Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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The historian Gillian Darley wrote a book in 2019 entitled Excellent Essex: in praise of England’s most misunderstood county. By way of an introduction to my latest column on that county, I recommend this book to you. Darley writes wonderfully and knows the area intimately, and her point about its buried treasures is an excellent one: there is a lot to admire here.
Construction time again
It is pretty close to blasphemous that Essex is considered a county with little visible prehistory. As CA 108 (February 1988) explained, ‘Clacton is the only town in the country to have given its name to two type-sites – the Clactonian in the Palaeolithic, and the Rinyo-Clacton in the late Neolithic – but there are no spectacular hill forts and few upstanding barrows’ (see CA 288, March 2014, and CA 313, April 2016, for specific discussions of these sites). CA 108 attempted to set the record straight by making the magazine’s first major foray into the county’s prehistory at Springfield, on the eastern outskirts of Chelmsford, where air photos revealed crop marks covering a large area due to be redeveloped for industry and housing. Two sites were excavated: a cursus and, about a mile to the north, a late Bronze Age stronghold later covered by an early Saxon cemetery and a late Saxon settlement. Thus the pattern was set for CA’s reporting on – and the types of prehistoric sites featured in – Essex: mostly ones made in advance of losses to construction.
Later editions of the magazine did manage to find some greater reward in the Bronze Age, including a fine cemetery site at Brightlingsea in CA 126 (September 1991) – again found prior to its loss, alas, in this case in advance of a quarry – and a spectacular hoard from Burnham-on-Crouch in CA 252 (March 2011), found – and thankfully reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme – by a metal-detectorist, enabling its careful excavation, recovery, and conservation.
From more recent prehistory, there have been some precious and fragile things found on the foreshore, including the superb Iron Age salterns at Leigh Beck Marshes on Canvey Island in CA 174 (June 2001).
Some great reward
It is impossible to discuss the archaeology of Essex without mentioning the great military town of Colchester. Thankfully, this is a site that I featured in CA 330 (September 2017) in a previous column on Roman Britain, allowing me instead to share my excitement for other, lesser-known Roman sites and finds from the county. The temple at Harlow is a site that many feel love for, and rightly so. It first featured in CA 11 (November 1968), and subsequently in CA 104 (April 1987) and CA 112 (December 1988). It was initially brought to public attention back in 1928 by no lesser name than Mortimer Wheeler (although CA 11 is at pains to emphasise that he was not its excavator: that accolade goes to a local antiquarian, the superbly named Miller Christy). Even lesser-known, but arguably as important, is the Iron Age, Roman, and later site at Rivenhall, just north of Witham, which featured in CA 30 (January 1972), CA 36 (January 1973), and CA 48 (January 1975). This site can be usefully combined with an examination of Current Archaeology’s coverage of the Iron Age and Roman settlement at Little Waltham, a few miles to the west, in CA 36 (January 1973) and CA 53 (November 1975), and at Kelvedon, a similar distance to the east, in CA 48 (January 1975). Together, these sites provide a neat palimpsest of what can be termed ‘settlement archaeology’, undertaken in the county in the 1970s. Initially archaeologists were interested in them as ‘deserted’, primarily medieval, villages – following the traditions established by the likes of Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (see more on these pioneers in my column in CA 340, July 2018) – but they soon expanded into multi-site, multi-period examinations. This trio of locations reveal much about lives and livelihoods in Essex across the millennia, with excellent finds from the Iron Age, and the Romano-British and later periods. It is a policy of truth borne out in other issues of Current Archaeology – for example, of superb finds of Roman glass made in burial contexts near Billericay in CA 186 (June 2003). I could write several columns on Roman Essex alone.
Songs of faith and devotion
One discovery in Essex above all others has regularly hit the archaeological headlines since the early 2000s – the spectacular Saxon princely burial from Prittlewell, near Southend-on-Sea. This was, quite simply, one of the most exciting finds made in Britain in this period. CA 190 (February 2004) covered the story when the site, already known for its burials, was fully excavated in advance of road-widening works. There, archaeologists uncovered the richest burial since Sutton Hoo, situated amid a cemetery of at least 34 burials, many containing fine grave goods, including three with jewellery (such as a rock crystal and an amber necklace) and no fewer than 19 with weapons, including six with swords – high-status indeed. CA 198 (July/August 2005) picked up the details of the site (alongside nearby Rayleigh, a Saxon cemetery site just five miles from Prittlewell) and, most recently, CA 352 (July 2019) returned with an update on the post-excavation analyses and interpretation, especially of the lavishly furnished timber burial chamber and its grave goods, including copper-alloy vessels, drinking vessels, weapons, musical instruments, and much, much more.
I end my exploration of the archaeology of Essex with another of the ‘great’ sites – not just of the county but of the whole country: Mucking, near Stanford-le-Hope. This is a site that Current Archaeology just can’t get enough of, with in-depth features appearing across the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, from CA 50 (May 1975) to, most recently, CA 322 (January 2017). The site is as rich and varied as the county, containing remains dating from the Neolithic to the medieval period, with its Bronze Age and, especially, Anglo-Saxon features being particularly notable; there is also splendid evidence of Roman settlement. CA 50 set the scene at what began in 1965 as an examination of the area’s Saxon origins – no surprise given its location less than a mile from the Thames Estuary. CA 111 (September 1988) picked up on these threads, but it was only a question of time before the bigger story of the site emerged, in CA 311 (February 2016) and CA 322 (January 2017). These revealed the true extent of long-term occupation there, evidenced by a stunning array of finds and features – more than 800 burials ranging in date from the early 5th to 7th centuries, more than 200 sunken/pit buildings, nearly a dozen large timber-framed hall buildings, and in total more than 44,000 individually identifiable archaeological features. Truly, as a great Essex band once sang, everything counts in large amounts.
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.