Suffolk Archaeology CIC carried out a large scale excavation between Bury St Edmunds and Fornham All Saints in two phases during 2016 and 2017, ahead of a residential development by Countryside. 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 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.
Suffolk 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.
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. The excavation was designed to fulfill this condition, 'preserving by record' the site's archaeology for future generations. The excavation was carried out in two separate phases - Phase 1 in 2016, Phase 2 in 2017.
The Phase 1 excavation was started in late March and by June 2016, at the northern end of the site, had identified around 120 Iron Age storage pits.
These pits were 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 was maintained as new ones were dug. The pits were filled with variable quantities of pottery, animal bone and other waste deposits. 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.
Once 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. Bulk soil samples have been collected and we hope to extract material suitable for radiocarbon dates to try and refine this further and establish a beginning and an end date for the settlement.
In August 2016 the excavation moved up the slope towards the southern end of the site and revealed a multi-phase landscape with a Bronze Age droveway and 'burnt mound', 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. The 'burnt mound' complex was made up of a cobbled working hollow, wells and pits for heating water for use in a range of crafts. The large wells collected surface water which was placed within the smaller pits and heated using hot stones and flint which had been heated on a bonfire. It is thought that on this site the hotwater was then used for processing animal skins. A large mound of waste material is then normally associated with these complexes and this is where the name originates.
We 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.
During the course of the Phase 1 excavation in 2016 we were delighted with the response from the local community to the opportunity to take part in the project as volunteers, 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 has provided additional data, on top of what we would normally acquire, and will prove invaluable in future interpretation of the archaeology of the site.
During May to June 2016 our onsite volunteers worked their way through groups of Iron Age storage pits which had previously been half-sectioned by the professional team. 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 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.
In the latter part of 2016 a volunteer team at our warehouse worked alongside our 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 also 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.
During Phase 1 we held a series of events for the general public. The first Open Day at the site in April 2016 was highly successful with over 360 people attending to find out more about the archaeological works and the wider historical landscape, to see some of the finds and receive a guided tour around the Iron Age pits by one of the dig team. Over 130 people attended a second Open Day at St. Georges Church on Anselm Avenue, Bury St Edmunds, close to the excavation site in July 2016 where they met the dig team and saw a display of the site results including a selection of the finds.
A third Open Day in September 2016 offered a final opportunity for the public to visit the Phase 1 excavation site. Nearly 400 people attended the event and 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 and guided site tours around the most significant features of the excavation, the main attraction being the Bronze Age working hollow, a flint and cobbled metalled surface full of pits, that had been fully excavated.
The second phase of archaeological excavation ran from May to October 2017 and looked at a five-hectare parcel of land on the south edge of the site. The archaeology uncovered in this area included further evidence of Bronze Age activity, and the continuation of Roman and Iron Age field systems.
The Bronze Age activity included a second burnt mound complex, discovered at the western edge of the new area, a small cremation cemetery containing two urned and up to 4 un-urned cremations, and occupation evidence in the form of a roundhouse and a small rectangular structure being discovered at the top of the hill. There was also an increase in the number of small storage and waste pits discovered in this new area which could also be related to the habitation of the area in the Bronze Age.
The Phase 2 works also located a new Roman enclosure along with large Iron Age storage pits and various segments of Iron Age ditches.
A final Open Day took place after completion of the Phase 2 excavation in November 2017. This was a great success with over 300 people visiting during the day. Unfortunately this time we could not conduct site tours as construction works had started but we made up for it by producing two films and a timelapse video during the fieldwork to show what we discovered on site. These films were greatly appreciated on the day and can be seen below.
Dig diary filmed during Phase 2 by site staff, including a presentation (filmed by DMJ Imagery) on the second burnt mound.
Timelapse excavation of the Phase 2 'burnt mound'
Following the completion of the Phase 2 fieldwork a short information booklet for the general public was prepared with help and support from Countryside PLC and Terence O'Rourke. This provided an immediate summary of the site discoveries and initial findings.
The post-excavation process then saw the production of a post-excavation assessment report in summer 2018. This report describes the archaeological results in detail, quantifies the archive and provides an assessment of the potential amongst the results for further analysis that will contribute to identified research priorities for the region.
Once the analysis is complete it is proposed that two publication papers are produced, one concentrating on the Burnt Mounds and Bronze Age landscape and reflecting their national importance within the national peer-reviewed journal, the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. A second presentation of all the results but synthesising some of the detail is proposed for publication in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History.
Suffolk Archaeology would like to thank the client, Countryside PLC, for the funding and support they have given throughout the archaeological programme, and their consultants Terence O'Rourke for their assistance during the project and production of the reconstruction illustration.
We would also like to thank Commission Air and Flypod for aerial photography, some of which are reproduced above, and David Johnson (DMJ-Imagery Ltd) for filming and production of site videos.