Although only a small village, Sedgeford has an incredibly rich heritage spanning over four thousand years. The research undertaken by SHARP since 1996 has produced a fascinating picture of human settlement within the parish. A variety of methodologies have been used throughout our studies, including excavation, test pitting, field walking, geophysical survey, landscape survey and standing building surveys, along with comprehensive desktop research.
The interactive map below highlights where SHARP has undertaken interventions and research within the parish. You can drill down to see the individual sites and the year(s) when research was carried out by using the +/- buttons in the upper left of the map.
Our knowledge of human settlement within Sedgeford during the prehistoric period remains scant, with no known evidence for settlement occurring prior to the Late Iron Age. However, close to 600 pieces of worked flint have been recovered from the Boneyard/Reeddam site, although none were recovered from sealed contexts. Some of the most distinctive pieces found from the site are microliths dating from the Late Mesolithic period. The Boneyard/Reeddam site is located towards the bottom of the Heacham River valley, which would have been a much more substantial feature in the landscape during this period, and may well have been the site of a temporary hunting camp during this period.
Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age
The archaeological footprint from this period is relatively scant at Sedgeford. A number of ploughed-out round barrows are located to both the north and south of the Heacham River within the parish. A small assemblage of worked flint artefacts from the Late Neolithic period have also been recovered, again mostly from unsealed contexts.
In 2009, while excavating the Middle Anglo-Saxon settlement site, a crouched burial, containing the skeleton of a young adult was discovered. Subsequent radiocarbon dating dated the skeleton to 2458-2200 cal. BC. It was not able to determine the sex or height of the skeleton but the person would have been around 20 years old at the time of death. Research has shown that the person had suffered delayed skeletal development, likely to have been caused by periods of severe malnutrition or bouts extended illness. Two objects were found within the grave fill; a large flat-topped flint with rounded corners and a part of a worked red deer antler.
Thus far, we have not been able to date any Iron Age settlement activity at Sedgeford before the Late Iron Age. In 2010, a further crouched burial was discovered close to the previous year’s Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age burial. The grave contained the skeleton of an approximately 50 year old female. Also found within the grave fill was a cow scapula and another flat-topped flint nodule. The grave fill also contained six bead-like objects, one being a man-made amber bead, another was of baked clay and the rest being fossils. Nine sherds of pottery were also found within the grave fill; an intrusive Anglo-Saxon sherd from an upper fill, the rest being Iron Age from lower fills. Radiocarbon dating gave a date of death of 373 – 203 cal. BC, making this solitary Middle Iron Age burial an unusual one for the region.
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.
Several Romano-British sites within the parish have been investigated. The most extensive excavations taking place in Upper Chalk Pit Field in 2006, where it appears that after being abandoned for around 50 years following the Boudican Revolt of AD 60/61, the previously mentioned Late Iron Age farmstead is succeeded by a Romano-British farmstead at some point during the early part of the 2nd century AD. The new farmstead appears to have been built to a new layout to the side of the earlier site. At some point during the mid to late 3rd century AD further extensive remodelling of the landscape takes place with several substantial ditch features being dug.
The site was to undergo radical transformation c. AD 275/300 to 300/350 where the Romano-British farmstead develops into a Late Roman agricultural processing plant. During this period the British landscape was seeing substantial reorganisation into villa estates and a probable villa site at Sedgeford, on the north bank of the Heacham River to the west of the village, has been identified. If confirmed, the Sedgeford villa site would join a line of other villas which follow the line of the Icknield Way as it passes through West Norfolk.
One significant feature uncovered during the 2006 excavations was a grain-drying oven. The feature appears to have undergone modification during the early-mid 4th century AD. It was during the last firing of the oven’s furnace that a remarkable event occurred. It appears that the body of a male around 40 years old, was cremated within the furnace and then the burnt remains roughly raked throughout the oven’s flue system.
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.
The excavated features are part of a malting house complex, comprising of several buildings. Our current understanding now suggest that at some time around AD 800, Sedgeford was transformed. A new grid-planned village was laid out. A large malt-processing complex was built. And an elaborate system of watercourses was constructed in the valley bottom – for barges, to power mills, and to create fisheries.
Sedgeford has emerged as a major site for investigating the agricultural revolution of ‘the long 8th century’. This period, between c. AD 650 and 850, saw the consolidation of kingdoms, the rise of the Church, the creation of great estates, an agricultural transformation based on heavy ploughs, open fields, and nucleated villages, and the development of emporia, craftwork, and long-distance trade in prestige goods.
It was a new world of wealth, power, and connections; a world of landlords and warlords, merchants and monks, free men and serfs. It represented the emergence of the medieval order from the ‘Dark Ages’ following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And what is increasingly clear is that changes in eastern Britain mirrored changes in the Carolingian Empire, especially in the coastal zones of north-west Europe. The North Sea, with its ready access to other seas and to estuaries and navigable rivers, was a busy highway for military, economic, and cultural interaction between communities located around the coastal fringe or on connected waterways.
At a point, somewhere in the latter half of the 11th century, the settlement centre shifts. Moving north across the river and forming the basis of today’s village. The reasons for the move are uncertain. What we know is that the settlement moved to a point around the contemporary West Hall, south of the Early Medieval parish church. Excavations carried out between 1996 – 2000 in the adjacent West Hall Paddock uncovered the remains of a structure’s foundation. Three nearby, west-east aligned, grave cuts inferring the religious nature of the building. Radiocarbon dating from one of the burials produced an age of between AD 1010 -1180.
The modern-day church of St. Mary the Virgin lies close to the West Hall Paddock site but across on the north bank of the Heacham River. The earliest documentary evidence for a church in Sedgeford dates from 1205. None of the surviving fabric of the current building dates to before the 13th century. The church grew considerably throughout the Medieval period while Sedgeford enjoyed strong links with Norwich Cathedral Priory.
First World War
In 2009 research began on the site of a WWI aerodrome, located to the east of Sedgeford. The aerodrome began life in the spring of 1915 as a night landing ground for the Royal Naval Air Service; this was a modest operation with only one aircraft on site and primarily acting as a satellite base for the R,N,A,S, Great Yarmouth, South Denes. During 1916 the site was to take on a much more substantial role when it became a training station for the still fledgling, Royal Flying Corps. Tasked with producing pilots for front line combat, a range of buildings and structures were quickly constructed on the site. The buildings largely fell into three categories – technical, domestic and regimental - and were essentially constructed using either timber-framed or ceramic brick.
Throughout the First World War, the aerodrome continued to expand; at its peak, more than 1,200 personnel were stationed at the site. By 1918, Sedgeford aerodrome had become a three-squadron training station. At this time, the site contained over one hundred buildings and even more were in the process of being constructed at the time of the Armistice in November, 1918. At this point building was halted and the aerodrome, while still continuing its training function, was gradually scaled back before it was operationally closed at the end of 1919.
At the end of the war the site was extensively cleared of many of its buildings and structures. Timber-framed buildings, which would have at best left an ephemeral footprint, show no trace today of their presence. Some of the brick-built technical buildings, along with some aircraft hangars, remained in situ until after World War Two, when the site was used as a day and night-time (Q/K) decoy for nearby RAF Bircham Newton.
Assisted by original documentary archives and aerial photographs of the site, since 2009 SHARP has undertaken one of the most comprehensive archaeological surveys of a British First World War airfield. Some of the aerodrome’s original buildings are still standing, others have been stripped down to their foundations, others have been lost to almost 100 years of agricultural activity. However, nearly all of these buildings and structures have been surveyed and plotted on to the site. From this we have been able to phase the development of the site – from its modest roots as a night landing ground, to a two and then three-squadron training station during the First World war, a day and night-time decoy airfield during World War Two and then back to post-war agricultural use, with some residential dwellings also being located on the site.