New discoveries in Sutton Park

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A number of previously unrecorded archaeological features, spanning prehistory to the present day, have been identified in Birmingham’s Sutton Park.

The Roman fortlet earthwork
The Roman fortlet earthwork next to the Roman road [Image: M Hodder]

Sutton Park lies on the edge of the city, surrounded by the roads and houses of the conurbation, but it is not an urban park of mown lawns and flowerbeds. Its 2,400 acres of wetland, heathland, and woodland originated as a medieval deer park, probably created by Henry I who gave it to the Earl of Warwick in 1126. In 1528, Henry VIII gave it to the town of Sutton Coldfield for the inhabitants to use for grazing and for gathering firewood.

As a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve, Sutton Park is protected for its ecology as well as its archaeology – but most of its land is also designated a scheduled monument because of its many well-preserved archaeological remains from various periods. The absence of built development or cultivation, except for some ploughing during the Second World War, has ensured the survival of extensive earthworks, including the boundaries and subdivisions of the medieval deer park, woodbanks and sawpits from historical woodland management, as well as evidence of past sporting use and troop training since the 19th century. The park also contains Bronze Age burnt mounds (associated with hot-stone technology), and one of the best-preserved Roman roads in the country (part of Ryknield Street).

Recent archaeological work has resulted in several exciting new discoveries within the park, including the identification of a medieval hunting lodge located in an area of the deer park labelled on a map of 1779 (right) as Lodge Oak, on Lodge Oak Bank. The lodge was preserved as a rectangular ditched enclosure, inside which an animal burrow had exposed medieval roof-tile and mortar. A magnetometer survey by Allen Archaeology indicated the buried foundations of the building itself, whose timber-framed walls would have rested on stone footings. The lodge is located in the centre of the Park, overlooking the main route running across it.

A 1770 showing Lodge Oak marked in the crease of the map
The 1779 map shows Lodge Oak marked in the crease of the map [Image: Sutton Coldfield Library

Alongside the Roman road, a well-preserved bank and ditch earthwork (pictured above), originally located using LiDAR (see Science Notes), may be a Roman fortlet or signal station dating from the 1st century AD. A magnetometer survey suggested the presence of a fence or stockade on the bank and, unexpectedly, curvilinear features within it that may be parts of ring gullies. These might have surrounded circular buildings, rather than the rectangular structures that would normally be anticipated within the Roman defences, and may therefore pre- or post-date the earthwork.

Other discoveries include more prehistoric burnt-stone mounds to add to those already known in the park, but in well-drained hillside locations which are unusual for features of this kind; possible medieval or post-medieval pillow mounds (manmade rabbit warrens); and an undated perfectly circular embanked pit that is unlike the many sawpits in the Park’s woods. Finally, stretches of characteristic zigzag practice trenches have also been recorded, showing the extent to which the park was used for military training during the First World War.

Dr Mike Hodder, who is leading the archaeological investigations, says ‘Sutton Park contains undisturbed archaeology stretching over thousands of years. We hope that these recent discoveries will lead to further archaeological study in this remarkable but rather underappreciated landscape, to shed more light on some of these exciting finds.’

Text by Mike Hodder & Keith Hopkinson

This news article appears in issue 358 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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