Exploring Smallhythe Place: Archaeological Investigations by the River Rother
- Last updated:
- 04 September 2023
During the summers of 2021 and 2022 a team of archaeologists have dug sixteen trenches in and around Smallhythe Place in Kent, revisiting a site once investigated by the Time Team. Perhaps best known today as the former home of Victorian actress Ellen Terry and her daughter Edy Craig, during the medieval period, Smallhythe was a location for royal shipbuilding and, as we have now discovered, it was also a hive of activity nearly 2000 years ago.
Ships fit for a king
Now lying over ten miles inland, the tiny village of Smallhythe was once a port lying alongside the Rother, a river which was also known in the past as the Limen. This tidal stream flowed within a wider managed landscape of medieval harbours, crossing points, drainage channels and land reclamation along the border between Kent and Sussex.
The ‘landing place’ (or ‘hythe’) is recorded from the late 12th – early 13th century, and some of the great ships of the medieval and Tudor royal navy were built here during the 15th and 16th centuries. These included the Jesus, a thousand-ton vessel for Henry V, constructed in 1415 and Henry VIII’s Grand Mistress which set sail in 1545.
Hundreds of iron ship nails and roves – the distinctive diamond-shaped washers used to fix the boards of the vessels in place - have been found across the neighbourhood. In the Forstal Field, to the east of Smallhythe Place, ships’ timbers have been recovered, while across the road in the Elfwick Field, part of a late medieval kiln was excavated.
Geophysics, boreholes and trenches
To support our investigations, we received grants from the National Trust’s Inclusive Archaeology, Robert Kiln and the Roman Research Funds and from the Royal Archaeological Institute. During 2023, our project has received funding from the Society of Antiquaries and the William and Edith Oldham Charitable Trust.
A team of over sixty National Trust volunteers (which includes members of the Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group, independent specialists and professional archaeologists, students from York, Cardiff, Birkbeck, Kent and Leicester Universities) have participated on site over the first two years of the project.
Geophysical surveys by HAARG helped us to locate trenches and altogether, we have dug nine trenches in the Elfwick Field, five in the Forstal Field and two in the garden, plus a series of boreholes across the site targeted to investigate the medieval shoreline.
Marmalade jars and medieval roves
Thousands of artefacts have been recovered which kept our team of finds processors and pot washers very busy indeed. From the trenches nearest to Smallhythe Place itself came evidence for the development and use of the site when it was a Georgian farm and later during Ellen Terry’s lifetime - such as a midden dump in the Forstal Field where we found marmalade jars, gin, beer and medicine bottles.
Perhaps the most intriguing find from this later period was a seal with a cameo, dating c 1825.
In the Elfwick Field we relocated the brick kiln discovered in the 1990s, and with further excavation were able to define more of its extent, its floor lining, and likely an earlier kiln underneath. Landscape survey has helped us to understand more about the earthworks which represent the medieval shipyard.
Masonry building foundations, pottery sherds, animal bones and metal artefacts from the trenches further uphill have given us an insight into medieval and post-medieval life alongside Smallhythe Road.
Romans in the valley
Although small quantities of Roman material had previously been found at Smallhythe, the large assemblages of ceramics and building material now recovered have the potential to rewrite our understanding of the neighbourhood during the first centuries of the first millennium AD.
In particular, the discovery of tiles marked ‘CLBR’ - the stamp of the ‘Classis Britannica’ - is exciting; this is the fleet which was active in the waters around the Roman province of Britannia.
The amount of building material is indicative of the presence of structures nearby – could these have been associated with Roman naval activity along the Rother? Perhaps there was a small harbour at Smallhythe, a stopping point on the way upriver from the coast to the port at Bodiam.
The finds have been assessed by specialists and reports produced on our work to date: you can read them online here: MNA153490 | National Trust Heritage Records .
Over the winter HAARG and the Wealden Archaeology Group undertook further geophysical surveys and in the spring a small team of volunteers carried out more metal detecting surveys.
What’s happening now?
For full updates on discoveries and day to day updates from the Dig team, please visit our social media pages and use #TheDig2023.
Read below for a weekly round up in August during the Dig.
After the training day, the team focused on opening trenches and have so far uncovered evidence for Roman activity in Trench 18 - including a huge amount of ceramic building material and some lovely Samian ware.
The finds team have been kept extremely busy this week, with plenty of artefacts to wash.
The team was delighted to have had a masterclass in landscape survey by Stewart Ainsworth and Al Oswald, 3D modelling with Dave Fletcher, a visit from geoarchaeologist Mike Allen and training sessions on metal detecting with James Ward and GPR survey with the Wealden Archaeology Group.
The final week certainly didn't disappoint! The team had a visit from timber specialist Damian Goodburn, went for an explore of the site of the Knelle Dam (created during the 14th century), held a fun Family Day on site, and hosted our neighbours at Chapel Down (and were treated to a tour in return)!
Other activities included the excavation of the post-medieval structures in Trench 19, and the unpicking and recording of two Roman buildings and a drain in Trench 18 and excavation to waterlogged deposits in Trench 6.
There are some lovely Medieval pot sherds coming from Trench 11 - where there is a medieval building - including fragments of Surrey Whiteware and possible Saintonge sherds.
The community of workers living in Smallhythe made it a thriving and successful port. Learn about what was there before the shipyard’s decline in the 16th century.