Excavation at Fornham All Saints

Suffolk Archaeology CIC are currently working on a large scale excavation between Bury St Edmunds and Fornham All Saints. The site lies close to the terminal eastern end of the Fornham Cursus and the excavation follows previous extensive evaluation work at the site….

The Background

Cropmarks of the Fornham Cursus and associated featuresThe site, an area of 66ha of farmland on the outskirts of modern Bury St Edmunds, is situated on the southern side of the Lark Valley adjacent to the A1101. It is known to lie near an area of high archaeological significance centering on a Scheduled Monument of Neolithic date, the Fornham Cursus.

The Cursus is aligned north-west to south-east, broadly parallel to the River Lark, and runs for approximately 1.87km between the settlements of Hengrave and Fornham All Saints. It is the dominant feature of a larger overall complex of cropmarks, including causewayed enclosures, ring ditches and other structures which has been established through aerial photography and is thought to represent evidence ranging from the Neolithic through to the Roman period.

When the site was proposed for development the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service (SCCAS) advised that an investigation was needed to assess the site's archaeological potential and the impact that the development might have. This began in 2012 with fieldwalking and geophysical surveys; the fieldwalking recovered a small assemblage of finds predominantly consisting of struck flints that ranged in date from the Mesolithic to Early Bronze Age and a small collection of early-post medieval and post-medieval metal objects. A geophysical survey identified anomalies towards the northern and southern ends of the site including a large pair of parallel linear features.

Opening evaluation trial trenches in 2013 at Fornham All SaintsSuffolk Archaeology (as the County Council Field Team) then carried out two phases of archaeological trial trench evaluation of the site in 2013. The 276 trenches identified a collection of discreet prehistoric features including pits and ditch systems of Iron Age and Roman date, two isolated Bronze Age cremations and evidence of past quarrying from which Roman, medieval and post-medieval finds were collected.

The full evaluation reports are available via our website report library.

Phase 1 report Phase 2 report

SCCAS subsequently advised the local planning authority that planning consent should be conditional upon an agreed programme of archaeological investigation work taking place before development. Our current excavation is designed to fulfill this condition, 'preserving by record' the sites archaeology for future generations.

The Excavation

Early days of the excavation site strip in April 2016. Photo taken by Comissionair.June 2016

The excavation was started in early April and so far, at the northern end of the site, we have found around 120 Iron Age storage pits.

These pits are distinctive in their uniformly circular shape, mostly steep sides and flat bases. Very few of the pits intercut, suggesting a single phase of activity where the knowledge of the location of the earlier pits is maintained as new ones are dug. The pits are filled with variable quantities of pottery, animal bone and other waste deposits. Occasional deliberate, placed deposits can be expected.

This sort of pit group is widely recognised for the Iron Age period and the pits are thought to have been used for grain storage before later being filled with domestic debris. Similar groups of pits have been found at sites on the opposing side of the Lark Valley at Fornham St Genevieve (FSG 019) and at RAF Lakenheath (ERL 147 and ERL 222. After filling with grain the pits would be sealed and this would prevent both air and wildlife from getting to this precious commodity. The evidence for this interpretation however is often weak or absent as we rarely actually find grain within the pits.

A group of Iron Age storage pits after excavationOnce the grain was removed the pits were used for rubbish disposal and in some cases we find special deposits of parts of human skeletons, animal skulls or whole objects. We think that these were put in deliberately, perhaps at the end of a season, or the end of the use of a pit cluster, to officially close the pit…and perhaps as a good luck charm for the next year’s crop. These pits are an important part of an Iron Age settlement, although we don’t always find the houses to go with them.

Pottery from these pits suggest that they were in use between about 400 and 100 BC. We will need to take some radiocarbon dates to try and refine this further and establish a beginning and an end date for the settlement.

Northern excavation area, July 2016. Photo taken by Comissionair.August 2016

With this initial phase now complete, the Field Team have now moved up the slope towards the southern end of the site. Here the archaeology has revealed a multi-phase landscape with a Bronze Age droveway, a Roman field system, a 'D' shaped Iron Age enclosure and more storage and quarry pits along with later post-medieval and World War 2 activity. We are finding large quantities of flint both worked and burnt. There are small 'temper' pits full of burnt flint for possible use in pottery manufacture as the tempering agent.

Excavating and recording a possible 'working hollow', Fornham All Saints

We have also recovered quantities of Beaker pottery from a small Bronze Age pit. This pottery appears in Britain in about 2500BC, at the same time as the earliest metal objects. Beakers have all-over decoration, or designs in panels. They are always geometric patterns, in lines. Sometimes the panels are outlined by incised lines. The decoration is applied by either comb impression – a toothed comb pressing into the dried pot using a wooden, stone or antler comb, cord impression – using a twisted cord or by finger nail impression – the nail was pressed into the wet clay to make a half-moon or twice to make a leaf shape.

One of the features currently being excavated is a large metalled surface (flint and stone cobbles) which may be a ‘working hollow’ or possibly even a Bronze Age ‘pond barrow’.

These areas are still under investigation and more information on the features, functions and dates should be seen in the coming weeks.

Regular updates on the progress of the excavation are being provided on our Facebook page.

Public involvement

Excavating an Iron Age pit at Fornham All SaintsWe have been delighted with the response from the local community to the opportunity to take part in the project as volunteera, both as by joining us as diggers onsite or by processing the finds and soil samples at our warehouse facility in Needham Market. This volunteer work is providing additional data, on top of what we would normally acquire, and will prove invaluable in interpreting the archaeology of the site.

Excavating archaeological features at Fornham All SaintsDuring May to June 2016 our volunteers have worked their way through groups of Iron Age storage pits which had previously been half-sectioned by the professional team, following standard commercial excavation techniques to satisfy the planning condition on the development. Usually only selected pits are subjected to 100% excavation and environmental sampling, with only 10% of spoil from excavated half sections being sieved through a 10mm mesh. The volunteer team on site has therefore made a valuable contribution to the project by allowing us to 100% excavate every pit, sieve the second halves of each pit, and retrieve and process 40 litre environmental samples from the basal fill of each pit. An additional five pits were selected for monolith sampling, these samples will be submitted for micromorphology analysis to examine the build-up of sediment prior to back filling, and the make-up and potential origins of the pit fills.

Volunteers processing and marking finds from the excavation

Since June the volunteer team at our warehouse has been working alongside Suffolk Archaeology finds and environmental staff to process the additional finds and environmental samples, and to record the results. By the end of July the volunteers had processed 169 buckets, or 1690 litres, of soil samples from the site. The Warehouse volunteers have also now washed all the finds collected from the volunteer field excavation, and marked them with site code and context number.This will enable the pits to be examined in greater detail than would otherwise be possible, shedding light on their use and function and the relationship with settlement activity, thus contributing to the regional and national research priorities for the Iron Age period.

Please contact the projects Outreach Officer Alex Fisher if you'd like to find out more.

Open Days

Excavating an Iron Age pit at Fornham All SaintsOur first Open Day at the site was highly successful with over 360 people attending on Saturday 30th April. Visitors were able to find out more about the archaeological works, the wider historical landscape, see some of the finds as well as receive a guided tour around the Iron Age pits by one of the dig team.

Visitors to the display at St Georges Church, Bury St EdmundsWe were invited to hold a second open day at St. Georges Church on Anselm Avenue, Bury St Edmunds, close to the excavation site on Saturday 16th July. Over 130 people attended the event from the locality where they could meet some of the Field Team, view some of the finds and find out more about the project from the large display. Our thanks to Alan Murdie and Claire Higson for organising the event and providing the venue.

Visitors to the third open day at Fornham All Saints, looking at the Bronze Age hollow

A third open day was held on the 18th September and offered a final opportunity for the public to visit the excavation site. Nearly 400 people attended the event and we had a dozen staff on duty throughout the day. Visitors were able to explore the excavation through a large display detailing all the phases of the project from the historical background to the latest discoveries. Two display cases showcased some of the artefacts we have recovered from the dig. We also held regular site tours, with members of the Suffolk Archaeology team guiding visitors around the most significant features of the final phase of the excavation. Our main attraction was the Bronze Age working hollow, a flint and cobbled metalled surface, full of pits that has now been fully excavated.