Nestled in rural north-west Norfolk, the village of Sedgeford is home to one of the longest-running research and training digs in the country. Now in its 25th digging season, Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) has since 1996 been investigating a rural middle-Anglo-Saxon site whose remains are unusually accessible. Unlike many other early medieval settlements, which tend to end up becoming buried beneath more modern buildings as they develop over time, the location of Sedgeford shifted by a few hundred yards c.AD 1000, meaning that its earlier incarnation is conveniently covered only by open farmland.
Spanning c.AD 700-950, Anglo-Saxon Sedgeford was inhabited in what appear to have been three distinct phases (see CA 299 and 333), during which a range of different features evolved. Between 1996 and 2007, SHARP explored a cemetery associated with the site; between 2007 and 2016, their main focus was the settlement itself; and, when CA visited the dig this summer, they were continuing their investigation (running since 2013) of a more industrial area thought to be home to a cereal-processing centre linked to malting.
Director of Excavations Dr Eleanor Blakelock explained how the story has progressed since we last covered the site. The features under investigation had originally emerged as a strange row of anomalies picked up by geophysical survey, and the SHARP team initially wondered whether they could be linked to iron smelting, as iron slag had been found in both the cemetery and settlement excavations. The possibility of furnaces intrigued Eleanor, who specialises in archaeometallurgy (see CA 297 for more about her work analysing the composition of the Staffordshire Hoard), but excavation soon revealed that the features had nothing to do with metalworking at all. Nor were they pottery kilns, as another proposal put forward. Instead, the team found large quantities of burnt grain, as well as traces of wattle-and-daub structures, leading them to speculate whether these might be cereal-drying ovens.
Key to this interpretation, aside from the presence of grain, was the discovery of extensive clay surfaces next to some of these structures, representing what appeared to be watertight features. When the project’s founder-director Dr Neil Faulkner (who also edits our sister-magazine, Military History Matters) visited a working malthouse in 2017, the maltsters had told him about the three-part process that they used. This involved steeping – soaking barley grains in a tank of water and then allowing them to dry; spreading the grains on a germination floor to allow starches and sugars to build up; and drying the grains above a kiln to stop the germination process before they turned into plants. The SHARP team suspects that the clay features might represent steeping tanks, and the wattle-and-daub structures drying kilns, indicating that this could have been a malting complex. Grain would not have been placed directly into the kilns, but on platforms above them, Eleanor explained. Rather, the wattle-and-daub kilns acted like a radiator, with the heat rising through the grain above. So far, at least four confirmed kilns have been excavated on the site (with hints of more), at least three of which have associated clay surfaces, and the project has also revealed traces of what might be an earlier wattle-and-daub structure, dubbed ‘Malthouse Zero’, beneath some of the remains that they are currently working on. All of the kilns lie close together in a gulley, with ditches dug on either side. Eleanor suggests that these may have been intended to protect the site from rain or hill wash, and perhaps also to channel water from springs located further uphill, in order to fill the steeping tanks.
Searching for a sequence
Radiocarbon- and archaeomagnetic-dating evidence is still forthcoming, but pottery fragments recovered from the features suggest that the kilns may be mid-Saxon in date and relatively short-lived, with the malting site going out of use before the main settlement was abandoned. Only Ipswich ware has been identified during this recent investigation, whereas the settlement yielded both Ipswich and Thetford ware, suggesting a longer occupation. Other small finds have proven scarce during this latest dig, though the team did recover an iron hook that Eleanor suggests could have been used to raise and lower bags of grains during the steeping process.
‘The kilns might not have all been contemporary; we think this was longer-lasting than just one complex of multiple malthouses over 25 years. I suspect we have around 60 years but probably closer to 100 years of activity represented by these malthouses, with new kilns replacing others as they went out of use,’ she said. ‘Building them was a community effort – we have found small handprints in the clay lining of one of the kilns, and during a previous open day we invited children to compare their hands to the marks: they seem closest to the hand size of a child aged around 9. You can imagine their small size would have helped them get inside the structure so they could help press daub on to the wattle from the inside.’
Surviving fragments of daub shed more light on how the kilns were constructed, preserving the cylindrical indents of long-decayed wattle sticks, as well as the marks of twine or cord used to hold these poles together. Inside Kiln 2, the walls are striped with finger marks smoothing possible repairs into place, while the same kiln also preserves a post-hole that might have provided a hinge for a door, as well as the remains of a charred post that still survives in situ, although its purpose is not yet clear.
Being made mainly of timber, each structure would have had a maximum lifespan of around 25 years, Eleanor suggests – but there are clues to suggest that many survived for a much shorter period, because of the hazards posed by the use of fire in the drying process. Echoes of catastrophic burning events are evident within the excavated remains: fragments of burnt daub, ashy areas of clay, and red burnt sand speak of deposits falling into the interior of the kilns while still hot – and Eleanor suspects that the lives of at least two of the kilns could have ended ‘with a bang’. By examining their remains, as well as the spreads of burnt grain associated with them, she said, it is possible to reconstruct vividly the structures’ last moments, tracing the direction that they collapsed in as they burned.
Looking to the future
While the Sedgeford project has already been running for a quarter of a century, it is clear that the site still has many secrets to reveal. The team hopes that next year’s excavations will shed more light on the sequence of the kilns, and perhaps help to illuminate the enigmatic underlying ‘Malthouse Zero’. With dating analysis and other research from the site still to come once this season’s excavation closes, watch this space for a fuller feature in a future issue exploring how the latest finds fit into our wider understanding of life in Anglo-Saxon Sedgeford.
‘We have years of work still ahead,’ said Eleanor. ‘It is a site that just keeps giving. I first started digging at Sedgeford when I was 16, and then returned to the site to analyse knives for my PhD – if you had told me at the beginning that I’d still be working here all this time later, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m a metallurgist working on a malting site – and I don’t even drink beer!’
For more about the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project, previous discoveries, and how to participate in future digging seasons at the site, see www.sharp.org.uk.
ALL images: C Hilts.