Down by the Riverside (it’s not just for ducks!)

The River Lark at Mildenhall is a tranquil riverside location now, but it was a different story in the past!

River Lark at Mildenhall at present
© Copyright John Goldsmith and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Back in 2010, Cotswold Archaeology excavated a site at Recreation Way, Mildenhall, in Suffolk, ahead of the development of a new supermarket. Our excavations revealed evidence that the site had been settled, farmed and even defended during a long sequence  of occupation running from late prehistory (1000 BC) through to the early medieval period.

A detailed account of these discoveries has recently been published in East Anglian Archaeology publications No. 169: Iron Age Fortification beside the River Lark, Excavations at Mildenhall Suffolk by Tim Havard, Mary Alexander and Ray Holt.

Iron Age Fortification beside the river Lark, book cover
Iron Age Fortification beside the river Lark, Published by: East Anglian Archaeology. Available through Oxbow Books

The earliest evidence for settlement at the site dated to the Late Bronze Age. One important pit survived from this period, which reached a depth of over 2m deep to reach the water table. Once the pit had ceased to be used as a source of fresh water, it was filled with discarded domestic refuse, which included charred seeds, principally of barley, spelt wheat and emmer/spelt wheat, along with the remains of at least two sheep; horse, roe deer, pig and dog bones were also discovered. It was obvious from this mixed assemblage that settlement lay close by, although no other domestic features survived. The recovery of sherds of Post-Deverel Rimbury style pottery, along with radiocarbon dates obtained from the charred seeds and a small fragment of a human skull from within the pit, enabled us to date this settlement to between c. 1000 and 800 BC.

The Bronze Age pit with one quarter excavated
The Bronze Age pit with one quarter excavated

The Middle Iron Age (400–50 BC) was a period of intense activity at the site; a pair of massive ditches were constructed, defining the eastern part of an enclosure (another equally substantial ditch at the eastern edge of the excavated area may also have been constructed during this period, although this remains undated).

The pair of ditches were originally accompanied by a bank against the interior of the enclosure and together they likely represent the remains of a defensive feature built to dominate what was probably a major crossing point of the River Lark during the Iron Age. As the western side of the enclosure lay beyond the limit of our excavation, its exact form is uncertain. It was apparent, however, that the southern side of the enclosure facing the river was un-ditched, and here the river or its marshy floodplain may have served as a natural barrier.

One of the Iron Age ditches during excavation
One of the Iron Age ditches during excavation
Decorated sherds of pottery
Decorated sherds of pottery

We believe that the ditched enclosure may have been as much concerned with display as with military defence, and possibly played a strategic role in controlling a tribal boundary. Numerous pits were found in the interior of the enclosure, and although no Iron Age houses were revealed, the fills of the pits and ditches were rich in finds and environmental material. As well as evidence for the consumption of meat and cereals, there were many finds associated with textile working, including bone needles, weaving tablets or bobbins and a weaving comb (shown on the cover of the book), along with a clay spindle whorl and clay loom weights. Evidence for the casting of copper-alloys came from a small number of ceramic crucible and mould fragments. The assemblage of decorated Middle Iron Age pottery from the site is the largest found in the region to date; the presence of so much decorated pottery might be an indication that the site had some special status.

The medieval lime kiln base
The medieval lime kiln base

By the Roman period the enclosure ditches had fallen out of use, and at this time a farmstead occupied the higher ground. During this period the river floodplain was used for fields, represented by a series of drainage ditches, although the area became prone to flooding by the later Roman period.

Activity at the site continued throughout the Saxon period, spanning the early, middle and later periods. Activities associated with farming took place on the higher ground and the wet environment probably restricted use of the floodplain. The evidence suggests that there was a process of deliberate land reclamation on the floodplain during the medieval period, and the area was subsequently divided into fields. On the higher ground, a large north-south orientated ditch may have been dug to demarcate the medieval town boundary, but this is far from certain. Excavated features from this period related to activities undertaken at the periphery of settlement, including crop-processing, animal husbandry and iron-working. A well-preserved kiln base may have been used for the production of lime, using chalk quarried from the edge of the higher ground.

There was a rapid decline in use of the area from the 14th century onwards, which broadly coincided with a downturn in the town’s prosperity, beginning in the early 15th century. The area continued to be used as farmland until modern development and the construction of the new supermarket.

The site archive has been deposited with Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service.

Mary Alexander