(feature published July 2014)
The origins of The Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project can be traced back to a hotel bar overlooking the Bay of Naples. It was here in 1995 that a chance meeting took place between SHARP's founder director, Dr Neil Faulkner, and the owner of the Sedgeford Hall Estate, Professor Bernard Campbell, who mentioned the archaeology found on his estate….
Nineteen seasons later SHARP is one of the largest independent archaeological projects in Britain, and firmly rooted in the local community. It has won awards for its outstanding contribution to education. Half a dozen locals who went on to study archaeology as postgraduates found their futures in the trenches of Sedgeford’s past.
Since 1996 SHARP has undertaken a wide range of excavation and research projects from an Early Bronze Age crouched burial to a First World War aerodrome.
Beginning with Iron Age and Saxon burials – including murders - in the spooky Boneyard Field, around the Reeddam and St. Mary’s Church, excavations and research have since extended to Chalk Pit Field North, Eaton Roman Villa, the Saggy Horse Field, West Hall, East Hall, Hall Wood, Ladywell Field and even Sedgeford Hall Bowling Green!
The Sedgeford Village Survey, involving excavations of local gardens, proved popular with locals presented with Anglo-Saxon and Medieval pottery unearthed from under their own property along with a greater understanding of the history below their feet.
The aerodrome will receive particular focus in this centenary of that fateful August 1914, whose appalling tally of local names on the Sedgeford War Memorial still inspires.
Death has a long and changing history here. SHARP has unearthed evidence of remote pagan burial practices of the Bronze and Iron Ages and a possible Anglo-Saxon chapel with thegn-class burial in the village’s West End.
It is rare until modern times for a holy site once established to be abandoned. But this one was replaced by what became St Mary’s parish church, intriguingly just before the Norman invasion.
You and I might just see an insignificant depression running north-south down ‘Chalkpit’ field. Dr John Jolleys and his SHARP-eyed team see a shallow U-shaped valley formed in the last Ice Age ‘as a result of glaciation and melt water.’ And their instruments recorded ‘four strong magnetic anomalies’.
What were they? Last year’s excavation – two metres down into Middle Anglo-Saxon layers of soil formed as a result of ploughing activity ... thrillingly revealed an Anglo-Saxon oven capable of large-scale cereal production for an estate or a monastery. There were a further two metres of earlier ploughsoils beneath the Middle Anglo-Saxon one, going back to the Late Iron Age and Romano-British period.
And the ghostly hand of the past. “The presence of hand and finger marks on the inner wall of the oven was noted, the … size of the prints (suggesting) it may have been the work of women, or children.”
Our Sedgeford ancestors’ daily work for their daily bread was also evidenced. “… Small pieces of charcoal…A mass of charred grain…found within the fire pit just by the inner border of the stoking shelf. The soil over a wide area outside was noted to be stained with fine carbonised material.”
What would our middle Saxon forebears make of our exhausted modern soil? Dr Jolleys details the contrast. “The preserved plough soil from the Middle Anglo-Saxon period, a layer rich and humic and containing only Ipswich Ware pottery (c 650 -850 CE) …sealed by 1.5m of orange brown sandy colluvium which has accumulated over the last 1200 years. The modern plough soil has a thickness of 0.3m and is much less rich in humus than either the Iron Age or Middle Saxon layers.”
Could you be part of all this ground-breaking work? SHARP secretary Brenda Stibbons enthused "If you have always wanted to work on an archaeological site, this is your opportunity - we welcome people of all ages on the courses.
“The Basic Excavation & Recording Techniques course teaches the theory and practical side of excavation - they will be working on the main site for their practical experience. A campsite, well served with hearty victuals, is provided.
“If people live locally they do not have to camp on site but can travel in each day.
“If you are interested but do not fancy digging, you can join one of SHARP’s week or day courses which run throughout the excavation season 6th July – 15th August”.
A variety of courses cover the theoretical and practical aspects of archaeology. This year Archaeology of WW1, Church Archaeology, Landscape, Archaeology of Human Remains and Archaeometallaurgy. There are also day courses – like Anglo Saxon cookery- and also Dig for a Day.
It’s not all work. The annual tradition of Norfolk-based entertainment and scrumptious mediaeval banquet will be provided this year by Room at the Gin’s theatrical production of Margery Kempe of Lynn (on July 30) and returning folk band the Fried Pirates.
Director of SHARP since 2007 Mr Gary Rossin sums up, “The project’s founding objective was to research and explore human settlement and land usage within the parish of Sedgeford. The main focus of its nineteen years has been the Middle to Late Anglo-Saxon period. There are important pieces of the jigsaw yet unfound, not to mention the picture on the box!
“In 2014, we’ll be revisiting glimpses of a mediaeval landscape, including a manor house itself, moving backwards and forwards from our continuing Saxon focus.
“And, on the centenary of World War 1, we will also revisit our research at the nearby First World War aerodrome, along with the militiarised landscape of the local area. The Roman farm under Hall Field will have to wait until 2015 as it has sugar beet in it this year!”
Details of courses are at http://www.sharp.org.uk/courses.html and general information on www.sharp.co.uk.