Evidence of medieval fenland use discovered in Burwell

The team discovered what appears to be a small lode, which may have been used to bring boats further into this settlement.

A recent excavation carried out by Cotswold Archaeology in Burwell, Cambridgeshire, in advance of development by Artisan (UK) Developments Ltd, has revealed interesting new details about the medieval settlement there and how people navigated life on the fenland more than 1,000 years ago.

Photo: Cotswold Archaeology.

Before the fens were systematically drained in the 1600s, this marshy area was made up of a number of small islands surrounded by marshy land that would flood seasonally. People adapted to living in this environment in numerous ways, including building platforms on these islands in order to create hubs for trade and commerce, as well as to exploit the natural resources of the fenland. To aid in communication between these hubs, lodes – deeply cut channels – were built to connect them. The first of these lodes is believed to have been created in the Roman period, but they continued to be constructed into the 20th century.

Burwell was one settlement connected by lodes. It was a relatively robust town during the medieval period, with the Domesday book recording 42.5 households and the presence of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery – excavated in the 1920s – suggesting even earlier origins.

During the most recent excavations there, the team discovered what appears to be a small lode, which may have been used to bring boats further into this settlement. Further evidence of boating activity was found on the southern side of the site, where a stepped platform was revealed. This may have been used for mooring, specifically for loading and unloading supplies. This idea is reinforced by the small finds discovered on the site, which were primarily of a commercial nature and included a lead seal matrix, seal rings, and a copper-alloy scale pan.

To the south, further finds were made. There, the ground appears to have been artificially raised in order to extend the natural area of high ground to the south-east. Excavations in this area revealed a series of paddocks and enclosures, as well as at least two structures, one of which is quite large and perhaps functioned as a warehouse or barn.

Pottery found on the site suggests that this area of the settlement dates to AD 1100-1300, making it contemporary with a boom of activity in Burwell that also saw the construction of the priory and castle (which was never finished).