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Archaeology and Built Heritage

Archaeology and Built Heritage

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Material for the flood defences is excavated from the adjacent marshes by creating new or widened dykes. As part of the planning process a desk study is undertaken to locate any known archaeology and the design modified to avoid this where possible. However, due to the long history of the Broads area, there is always the chance of previously unknown archaeology being uncovered. In order to protect this resource an archaeologist is present on site during ground breaking work to undertake a watching brief.

As well as those listed below BESL have also found:

  • A coin hoard on Haddiscoe Island (2003)
  • Drainage pump remains / foundations recorded and Medieval pottery remains at Haddiscoe (2007)
  • Woven timber remains at Stokesby (2007) and Limpenhoe (2009) (possibly medieval fish traps)
  • Brick pits at Caister and Limpenhoe (2008)
  • Potboiler at Geldeston (2010)
  • Various small finds (pottery, brick, bottles, animal bones, etc)

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Timber post alignment at Geldeston and other finds

In 2010 Broadland Environmental Services Limited discovered nationally significant archaeological remains whilst working to improve flood defences in the Broads. BESL were working in the area of Geldeston in the Waveney Valley, to protect the village, agricultural land and Geldeston Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The contractors BAM Nuttall were excavating a new dyke in order to source clay for building a new section of floodbank.  During the operation the excavator driver noticed some large timbers being dug out with the clay.  Work was stopped and the project archaeologist was contacted.  Initial analysis suggested the timbers had been worked and were likely to be of prehistoric origin making them nationally significant.

Further excavation of the uncovered area and recording of the remains was undertaken by a team of three archaeologists, including a timber specialist, over the course of the next three weeks.  The excavations revealed three rows of vertical timber posts running almost parallel to the intended line of the dyke as well as some horizontal timbers between them.  The vertical posts had points cut in them with an early axe.  Analysis of the cut marks, which were still clearly visible, suggested the timbers had been worked (shaped) in the late Iron Age.  The structure is thought to have been some form of causeway leading out in to marshy land or water.  It is not know whether this causeway served as a river crossing or ritual site.

Timber finds are usually very rare due to decomposition of the wood, however in this case the timber was very well preserve due to the waterlogged peat in the area, which helped to prevent decomposition. Once the excavation were completed the remains were reburied to ensure their continued preservation; exposure to the air will cause them to dry out and disintegrate.  Samples of both the wood and the surrounding soil were taken to allow for further analysis of the date and environmental conditions at the time when the structure was installed. The causeway was later confirmed as being late Iron Age.

The discovery of these remains generated a large amount of interest, particularly from local residents. Since the area was still an active construction site public access was not permitted.  BESL decided to run two accompanied events to allow limited numbers to visit the site.  The first event saw reporters and photographers from local television stations and newspapers visit the site and interview the archaeologists.  The second event saw 26 villagers from Geldeston, and the surrounding area, gather for a guided tour of the site and to hear an interpretation by the archaeologists.

During the archaeological investigation the flood defence works were moved to another section, preventing any slip in the overall programme.  Work resumed in the area of the timber remains but with the material sourcing dyke being dug elsewhere in the marsh to avoid the remains.

This is the third feature of this kind that BESL have uncovered in the Waveney Valley.  One was found on the opposite side of the river at Barsham in 2007 which roughly aligns with this one at Geldeston, and another near Beccles in 2006.  Prior to the discovery of this latest timber structure, and only about 100m away, a mound of burned flints was found.  This feature is known as a “Pot boiler”, believed to have been used for heating water and dating from the Bronze Age.

BESL employees and contractors continue to be vigilant in their works across the Broads.  Works are often turning over soil that has not been disturbed for some time.  Other finds uncovered by the defence works to date include previously unrecorded mill bases; brick works; a coin hoard and numerous pottery finds.

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University of Birmingham’s archaeological dig at Geldeston

In June 2011 the Broadland Flood Alleviation Project (BFAP) provided a unique opportunity for students and researchers from the University of Birmingham to undertake a detailed investigation of an important archaeological site.  The site, originally found during earthworks to improve flood defences in the Broads, includes a large number of ancient timber posts.  Analysis of the posts and the method of hard-carving suggests that they originate from the late Iron Age, this date was later confirmed by carbon testing.

It was during the excavation of a new dyke to provide material for building a new section of floodbank that a driver noticed some large timbers present in the material being removed.  Work was stopped immediately and the project archaeologist was contacted.  Due to their significance further excavation of the uncovered area and recording of the remains was commissioned by BESL before the defence works in that area could continue.  The investigation revealed three rows of vertical timber posts running perpendicular to the river and almost parallel to the intended line of the dyke. A number of horizontal timbers and bark chippings, which could have formed a surface, were also recorded. The upright posts had been shaped to a point with the axe marks clearly visible. The structure is thought to have been some form of causeway leading out into marshy land or water, though it is not known whether it would have functioned as a river crossing or a ritual site.

Since the discovery of the ancient timbers at Beccles, and previously at Barsham, teams of archaeologists from both Suffolk County Council and the University of Birmingham have visited the sites a number of times; there have been several phases of extensive research with both non-intrusive surveys and detailed excavations.  The research has added significant information to the known archaeological record by demonstrating the presence of Late Iron Age to Early Roman activity on the Norfolk/Suffolk border.

In 2011 staff from the University of Birmingham contacted BESL to enquire if students and researchers could undertake further study on the Geldeston site in the form of a 3 week fieldtrip.  It is generally very rare for ancient timbers to be found preserved in-situ; the presence of undisturbed peaty soil, a high water table and an area unaffected by intensive arable farming being the main controlling factors.  Sites such as the one at Geldeston provide an opportunity for students to gain valuable field experience of working in a wetland substrate, as well as unearthing and extracting samples from the timbers for dendrochronology.  Samples from the surrounding soils were also taken and submitted for macrofossils and pollen analysis to establish the environmental conditions at the time when the causeway was constructed. 

Following the University of Birmingham’s interest in the Geldeston timbers a BBC film crew responsible for the series “Digging for Britain” also visited the site.  Television presenter Dr Alice Roberts interviewed the archaeologists to learn about the preservation of the timbers and their potential significance.  The series was shown on BBC2 in autumn 2011.

The University of Birminghams 2011 excavation and discoveries provided the local residents with another opportunity to visit the dig site and receive a commentary from the archaeologists.  The research staff also delivered a presentation in the village hall; whilst members of the BESL Environment team provided additional display materials explaining the variety of other archaeological discoveries made by the project since work began in 2001.

BESL employees and contractors continue to be vigilant in their works and continue to support education and the opportunity to add to the store of knowledge about the area throughout their works.

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Discovery of Saxon Aged Canoe (edited version)

Written for the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society Newsletter

by Heather Wallis, Archaeologist

Major flood defence works, which are subject to an archaeological watching brief, are being undertaken along the Rivers Ant, Bure, Thurne, Yare and Waveney. This involves the excavation of new dykes up to 18m wide and 3m deep. In July 2010, during the excavation of one such dyke near Ludham Bridge, one of the machine drivers realised that he had pulled part of a wooden boat from the ground. He reported this find immediately. [Soon] plans were put in place for an excavation to uncover, record and lift any other remains of the boat. Over a period of 12 days in August [of that year] a small team[of archaeologists) worked hard through the sun, rain and mud to achieve this end.

The boat proved to be 3m long in total and had been created out of a single trunk of oak. It was in remarkably good condition and, until disturbed, had survived complete. Tool marks were clearly visible, and initial inspection suggests little wear to both the inside and outside of the hull. The stern or transom of the boat had been carved as one with the rest of the boat.

The excavation revealed that the boat lay within a small creek, or channel, to the south of the River Ant. The line of this was identified by augering and close inspection of the dyke sides. The boat appeared to lay at an angle across the creek and, therefore, would have caused an obstruction within it. Fascinatingly a number of animal bones were also retrieved from the site. Skulls of horse, cow and deer were found within the spoil removed during the dyke digging (prior to excavation) and further animal bones, found during the excavation, appear to be stratigraphically associated with the deposition of the boat. The ‘blocking’ of the creek with the boat, and the deposition of animal skulls, perhaps leads to the question as to whether this was a ‘structured’ deposit; perhaps a ‘closing’ deposit within a rapidly silting creek. It is hoped that examination of the environmental indicators such as pollen, insects and macrofossils will show the environment within which the boat was deposited and perhaps throw some light on its interpretation.

Throughout the excavation the date of the boat was unknown. Examination of the tool marks on the vessel could do no more than indicate it was constructed by narrow blade technology which was used from the Bronze Age through to the medieval period. Since then two samples of wood have been radiocarbon dated. One came from a position stratigraphically earlier than the boat and returned a date of Cal AD 650-780 while the other was from the upper deposits of the silted creek and was dated to Cal DA 890-1020, indicating a Middle to Late Saxon date for the boat.

This is a rare find, only 12 records of boats (of all dates) exist in the Norfolk Historical and Environmental Records and of these most relate to finds made in the 19th and early 20th-centuries. Several of these reports are of dubious quality. Only three are of logboats of which just one survives.

Since the excavation, the boat has been moved to York Archaeological Trust where it will be fully recorded and conserved.

The archaeological team comprised Heather Wallis, Sarah Bates, Mick Boyle, Giles Emery and John Percival. Richard Darrah provided information on wood technology.

Heather Wallis

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