How Peter has filled in the blanks in Norfolk's long story
PUBLISHED: 07:25 30 December 2017
Archant Norfolk 2017
He’s a man who has spent decades of his life uncovering Norfolk’s hidden past and is as passionate as ever about our need to protect it. And now he’s written the story of those years. Trevor Heaton talked to Dr Peter Wade-Martins about his eventful career.
Ernest was baffled. Here was his son Peter talking about a career in something he didn’t even know that you could have a career in. What on earth, he wondered, was wrong with sticking with what the family did best: farming? And how could anyone make a career in archaeology anyway?
“Mother was supportive, but father was horrified, he really was,” Peter recalls. “He’d farmed through the years of the Depression, and here was his son interested in a profession, in a career in something that didn’t really exist.
“In the end he gave way because he could see things were changing.”
But in its way it wasn’t really so very different. For farmers are famously passionate about their connection to the land – Ernest had farmed at Great Witchingham and Mattishall – just as, in their own way, archaeologists are.
It’s a good job that Peter’s tenacity did win out because it has led to a lifetime of uncovering, recording and protecting Norfolk’s past, telling us so much about our county story that would have otherwise have been untold and lost.
And now the 73-year-old former County Field Archaeologist and first-ever Director of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust is sharing his memories in his autobiography, A Life in Norfolk’s Archaeology 1950-2017.
It’s been a time of great change both in his profession and his beloved county – “I am a Norfolk person through-and-through” – and change is something he became aware of as some of his earliest memories.
Growing up in mid-Norfolk he was part of a pattern of life which in many ways had not changed for centuries. Peter writes about his village being a place where there were still farmers working with the land with horses, where water was drawn from wells, and electricity had not yet arrived.
But farming could be a fickle and sometimes cruel occupation. Ernest Martins - the ‘Wade’ was added to revive an old family name after a bank paid money into a wrong account – had seen both. A veteran of Ypres, he had already seen his share of life’s horrors. Through hard work back home he built up a fine herd of pigs. All seemed set fair – until swine fever struck. Ernest was badly affected by the ‘agony’ of losing them.
Not something you might expect in a book about archaeology, especially one published by a specialist imprint. But it’s these very human touches which complement the detail of the excavations and the discoveries.
It’s also typical of a very readable book which is rich on personalities. Like the larger-than-life John Green, then owner of the magnificent Roman fort at Burgh Castle. Peter, then in his later role with the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, was about to open negotiations to buy the site. John, a colourful character if ever there was one, turned up for the meeting in a golden Rolls Royce. Peter writes: ‘I just had to comment on his car, and his response in a good Norfolk accent was ‘I’ve got two of these, and I keep the dog in the other one.’”
The sought-after deal took 20 meetings and two years to arrange before the two shook hands on it, but Peter’s self-confessed ‘tenacity’ – that typical Norfolk trait – proved its worth.
That tenacity had showed itself right at the start of his inkling that archaeology could be a career. Truth be told, he had already caught the ‘bug’ long before then. “It was when I went to Caistor with a schoolfriend,” he said. “I came back with Roman pottery. That’s it - I was hooked. I have lived and breathed it since I was a young teenager – probably before.” Little did the young Peter know that, decades later, he would help lead efforts to protect this iconic Norfolk site.
His first proper excavation came in 1959 at Warham Camp, near Wells, and led to a series of digs across the county. Two excavations at Thetford proved especially memorable, for very different reasons. At the first – at the castle - he was nearly killed when a trench collapsed without warning (these were pre-modern health and safety days). Fortunately, Peter and his fellow diggers had just got out for a coffee break.
As for the second, well, that changed his life in a very different way. One of the excavators he ferried to and fro the station in his trusty green Austin A35 van in that 1964 dig was a young student by the name of Susanna Everett. Fifty-three years later Susanna – now Mrs Wade-Martins - recalled those days with a twinkle in her eye.
It nearly didn’t happen: when the dig ended, so did their contact. “I didn’t even know his address,” she laughed. Susanna was on a later placement at Bristol when spotted a very familiar name on the mailing list… with an address. In 1970 they married.
Other memorable digs include two Anglo-Saxon sites at North Elmham, one at the park up by the church and one south of the village at Spong Hill. The latter dig – later continued by Dr Catherine Hills – would produce one of Norwich Castle Museum’s best-loved exhibits, the famous ‘Spong Man’.
Five years of digging opposite the village church also revealed 194 burials linked with the now-vanished Anglo-Saxon cathedral of 1,000 years ago. And if you want an illustration of how archaeology can bring the past alive then here it is: thanks to those bones we can tell that a fifth of the villagers had died by the time they were 18, that most people lived to be no older than 37, that they ate tough meat and coarse bread, and nine-tenths of them had damaged spines by their mid-twenties – the legacy of a life of hard physical toil. Now, doesn’t all that bring the past – and maybe your own ancestors – alive?
Among the burials too was a woman of pure black African descent. And when excavations at Anglia Television followed a few years later, there was a similar discovery. A reminder that slavery didn’t die out with the Romans, and a reminder too that our roots might be rather more complicated than we think.
Norfolk has long had a history of heritage ‘firsts’ and Peter is proud to have added to them. The Norfolk Archaeological Unit – which opened for business in 1973 – was a huge leap forward.
“We had a very good relationship with the Ancient Monuments Inspectors, at the old Department of the Environment,” he recalled. “We gave them this model [for a county archaeological unit] and they just grabbed it.”
“We had some very supportive and kind chief officers at Norfolk County Council who agreed to cover our administration costs. That was the turning point. Everything flowed from there.”
Now the team could devote its efforts to discovering, excavating and recording. “An early step was persuading district councils that they needed advice on the archaeological implications of planning applications. That became one of our key tools in finding out which sites were being destroyed.”
Because being destroyed they certainly were. There are poignant tales here of lost medieval villages which survived until the late 1950s and early 1960s, only to be levelled and ploughed up. Of the shocking 1977 demolition of a house in King’s Lynn which had turned out to be built around 1200 – just think, only 34 years after the Norman Conquest and one of the oldest in the whole country – a loss that Peter describes as a ‘devastating gut-wrenching experience’.
“It exposed that there was no proper procedure for evaluating that property at the time. There was no proper study – so it’s hardly surprising it was pulled down,” he said.
The only silver lining to this sad saga was that it might have helped lead to the national planning guideline known as PPG 15, which insists that such building are properly investigated before any new works take place. There was some comfort for Peter in that when another Norman building was discovered a few years later, this time in Norwich, it was preserved under the new court buildings.
Another Norfolk experience – that 1979 Anglia Television dig - fed into another key national guideline, PPG16, which established that the developer has to pay for any archaeological investigation. “They funded the excavation 100pc – after that it became understood that other developers needed to do the same.
“Of course, that’s never applied to farming. That’s always been a loophole.”
There have been many successes and some setbacks over the years, and Peter is frank and self-deprecating about things good and bad. And throughout is his deep love for his home county. At one point he moved to a job at Winchester before realising almost at once that it was a mistake; the pull of Norfolk was just too strong.
Although the old-format NAU is no more, it helped lay the foundations for so much: from aerial photography officer’s Derek Edward’s peerless collection of 41,000 photographs, to building on Rainbird Clarke’s 1933 card index of sites to create today’s Heritage Environment Record.
As a small pointer to how much is out there in our Norfolk countryside, at the start of Derek’s 26-year aerial survey we knew of 196 ring ditches (what’s left of Bronze Age burial mounds). As of 2015 we know of 1,741. And counting…
But Peter is all too aware that as we find more, we lose more. A Norfolk earthworks survey from 1994 showed something of just how much is out there. “There’s a lot a catching up to do. Quite a lot of sites which are important don’t have protection. It’s so hard for farmers and landowners to know what’s important and what isn’t,” he said.
“I grew up in the countryside, and at that time this sort of destruction was positively encouraged by the government. It’s been a question of turning round the psyche.”
But he is a realist too. He knows you can’t save everything, especially in a cash-strapped world. “But if you’re going to save the best you have to know what the best is – you need the information.”
A new stage in Peter’s life began in 1999 when he retired from Norfolk Museums Service and became the first Director of the long-established Norfolk Archaeological Trust, stepping down a few years ago after health problems.
“My proudest moment has to be buying Dunston Field, site of an Anglo-Saxon trading centre. I’m sure that this [site] is the halfway step between Roman Caistor and Medieval Norwich.
“People might says ‘oh, that’s just a flat field, there’s nothing to see’. But it’s absolutely crucial for the story of Norfolk.”
Besides, there IS plenty to see – the field is now filled with carefully-managed wild flowers every summer. So, then, an instant nature reserve and a vital part of our county heritage protected for ever; two for the price of one.
“Buying a field is a much cheaper way of saving the past than excavating. If you can preserve the landscape at the same time that makes it doubly successful,” he points out. “I hope the Archaeological Trust is only the beginning. There is so much archaeology out there that can be conserved and explained to the public.
“We shouldn’t be satisfied with saving just the castles and the priories, we should go for ‘everyday’ archaeology too.”
Away from archaeology, there’s family life. Peter and Susanna have two sons – former Norwich School head boy Richard, now Professor of Molecular Neuroscience at Oxford University and helping to search for a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, and Edward, two years younger, who’s very much more an adventure-seeker with a special fondness for West Africa (‘He’s cycled there - across the Sahara.’) Edward also runs camps and schools to help build confidence and life skills for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. “His view is very much ‘whatever your dream is, fulfil it.’” A chip off the old block, then, you might say.
Both sons and Peter and Susanna’s two grandchildren enjoy one of Peter’s other interests: rare sheep. He keeps a small flock of Manx Loaghtans on the family’s 20 acres and has written books on the breed and the Norfolk Horned.
And the family have also spent many happy times on the Scottish island of Eigg, in the Inner Hebrides, where Peter put together an archive of 3,000 photographs of now-vanished island life. “I talked to some of the old people just in time – they’re gone now,” he recalled.
As for the future of Norfolk’s archaeological heritage, he stresses the ‘once it’s gone, it’s gone forever’ point “We need to take more care of what we have left than we did from the 1950s through to the 1980s.” He has concerns too about a growing backlog of unpublished excavation reports (‘It’s a national issue and has to be dealt with nationally. There’s no point in digging stuff up if you’re not going to publish it.’)
And one final thing. Looking out over the fields at the back of his home, I have to ask: is there anything under there too? “Of course, we’re on the edge of a Roman road here… but we’ve never really looked…”
A Life in Norfolk’s Archaeology 1950-2017, by Dr Peter Wade-Martins, is published by Archaeopress, £24.99.