From 2016 to 2018, Cotswold Archaeology undertook a series of excavations ahead of the development of the Mildenhall Hub, now at Recreation Way. They have shown that the site at the southwest edge of the town was settled at two different periods in the past.
An area of 26ha was explored in 2016 with geophysics and 157 trial trenches, which identified prehistoric archaeology, as well as remains of buildings and a burial of the Early Anglo-Saxon period (c. AD 400–650). A full excavation followed, in 2018, of a 1.8ha area of terrace just above the floodplain of the River Lark.
The 2018 excavation revealed the archaeological traces of an Iron Age settlement that had been present almost a millennium before the Anglo-Saxon occupation. The evidence takes the form of over 120 pits, clustered in about a dozen groups, which were associated with the ditched outlines of fields for crops and animals. No roundhouses typical of Iron Age farmsteads were found, however, probably because their shallow traces had been destroyed by historic ploughing, but the pits contained lots of evidence of occupation, such as broken pottery, butchered animal bone and burnt stone. This last material is the remnants of stones that were heated and used as ‘pot boilers’. The pottery is largely of the Middle Iron Age (c. 400–50 BC), indicating the period during which the farm settlement was at its peak. The pits were mostly similar (c. 1.5m diameter), being cylindrical with straight edges, and it is likely that many had served first as pits for storing grain, prior to their use for burying rubbish from the farmstead.
Sometimes unusual things were placed in the pits after they ceased to be used as grain stores. At Mildenhall examples include two human burials, animal skulls, pieces of human bone, a whole horse and an oven! Such findings are not unusual on Iron Age settlements and archaeologists call them ‘special deposits’. Such acts must have had significant meaning, and it is even possible the human and animal burials could represent sacrifices — perhaps offerings to ensure a good harvest or made for some other religious purpose. One group of pits at Mildenhall had a concentration of ‘special deposits’, including the horse burial and the small circular oven, which originally would have had a clay and wattle dome. Radiocarbon dating for these two discoveries indicates that they may be contemporary events (2nd to 1st century BC), so they might even relate to a single episode, perhaps of sacrifice and feasting.
In addition to these findings, a beautiful gold coin of the Iceni was found. Expert Jude Plouviez has identified it as a quarter stater of Snettisham type, probably of around 15 BC to AD 5. It was found in a silted-up channel that had once been a tributary of the River Lark and which dominated the southern part of the excavation site. Known as a ‘palaeochannel’, this would have been an area of marsh with pools in the Iron Age, and it is possible that the coin and other finds found within it had been deliberately placed, again as offerings.
The settlement of the Early Anglo-Saxon period appears to have been widely spaced, with up to three post-built timber halls and several smaller shed-like structures, known to archaeologists as ‘sunken-featured buildings’ (SFBs) or Grubenhäuser (trans. ‘pit houses’). These were also wooden buildings, comprising a suspended floor built over a pit, with typically a post at each end to support a pitched roof. It is thought these small ‘sheds’ were mainly used for craftworking, with one of the SFBs at Mildenhall having limited evidence for smithing, in the form of microscopic ferrous spheres (the sparks that shoot from hot worked iron) found in a soil sample. The larger, post-built halls (c. 10m x 4m footprint) would have been where the small farming community, probably an extended family, had their meals, socialised, and slept. The pottery and other finds associated with the settlement suggest it dates to the 5th–6th centuries AD
The Anglo-Saxon burial appears to be slightly later (c. AD 650), so it may have occurred after the settlement had gone out of use. It is the only Anglo-Saxon grave that was found, and it might have been intended to be in isolation. A small chalk mound was raised over the grave that contained the skeleton of a middle-aged man of some significance. This is indicated by the ‘warrior’ grave goods buried with him. A spear was at his side, and his face had been covered by a round shield, placed carefully over his upper body in a final act of respect. But above all his wealth and status is shown by a bronze ‘hanging bowl’ that was buried with him, a rare luxury item that could also have contained a food offering for his afterlife journey. Stable Isotope analysis undertaken on his teeth has shown he was probably born and raised locally.