Social and Economic Complexity in Early Medieval England: A Central Place Complex of the East Anglian Kingdom at Rendlesham, Suffolk

By Scull, Christopher; Minter, Faye et al. | Antiquity, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Social and Economic Complexity in Early Medieval England: A Central Place Complex of the East Anglian Kingdom at Rendlesham, Suffolk


Scull, Christopher, Minter, Faye, Plouviez, Judith, Antiquity


Introduction

The modern civil parish of Rendlesham lies on the east side of the River Deben in south-east Suffolk, about 6km north-east of the elite barrow cemetery at Sutton Hoo (Figure 1). It incorporates terrains that in the past provided a range of resources: marsh or water meadow in the valley bottom; agricultural soils on valley slopes; and interfluves that are now intensively cultivated but which in the past were heathland and sheep-walk (Williamson 2008: 29-67). The parish sits within the Sandlings of south-east Suffolk, a region of subdued topography and light sandy soils with estuarine rivers flowing into the North Sea (Young 1797; Clarke 1960: 15-19; Williamson 2008: 29-33). It has been argued that the Sandlings region formed the territorial focus of East Anglian royal power in the seventh century (Carver 2005: 494-99; Scull in press).

Rendesham is mentioned by Bede (H.E. iii. 22; Colgrave & Mynors 1969) as the East Anglian vicus regius (royal settlement) where King Swithhelm of the East Saxons was baptised in AD 655x663. It has consequently long been a focus of antiquarian and historical attention, and interest intensified after the discovery of the Mound One ship burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939 (Bruce-Mitford 1948). Cremations were recorded in the early nineteenth century, but otherwise hard evidence for an Anglo-Saxon site was frustratingly elusive until 1981-1982 when fieldwalking and limited excavation indicated Anglo-Saxon settlement activity northwest of the parish church of St Gregory the Great (Bruce-Mitford 1974; Martin et al. 1983: 235; Newman 1992: 36-38). Although the potential significance was clear, little about the material recovered suggested a site of unusual status.

This changed in 2007 when the landowner of the Naunton Hall estate sought archaeological assistance in response to illegal metal-detecting on arable land. Damage was being caused by repeat visits, suggesting that archaeological material was being stolen; and the land affected included fields outside the sector of the 1981-1982 fieldwalking, indicating that the area of potential archaeological significance was greater than had been thought. The response by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service (SCCAS) was to undertake, in 2008, controlled metal-detector survey of the area being damaged, augmented by limited magnetometry, a desktop assessment of available maps and documentary evidence, and plotting of relevant aerial photography.

The initial metal-detecting survey confirmed a dense concentration of archaeological material in the ploughsoil, including coins and other finds consistent with a high-status early-middle Anglo-Saxon site. It also indicated that this evidence of past activity spread over a wider area than had been initially thought. In 2009, the metal-detector survey was therefore expanded to cover the full Naunton Hall estate. This was undertaken as part of a larger project, coordinated through SCCAS, which provided finds recording to Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) standards, and expert academic and professional guidance, and through which complementary fieldwork including further magnetometry and field evaluation were commissioned.

The main survey began in 2009, and fieldwork was completed in the summer of 2014. As this is a working farm, premature announcement of the project ran the risk of further damage to crops and archaeology from illegal detecting, and so details of the survey were kept confidential until the later stages of fieldwork. Results indicate a complex sequence of settlement and activity from late prehistory to the present day, but in this interim communication, we concentrate on the archaeology of the fifth-eighth centuries AD and the wider interpretative issues that it raises.

Methods and results

The survey area covers 150ha (Figure 2). It forms a transect 3km north--south along the east side of the Deben Valley, and 1.25km east-west across the grain of the landscape, a sample area large enough to provide confidence in patterns of presence, absence and clustering of finds, and to allow examination of changes in these patterns with terrain. …

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