In 2016 Suffolk Archaeology (now the Suffolk Office of Cotswold Archaeology) worked with Nayland with Wissington Conservation Society (NWWCS) to help them carry out some trial excavations on the Scheduled Site at Court Knoll, a D-shaped medieval earthwork enclosing an area of just under 2ha on the floodplain of the River Stour, in South Suffolk. Domesday records that the land was held by Swein of Essex in 1086, and significantly that they were in the hands of his father Robert FitzWimarc (of Norman/Breton descent) before 1066; therefore the family were one of the few major landholders not to have been dispossessed following the Conquest.
The excavation followed a series of geophysical surveys of the interior of the Court Knoll enclosure, undertaken by Tim Dennis with members of NWWCS, which had revealed a range of buildings contained under a low knoll within the eastern end of the enclosure. These included a building with features indicative of a continental-style cruciform church, assumed to be of pre-Conquest date and possibly lying within its own moated enclosure. Permission to investigate the site was granted by Historic England, and Suffolk Archaeology with a team of local volunteers excavated seven trenches across it. This uncovered two phases of building, the later of which had a curved wall as was probably a tower. The earlier structure consisted of thick, rubble-built walls faced with re-used Roman building material, and looked to represent the squared eastern (chancel) end of the church, with an inside measurement of c.4m.
Only a little of the interior of the building was excavated but part of a chalk floor for the church was exposed, as was a small masonry base interpreted as the site of an altar. Deposits of charcoal and burnt pink hues on the stone and mortar suggested that the earlier building had been destroyed by fire, and amongst the demolition debris were found fragments of burnt and fragile window glass as well as eleven fragments of rare polychrome relief tiles (see below), which can be dated stylistically to the Late Anglo-Saxon period. Similar tiles have been found at important ecclesiastical sites such as the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds. An east/west human inhumation burial to the north of the church has been radiocarbon dated to 942-1023 cal AD, lending support to the interpretation of this as the site of a Late Anglo-Saxon church and hall complex.
Since excavations finished we have been working with NWWCS to help them complete the post-excavation analysis of this important site. Grants have been obtained from numerous local and national bodies which have enabled research into the structural evidence for the earlier building. So far this has identified the window glass (researched by Sarah Paynter and Rachel Tyson) as a forest type, made from plant ashes, but with an unusual composition of high potash and low silica content. Broadly similar examples (but not exact parallels) date to the 12th/13th centuries, although potash glass was being used by the 11th century in England for glazed windows in high-status ecclesiastical buildings, such as in the windows of Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Cathedral.
Analysis by Dana Challinor has shown that the charcoal came from a solid oak structure with intricate carving, a roof or rood screen perhaps, and that it was in good condition when destroyed by fire. A radiocarbon date from the charcoal, representing the interface between the sapwood and the heartwood, has provided a date of 772-900 cal AD, which is an unexpectedly early date. Oak charcoal poses a problem for radiocarbon dating because of its longevity, and in this case the wood sampled could be as much as 60 years older than the point at which the tree was cut down. Nevertheless, even adding these years gives us a date comparable to that of the burial, and well before the Norman Conquest.
Scientific analysis of the Late Saxon tiles continues and we plan to get more dates from the charcoal to check the one we have, but with each piece of research this fascinating site reveals a little bit more of itself, and the conclusion that this may be a very important lost ecclesiastical site becomes more and more irresistible.
Joanna Caruth (Project Manager)
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