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Archaeology for Wellbeing: Excavations at Warham Iron Age Camp

In July, the Sainsbury Institute undertook its second season of fieldwork related to our Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project, led by Dr Andy Hutcheson. Following successful excavations at Arminghall Henge last year (you can watch a tour of the site here), this year’s excavations took place at Warham Iron Age Camp in North Norfolk. The institute continued to work in partnership with Cambridge Archaeological Unit, and the Restoration Trust as part of the Archaeology for Wellbeing project, which supports people who live with mental health challenges to take part in archaeology and heritage projects.

Warham Camp is one of the best surviving Iron Age sites of its kind in East Anglia. A set of outer and inner ditches and banks create the circular shape of the site, which spans a 212m diameter. The River Stiffkey, which lies at the bottom of the camp, was canalised (artificially straightened) in the 18th century and cut through the south-western edge of the earthworks. Excavations were undertaken in 1914 and 1959, with a series of small finds relating to the Iron Age, Roman and Medieval periods found at the site since. This summer’s excavations sought to gain a better understanding of the use of the site over this period, and place the site within the wider context of similar monuments in the surrounding landscape.

Archaeological excavations involve considerable logistical preparations, but this was amplified at Warham Camp which is not only a scheduled monument, which requires consent from Historic England prior to excavation, but is also a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) and protected by Natural England. The site is an important breeding ground for the Chalk Hill Blue butterfly as well as other grassland flora and fauna which are active in the chalk soils of the site in July when the excavation took place. Organisers and participants were careful to pay due sensitivity to the delicate nature of the site, and communications surrounding the excavations were kept to a minimum during the fieldwork period to avoid excessive disturbance to the site from visitors.

After some careful planning and arrangements by Andy and the wider team, the excavations were able to go ahead as planned, with Andy diligently staying on-site for the entire three weeks to ensure all the necessary precautions and measures were met to protect the site. A team from the institute were able to visit the excavation on 27th July, towards the end of the fieldwork season. Piled into a minibus, we set off from the institute in the morning and made the drive north of Norwich out to the site. As the roads became narrow and hedgerows taller, we eventually reached the gate to the site and ventured down a grass track. This narrow lane opened out to provide an excellent viewpoint of the site which sits at the top of a hill (or as close to a hill as you can expect from Norfolk, a famously flat county). As volunteers began to make their way to the welfare unit for their lunch break, we were led on a tour of the site by Andy, who told us more about the context of the site and the excavations so far.

Dr Andy Hutcheson discussed some of the techniques used on archaeological excavations during the visit. 

What I have always found striking about visiting prehistoric sites such as this, and similarly during the institute’s recent visit to Stonehenge, is how these spaces fit in and interact with the landscape around them. As we moved around the site towards what was likely the entrance to the space, it was possible to gain a sense of why this location may have been chosen for the site – at a good vantage point for the surrounding areas and with a river at its base, it would have been accessible from the tributaries of the North Norfolk coast and allowed either supplies or visitors to have flowed to and from the site when it was originally constructed.

Visiting archaeologists and volunteers worked as a team to excavate each pit and sieve through their finds.

Perhaps most surprisingly, there has been very little evidence found for settlement within the site. Despite 25 pits being systematically dug across the site, there has been a lack of postholes or artefacts that might indicate permanent settlement found. Considering the size of the site and the considerable effort and resource it would have taken to construct a monument of this size, the fact that people at the time were probably not living permanently in the space raises questions as to what its originally intended purpose was. The site has typically been called a fort due to its high banks, circular ditch, and defensive qualities, but this interpretation is now less certain. It is possible that Warham Camp may also have functioned as a meeting space where people would have come together for a collective purpose at certain times of the year – gatherings may have been seasonal, or even associated with early activities related to the organisation of groups and societies. After the original Iron Age construction, the camp was later used by nearby Romano-British settlers, with evidence of metalworking found within the site, and evidence of continued use is found in an array of Medieval finds, notably a book binding from the later Medieval or Tudor period found in previous excavations.  

Sainsbury Institute staff were shown some of the small finds from this year’s excavation, including a small coral fastening that would have been used on clothing during the mid to late Iron Age

Despite the very rainy weather throughout the fieldwork season, it was clear that the site had provided an exciting opportunity for many people to engage with archaeology in East Anglia who hadn’t previously done so. The project team worked with Synergy Multi-Academy Trust to provide school children with the chance to take part in the excavations, and the Restoration Trust involved people living with mental health challenges in the excavations as a means of helping them improve their mental health and wellbeing. We were also delighted to welcome several archaeologists from Japan to the excavations, who both offered a different perspective on the archaeology of East Anglia and learnt more about current initiatives and directions in British archaeology (and had the opportunity to enjoy a takeaway while on-site – an important part of any British excavation!). Echoing the possible original use of the site as a meeting place, these excavations brought together a diverse range of people who we saw getting to know one another as they sieved through spoil to look for small finds, or as they carefully excavated each pit. It was clear what an important role heritage and archaeology can play in bringing people together, encouraging a sense of community, and providing new international perspectives on the archaeology of the UK.

A group of archaeologists from Japan joined the excavations to provide an international perspective to the archaeology of the region, and enjoyed a curry on-site one evening.

Congratulations to Andy and the team for all their hard work in bringing this season’s fieldwork together, and we will look forward to reporting more on the outcomes and findings as the work from this year’s excavation is analysed.

Olivia Butler

Office Coordinator and Project Support, Sainsbury Institute