Earlier this summer, Access Cambridge Archaeology returned to Bures on the Suffolk-Essex border to run a week-long community excavation for the Heritage Lottery funded project Managing a Masterpiece, on common land recently purchased by the local residents for community recreation. Local historian, Leigh Alston, believed that the riverside site had been used for waste disposal over many centuries and hoped to find a wealth of evidence for life in the village in the medieval and early modern periods.
In time-honoured fashion for an archaeological excavation, it was on the final afternoon of the dig that one of the three trenches produced a layer of waterlogged and charred organic material. Dr Rachel Ballantyne, archaeobotanical specialist at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge, has assessed the plant and mollusc remains for evidence of the local enivornment and human activity at the time that the layer was deposited.
The plant assemblage indicates that the area next to the River Stour was open, damp grasssland with patches of more scrubby vegetation, with flowing rather than stagnant water nearby. Of particular interest, however, was the discovery of waterlogged flax seeds and capsules, likely to be waste from retting, the process of soaking the flax stalks to separate the fibres before drying and spinning them into linen. A worked wooden peg fragment also recovered from the trench may have held bundles of flax in place under water.
Newly received results from a radiocarbon-dated sample of the flax provides a date range of AD 1022-1155. This is unexpectedly early, and is therefore an important result, as there is much less known about cloth-working industry in this area at this early date than there is for later centuries. Corroborating local historic records, Dr Ballantyne agrees that this is of significance for our understanding of early medieval activity in the area, saying “whilst the post-medieval fibre processing industry is quite well known for the Stour Valley, it’s great to demonstrate archaeologically the earlier origins for flax processing.”