As one of our most popular speakers, Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Ashley back again to the Parish Room, to share his story of the Access Cambridge Archaeology (ACA) archaeological excavations at Goldingham Hall in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The results of these excavations are detailed in a comprehensive 129 page report, from which many extracts have been selected below, but happily Ashley condensed things down considerably, also giving us the history of the site that before ACA were involved.

He began by telling us where Goldingham Hall actually is, which is just off the Sudbury Road on the way to Gestingthorpe, a little beyond Bulmer on the opposite side from the Roman Villa; the hall site is situated very close to Splinter’s Catering, not far from the wedding venue of Belchamp Hall.

Ashley told us the land runs gently downhill to Belchamp Brook, where originally there was a lake, but over aeons topsoil washed down and eventually filled the lake, just leaving the brook. Willow trees had been planted nearby, but some picked up Willow Watermark disease, meaning large areas were then unsuitable for willow growing. With government inducements to dig ponds, he began to dig in 1997, noticing as he did so a white area with a layer of white flints about two foot thick. The flints were all cracked and crazed as they had all been used to boil water, by heating in a fire before dropping into cold water. He also found a large bone from an Auroch, a now extinct species of large wild cattle which is the ancestor of domestic cattle. He then recounted how, a little later on when trialling a new tractor and plough combination, that he unearthed some deep clay, not something any farmer wishes. On further inspection, and following his father’s advice to always “Keep Your Eyes Open”, he observed little patches of black soil every 5 to 10 metres; heeding this advice further, he then marked every patch with a white cane for later investigation.

After harvesting the crop, he undertook trial excavations of some black areas, expecting to find Roman remains - the location is only around 1 kilometre from the Villa - but it was the remains of medieval pottery, with many oyster shells, whelks and other sea food shells, and lots of bones - Ashley recorded everything, with a view to continuing his investigation later. Later turned out to be much later, when in 2012 he met Carenza Lewis (of Time Team fame) at the Hadleigh Show; she was looking for one more site for ACA (which she had set up) to excavate, and a year later she came to Goldingham to have a look. As later detailed in the final ACA report, the seven test pits hand dug by Ashley during August / early September 1997 are described in his own words, as follows:

Test Pit 1

About 25cm from the surface, a layer of black soil 2.5 to 3.5cm thick was observed. Subsequent test pits suggested this ‘disturbed layer’ extended over much of the surrounding hectare. Further excavation revealed that a pit or ditch like feature commenced some 30 cm from the surface and continued down a further 50cm. A large quantity of oyster shells, together with a few fragments of burnt wood, burnt clay and animal bones were recovered from the middle layer of the profile.

Test Pit 2

Also revealed black soil in a layer extending from 25 to 50cm below the surface. A few oyster shells were recovered, however there were many more whelk shells, together with fragments of medieval pottery and also several pieces of clinker. On September 9th this trench was deepened with the assistance of members of Bulmer History Group. The bottom of the feature was approximately 80cm from the surface and was irregularly shaped, as if animals may have walked through it before it was filled in.

Test Pit 3 (Fire site)

Flecks of reddish black soil were noted. A test pit revealed discoloured soil at a depth of 30 to 35cm, in a layer 5 to 10cm thick. A lead weight, possibly covered in bronze was recovered. This is of special significance as it is believed to be close to the main building, suggested by Trench C, which was excavated in 2013 to 2015, though no hearth has been found in that building.

Test Pit 4

A trench, some 2.5 meters in length was cut. A layer of black soil measuring 1 to 3cm was revealed, some 30cm beneath the surface. Fragments of burnt wood were also noted. Bands of black soil and burnt wood were also observed lower down in the trench. These bands were approximately 15cm wide and 9cm in depth. Some of the deeper lines of black soil were beneath a thin layer of yellowy clay which was some 1.0 to 2.5 cm thick.

Test Pit 5

Produced more black and burnt material. This feature was then marked with a wooden post. The latter was ploughed, drilled and harvested around for the following seventeen years. In 2014, this test pit was renamed Trench E and excavated by members of the SVCA, exposing a ditch and other archaeological features.

Test Pit 6

Several flecks of black soil had been brought up by the plough near to this position. A test pit revealed black soil and small fragments of carbonised wood. This test pit is to the South of Trench A, excavated in 2013to 2014 and then known as trench A.

Test Pit 7

A small test pit revealed a layer of black soil, approximately 5cm thick, at a depth of 25 to 30cm - approximately eleven meters to the west of test pit 5. The 1755 Estate Map shows a boundary running roughly parallel to the contemporary field edge, from the pond to the ‘Tea Shed’. Oyster shells and discoloured soil were noted along this line. Each of the Test Pits was carefully measured and recorded. As the measuring wheel was used on un-level ploughed land, all positions should be regarded as approximate.

The locations of the test pits was subsequently recorded within the ACA report, as below:

Test pit locations © Crown Copyright/database right 2016

As part of the Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Managing a Masterpiece project’, ACA ran two fieldwalking events on the 8th and 8th November 2012, undertaken by 74 local residents and volunteers, including 30 pupils from Bulmer Primary School and accompanying staff, all under the watchful eye of Ashley. With just one field walked, the results were difficult to interpret, but suggested the site was lightly used throughout most of the prehistoric period, with a short episode of localised more intensive use in the late Neolithic and early Bronze age. Small amounts of pottery hinted at some human presence, possibly related to the manorial site of Goldingham, to the east of the walked area up, to about 1400 AD. Thereafter the site appeared to have been used as fields, with very little post-medieval or modern material recovered, apart from a spread of roof tiles which may have come from Goldingham Hall itself.

Field Walking Team © Copyright ACA

ACA returned to Goldingham Hall in October 2013 to run a four day programme of community archaeological excavations. Following a geophysical survey of the area to the north of the current hall, see image below, two trenches were sited over a possible rectilinear feature (reference B and C) and a third larger square trench (A) was opened over a cluster of potential features just to the north.

Proposed trenches © Copyright Google Earth trench (locations courtesy Tim Dennis)

A range of features were excavated from all of the trenches, dating from the C10th to the later C14th. A likely late Anglo Saxon boundary ditch was recorded from the eastern end of trench A, probably part of the original Saxon manor complex originally situated just to the east. Later C11th to C12th features included a very large east-west orientated boundary ditch from trench B, possibly associated with the changes and expansion to the manor at that time. Further field boundaries were also recorded in trenches A and C. The last phase of activity on site dates to the late C12th to the late C14th - the date of the two ovens that were excavated in trench A and their associated pits. A possible beam slot or gully was also recorded from trench C, with a series of large pits that may have been used for storage.

Volunteers at work in 2013 © Copyright ACA

In 2014 / 15, the Stour Valley Community Archaeology group (SVCA) was founded, and with Ashley’s co-operation, as landowner and SVCA patron, excavations at Goldingham Hall continued on the original 2013 trenches, with support from ACA. This involved the opening of further trenches based on additional geophysical data undertaken over the field.

The first of these tennis court sized digs was over two weekends in May 2014, with a follow up over four days in early September 2014 that also saw the opening of two new trenches: D, parallel to Trench C and E, to the north west of Trench A. In 2015 a four day dig was undertaken at the end of May, with two trenches (A and C) backfilled and a new trench F opened between trenches D and C. The final dig of this series of excavations was at the beginning of September 2015, when the baulk between trenches D and F was removed to create one large trench, D/F, and a small trench G also opened just to the west of the pond. Clearly a lot of work was going on.

As Ashley told us, they came across large black areas, around which were circular red areas about 1 metre in diameter - the bases of some outdoor cooking areas. There was also a lot of pottery, bones and shells, but little metal. One cooking area also went down about a metre, which apparently is very unusual. A ditch was then also found, about 10 or 12 feet across, within which was a ‘great big black layer’ - this was originally a defensive ditch, possibly from the C6th or C7th later used as a dump for the ashes from cooking fires.

Volunteers at work in 2014 15 © Copyright SVCA

Uncovering the remains of a pig © Copyright SVCA

Trench D/F post holes © Copyright Aldous Reece, SVCA

Post excavation plan for Trench A

Quoting from the final ACA report, the results of all excavations suggested an original Saxon manor site had been identified, with the presence of a number of ovens in trench A, as well as a possible timber post structure in the large trench D/F. A number of associated gullys, ditches and pits dating to the medieval period were also recorded, along with some residual prehistoric and Roman pottery providing background information to the wider landscape.

Evidence is mixed as to whether the site was high status or not, although as it is known the original manor was sited close by, the finds excavated represent the choice made by the owners at the time, rather than that that expected from a manor of the period. The faunal (or animal) remains across all the trenches suggest heavy reliance on domestic animals throughout the medieval period, with a preference for pig rather than the wild fauna certainly present in the landscape and along the valley at the time, and somewhat changed from the Anglo Saxon occupants who had a slightly more varied diet.

The pottery identified is also quite typical for this part of Essex, with only the single sherd of imported later Saxon / early medieval pottery from the Rhine Valley hinting the site may have been of higher status with good access to trade links through Sudbury. A Jew’s harp from trench D/F, an instrument often played by medieval musicians, also hints at a slightly higher status site with entertainment being paid for. All the excavated pottery suggests the site was out of use by the late C14th, with later medieval wares of the C15th onwards nearly entirely absent, apart from a few spot finds in the sub soil likely due to ploughing.

It is not known why the site appears to have been abandoned at this time, and where, if at all, it was sited, as the current hall was not built until the 1830’s, to replace one on the same site lost to fire in the early C19th. The quite sudden halt of activity may have been due to the Black Death, which swept through the region during the mid C14th, though possible political upheavals or a change of ownership of the manor may also have been the cause.

Environmental data recovered from two of the ovens in trench A also gave a sense of the natural environment around the manor during the medieval period, with the presence of a number of wild seeds that found their way into the oven. Some of the surrounding land, as expected, was utilised for cultivation of crops, but environmental results suggest the land was often damp and prone to seasonal flooding. The main crop grown was wheat, but there was evidence of oat seeds, fruit stones, wild peas and spike rush (creeping spike-rush or marsh spike-rush, is a species of mat-forming perennial flowering plants in the sedge family Cyperaceae), with the use of hazel brushwood for fuel, all of which was quite common during the medieval period.

Although no evidence for in situ prehistoric remains were excavated, a lot of worked flint was loose in the top and sub soils, probably as surface scatters which, with the later occupation of the land, became incorporated into the many separate features. There probably would have been sporadic or seasonal activity along this higher ground overlooking the Belchamp Brook from the Mesolithic period, based on the blade technology identified.

Small flint tools were notably absent from those excavated, but this is likely due to the sieving strategy utilised on site, which incorporated a 10mm mesh. The type of flint also utilised in these tools was sourced locally, and widely available along the river terraces of the Stour valley and its tributaries. The damage noted on the majority of the flints excavated suggest they experienced a certain amount of disturbance since they were discarded; they had been in plough soil a long term, suggesting the land itself has been utilised for agriculture for a very long time. Residual sherds of Roman pottery were also recorded from a few trenches, suggesting the land had marginal use at this time, most likely as open fields for the nearby Roman Villa.

The report concludes that although the original Anglo Saxon manor at Goldingham Hall was not positively identified, the trenches yielded a range of features relating to occupation on site from the C5th or C6th AD through to the C13th or C14th. From the geophysics, large areas of the site were enclosed by boundary ditches that also defined areas specifically within the settlement for different activities. These large ditches were noted from three of the trenches, B, E and G also generally contemporary from around the 12th century.

All in all a remarkable story entirely brought to life by the tireless efforts of one man who took the life lesson from his father very much to heart. After a most memorable talk thoroughly enjoyed by the near 40 audience, Ashley was warmly thanked for his efforts and tea / coffee was served with many attendees staying on for a good chat; it was a truly great evening, and we should all learn the lesson to ‘Keep our eyes open’.


13th November: Made in Ipswich

Hear about many of the items made in the town, from pottery & ships to engineering.

For example, the plough was made in the same year the railway came to Ipswich.

11th December: Cakes, Ale and Partying

Feasting and Fundraising in Medieval Suffolk


Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.

Andy Sheppard                                                                                                                       17th October 2019