On 28 November 1916 Zeppelin LZ61 was shot down over Lowestoft by Egbert Cadbury and Robert Leckie. Getting lost in thick fog on the way back from their mission, Cadbury found that Sedgeford Aerodrome was the only local airfield to have lit flares along its runway and so they landed there safely. More than ninety years later SHARP has launched a project aimed at understanding more about how the airfield was used, not only as an active airfield during WWI but also as a decoy airfield during WWII.
To get this project started we ran a one week course in 2009 entitled 'Zeppelins, Fighters and Ack-Ack: An introduction to modern conflict archaeology'. Providing a flavour of techniques employed in modern conflict archaeology this course allowed students a chance to undertake desktop research with contemporary plans, aerial photographs and old documents, as well as carrying out a comprehensive evaluation of the site with field reconnaissance and survey using hand-held GPS receivers and detailed investigation of a mortuary building, an air-raid shelter and a rubbish dump.
In preparation for this course a small team met with the land owner, William Barber, and one of his employees, Mike Frost (who has worked on the land since the 1950s) the previous week to discuss suitable locations. William rears birds on the site and we didn't want to disturb them during our time there. Our initial plan had been to look for evidence of some of the larger hangers and some of the accommodation blocks but this all changed when Mike asked 'Do you know about the mortuary building?'. Leading us into the woods Mike and William showed us not only what is believed locally to be a mortuary building, but also an air-raid shelter. We knew then that these two buildings would be the focus for our course. Nearby, behind a long one storey building that is marked on the modern day OS map, they also showed us an area that is believed to have been a WWI rubbish dump. Whole bottles and jars could clearly be seen lying on the surface so we decided to make this another key focus for the week.
Mike was also able to tell us that the villagers used to come over to the Aerodrome to watch films at the cinema, probably the first moving pictures that any of the locals had seen. This sort of local knowledge can be key in modern conflict archaeology and we hope at some point to talk to Mike further about other stories he'd heard from people he used to work with.
After a hard day of scrub clearance to prepare the chosen areas (thanks to all those supervisors and volunteers who helped out for a day in the rain) we were ready to start work. Splitting the students into teams of three they were each assigned a particular feature to investigate. Team A looked at the mortuary building, Team B a presumed area of domestic accommodation and the rubbish dump and Team C investigated the air raid shelter.
Team A initially spent some time studying how the mortuary building was constructed to see if they could gather any information that would support the theory of its use. As part of the desk-based research that was undertaken the team discovered that a mortuary was listed in the advert for the sale of the aerodrome in 1921. The building, which consisted of two rooms, had a double width doorway into one of the rooms; easy access for stretchers perhaps? This room had four round air vents set in its walls and a cement skim around the walls that forms a curve from the walls into the floor, which would allow for easy washing of the room. The team noted that all of the windows in the building were at the top of the walls, thereby allowing light in but not providing a view from the outside. The position of the building, in an area that was woodland during WWI, means that it is hidden from general view, and a large building positioned at the edge of the wood has no windows on the wall facing the mortuary. It certainly seems to be a building that is trying to conceal its contents!
On closer inspection, Team A discovered that although the building was built with fairly crude materials (concrete, coarse bricks, flue-type blocks and slate) there are some interesting architectural features that suggest some thought was put into its design above and beyond a purely utilitarian nature. At each corner there is a brick column to support the walls, these were capped at the top with two layers of clay tile and diagonal bricks, providing a simple decorative affect. The remains of a louvered wooden frame on the roof clearly shows that there was a vented superstructure in the centre of the roof, a feature seen on other period architecture. These two architectural elements do give the impression of “chapelesque” architecture.
The team concluded that this building was indeed the aerodrome mortuary. Although it was built from basic materials, on marginal land and away from the main site area out of casual view, the building's more careful design immediately defines it as something special.
Team B spent the first morning putting in a trench to try and uncover evidence of the wooden huts believed to have been used as accommodation blocks. Sited next to a jumbled pile of large concrete blocks this trench turned out to be virtually sterile. Although not surprised by this (as they believed these concrete blocks to be the foundations upon which the wooden huts had sat) the team were surprised not to find any material culture associated with the huts. Upon further research back at the OVH the team discovered that although a 1918 aerial photograph showed the elusive huts, they were absent in a 1945 photograph. It is not clear how long the huts were there for, and it may be that they were part of the planned expansion of the airfield that was halted due to the end of hostilities in 1918. It is therefore possible that the huts saw little use before being dismantled and so the team concluded that this is why no associated material culture was found at the site.
Closing off this area Team B moved onto the rubbish dump where a 1m by 8m trench (Trench 1) had been opened up which, over the next couple of days, provided us with a large assemblage of material culture. The artefacts collected from Trench 1 were all either picked up from the surface or found within, or just below, the topsoil. Although the students didn't have to dig deep to recover items they found that the area of deposition was large. Once it became clear that the bulk of the finds were located in the East end, dumped around the base of a tree, they expanded the trench in this area.
Finds included from glass bottles and jars, pieces of domestic china, leather boots, a couple of rubber bicycle pedals and a single .303 blank cartridge case (dated to WWI). Among the many complete bottles and jars we found examples that were marked Colgate, Dettol, Heinz 10 (they hadn't reached 57 then), Horlicks and L'Oreal as well as several that probably held medicine as evidenced by the measuring marks up the sides. This large assemblage provides us with the opportunity to do plenty of post-excavation research work that will help us to understand how long the site was in use for.
Initial research undertaken on a small selection of items by the team during their course show that the artefacts span at least a 40 year period. They identified a local bottle from Heacham that was dated 1909 and a jar marked 'TYNE BRAND PRODUCTS, NORTH SHIELDS ENGLAND' which is a company that was set up in 1901 but did not change its name to Tyne Brand Products until 1942. Although this span indicates that the aerodrome site was in use through both WWI and WWII the fact that all of the finds were jumbled up together within the area investigated leads us to conclude that it was not a purpose made dump area during the wars themselves. It is clear from both documentary, verbal and material cultural evidence that the aerodrome site, including some of the buildings, was put to alternative use post-WWII, both for accommodation and agricultural. Our conclusion is that the investigated 'rubbish dump' area is likely to be as a result of building and area clearance associated with these post WWII uses.
While Team B were busy collecting bottles, Team C were investigating and recording the air raid shelter. On top of, around the outside, down the steps and inside the main room they recorded every measurement possible. These, along with the drawings of the four external elevations, provide us with an excellent record of this partially buried building. Believed to date from the First World War it is constructed of house bricks with an internal corrugated iron ceiling overlaid with a thick slab of concrete (likely to have been poured in situ as evidenced by the trowel marks on its surface).
A wooden door at the bottom of the steps led into the one-room shelter. Short brick piers were found spaced along both walls, presumably supports for wooden benches that could have sat up to 12-16 people. A window, crudely hacked out of the south wall, sits at the external ground level. This is believed to have been created at a later date possibly when the shelter was used as a store building, judging by the accumulation of rubbish inside.
Above ground what appears to be a finishing course of brickwork around the stairwell suggests that the brick courses above this were a later addition to the structure. A wooden door post at the entrance to the stairwell suggests that an outer door was added at the same time. When and for what purpose these later alterations were made is still a mystery. Were they made during the site's life as a military installation or are they associated with the site's later life as part of a farm estate?