Celebrating 5 Years of Archaeological Discovery: Medieval Burwell

This month marks a significant milestone for Cotswold Archaeology’s Suffolk office as we celebrate five years of CA at Suffolk. To honour this occasion, we’re taking a reflective journey back to some of our most memorable projects, led by our team at the Needham Market office, starting with our excavations at Burwell…

Evaluation trenching was the first stage of this site

In the summer of 2020, our excavation at Low Road, Burwell, Cambridgeshire, uncovered some intriguing remains of the old medieval village. Burwell is nestled on the eastern fringes of the East Anglian fens, sitting atop a ridge where the gentle contours of chalk geology meet the waterscapes of the region. Before the extensive drainage initiatives of the 17th century transformed the landscape, this area was characterised by marshlands and seasonal floods.

Aisled building, Burwell
Example of the aisled hall structure, from the Vernacular 
Architecture Group
Example of the aisled hall structure

The allure of Burwell lies in its strategic location close to the wetland resources of the fen such as fish and eels, which provided sustenance and livelihoods to its inhabitants. From the higher ground came essential building materials like clunch, a chalky limestone prevalent in East Anglia. The medieval prosperity of Burwell was intricately tied to its waterways through Burwell Lode (a human-made channel designed to provide access from the fens into the settlement). This facilitated trade and commerce, anchoring the village’s economy in a thriving network of activity.

Our site adds to the story of medieval Burwell. We’ve pieced together evidence from post-holes and shallow beam slots to reveal the presence of a substantial timber-framed structure dating back to the 12th – 13th centuries. This had a large hall, open to the roof. The roof structure would have been supported on pairs of large earth-fast posts, and would have extended down to form ‘aisles’ on either side. The form of the building compares to some of the earliest surviving medieval timber-framed buildings. The central hall served as the focal point of activity, flanked by smaller rooms at either end to accommodate service areas such as the buttery and pantry and private rooms. These may have had upper floors, providing space for more living accommodation.

Plan of aisled hall, showing 13th-14th century repair.
Plan of aisled hall, showing 13th-14th century repair

Adjacent to this structure, towards the west, lay a thick soil layer abundant with pottery dated from the 12th to 14th centuries. The wares ranged from jars and cooking pots, many bearing the telltale signs of use with soot-stained surfaces, to glazed wares reserved for more formal occasions. Unusually for a rural settlement like Burwell, we found very few bowls. Bowls would have been used in dairying and breadmaking, and, unless they were using wooden vessels, the lack of these might suggest that these everyday activities were not routinely carried out in the immediate vicinity.

Some of the structural posts of the main hall were repaired in the 13th-14th century and other changes were made to the site. New ditches were dug, and new structures were built. All that we found of these were small post-holes and spreads of clunch (chalk building material) from walls and floors. There are fewer artefactual remains from this date. After the 14th/15th century, the site was mainly pasture, with traces of more recent buildings on the street frontage.

Check out the other finds from Burwell on Cotswold Archaeology’s Virtual Museum, just click on the finds below:

As we continue to celebrate five years of CA in East Anglia this week, keep an eye out on CA’s social media channels and website, to see more of our favourite sites and finds…

Indie Jago
Outreach and Community Engagement Officer

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