Review – A Life in Norfolk’s Archaeology, 1950-2016

2 mins read
Peter Wade-Martins
Archaeopress, £24.99
ISBN 978-1784916572
Review Edward Biddulph

Peter Wade-Martins’ account of his life in archaeology is as rich as any of the sites with which he has been involved. Beginning at a time when there was scant legal protection for Britain’s heritage, and ending with the realities of developer-led archaeology and a post-Brexit future, Wade-Martins’ story is also the story of archaeological practice in the modern era.

The author has had an extraordinary career – being both a witness to and a key player in the events that have shaped the way we investigate the past. His archaeological career began in the late 1950s as a volunteer at Norwich City Museum, and in the 1960s he joined excavations carried out in response to the threat of deep ploughing across deserted medieval villages. For his PhD, Wade-Martins analysed the results of fieldwalking across the Norfolk countryside to investigate medieval settlement patterns, and during that time took part in excavations of the late Saxon and early medieval centre at North Elmham.

From 1973 to 1999, Wade-Martins was County Archaeologist for Norfolk, during which time he steered the county through the implementation of the RESCUE movement. This led to the formation of the Norfolk Archaeological Unit – and then Planning Policy Guidance Note 16 put archaeological provision on a new footing that continues in modified form today. Wade-Martins left his post after council reorganisation, but soon after began a new role as director of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, where he had considerable success – for instance, securing the future preservation of the Saxon shore fort, Burgh Castle.

Norfolk was the scene of several ‘firsts’ in British archaeology, and Wade-Martins saw them all. Archaeologists in the county pioneered systematic fieldwalking as a method of investigation, set up the first sites and monuments record, created the model for responsible metal-detecting and finds reporting, built up an unrivalled collection of aerial photographs, and instigated the East Anglian Archaeology publication series, which is still going strong with its 163rd volume.

Not everything was met by success, and Wade-Martins does not shy away from pointing out where archaeological management broke down. He is rightly scathing about archaeologists – some of whom should have known better – who excavated with no thought to publication and archiving. His tale of a group of wellintentioned weekend diggers, known as the ‘Excavatores Brantunae’, who dug (one would hesitate to call it an excavation) the Roman settlement at Brampton over a period of 30 years, unfolds like an archaeological horror story. The author is also honest about his own regrets in his archaeological work.

The book is superbly illustrated; indeed, it is well worth buying for the photographs alone. There are images of richly furnished Saxon graves from Spong Hill. There is the obligatory picture of bare-chested (male) archaeologists in the 1960s. A collapsed section from an excavation in the late 1950s shows how far (for good reason) health and safety has come. And an aerial photograph of the deserted medieval village of Grenstein reveals that, before flying his self-built autogyro on Her Majesty’s secret service in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, Wing Commander Ken Wallis used it for aerial photography for Norfolk’s archaeological service.

With the book being as much a history of modern archaeological practice in Norfolk as an autobiography, some reference to the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project – a multidisciplinary investigation of a village that has some of the spirit of the author’s own village surveys and which has trained a generation of field archaeologists (see CA 299 and 333) – might have been warranted. Recent discoveries by archaeological units based outside the county are also not covered in any detail. The book is, however, Peter Wade-Martins’ story, and does not claim to be a comprehensive overview.

What a life in Norfolk’s archaeology! The book is destined to become an essential archaeological reference and to join other classics of archaeological autobiography, among them Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s Still Digging and Philip Rahtz’s Living Archaeology. An absolute must-read.

This review appeared in CA 336

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