Blythburgh Independent Learning Archaeology Field School 2018


We’re off to the seaside! At least, very close by in sunny Suffolk. Blythburgh is one of the ILAFS locations that the ACA team looks forward to visiting most. Not just for the beautiful surroundings but also for the kindness of Blythburgh local history group, the local homeowners giving up their gardens and the dedicated school partners. This week we had a full complement of students from 5 different schools! Joining us were Sir John Leman School, Benjamin Britten Academy, Bungay High School,  /Ormiston Denes Academy, and Pakefield High School. It takes a lot of organising to get students on these digs and we are very grateful to the teachers for pushing their already stretched time to get the students to us.


Blythburgh is a very interesting village, as well as a lovely place to visit. The name Blythburgh means ‘stronghold on the River Blyth’, taken from the name of the river Blyth that meant ‘the gentle or pleasant one’ and the Old English word for burh to mean a defended or fortified settlement. The village was recorded in the Domesday Book as Blideburgh and had its origins during the Middle Anglo Saxon period as an important religious centre and one of the richest churches in the county. A Priory was founded here during the 12th century for the Augustinian Canons. The current church is magnificent, huge in comparison to the size of the village that supports it but beautifully structured, light and airy and with many fascinating details to discover. If anyone has read the Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers, they will recognise the features of the fenland church described in that book in this church also. This combination of river, coat, fertile land and important religious site means that there is archaeology here for our students to discover! Last year we found late Anglo-Saxon and medieval pottery in some of the test pits. This year our test pits are focusing more closely around the priory, as well as in the marshy areas by the river. We hope to find much more evidence from this period, as while the medieval settlement is focused around the church, in earlier times the activity may have been closer to the water’s edge. Results of the excavations from this year and last year can be found here.


After a introductory talk from Alison Dickens, Manager at Access Cambridge Archaeology, they were split into groups mixing students and teachers from different schools. Students have to get used to a lot of new tools and techniques in a short space of time. However, from the talk, watching each other, and just having a go they all quickly got the hang of it and gelled together well as a team. Also if I’m around (Emily Ryley, ACA Learning and Engagement Administrator) I will eagerly show you how to swing a mattock and hack out any troublesome roots for you.  What can I say, its very stress relieving…


And find some archaeology they did! The full pottery report giving the details of what was found will be available in a week or so here. However in a brief summary we had some really exciting finds! Almost all the test pits had medieval pottery  showing that the students had been dedicated in excavating to the lower and older layers. But very excitingly we also had some Anglo-Saxon material coming out of test pits near the river. Near the river a roof and a floor tile were also found which does suggest habitation in this area, not just people using this as an area to work, then living on the higher ground, but also building structures here. Very exciting stuff and the pottery report will hopefully tell us more next week.


Everyone has been interested in what the students have been doing, including BBC Radio Suffolk’s Guy Campbell who came and did a short piece on the dig for their drive time show which you can listen to here. Listen from 1.24.58. There was the open coffee morning held on Thursday morning in the church and organised by the local residents. Attended by some keen locals and surprised drop in visitors to the church the finds were on show to all. A special thanks to the lovely volunteers who provided coffee and cake too! We were also joined on Thursday by John Newman, long time pottery expert at ACA and a friendly helping hand to our students to help them identify their finds and work out what they reveal about the past. Test pit 9 came up with huge amount of medieval pottery, which given they were in a spectacular spot by the river, we can see that activity  must have been more concentrated here in the past.


Pleased with their efforts, it was now time for the students to bring them all together and understand the wider context of what they had found. Finding objects is one thing, but it’s only by understanding them in context can we learn from them. And the more objects, from more places, the more powerful we can make our arguments about the past. All this was delivered in a lecture by Jess Thompson, PhD student at the University of Cambridge. A clear, set out talk on what to write is very valuable as GCSE coursework has now been dropped, this is one of the few opportunities students have to write and gain feedback on a long piece of their own research, prior to A levels. We hope that the skills they learn from completing the report will stay with them, and give them an advantage when working independently. At this age is it easy to see GCSEs- your first big exam – as completely deciding your future but hopefully we can show the students that there is life beyond year 11. Archaeology won’t be for many of them, but hopefully the skills they learnt of motivating others (despite rain and clay soils), planning their work and time and academic skills will give them a great start to their futures.


The students also got to understand other finds an their wider meaning with a visit to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The students produced some great posters detailing who finds from a particular place can tell us about different aspects of the society they are from. Hopefully they will also think about this when examining their own finding in their reports.


The ILAFS programme allows us to show students their potential futures by touring them around the University and experiencing what life as a student is like. The visit to a college for lunch and a tour usually make a big impression on them and this week as no exception. Visiting either Sidney Sussex or Downing college, made a good impression on the students and they were able to see where students lived and enjoyed themselves as well as worked hard. Later in the day they had a talk from the Downing Schools Liaison officer who took them through some of the different routes and pathways you can take at university and beyond. The talk also mentioned what they could be doing now to help their futures. As students often make choices or actions that affect their futures very early on, it’s really important to inform students, even before their GCSEs, where those choices can shape their future.


The day certainly inspired some students and there were many conversations about futures, choices and where they could aim. Several of the students have said that they would now like to apply to Cambridge when the time comes, so aiming high! Many students (and some teachers too) have said that the experience on ILAFs has opened their eyes to opportunities that are available to them, and that’s what ere are here to do; show students a different path and how they can achieve that.


Particular thanks to Sonia Boggis and Alan Mackley of the Blythburgh society and Alison Copeman at Sir John Leman School for their roles in organising this ILAFS. There has been much talks from both the schools and the local residents about how polite the students were and how kind everyone has been to each other- so well done everyone, you have been a credit to your schools! All the local residents and schools have been so kind, welcoming, accommodating (thanks for all the cake and delivered coffee!), and generally amazing, that we are going to make every effort to come back next year and we can’t wait!


I could not end this blog with also mentioned Rafael the Cat. Resident of The Priory in Blythburgh he is a most extraordinary cat, involved with everything going on, and friendly and welcoming to all. He joined us on our walks around the test pits, welcomed visitors to the church and provided endless amusement to the ACA team. So to round off here are just a few of the many, many photos and fun times we had.



Bonus doggies!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s