Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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This column is the second of two focused on the archaeology of Norfolk, a county that is a regular cornucopia of archaeological delights. In CA 363, I explored a long-lost Boudican ‘palace’, a famous hoard, and a site that holds the accolade of being the oldest currently known location of human occupation in the British Isles. In this second column, I build on Norfolk’s impressive record by exploring, among others, Anglo-Saxon Sedgeford, medieval Norwich, and a delightful host of graffiti-scrawled churches.
THE SEER OF SEDGEFORD
CA 155 (December 1997) first visited the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Sedgeford, a site that the magazine then returned to regularly over the next couple of decades –most recently in issue 333 (December 2017). There are three reasons for this intensity of attention: the site is exceptional; the story of its excavation is unconventional; and its director Neil Faulkner was, at one point, editor of the magazine (he now edits CA’s sister-magazine, Military History Matters). As issue 155 explained,
the owners of Sedgeford Hall invited [Faulkner] to come and investigate their estate. He has taken up the challenge and has now openedup what he calls an exercise in democratic archaeology where… he is attempting to do away with the hierarchical structure in which most excavations are organised, so that the students, mostly from London University, get a wider range of experience than on most excavations.
To turn to the archaeology, it is especially rich because the village moved in the medieval period. Most Anglo-Saxon villages survive poorly, lost beneath later developments, but not Sedgeford. For reasons that remain unclear, the village shifted several hundreds of metres away c.AD 1000, so that the village of c.AD 700-950 lies beneath plough-soil and pasture, the perfect conditions for a long-term fieldwork project.
CA 171 (December 2000) outlined the distinctive approach to archaeology undertaken at the site. Writing in 2020, with organisations like DigVentures running successful volunteer-driven fieldwork projects, this sounds less radical. But back in 2000, things were different, as was explained in the magazine:
We believed that field archaeology should be fun and open to everyone. Sedgeford in the summer season was to be a place for training courses, working holidays and community participation, not a preserve of ‘experts’ cordoned off by fences and hazard-tape. Titles and hierarchies get in the way of good archaeology. They are intimidating and discourage initiative and self-development.
Evidence of the distinctive approaches of SHARP (Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project) next came in CA 294 (September 2014), which highlighted how the project expanded its horizons beyond the Anglo-Saxon settlement to investigate the area’s First World War heritage, a radical move by any standards. This was one of the first intensive archaeological investigations of a site of this type and period, an important milestone in the development of what has become known as ‘modern conflict archaeology’. Issue 299 (February 2015) then took a step back to consider the site in the round, exploring what 25 years of fieldwork had uncovered as part of celebrations surrounding the publication of the book Digging Sedgeford: a people’s archaeology.
CHAMPION OF THE WORLD
As can be deduced from the above, Norfolk isn’t afraid to take its archaeology seriously but also differently. CA 256 (July 2011) featured another long-running project that challenged perceptions while producing exceptional results: the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. This project went on to win numerous awards and has since been emulated in many other parts of the country, so we all owe a great debt to its instigator Matthew Champion. As issue 256 explained, the premise was simple: ‘to examine every medieval church in the county, identifyingand recording any medieval graffiti’. The reality was something else. The survey deployed the latest technologies from the outset, including multiple raking light sources, digital imagery, and image manipulation software. The results’clarity and scale alike stunned survey members – and anyone else who saw them. Your author (whose background lies in medieval archaeology) vividly remembers being shown some of the early results and realising that this would transform our understanding of medieval art, architecture, and society – how, when, and for what reasons people were in churches in this era. To give just one example from issue 256:
All Saints, Litcham… gave a dramatic foretaste of what was to come. The church was chosen simply because it was known to contain at least one pre-Reformation inscription. The question was: where there was one, would there be more? The answer was an emphatic ‘yes’. The initial visual survey, carried out with only small LED torches, revealed that the soft piers of the nave were, quite literally, covered in graffiti… at least 40 pre-Reformation examples were recognised. Names, prayers, faces, hands, Latin cryptograms, multiple daisy-wheels, and swastika pelta were all present beneath the flaking lime-wash, making it one of the greatest concentrations of material yet surveyed.
News of the extraordinary work of the survey spread quickly – what could be achieved in Norfolk could surely be emulated elsewhere. Many other discoveries followed, and by issue 291 (June 2014) the survey had crossed the border into neighbouring Suffolk. CA 315 (June 2016) returned to celebrate the triumphant publication of Champion’s book Medieval Graffiti: the lost voices of England’s churches. This is a volume that deserves a place on everyone’s bookshelf, a true hidden gem, like the lost and since rediscovered graffiti that it reveals.
NORMANS FOR NORFOLK?
To conclude my survey of Norfolk’s archaeology, it seems fitting to end in its county town. Norwich is a city that,like many others, saw highs and lows in its archaeological narrative across the years, especially in its post-war redevelopment, which was not always kind to its history. CA first visited in issue 48 (January 1975), reporting on the systematic survey of the city’s archaeology that had begun in 1971. The magazine returned in issue 80 (December 1981) to give an update on the progress of the survey, including a report on intensive fieldwork at Palace Plain. There, the original aim of the excavations was to discover the Saxon waterfront, but the real surprise came from an adjacent Norman site. A totally unexpected Norman hall was discovered in a magnificent state of preservation, the walls still standing more than head-height. Dated to between 1140 and 1200, it was finely built of coursed flints and ashlar quoins, and showed signs of considerable later rebuilding, including the use of brick.
Work in the city continued, offandon, through the days of ‘rescue’ archaeology into the post-1990 rise of ‘commercial’ archaeology, enabling CA 170 (October 2000) to focus an entire special issue on the city. This provides a wonderful overview of a quarter-century of endeavour by the teams who worked with such dedication there, and it is an appropriate place to conclude my explorations of the archaeology of this county.
About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.