Holm oak around the mound, while later forestry plantings of Scots pine across it have been gradually removed as part of our conservation work.

An Iron Age hillfort 

Ivinghoe Beacon on the Ashridge Estate is a hillfort built in 6th century BC, just as the new iron tools and weapons were beginning to be made in Britain. It formed a hilltop settlement with commanding views in all directions. We still don’t fully understand its history, but there have been suggestions it may overlay a much earlier Neolithic ritual site. With support from Historic England and ‘Beacons of the Past’ a National Lottery Heritage Fund project, we hope to carry out a geophysics survey to reveal more about the settlement inside the hillfort and the surrounding burial mounds. 

Roman farmsteads

Geophysics at Hatfield Forest revealed a Roman farmstead not unlike the one at Wimpole, but with some odd cultivation marks which might be the remains of Roman vineyards or other cultivation. The archaeology here suggests that the woodland and extensive grazing may stretch back to prehistory, even back to the end of the Ice Age. Ashridge also has the most amazing preserved Roman farm landscape of fields, lanes and farmsteads – even a local iron industry – all under medieval woods and heaths. This can be seen on Lidar, which citizen science volunteers for the ‘Beacons of the Past’ National Lottery Heritage Fund project are currently mapping against a ground survey we last carried out 30 years ago.

A Roman fort and a visit from Time Team

In 2012 Time Team excavated Branodunum. This Roman military coastal fort in Norfolk was either constructed to defend against raids from Saxons or more likely it was a place where trade could be protected and taxed by the Roman Government. The most exciting findings came from a radar survey, which revealed all the details of the buildings. The excavation also led to the discovery of a small piece of Roman scale armour, perhaps left behind by the last squad of Roman soldiers when they left for postings elsewhere in the empire. 

Northey Island, Essex: historical, beautiful and full of wildlife
Northey Island on the Essex Coast
Northey Island, Essex: historical, beautiful and full of wildlife

The oldest battlefield in Britain

Northey Island is on Historic England’s register of protected battlefields. Although the exact site of the oldest battle in the UK, the Battle of Maldon 991AD is unknown, archaeologists will be monitoring to see if we can find any evidence as work gets underway on repairs to the river wall. In the past we’ve only found Elizabethan coins and rather than evidence of a Viking camp, we’ve found a camp of international girl guides! However, we do know that there are Neolithic settlements in the mud and what appears to be a prehistoric burial mound in the marshes.

A medieval parish

At Wimpole we’ve been working with Cambridge Archaeological Field Group to explore the mediaeval history of the parish. We now know where some people lived, how many children they had and where they ploughed their land. Metal detecting has discovered buttons and pennies dropped by ploughmen and bells dropped from grazing sheep. This is the place where we can really trace how the landscape has changed over the centuries and how dramatically some of the estate owners changed the countryside. 

A forgotten manor house

Prior to the iconic building at Ickworth you know and love today, an earlier manor house stood near the church. The house dates back to the 13th century, but had been added to over the years by the Hervey family, it was demolished around 1700. There are no pictures and remarkably little is known about the house. We do know that Lord Arthur Hervey made a plan in 1844, during an exceptionally dry summer, when the foundations of the house and garden walls were identifiable as parch marks in the grass. Part of the site was excavated in 1982 proving that his plan was substantially correct.

The manor house was rented out in the late 17th century and seemed to have become quite derelict. The rambling old house was also outdated and too unfashionable for an affluent mover and shaker like the 1st Earl of Bristol. He took the decision to demolish the old house and build a new one, apparently consulting Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim Palace. Unfortunately, he never got to build his new house and instead a smaller house elsewhere on the estate was converted and enlarged. Sadly the site of the manor house was ploughed during the Second World war, but dry summers can still reveal some of the parch marks, which Lord Arthur recorded. The house probably resembled a rather more irregular version of Melford Hall.

First World War trenches and prisoner of war camp

Extensive practice trenches were built at Ashridge and thousands of troops were trained here before being sent off to fight in the First World War. As well as photographic evidence, the trenches are still visible, though trees and scrub have grown to obscure them.  At Orford Ness there are also remains of a German prisoner of war camp – some of whom died in the 1918-9 flu pandemic and were buried in Orford’s churchyard.  There is also a camp for a Chinese labour corps located here.

Restoring Second World War pill boxes

The Norfolk coast has long been considered vulnerable to invasion, during the Second World war this threat was met with extensive fortification. In recent years two pillboxes, of slightly different types, which formed part of the wartime defences at Sheringham Park have been restored and their brickwork repaired. The beach obstacles, barbed wire entanglements and minefields associated with these surviving defences can only be imagined.

Sutton Hoo shoulder clasp reconstruction

Digs and discoveries at Sutton Hoo 

Sutton Hoo in Suffolk has been a fixture in our archaeology expert Angus Wainwright’s life ever since he first heard about it in a lecture at university. Little did he know that years later he'd end up working on this remarkable Anglo-Saxon site on our East of England archaeology team. In this blog, Angus delves into some of the mysteries of Sutton Hoo, and his own history with the place.