Excavating the CA archive: Norfolk

5 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 7 May. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI363, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Having travelled to the South West in my previous column, I decided to turn my attention to the other side of the country and explore Current Archaeology’s visits to Norfolk over the past 50 years. This is a county brimming with archaeological delights – so much so, that it enables a two-part column that will run across this and next month’s magazines.


Norfolk’s first appearance in CA came in issue 6 with a report from Peter Wade-Martins on the village of North Elmham, once the county’s cathedral town.

Norfolk is not just rich in archaeology, it is also a location that has been blessed by some exceptional advocates for our past; none more so that Peter and Susanna Wade-Martins, active since the 1950s. An excellent starting point for anyone interested in the story of the county is therefore CA 339 (June 2018), which saw Chris Catling delve into Peter’s work over the years, following the publication of his book A Life in Norfolk’s Archaeology. Appropriately, CA’s first mention of Norfolk came in issue 6 (January 1968) with – you’ve guessed it – a report from Peter Wade-Martins. There, he examined North Elmham, a small village that was, under the Saxons, the county’s cathedral town. CA returned to the site twice more, in issues 19 and 36 (March 1970 and January 1973) to follow up on the discoveries being made there.

Meanwhile, CA 81 (March 1981) visited a site associated with a name famous even outside of the archaeological community: the ‘palace’ at Gallows Hill, near Thetford, that was the headquarters of Boudica and her lesser-known husband Prasutagus. As is so often the story of British archaeology in the last 50 years, this was a site identified by chance and is now long-gone, lost beneath a factory estate on the outskirts of the town. Excavations revealed a complex used over a considerable period, with two main enclosures that had entrances facing the ancient Icknield Way. Artefacts found here were of high status, and there is also evidence of the production of coins. All of this points to it being a site that was some kind of ceremonial focal point for the local elites. And most intriguing of all, by AD 70 the site had been largely abandoned. Boudica’s rebellion against the Romans took place in AD 60/61, so it appears the site fell out of use soon after the uprising’s failure.


The Snettisham Hoard was first found in 1948 but the site yielded further discoveries of torcs over the decades, including during excavations in 1989–1990. One such find graced the cover of CA 126 in 1991.

CA 126 (October 1991) told a different but equally dramatic tale of Norfolk’s archaeology, one that featured on the front cover of the magazine and in the mainstream media too. This was news of the Snettisham Hoard, first discovered in 1948, with more of it unearthed periodically over the next 40 years. Further torcs were found in 1950, 1964, 1968, and 1973, and when more discoveries were made in 1989–1990, the British Museum moved in to conduct an excavation and survey of the whole site. Five more hoards were eventually recovered, all of them containing torcs. Fieldwork then continued, and CA 135 (August/September 1993) returned to report on the latest discoveries, with two further seasons of work demonstrating that the finds were surrounded by an enclosure 20 acres in extent in the late 1st century AD.


While not strictly ‘archaeological’, one report from CA 149 (September 1996) is simply too good not to repeat: the excavation of an early mammoth, Mammuthus trogontheri, half a million years old,that was being washed out of the cliffs at West Runton, carried out thanks to funding from what is now the National Lottery Heritage Fund. In a similar vein, CA issues 182 (November 2002) and 205 (September / October 2006) reported from Lynford quarry in the Thetford Forest, where rescue excavations revealed a 60,000-year-old river channel filled with mammoth tusks, rhino bones, and mint-condition hand-axes: a Neanderthal butchery site. The site is unusual in this combination of Neanderthal-made (Mousterian) stone tools with a rich and varied mammalian fauna. What is more, preservation conditions were excellent, making it a world-class site. Issue 182 reported on the excavations, and issue 205 on the follow-up, the study of the bones from the site by Danielle Schreve of Royal Holloway. Her research indicated that the mammoths at the quarry had not only been slaughtered there, they had been hunted in the area. As CA explained:

Sophisticated group behaviour would have been required to capture a mammoth. You need to work cooperatively to get the animal into the marsh, to finish it off, to defend the carcass against attack from lurking predators, to butcher it, and to make off with the meat. You need a reasonable group size with several family units working together… the Neanderthals at Lynford showed planning and foresight, were flexible, and were able to respond to changing events.

Happisburgh, on the Norfolk coast, has proven to be one of the most important sites in the country, with the discoveries of flint tools more than 700,000 years old (as featured on the cover of CA 201).

CA returned to the Norfolk coast in issue 201 (January / February 2006) to report from one of the most fascinating and important prehistoric sites not just in the county but in the whole country – Happisburgh. This site shot into public attention when flint tools over 700,000 years old were unearthed: at the time, the oldest evidence of human occupation anywhere in the British Isles. To explain, the importance of prehistoric finds made in this area had long been known, and in 2000 a Palaeolithic struck flint flake was discovered at nearby Pakefield on the Suffolk coast. Shortly after that discovery, a local man out walking his dog at Happisburgh recovered an almost complete hand axe made of glossy black flint, in mint condition, from an area of a black mud that was exposed on the lower foreshore by an exceptionally low tide. This was the first find made in situ in the area, rather than a beach surface find as had been the case of discoveries up until then.

Formal fieldwork occurred at both Pakefield and Happisburgh across the early 2000s. The international significance of the site is evident in CA’s later coverage – the magazine returned to the area in issues 288, 289, and 298 (March 2014, April 2014, and January 2015). Building on the series of discoveries of worked flint and bone, issue 289 reported on the extraordinary survival of a series of footprints in the estuarine clay there, which date back between 850,000 and 950,000 years (a discovery that won the project the 2015 CA Award for ‘Rescue Dig of the Year’). As the magazine explained:

The footprints were exposed a short distance to the south of a site the team call Happisburgh 3. Eighty flint tools discovered there are believed to date back between 850,000 – 950,000 years, making them the earliest relics of human activity in Britain… If the footprints belonged to the same period, they would be one of the earliest sets in the world. Only the 3.5m-year-old footprints made by a human ancestor at Laetoli in Tanzania and the 1.5m-year-old examples from Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya are more ancient.

The footprints in the estuarine clay at Happisburgh are between 850,000 and 950,000 years old (as reported in CA 289).

For those wishing to learn more about the prehistory of the North Sea Plain, a previous column of mine explored the archaeology of Doggerland – see CA 342 (September 2018). And I will return to Norfolk in the next issue, exploring a range of sites and projects alike, including the long-running Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) and the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, which went on to inspire similar projects across the country.

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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