Investigating an Iron Age enigma
Last summer, excavations at Warham Camp – a monumental Iron Age enclosure in north Norfolk – revealed intriguing clues to the site’s date and purpose. Carly Hilts visited the project and spoke to Andy Hutcheson to find out more.
In rural north Norfolk, where green farmland falls away towards the coast, imposing twin earthworks rise from the grass to form an impressive circuit of concentric Iron Age banks and ditches. Anywhere else in the country you might call this monumental enclosure a hillfort, though, in the famously flat landscape of East Anglia, Warham Camp lies at just 15m OD. All things being relative, however, the site – which is located near Wells-next-the-Sea, about 35 miles north-west of Norwich – does occupy a fittingly defensible vantage point, with sweeping views across its surroundings. It was built by the local Iceni people, centuries before the Roman occupation that would ultimately trigger the famous uprising led by their queen, Boudica, in AD 60/61, but a more precise chronology for the site has historically proven challenging to pin down.
Warham Camp is one of five, possibly six, Iron Age ‘forts’ known in Norfolk, and the best-preserved of the set, though its once circular footprint is now a horseshoe, having been truncated by 18th-century landscaping works that rerouted the River Stiffkey (pronounced ‘stookey’) in order to improve the view from nearby Warham Grove House. Today, the monument’s interior appears as a sea of empty grass, but over the course of the last 90 years archaeologists have been striving to shed light on how the site evolved and how it may have been used. Previous investigations led by Harold St George Gray (in 1914) and Rainbird Clarke (in 1959) revealed that the fort’s surrounding banks had once been crowned by a tall timber palisade with a wooden platform to the rear. Both excavations produced pottery sherds attesting to Iron Age and Roman activity taking place within its bounds (further fragments have been recovered as stray finds in more recent years, after being brought to light not by archaeologists, but by resident populations of moles and rabbits); what those activities were, however, remained obscure.
Now a team of archaeologists and local and international volunteers, led by Dr Andy Hutcheson of the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture, and Dr Matt Brudenell and Mark Knight of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, have set out to learn more about the site’s character and possible purpose. Running through last July, their investigations form Phase 2 of the wider Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project, which is reinvestigating certain previously excavated sites in the county in order to place their stories in an international context. Japanese partners from a range of universities have taken part in this work, and the LPNP is part of an initiative to examine later prehistory in both places through a comparative framework.
Phase 1 took place at Arminghall Henge, a late Neolithic site that lies south-east of Warham, just the other side of Norwich, and which had also been originally investigated by Rainbird Clarke (albeit 20 years before Warham, and this time working with Grahame Clark). During the modern investigations, the LPNP team were able to establish a new chronology for the features, using scientific dating techniques that had not been available to their predecessors, and to tease out the story of a mighty timber monument that had later evolved into a henge, before apparently meeting a fiery fate during later prehistory. Working with a team of volunteers, made up of members of the Restoration Trust, locally interested people, and high-school and college students from the mid-Norfolk Synergy Multi-Academy Trust, the project is anchored in the community. The Archaeology 4 Wellbeing initiative seeks to involve people challenged by poor mental health in archaeological projects. The project is providing high school and college students with their first taste of archaeological research, too. Since the excavation at Warham, four of the college participants have applied to study archaeology at university.
Devising Phase 2 required some careful planning, as Warham Camp is not only a Scheduled Ancient Monument but also a Site of Special Scientific Interest and an important breeding ground for the Chalkhill Blue butterfly. The team were, naturally, keen to minimise any lasting impact on the monument from their work; they had originally considered reopening one of Rainbird Clarke’s trenches across the ramparts to ‘check his working’, Andy said, but as the banks are still scarred from this exploration more than six decades later, they decided not to add to this damage. Instead, their investigation of Warham Camp’s ramparts mainly involved working in the ditches, with a particular focus on the area of earthworks that had been levelled in the 18th century. The project also saw 21 test-pits opened across the fort interior, hoping to gain a more representative snapshot of what was going on inside the monument than Harold St George Gray’s excavation, where long, thin trenches had mainly been concentrated in the very centre of the site. So, what did they find?
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE
Although the excavation took place in the summer, it proved challengingly wet, both in terms of the weather (as the rain-spattered notes from my site-visit attest) and the proximity of the water table in the trenches that were opened closest to the river. Nevertheless, a host of illuminating clues emerged during the course of the investigations.
Trenches 23 and 24 were dug within the area of ramparts that had been demolished by Georgian landscapers and, while the team confirmed that these works had removed all trace of the bank (in places the modern excavators came straight down on to natural chalk), in Trench 23 they found an intriguing cobbled surface underlying the layer where the earthwork would have stood. It is not yet clear whether this represents a previously unknown early phase of the monument, or if it indicates that Warham Camp was built over an already significant site, but it raises thought- provoking questions about this area’s use before the earthworks were constructed.
The ditch that had accompanied the bank, meanwhile, was much better preserved, and in Trench 24 the team succeeded in finding its base. Just above this were a couple of organic layers, from which samples were taken for radiocarbon dating. At the time of writing, analysis of these was ongoing, but they will provide invaluable information about the monument’s chronology.
These were not the only insights to come from the land beside the river. At the same time as the excavations were taking place, the Norfolk Rivers Trust were hard at work nearby, engaged in an initiative to restore the canalised waterway’s natural meander. While the new channel was being dug, they had exposed a chalk platform that aligns with a raised linear feature that can be seen running towards the fort in LiDAR. Possibly deliberately constructed above the natural peat of the river channel, it may have served as some kind of ford or causeway, Andy suggested – and while today its angle looks slightly odd and oblique to have been an approach to Warham Camp, our perceptions of its orientation might be skewed slightly by the monument’s truncation.
On the rather drier ground of the fort’s interior, contents of all the test- pits were carefully sieved and recorded. The bulk of finds recovered in this way were, surprisingly, dated not to the Iron Age but to the later Roman period, reflecting the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. These included hobnails from boots and 12 Roman coins, which could have been lost by casual or more purposeful visitors to the site; clearer evidence of longer-term activity, however, was present in the form of large quantities of hammerscale that effectively filled the soil within a concentrated area towards the edge of the interior. It appears that – centuries after the Iceni rebellion had been subdued, its people had adopted elements of the empire’s material culture, and towns like the regional capital of Venta Icenorum (c.30 miles south-east of Warham at modern Caistor St Edmund; see CA 406 and 270) had been established in the area – the Iron Age monument had taken on a new role as an out-of-town blacksmith set up their forge within its bounds.
No sign of a permanent structure associated with this work was identified, however – indeed, no trace of any building, pit, or other dug feature dating to the Roman period was excavated by the team at Warham Camp. Magnetometry survey of the fort’s interior also found no clear features, although it did show an enigmatic fan of striations (visible in aerial photos, too) which might represent traces of ridge-and-furrow farming or (more probably, as no other evidence of medieval activity has been observed) 19th-century ploughing.
Iron Age structures were conspicuous by their absence as well. While many other southern hillforts like Maiden Castle and Danebury are peppered with the remains of roundhouses and other features hinting at more established occupation, Warham Camp’s interior remains curiously sterile. Like the Roman finds, all of the Iron Age material recovered by the team has come from the topsoil rather than any features cut into the chalk, and these items are even fewer in number, comprising fragments of pottery and a decorative button-and-loop toggle. This latter find is potentially significant, however: it is adorned with coral in a way reminiscent of some of the grave goods from Wetwang’s middle Iron Age chariot burials. At this site (far to the north of Warham, in the East Riding of Yorkshire), domed studs, strips, and inlays of coral have been used to decorate horse fittings like terrets (rein rings), as well as a woman’s brooch.
This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 408. Read on in the magazine or on our website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.