Ploughzone archaeology reveals an internationally important Anglo-Saxon royal settlement.
Background and discovery
The parish of Rendlesham lies on the east side of the valley of the River Deben in south-east Suffolk, 6km north-east of the 7th-century princely barrow cemetery at Sutton Hoo.
Rendlaesham is mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his History of the English Church and People as the East Anglian royal settlement (vicus regius) where Aethelwold, King of the East Angles, stood sponsor at the baptism of Swithelm, King of the East Saxons, some time between AD 655 and 664.
Long-standing antiquarian and historical interest in Rendlesham intensified after the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939. Early Anglo-Saxon cremations had been found here early in the 19th century, and in 1982 fieldwalking and limited excavation identified early–middle Anglo-Saxon settlement activity north and west of the parish church, but there was nothing about this material to indicate a site of special status.
This changed in 2007 when the landowners of the Naunton Hall estate at Rendlesham reported illegal metal-detecting in their fields at night, damaging crops and stealing metal artefacts. Recognising the potential significance of this development, Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service funded in 2008 a pilot metal-detector survey over a limited area to understand the archaeology that was attracting thieves. The pilot survey recovered material that could only come from a very high-status Anglo-Saxon settlement and indicated that the concentration of material in the ploughsoil was very much more extensive than had been assumed. Magnetometry and transcription of aerial photographs showed that the ploughzone assemblage overlay a palimpsest of buried archaeological features.
It would have been prohibitively expensive to pay for a comprehensive metal-detector survey. Instead, the four detectorists who had undertaken the pilot study, all of whom had archaeological training and experience, made a private agreement with the landowner to survey the whole estate, working to the same standards as the pilot survey and on a voluntary basis. Suffolk County Council co-ordinated finds recording and expert academic and professional guidance, and complementary fieldwork including further geophysics and limited excavation. The main survey began in 2009 and fieldwork was completed in the summer of 2014.
The metal-detector survey was not intended to ‘sterilise’ the site by removing all archaeological material from the ploughsoil. It aimed instead to recover a representative sample of artefacts so that the date and nature of human activity could be securely characterised, and the research potential and archaeological significance of the ploughzone assemblage assessed.
Survey and fieldwork had to be fitted into the cultivation cycle, necessitating very close liaison with both the farmer and the landowner. Because the site lies within a working farm, and there was a risk of further damage to crops and archaeology from illegal detecting, details of the survey were kept confidential until fieldwork was completed.
Metal-detecting and finds recording
A total of 1,206 person-days was spent metal-detecting the 160 hectare survey area. The ground was covered by line-walking, with the detectorists two metres apart so that the detector sweeps covered 100 percent of the ground.
All arable fields were covered at least twice, with surface conditions, crop and time spent in the field recorded for each survey visit. As well as recovering metal items, the detectorists also looked for and collected any pottery and stone artefacts visible on the ground surface. All finds of archaeological significance were geo-located using a hand-held GPS and catalogued on a Microsoft Access database linked to the project GIS, allowing integration and interrogation of all datasets.
The database holds records of 3,946 items, ranging in date from the Neolithic to the early modern, but this represents only a fraction of the material found. The detectorists made around 100,000 finds, the vast majority of which were the detritus of 19th- and 20th-century farming and game shooting. Everything recovered comes from the surface or the top 100–200 millimetres of the ploughsoil and has long since been removed from any stratigraphic context by past agriculture. All modern material recovered is disposed of away from the site.
Magnetometry and aerial photography
Magnetometry was undertaken over 46 hectares where metal-detecting indicated the core area of past settlement and activity. The results show an extensive palimpsest of boundaries, enclosures and settlement features, including Anglo-Saxon Grubenhäuser, representing activity from late prehistory to the 20th century.
Mapping archaeological features from aerial photographs provided further information. At Rendlesham, some archaeological features that were not detected by magnetometry show as cropmarks, and vice versa, and so the two datasets are complementary. One cropmark, in an area where metal-detector finds of gold-and-garnet jewellery suggested a high-status presence, probably represents the foundations of a major Anglo-Saxon timber hall. This important discovery was made during the Historic England-funded National Mapping Programme project for the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, undertaken by Norfolk County Council Historic Environment Service.
In 2013–14 seven trenches were excavated to ground-truth the results of magnetometry and assess the preservation, character, date and potential of the buried archaeology. By targeting specific features or concentrations of artefacts in the ploughsoil it was possible to identify and investigate a Late Iron Age enclosure, early Anglo-Saxon Grubenhäuser (also known as sunken-featured or sunken-floored buildings), pits and cremations, early–middle Anglo-Saxon ditches and midden deposits, and late Anglo-Saxon and medieval ditches. The results allow us to be more confident in our interpretation of artefact distributions, geophysics and aerial photography on a wider scale.
The survey results show continuous human occupation and activity at Rendlesham from late prehistory up to the present day, with a particularly large, rich and important settlement here during the early–middle Anglo-Saxon period (5th to 8th centuries AD). The Anglo-Saxon finds cover an area of 50 hectares. They include items of the finest quality, made for and used by the highest ranks of society, and attest a range of activities including fine metalworking and international trade.
This is the largest and richest settlement of its time known in England, and is almost certainly the site of the East Anglian royal settlement mentioned by Bede. Rendlesham can be identified as a royal estate centre, a place where the East Anglian kings would have stayed, feasted their followers, administered justice, and collected dues and tribute. There are other sites in the region that would also have served as temporary royal residences as the court travelled around the kingdom, but at present Rendlesham appears to have been the largest and the longest-lived of these places.
Early in the 7th century, a small settlement of foreign traders was established at nearby Ipswich. This settlement became a town and port, remaining a major urban centre to the present day. Ipswich may have taken over some of the functions of the settlement at Rendlesham, which dwindled in size and importance as Ipswich expanded in the 8th century.
The Rendlesham survey shows how metal-detecting, when undertaken responsibly, can be a valuable archaeological technique. The partnership between detectorists, other volunteers and professional archaeologists, working with the farmer and landowner, has resulted in the discovery of an internationally-important archaeological site with far-reaching implications for our understanding of England in the 5th to 8th centuries AD.
We acknowledge with thanks financial support from the Sutton Hoo Society, Historic England, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, the Royal Archaeological Institute and the Society for Medieval Archaeology.
Faye Minter is a Senior Archaeological Officer with Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, with particular responsibility for finds recording. She manages the identification, cataloguing and study of finds from Rendlesham.
Jude Plouviez is an independent researcher who specialises in the archaeology of Roman Britain. Formerly a Senior Archaeological Officer with Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, she initiated the Rendlesham survey and co-ordinated the fieldwork there.
Christopher Scull specialises in the archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England and is academic lead for the Rendlesham project. A former Research Director of English Heritage, he is an Honorary Visiting Professor at Cardiff University Department of Archaeology & Conservation and at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
Minter, F Plouviez, J and Scull, C 2014 ‘Rendlesham rediscovered’. British Archaeology 137, 50–5
Scull, C Minter, F and Plouviez, J 2016 ‘Social and economic complexity in early medieval England: a central place complex of the East Anglian kingdom at Rendlesham, Suffolk’. Antiquity 90: 354, 1594–612
Also of interest...
Update of progress of research into the stunning Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard.