Review: Digging Sedgeford, A people’s archaeology

Sedgeford dig ANL-140820-142741001
Sedgeford dig ANL-140820-142741001
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SHARP is a cross between Glastonbury Festival, Time Team and the radical Diggers of the English Revolution, who would have envied this record of 19 years’ collective endeavour.

The ambitious intention of SHARP – or to give it its full name Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project – was to be academically relevant and appeal to people who have a keen interest in the past on their doorstep, to study not just dead people but ourselves.

To achieve such high levels of scholarship yet remain accessible is extraordinary. The book outlines the entire story of an English village since the Stone Age, in spades, and with decades of carefully considered evidence dug from our fields, gardens, pits, churchyard and bowling greens.

The story – of Sedgeford and, by extension, England – emerges dialectically rather than ‘proving’ what we already ‘know’ to justify a research grant. And what a story it is.

When SHARP found the missing part of the famous Sedgeford torc, mangled in agricultural machinery in 1965, and at first mistaken for a bedstead, they slotted it into the larger jigsaw of a British farmstead in Upper Chalkpit field at the end of the Iron Age completely abandoned after AD60 and resumed elsewhere on radically different Roman lines fifty years later: Boudicca’s famous revolt and the brutal reprisals of an aggressive imperial power etched into our village landscape.

Sedgeford has one of the 90 subsequent Norfolk Roman villas – West Norfolk is teeming with them – and a large grain-processing Roman oven with a difference – it contained a body dating from the end of Roman civilisation (‘a system of robbery and violence to enrich the empire builders’) – a murdered official perhaps as Roman order completely broke down?

A Cole Green garden survey yielded a beautiful fragment of burial urn, the only early Anglo-Saxon pottery yet found in Sedgeford, the involving excitement of this felt in the book’s extended coverage as well as in this reader: it was our garden and they presented us both with the piece and their priceless interpretation of it.

Another mysterious shift in the village comes at the end of the Anglo-Saxon era, off the centuries-established north facing south slope (now empty except for SHARP) towards the mediaeval centre around West Hall ‘manor’ and the new church-site, untypically rebuilt up the hill from established holy ground.

These settlement changes are implanted on the archaeological records under West Hall and could either reflect an Anglo-Scandinavian elite imposing itself on society and landscape under the Danelaw; or the Anglo-Saxon re-conquest of the 10C; or even the Danish conquest immediately before the Normans, including evidence that among all the violence there was caring, even of the physically disadvantaged.

The chapter devoted to St Mary’s Church – its heyday as part of the manor of Norwich Cathedral Priory and its long post-Dissolution decline and hefty practical downsizing of the chancel to preserve the roof – into near-ruin in Victorian times, and the informed challenge to the belief that the round tower is Saxon, all providing what might be the most scientifically informed church guide in Norfolk.

If you didn’t dig Sedgeford already, you certainly will after reading this!

Gareth Calway

n Digging Sedgeford, A people’s archaeology; Poppyland Publishing www.poppyland.co.uk/press/ rrp £19.95

n Dr Neil Faulkner is founder director of the SHARP collective, joint publication editor of ‘Digging Sedgeford’ and one in a page full of names making up ‘the SHARP team’ who authored this book.

Between 5-8 pm next Friday, August 29 he will give talks at the book launch of Digging Sedgeford in Sedgeford church, to which all are welcome.