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Bring together a sense of place, archaeology and art in Norfolk initiative

PUBLISHED: 16:57 13 May 2017

Archaeology project at 18 Church Road, Tasburgh. Pictured with a piece of vertebrae from a small animal is Ian Jackson. Picture: Ian Burt

Archaeology project at 18 Church Road, Tasburgh. Pictured with a piece of vertebrae from a small animal is Ian Jackson. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2017

Opinion: Trevor Heaton hears about Imagined Land, an innovative two-year project to link the arts with archaeology and help two Norfolk communities celebrate their true ‘sense of place’.

Once, archaeology was all about ‘us and them’. You (the public) were kept away while they (the experts) got on with it.

All you saw were a lot of mysterious holes, a few large spoil heaps - and that was about it. If the site was very important there might be a bit of a public open day, if you were lucky. And if you were persistent (and very patient, because it could be years later) you might eventually root out the scholarly article which looked at what had been discovered.

Not very user-friendly, is it? But then along came Channel 4’s hugely-popular Time Team, and brilliant local initiatives such as Sedgeford’s long-running SHARP programme and the Caistor Roman Project.

Suddenly, everyone seemed to realise that it wasn’t just the experts who loved their history. Ordinary members of the community wanted to be involved, to find out and contribute to projects which help tell the story of where they live.

Now Norfolk Archaeological Trust is taking the ideas a stage forward with an innovative two-year programme Imagined Land, which blends archaeology with arts, history with music, and lots of other fascinating cross-connections.

It’s been put together thanks to £74,700 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, plus contributions from Historic England, Writers’ Centre Norwich, Norfolk County Council and Norwich Arts Centre.

And it all started with a conversation a couple of years ago, when a community arts expert was chatting with a heritage expert and they suddenly wondered: ‘What would happen if…?’

The community arts expert was Simon Floyd, now Imagined Land’s project manager. And the heritage expert was Caroline Davison, who is director of the trust.

Imagined Land, which is now under way, will focus this year on Tasburgh, and at Burnham Norton in 2018. These two communities are home to Tasburgh enclosure, and Burnham Norton Friary, two of the trust’s ten sites, which also include Binham Priory and St Benet’s Abbey.

Simon ran the development project SHARE Museums East for eight years and has a strong background in community theatre, including The Common Lot’s co-production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company last year.

“It was an idea that Caroline and I had a couple of years ago,” he said. “I had already developed freelance work in museums development, and I also knew about the ins and outs of Heritage Lottery Fund funding. And Caroline is keen to make the most of the sites she’s got.”

For Simon, the projects bring together his love of history and theatre. “We want to use the arts to involve people to appreciate what’s on their doorsteps,” he explained.

The creative activities include writing, music and crafts, culminating in an historical pageant devised and created with the communities.

He sees parallels with the region’s passion for pageants which was particularly big a couple of generations ago. “What’s interesting about it is in the process of research I have been looking at the pageant movement of the interwar years. It was a real craze.

“What we’re doing is a revival of those village arts movements in a way. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the village.”

Although he would be the first to admit that he is no archaeologist, he is intrigued by the rich history of both sites and what may be discovered. “It IS fascinating,” he said. “For instance, at Burnham Norton we’ve discovered it was used to house prisoners in the First World War. Who knew that?”

Alongside the artistic surveys, historical and archaeological research will help tease out more of the secrets of these sites. It includes a programme of test-pitting, which began earlier this month at Tasbugh.

These are one-metre-square mini-excavations in gardens and fields where the soil is stripped away layer by layer. Archaeologists are looking for pottery and other reminders of human occupation. Complementing this will be archival research involving the local community, with help from the Norfolk Archaeological and Historical Research Group and Caistor Roman Project.

The timetable for the rest of the summer will include - next month - music, craft and acting workshops and the recording of oral histories with older village residents,

In high summer Simon and a team including Sarah Helen Binney, arranged via the Writers’ Centre Norwich, will concentrate on music, performance, creative and writing.

Then in September there will be a procession/ pageant – all rounded off with a ceilidh. “We want to bring the whole village together in celebration,” he said.

Why the Imagined Land concept works so well is the synergy between its different strands, says Simon. “The main thing is that the archaeology appeals to the scientists, the research to the historians, and the performance to the show-offs and artists! We cover all the bases, I think.

“The interest is there – it was always there. We’re just providing the framework.”

Lead archaeologist for Imagined Land is Giles Emery, from Norvic Archaeology, who explained that although there had been some investigation at the sites over the years, they are both ‘great unknowns’.

Apart from the well-preserved medieval gatehouse and boundary walls, there’s just ‘lumps and bumps’ at Burnham Norton, while the Tasburgh enclosure – which the Trust describes as its ‘most enigmatic’ site - could be Iron Age, Anglo-Saxon, a mix…or more.

Both village schools are keen to be involved, and at Burnham Norton there’s an extra interest as the school site is opposite the friary so may well have a direct link with it. “They’re very keen,” he said.

As for Tasburgh, it’s likely to show a range of periods, as the site would have been used and reused for perhaps thousands of years. “It’s a very interesting spot for the prehistoric period – Arminghall henge is down the road,” he pointed out. Giles and the volunteers will also be looking into the apparent hiatus on the site from the ninth to the 12th centuries.

‘Geophys’ surveys of both sites have been carried out by David Bescoby which should help give a pointer to what lies under the surface.

“There is an amazing amount of interest in this project. We had four teams – 50 people - test-pitting at Tasburgh, which is quite cool…

“I’m sure we’ll find something that will put a smile on our face.”

Caroline Davison, director of the Trust added: “We’re really thrilled with how the local community at Tasburgh have seized the opportunity to get involved with the Imagined Land project and actually steer its progress.

“I think one of the strengths of the project is that it offers so many ways of participating - whether your interest is in research, storytelling, music, making things, or digging.”

Simon agrees the project seems tailor-made to repeat at other sites. “It’s massively applicable [elsewhere],” he said, while Caroline added: “We would certainly like to roll out the idea to other sites, but this would depend on access to external finance.”

For more information see the Imagined Land pages on the Trust’s website (www.norfarchtrust.co.uk)

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