Fieldwalking Survey at Rendlesham 2021

children walking in horizontal line across field

Featured image: Professor Williamson fieldwalking with Rendlesham Primary School

Tom Williamson is a professor of Landscape History at University of East Anglia, and he is one of the academic advisors for the Rendlesham Revealed project. As an expert in fieldwalking, Tom is also leading the fieldwalking surveys taking place in the Deben valley. Tom is our guest writer this week to tell us more about last summer’s survey at Rendlesham.

These days I work as a landscape historian – that’s my role in the project – but I began my career as an archaeologist. I was always an awful excavator: instead, I took up ‘fieldwalking’ – that is, the practice of carefully collecting pottery and other artefacts lying on the surface of ploughed fields. And so it was something of a trip down memory lane when I supervised a fieldwalking survey last summer at Rendlesham, with several different groups of volunteers.

Professor Williamson teaching students from Rendlesham Primary School about fieldwalking

The survey took place in the same field while the excavations were going on at Rendlesham last summer. The field was divided into a grid, and material collected, bagged and analysed square by square. This allows us to see how the density of material from different periods varies across the area of the field.

A large amount of material was recovered. Some had been brought to the surface by ploughing, from buried pits and ditches in the subsoil. But much had come to the field with the dung and compost brought from the yards and middens of settlements located some way away, and spread on the surface to improve fertility. Such ‘manuring scatters’ are useful because they can show that the area under investigation was under cultivation at different times in the past.

The results were interesting. Large quantities of struck flints were collected, mirroring the evidence for Neolithic and early Bronze Age activity uncovered by the excavations. Most were simple flakes but they included a beautifully made arrow head.

A thin scatter of Roman pottery indicates that the area was being cultivated from some nearby settlement. The sherds were almost all smoothed, or ‘abraded’, showing that they had been at or near the surface for a long time. In contrast, the Anglo-Saxon sherds were less evenly spread across the field and less worn. Most had probably been ploughed to the surface relatively recently, from pits or burials.

Medieval sherds were thinly and evenly scattered across the field, again showing that the land had been under cultivation. But most striking was the great quantity of ‘post-medieval’ finds – that is, material from the 16th – 19th centuries. Pottery, clay pipe stems and bottle fragments, but above all huge quantities of brick and tile, indicate intensive manuring and cultivation by the farm lying a short distance to the north.

Fieldwalking is a simple yet informative technique, and this survey has added significantly to our understanding of the history of Rendlesham. More of this work is planned: watch this space!

This fieldwork is part of the community archaeology project Rendlesham Revealed: Anglo-Saxon Life in South-East Suffolk, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We are very grateful to our many local and national partners who have made this project possible, and for the support of our volunteers and of the landowners and farmers who work and manage this historic landscape.

If you want to get involved with the Rendlesham Revealed project and future fieldwork, you can sign up to our e-newsletter for updates.

Find out More:

Fieldwalking at Rendlesham 2019

Discover more about Fieldwalking methods and guidance

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