12th Day of Christmas: A golden pilgrim

In January 2019, a team of archaeologists from the then Suffolk Archaeology CIC (now CA’s Suffolk office), conducted a small-scale excavation to the east of Halesworth, north-east of the historic town core. During metal detector searches of the topsoil, a small and intriguing find was recovered: a well-preserved and complete silver-gilt anthropomorphic badge in the form of a standing male figure.

golden pilgrim badge

The figure is depicted wearing a broad-brimmed hat and robe. In his left hand he is holding a long staff, whilst his right hand clasps the strap of a bag. The reverse is rough and unfinished, and has an integral shank that would have enabled the badge to be worn on a strap or hat.

Pilgrim badges were souvenirs worn by those who had undertaken a religious pilgrimage (an activity written about in literature of the time, most famously in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales of 1387-1400), with the reason for pilgrimage being varied but primarily for curative or medicinal purposes. The production of these badges flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, and frequently depicted the saints whose relics had been visited. However, it is more likely that the Halesworth badge depicts neither saint nor martyr, but rather a travelling pilgrim. The attire of robe, hat, satchel and staff, as detailed on this small badge, was commonly used in medieval illuminated manuscripts to portray a pilgrim during their religious journeys.

The little pilgrim is of particular interest as it appears to be only the second example recorded nationally. It compares well to a pilgrim badge found at Langham, near Colchester, in 2016, which was dated to c.1250 – 1500. Our badge is similar enough to the Colchester example to suggest that both are likely to have been produced at the same workshop, particularly as no further similar examples can be found, but precisely where these badges originated from is uncertain.

Halesworth is relatively close to Blythburgh, a focus of pilgrims until the 12th century following the burial of King Anna there after his death at the hands of King Penda in AD 654. By the 13th and 14th centuries, Blythburgh had developed into a successful Augustinian monastic complex, and whilst there is no evidence for the cult of Anna continuing after the 12th century, there is record of a local tradition venerating a spring known as either Lady Well or Queen Anne’s Well, which could be a corruption of King Anna’s well and is one of many possible sources for the gilded pilgrim badge. However, East Anglia had many pilgrimage sites, with the cult of St Edmund providing numerous focal points in Suffolk, not least within Bury St Edmunds itself; rivalled by the shrines at Walsingham in Norfolk and Ely in Cambridgeshire. The latter was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites by the 13th century, known for displaying sumptuous souvenirs at fairs. Our gilded silver badge from Halesworth would indicate a higher quality souvenir than the usual pewter badges more commonly purchased by pilgrims and recovered within the archaeological record.

It cannot be discounted that the badge may come from further afield.  Within the archaeological record there is evidence from badges and ampullae that confirms East Anglia’s strong ties to the continent, with clear indicators of continued pilgrim activity to and from Europe. Certainly, from Delft in the Netherlands and Bruges in Belgium there are examples of anthropomorphic badges in the form of pilgrims that are similar to ours, albeit with their figures facing sideways rather than forwards.

Ruth Beveridge (Finds Officer)

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11th Day of Christmas: Court Knoll excavations update

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.

Cours Knoll Excavations
A volunteer records Trench 1. Note the later curved wall on the left side, and the Roman tiles in the walls of the earlier building. The possible altar base can be seen as the rectangular structure with the tape on it

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.

Two fragments of the late Saxon relief tiles
Two fragments of the late Saxon relief tiles

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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10th Day of Christmas: Motorway discoveries

CA’s Milton Keynes team spent their summer working with GRAHAM, Essex County Council and Highways England on the new M11 Junction 7A scheme, which will create a new east-west link between Harlow and the motorway. Some of the highlights of this project are this Bronze Age barrow ditch, which was excavated and recorded prior to construction.

barrow ditch

In the same area of the excavation, the team also found a number of large pits containing a small hoard of Iron objects – interestingly, these could be evidence for ongoing ceremonial activity on the site of the barrow, hundreds of years after its original construction.

pit during excavation

An enigmatic four-post structure was also recorded, which appeared to pre-date the barrow ditch and could be from an even earlier period of ceremonial activity.

Jake Streatfeild-James (Senior Project Officer)

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9th Day of Christmas: A Later Bronze Age shield from Oxfordshire

bronze shield during excavation

In the summer of 2018, CA’s Cirencester team undertook excavations on an Iron Age site ahead of a new housing development near Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Most unexpectedly, this resulted in the discovery of a bronze shield, which was found in an isolated shallow pit. While damaged and very corroded, and a challenge to excavate, record and lift, it was taken to the lab for conservation and shortly afterwards examined by Bronze Age weaponry expert Marion Uckelmann.

It turned out that this is a distinctive form of round shield decorated with alternating concentric rows of small bosses and ribs, known as a ‘type Yetholm’ shield (after the type-site in Scotland) and dated to the later Bronze Age (1300–1125 BC). There is a closely comparable example from North Yorkshire which is better preserved (see below).

Yetholm-type shield ©Marion Uckelman
Yethom-type shield. Source: Oxoniensia Volume 85, 2020; page 272. Courtesy of OAHS

This is the 24th shield of its type found, all bar one (from Denmark) coming from the British Isles. Most are from rivers and bogs, where the chances of preservation are higher, and the Woodstock shield is unusual in coming from dry land. The closest comparison in this respect, and the only other one found during an archaeological excavation, comes from just outside Cadbury Castle in Somerset.

The discovery is published in the latest issue of Oxoniensia, the journal of the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society, where Marion Uckelmann’s analysis of the shield and its remarkable method of manufacture can be found.

Andrew Mudd (Post-Excavation Manager)

BA shield

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8th Day of Christmas: Gold quarter stater from Suffolk

Excavations at a site located along the Fen Edge in Suffolk produced a selection of objects dating to the late Iron Age; one recovered from a palaeochannel is this uninscribed gold quarter stater of the Snettisham wreath type, dating to 50 BC – AD 10. It is an Iceni issue, with this particular example corresponding to Talbot’s A2 dies. This is an extremely rare variety, with only one other example known, as the elaborate reverse die is extremely rare. In contrast, there are quite a few examples known with the same obverse, this being a variant of the Snettisham wreath. The reverse depicts a right-facing horse with a large pellet on its chest.

Ruth Beveridge (Finds Officer)

gold coin

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7th Day of Christmas: A Tale of a Suffolk Greenstone Axe

Greenstone axes are key objects of the British Neolithic (6000–2400 BC) – a period that starts with a shift in population, as recent aDNA studies have shown, and of transformation as communities embraced domestication and the altering of the land to grow crops, keep animals and build monuments. They created new architectural forms as places to gather – to celebrate, to hold ceremonies and to undertake various social transactions, feasting and for burial. With this change in lifestyle came a new material culture – pottery, a new range of flint tools, and also the worked stone axe – often made from one of several hard volcanic rocks, mostly known as greenstone, worked and finished by pecking, flaking, grinding and polishing.  

Greenstone axe

From visual inspection the Suffolk axe, or rather the axehead as it is missing its wooden haft, appears to have been made not from local stone but from gabbro, a type of hard igneous rock that formed deep in the Earth’s crust, distinctly dark green in colour with a coarse-grained texture and a mottled appearance of glassy light and dark minerals. The axehead was first made from percussion or pecking, probably with a hammerstone, as its coarse grain makes it unsuitable to flake, and finished by first grinding and then polishing using a special stone – known as a polissoir – and an abrasive grit.  This would have given the object a fine gloss. It would also have given the axe blade a sharper cutting edge.

This materially exotic axehead would have stood out in all but the few areas of Britain where gabbro is found. It is likely to have been made in West Cornwall, possibly from rock found on the Lizard peninsula and classified by petrological analysis as Group I, the most southerly point of mainland Britain. We will have to wait for further scientific analysis to verify this as the possible source, but if this suggestion is correct then the axe, discovered in Suffolk, had been fashioned in a place several hundred kilometres away and on the other side of England.

Cornish greenstone axes, as with other axes of stone and flint, were exchanged across much of Britain during the Neolithic. Many can be placed into specific rock types and quite a number can be traced back to possible sources or rock outcrops — the most famous of which is the so-called Group VI from Cumbria, where working sites and quarries have been identified. However, similar productions sites are yet to be located for Group I. It is of course possible to fashion an axe from a loose piece of rock.

Cornish axes of Group I occasionally occur with the earliest type of Late Neolithic pottery known as Grooved Ware, a style of pottery that probably developed in Orkney and, along with henges and stone circles, spread south across Britain and into Ireland at around 3000 BC.                 

Alistair Barclay (Principal Post-Excavation Manager)

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