Erskine Lodge – Roman life and death in Sicklesmere

metal brooch in shape of cockerel

Featured Image: an enamelled cockerel brooch c.1st-2nd century recovered from a deliberate deposition layer within a former river channel © Allen Archaeology

In 2018, archaeological excavations in Sicklesmere in the parish of Gt Whelnetham recorded evidence for significant Roman activity.

The excavation site known as Erskine Lodge, is located at the western end of the known Roman settlement at Sicklesmere, which is roughly in the same location as the modern village. Past investigations in the area have found kilns, burials and large finds scatters, indicating a settlement of some status dating from the 1st to 4th centuries.

The excavations at Erskine’s Lodge in 2018 adds to the overall knowledge and understanding of the Roman activity at Sicklesmere.

The earliest activity at the Erksine’s Lodge site was represented by over 400 pieces of worked flint, dating from the Palaeolithic to Bronze Age periods, and a handful of prehistoric pits.

A former river channel was defined along the western edge of the site, close to the current route of the River Lark, which was a focus of activity throughout the Roman period. This feature had a sequence of fills, containing Roman finds dating from the 1st to 4th centuries. As this former river channel silted up, a series of pits and graves were dug into it at various points, before being sealed by a 4th century deposit containing 130 individual finds, including metalwork such as 130 coins and numerous brooches. The quantity and excellent condition of the metalwork is indicative of deliberate deposition, especially as there was generally limited metalwork found in the other features across the rest of the site.

4 inhumation burials and 3 urned cremations were recorded, cut into the edge of the channel. The burials were all adults; three are believed to date to the 3rd century, and the fourth to 4th century. None of the inhumations were buried with any grave goods, although a pile of stones was placed beneath the head and shoulders of one of the burials, forming a pillow. Two of the cremations were found together in a single pit, which also contained a beaker.

A further 7 burials were recorded; there were three pairs of adult graves and an individually buried neonate. These burials were situated to the east of the site, close to where a number of burials had previously been recorded. These burials showed evidence of having been shrouded and placed in coffins and also contained grave goods which indicate a 1st-2nd century date.

Various animal burials were also recorded at the site, including several dogs, many of which were found within dated Roman pit fills.

bones of animal insitu
articulated juvenile pig skeleton remains within grave © Allen Archaeology

Across the rest of the site, evidence relating to edge of settlement activity was recorded, including a series of ditches, 294 pits and a group of quarry pits, dating from the 1st to early 3rd centuries. Whilst most of the pits were for industrial or domestic waste or storage, a small number of these pits potentially contained structured finds deposits. Three wells were also recorded, two of which contained evidence of timbers, with finds evidence suggesting that they were in use from the 1st to 3rd centuries and that they may have been a focus for deliberate deposition. By the late 3rd and 4th centuries, pitting activity was limited to just a handful of features, suggesting that activity on site and depositional practices had shifted focus to the river channel by this point.

The remains of three structures were recorded on-site. The first structure was post-built, which either had several phases of construction, or perhaps formed numerous separate structures. Finds indicate a 1st-2nd century date for this building. The building’s function is unknown, although nearby pits included items associated with metalworking and also fired clay.

The second structure was rectangular and associated with numerous postholes cut into a gravel slope and lined with clay to add structural support, before a clay floor surface was laid. The function of the structure is unclear. A series of deposits had built up above the structure after it went out of use, which contained many finds suggesting a 2nd century date.

structure 2 floor surface and clay lining, mid-excavation © Allen Archaeology

The third structure took the form of a circular ditched enclosure, associated with postholes both within and on the outside edge of the ditch. Dating was inconclusive, although indicative of a general Roman date, but again the function is unclear. A Roman iron slave shackle and associated key was located within the ring ditch itself.

slots excavated from circular feature
structure 3 circular ditched enclosure, mid-excavation © Allen Archaeology
Roman iron slave shackle and associated key found in the ring ditch of structure 3 © Allen Archaeology

Activity on the site declined in the 4th century and no other archaeological features were identified pre-dating the post medieval period.

The remains recorded at Erskine Lodge allow us to gain a better understanding of the changing activity throughout the Roman period, on the edge of the settlement at Sicklesmere. The significant Roman finds assemblage is undergoing further analysis but it is indicative of military, religious, domestic and industrial activity, supporting the idea that this was a settlement of some importance and longevity. The group of burials provides an interesting comparison to another burial group, recently discovered at the nearby site of Fenton’s Farm. Read about the excavations at Fenton’s Farm.

All archaeological remains have now been fully excavated and recorded in advance of building work. The finds and remains have undergone specialist analysis and reports on the results of the project are being completed (and will be made publicly available in due course). The entire archive will be deposited with the County Archive, maintained by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service; this will be available for researchers and for local museums to borrow on loan for display to the public.

The archaeological excavation was undertaken at Erskine Lodge ahead of a residential development. The work was commissioned by Havebury Homes and undertaken by Allen Archaeology. Suffolk County Council’s archaeological officers monitored the project to ensure that the site was excavated and recorded to a high standard.

Find out more

Discover more about the Fentons Farm site, excavated nearby.

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