A season of discovery for Sedgeford archaeological digs

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Sedgeford Historical Archaelogical Research Project (SHARP) has come a long way since a chance meeting off the Amalfi coast in 1996.

That was when founder-director Dr Neil Faulkner, then conducting a tour of Roman archaeological sites, met up with renowned anthropologist and Sedgeford Estate owner Bernard Campbell, whose ploughs frequently unearthed bones.

Dr Faulkner’s 18th annual open day talk “Who were the Anglo-Saxons?” dismissed the view, established by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century and still learned by many of us at school 12 centuries later, that waves of axe-bearing Angles, Saxons and Jutes ‘invaded’ post-Roman Britain and established a barbarian bridgehead from which eventually all southern Britain became Angle-land (England).

On the contrary, these early ‘Saxons’ were a relatively democratic band of comrades-in-arms often actually joined by local Britons looking for leadership and protection in the ‘dark’ times after Roman withdrawal.

It was no picnic crossing the North Sea in a small boat to start again on a north-facing coastal hill above the River Heacham. These vigorous egalitarian immigrants gave hope and leadership to a society that had fallen apart and where much of the toil had been done by slaves.

In Saxon times, Sedgeford lay south of the river. SHARP’s original focus was a riverside graveyard mysteriously abandoned in Norman times but preserved in old mother’s threats to naughty children “you’ll be sent to the boneyard with the dead folk”.

This ‘boneyard’ yielded Saxon burial and cremation – and a Viking woman buried with a horse – and a late Saxon murder scene: a large healthy male with fatal wounds still etched into the skeleton by a Viking marauder, now an exhibit, as well as a crouch-burial dating from the Bronze Age.

Current excavations are of the ‘living space’ atop the hill. Though north-facing, this Sedgeford was sheltered from the prevailing wind and in the days of wattle and daub walls and thatched roofs – pole marks of these in the wattle are still visible – shelter may have weighed with locals as much as Conservation Area status does today.

The find of the season is an industrial-scale oven (pictured) - with a Mid-Saxon handprint preserved in the hardened clay – set outside the village because of the fire-danger sparks and flames posed to thatched roofs. The rich Saxon soil it rests in puts ours to shame.

Diggers-for-a-day are so enthused by Debra Riches’ inductions they stay for week and come back annually, sifting through the shells of oysters eaten by our six-foot-plus forebears boated upriver to market as far as the Saxon harbour at Fring. If only the bread Saxon Sedgeford ate hadn’t contained so much grit, which wore out their teeth and plagued them with abscesses and septicaemia, we might envy their health and lifestyle.

Diggers range from archaeology scholars and students to enthusiastic amateurs of all ages and are a lively mixture of Norfolk (one man cycles in from King’s Lynn) national and international.

Two locals whose future has been found in the Sedgeford trenches are Max Ogden from Snettisham, enthused by the dig aged 12, later graduate in Archaeology at Nottingham University, and Milly Foster of Shernborne, a 16-year-old SHARP digger just graduated in Archaeology at Reading. Postgraduate Alice Wolff from California explained the huge distance travelled as due to the international prestige of the site and the fact that East Anglia has so much more history than America under its quiet fields.

The past digging of 49 test pits in the gardens of Sedgeford villagers produced unexpected finds and included the community. Loss of revenue due to crop disturbance on the Sedgeford Estate is made good in a proportional donation made by SHARP to the church.

Once inducted, all diggers – like their namesakes in the English Civil War - have an equal say in how the project is run and over its finds. Dr Faulkner’s forthcoming book “Digging, Sedgeford; A people’s archaeology” will be author-credited to The SHARP team.

If the school history many of us studied was found in Bede and a Sutton Hoo barrow in 1938, the future of school history may well come out of a trench in Sedgeford.

For further information see www.sharp.co.uk (which includes a regularly updated web blog).