Burwell: a medieval settlement on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens

We have recently finished digging a small medieval settlement site on the western side of Burwell in Cambridgeshire. Burwell lies on the eastern edge of the East Anglian fens and was founded on one of a number of small sand islands that formed dry, slightly higher areas within the generally marshy and seasonally flooded fenland, before the systematic draining of the fens began in the 1600s. These islands were a focus for occupation, known for being hubs of medieval trade and commerce, and valuable to the local economy as platforms from which to exploit fenland resources. Communication around the fens was by deeply cut channels called lodes, believed to be Roman in origin. One, Burwell lode, connected the village with the other fen waterways into the 20th century.

Overhead photograph showing features at the site after stripping
Overhead photograph showing features at the site after stripping

Burwell was a substantial settlement in the medieval period, with 42.5 households recorded in Domesday and a castle (unfinished) and priory in the 12th century; the presence of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery, which was excavated in the 1920s, suggests settlement originated much earlier.

A medieval seal matrix and seal rings: evidence for commercial activity on the fen island
A medieval seal matrix and seal rings: evidence for commercial activity on the fen island

Smaller cuts, or private lodes, were used as navigable channels to bring small flat-bottomed vessels further into the settlement, creating small-scale inland docks. The results of our excavation included the exceptional discovery of what appears to have been one of these small lodes, running from the Burwell lode to the west and coming to an end within the site. A stepped platform on its southern side perhaps served as a mooring platform for loading and unloading. The pottery found within the lode dates to 1100-1300 AD, so broadly contemporary with the castle and priory. The natural topography drops away to the west and the ground immediately south of the lode had been raised and levelled (perhaps with material upcast from the digging of it) to extend the area of dry ground. Within this area, and in the naturally higher ground to the south-east, were found a series of paddocks and enclosures as well as at least two structures, one built of substantial posts, perhaps a warehouse or barn for storing produce coming in or out of Burwell.

Evidence of the commercial use of the site can be found in the medieval finds assemblage, which includes a lead seal matrix and seal rings and a copper-alloy scale pan, all of which suggest a mercantile focus to the activity.

CA are grateful to Artisan (UK) Developments Ltd who have funded the work.

Jo Caruth

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