Sedgeford dig unearths historic village

By CHRIS BISHOPIt might seem like the height of decadence, but our ancestors from 1,200 years ago must have dined on oysters nearly every day judging by the amount of shells they left behind.

It might seem like the height of decadence, but our ancestors from 1,200 years ago must have dined on oysters nearly every day judging by the amount of shells they left behind.

Archaeologists believe they have found the first signs of the early Saxon settlement they always believed existed on a hillside overlooking Sedgeford, near Heacham.

Fragments of shells, animal bones, pottery and the occasional coin confirm this was an area once populated by the living - as well as the dead.

Settlers who colonised the Norfolk coast after the Romans left our shores around 410AD left tantalising clues behind them in a field christened the Boneyard, across a river valley from the modern-day village.

Archaeologists have unearthed more than 300 skeletons and uncovered buried treasure, the missing piece of a priceless golden torc and even a 1,200-year-old murder mystery since work began on the site 12 years ago.

Now they have uncovered the fringes of the Saxon settlement which almost certainly gave rise to Sedgeford - along with an interesting insight into the eating habits of our forebears.

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New trenches dug uphill from the previously-excavated cemetery site have revealed a huge boundary ditch, where the Saxons seemingly threw their household rubbish.

Yesterday, volunteers from the Sedgeford Historical And Archaeological Project (SHARP) were meticulously clearing fragments of shell and bone buried a few feet beneath the surface.

The numbers of oyster shells - all remarkably well-preserved by the chalky soil - along with those of mussels, suggest sea food formed a major part of the diet of those who dug the ditch.

Oyster farming, which goes on to this day at nearby Thornham, was a legacy of the Roman occupation, so the shellfish would have been readily-available.

Archaeologists also believe the shells may have been used to mark the boundaries of burial plots in the nearby cemetery.

The ditches were uncovered by a sophisticated geo-physical survey, which also revealed what appear to be the boundaries of individual plots or even properties beneath a nearby wheat field. The next quest will be to find the post holes which could well be all that remains of the Saxons' wooden houses.

SHARP project director Gareth Davies said: “We've always assumed the main settlement was nearby. Now we can be certain. The settlement we've started excavating represents the beginnings of the modern village of Sedgeford 1,250 years ago. There are other settlements but excavation of these middle to late Anglo Saxon sites isn't that common, there have only really been little nibbles that have been excavated in Norfolk.”

Excavation director Jon Cousins said: “We've been looking for the settlement of the first Sedgeford villagers for over a decade.

“We've always believed it had to be close to the cemetery and we've long suspected the location. Only now, though, have we had the resources and the time to begin investigating the new site.”

Up to 50 volunteers will be working on the site between now and mid-August. SHARP has an open afternoon each Friday at 3.30pm. There will also be an open day on Sunday, July 29.

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ANGLO SAXONS

The Anglo Saxons were German settlers from the regions of Angeln and Saxony, who began to colonise Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire around 410AD.

As the Romans withdrew to defend their empire, the Anglo Saxons brought their own religious beliefs and language and created their own settlements.

As tribal groups grew in size and power, kingdoms and allegiances were formed and by the ninth century, Britain was divided into four - East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex.

Saxon rule lasted more than 600 years. It ended with the Norman conquest, when the invading French defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

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