Archaeological evidence of the Early Anglo-Saxon period at Sedgeford is scant, with settlement evidence remaining elusive. During the 19th and early 20th century three cremation urns were found within the parish. The evidence for where the urns were found is contradictory at best. The first urn to be discovered, found in 1826, is of decorated design and was found during work in a gravel quarry ‘north of the river’. The second is a plain cremation urn, also found during the 19th century. Both urns are held at Norwich Castle Museum. The third urn is again of plan design but with three bands around the shoulder.
More than 180 artefacts have been found by metal detector to the west of Sedgeford, adjacent to a known Early Anglo-Saxon inhumation cemetery. Both this cemetery and the probable locations of the cremation urns are both a distance away from the Middle Anglo-Saxon site.
Since the formation of SHARP, the Middle Anglo-Saxon period has been the focal point of the project’s research. Earlier archaeological investigations at Sedgeford during the 1950s, carried out by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works under the direction of Dr. Peter Jewell, had determined that the substantial quantities of bone which were being disturbed by mechanised ploughing in the Boneyard, were in fact human bone. His work at Sedgeford over two short seasons encompassed the excavation of around thirty skeletons from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, along with an area of settlement towards the western limit of the cemetery. A further excavation by Don Brothwell in 1960 took the total number of skeletons lifted from the Boneyard cemetery to 126. These skeletons were deposited with the Duckworth Collection at Cambridge University, where they remain today. No comprehensive report on these sets of bones has yet been published.
SHARP’s first season in 1996 began by revisiting the Boneyard cemetery to undertake a large-scale excavation of the site, with the aim of determining its character and chronology. That first season saw the opening of a 20m x 15m area between the backfilled trenches of Jewell and Brothwell. In addition, four test pits and an evaluation trench were opened in the Reeddam. In the following years, a larger trench was opened into the Reeddam, as well as expanding the original Boneyard trench. By 2001, an additional trench in Boneyard was opened, both trenches were subsequently united. At its greatest extent, the Boneyard-Reeddam trenches measured 50m x 40m.
The Boneyard-Reeddam site was excavated for eleven years. During this period, SHARP excavated 291 discrete individuals, as well as copious disarticulated human bone. Our best guess is that these burials, along with those from earlier excavations, represent somewhere between a quarter and a half of the total population of the cemetery. The burials appear to follow a Christian rite, aligned west to east and not containing any grave goods. The burials fall into two types; coffined or uncoffined. Evidence for the former was found in the recovery of iron coffin-fittings and nails. Eighty coffin fittings were found during the Boneyard-Reeddam excavations, although not all of these were found within grave cuts. The more common burial rite was uncoffined burial; the body appearing within the grave cut in a more constricted form than that of a coffined burial.
Our in-depth study of the burials suggests that the cemetery was in use for around 200 years (AD 650/725 – 850/875). The population appear to have had a hardworking life, sustained by a varied terrestrial and marine diet. All ages and sexes are represented, although young children less so. A small number of male skeletons show evidence of trauma injuries but not to any scale to suggest that this would have been a common occurrence.
The people buried in the Boneyard-Reeddam cemetery lived further up on the southern edge of the valley, in what is today Chalkpit Field. In 2007, after fieldwalking the area and undertaking an extensive magnetometer survey, we opened five evaluation trenches close to the northern boundary of the field. In a variety of ways, all trenches delivered evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement activity. Between 2008 and 2016, large open area trenches were excavated across the northern end of the field.
The excavations have uncovered a number of structures, dating from the early 8th century through to the early 11th century. We believe that the settlement had its origins around 700 AD at the latest. We can further speculate that some kind of central authority – secular or ecclesiastical – may have been imposing a formal layout to the site. The original settlement was surrounded by a curvilinear ditch and appears to have lacked internal plot boundaries. We do not know much about the buildings. In addition to the cemetery, the settlement also had an industrial scale cereal-processing plant, probably for malting.
Around a century later, the settlement was radically remodelled on a grid pattern, with hall-type buildings sitting inside rectilinear plots bounded by ditches. The cemetery remained in use, but the cereal-processing plant had been abandoned, and the overlying soil, which had accumulated quickly, was now being ploughed. By the start of the 10th century a high-status complex was established on the southern edge of the settlement
In 2013, research began towards the eastern boundary of Chalkpit Field on a series of geophysical anomalies which had been highlighted on the earlier magnetometer survey. A 10m x 10m evaluation was opened but it was not until machining had reached a depth of 2m before archaeological features were uncovered. These features appeared as the truncated baked clay foundations of what appeared to be large oven structures, cut into the subsoil. Further excavation has ascertained that the site sits within a large north-south aligned, post-glacial river valley, which runs downhill to join the Heacham River. The valley has been filled over thousands of years with numerous washed-in ploughsoils, dating back to the Iron Age.
During subsequent years, the trench has been extended to reveal a further two oven features and associated clay floors. To the south of the oven features, a large clay-lined pit has been revealed. Dating from these features place them during the Middle Anglo-Saxon period. Evidence of burnt structures has been found adjacent to the some of the ovens.
However, a wealth of evidence discovered by excavation, fieldwalking and metal detecting, suggest an elevated status for Sedgeford during the Late Iron Age period. The first discovery of note occurred in Polar Breck field back in 1965. The Sedgeford Torc was discovered by agricultural machining. Although damaged, a terminal was missing and the rest of the torc had been twisted out of shape, the torc remains one of the finest examples discovered from the period. In April 2004, during a SHARP field survey, metal detectorist Steve Hammond discovered the missing terminal, thus reuniting the two fragments.
Polar Breck field is located to the south of where much of SHARP’s excavations have been undertaken. It was closer to the Heacham River valley where several other discoveries have been made, suggesting the area’s use as a river edge sanctuary during the Late Iron Age. In the late summer of 2003, during the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery, metal detectors were used to make a final sweep of the site before it was shut down for the season. In a particularly waterlogged area an exposed cow’s femur emitted a signal to metal detectorist Kevin Woodward. Intrigued by this source, Kevin carefully examined the bone to find that it had been hollowed out and exposed within it was a gold coin. The bone was carefully lifted and subsequent forensic examination found it to contain a further 19 coins, all gold Gallo-Belgic E staters, minted during the early to mid 1st century BC in northern Gaul. In total 39 coins were recovered from the surrounding deposit.
This hoard of coins was not the only Iron Age discovery of note to be found in the Boneyard/Reeddam area. Again, while excavating the Anglo-Saxon cemetery, a horse burial was discovered beneath the Anglo-Saxon burial layers, with a fully-articulated horse having been buried in a pit 0.5m in depth. Osteological analysis of the horse found it to be a stallion of eight years old, in good health and standing 13 hands high. A large section of the animal’s cranium was missing; the position of the missing bone, fracture lines and lack of post-trauma healing, suggesting that the injury was caused by a hard blow with a heavy-bladed instrument. The Boneyard/Reeddam site contained a number of other Iron Age features; pits and gullies and a couple of postholes. Four of these locations contained a number of broken part-pots; substantial parts of single vessels were found in individual deposits, inferring deliberate and careful placing of the vessels.
In 2006, a trench was opened in the south-east corner of Chalkpit Field; a junction of four fields on the chalk downland south of Sedgeford. The site having been previously identified by fieldwalking and geophysical survey. The excavation uncovered a small number of Iron Age features – pits and two curving ditches (the larger of the two appearing to be an outer enclosure ditch) – representing a small farmstead on the site. The Iron Age farmstead appears to have suffered abandonment (as did many such sites in Norfolk) during the period following the Boudican Revolt around AD 60/61.