Bunwell Independent Learning Archaeology Field School (ILAFS)


Our first excavations in the parish of Bunwell in south Norfolk were undertaken over the 23rd-24th of May 2018 with the final day, the 25th, a non-digging day, the students travelled into Cambridge to visit and learn more about university. A total of 40 Year 9 and Year 10 students from Old Buckenham High School, Thetford Academy and the Hobart High School excavated 10 test pits in two separate areas, one around the church and primary school and the other at Great Green.

The test pit locations were found with the help from the Bunwell Heritage Group and its secretary David Neale in particular, who was also on site during the excavations for additional support with Peter Day.

Bunwell itself is a large parish that includes the hamlets of Bunwell Hill, Bunwell Street, Low Common, Great Green and Little Green, just over 7km east of Attleborough and 18.6km southwest of Norwich.  The long linear settlement along Bunwell Street is the largest of all these areas, set in flat open countryside, whereas the hamlets of Bunwell Hill and Low Common, set further to the south, are along the valley of the River Tas. The B1113 runs through the centre of the parish, connecting New Buckingham to Norwich, close to which sits the 15th century church of St Michael and All Angels’. The name Bunwell derives from Old English and was recorded as Bunewell in 1198 that likely means ‘spring or stream where reeds grow’. The settlement was not recorded in the Domesday Book although evidence for Anglo Saxon occupation has already been recorded from the parish. Previous test pit excavations by ACA have been undertaken in the neighbouring parish of Carleton Rode, the results of those excavations can be found here. www.access.arch.cam.ac.uk/reports/norfolk/carleton-rode


Day 1 and the students were full of energy to get started- but so they could focus that energy in the right direction we started with an introduction talk in the village hall by ACA’s archaeologist Cat Collins, explaining the details of the ILAFS programme, some history of the settlement and what is expected from the students on the three days they are out of school. After a quick break with time for Emily Ryley (on her last ever ILAFS) to brief all the supervisors, including a couple of 6th formers getting some great leadership experience but also three PhD students from Cambridge University. Then it was time for the students to collect their equipment and head out to site to dig.

The students got down to the task and had the turf off quickly; the students proved to be hard-workers, with all teams excavating at least 3 contexts (30cm) of soil before the end of the day. They learn how to use new tools and techniques (especially the mattock), how to plan and coordinate their work as a team, and thought imaginatively about their finds to understand what they could tell us about Bunwell’s past. Three of the test pits found burnt flint. These are stones that had been used by neolithic people as a way of heating their meals or water, by placing the stones in the fire to heat, then placing them in the water- a technique that boils water faster than a modern kettle! They can be recognised by the ‘crackled’ surface on the rocks. These were found in the upper layers of the test pit, showing there had been some turning over of the soil layers. There had indeed, with some of the test pits having to battle through layers of rubble and refuse from buildings- it’s all still evidence of human activity though! They were rewarded for their efforts, finding some great things. Highlights included a bone die! And even a small section of false human teeth!

On Day 2 of the excavations, we were joined by John Newman, pottery expert who helped identify the finds. There were less of them than last week, but there were still three test pits who found medieval pottery. It’s always exciting to be the one that finds something several hundred years old! The other reason there was less to find was that many of the test pits hit the natural geology by lunch time on day 2, and all excavated to natural by the end of the day- a first for ILAFS! This means we can be confident that were weren’t any older find lurking beneath where the students were digging that we might have missed, which is great. It also meant that those groups who had finished a little early, could help those still finishing off and we were able to get everyone away at a reasonable time.


After two days of digging, the students had a good grasp on what it means to be an archaeologist and had also learnt a lot about working together, recording data and identifying objects. Day 3 is about translating these skills into world of Higher Education and showing how they are central to students now. Day 3 of the field school is designed to show them how students at university transform data into concrete knowledge. First then, the students had a lecture from Emma Brownlee, a PhD student at the university. This takes in all stages of writing a report starting with the background of how the settlement developed. Students will need to find out what we already know about the village and understand the influencing factors that might help reflectively explain the evidence we find. Presenting the data is next, and clarity is important here if the students work is to become part of our own archaeological records.  Transforming this data into an interpretation of the past is tricky for many as it requires imagination while also basing those interpretations on evidence. Taking their conclusions further, can we say how our evidence fits in with wider changes happening in the country at the time?

Lunchtime and the students got treated to a lovely lunch at St Catherine’s College and Downing college. The colleges can be very grand, especially when students are used to comparing the great hall to their school canteen, but we were given a very friendly welcome by the students who later took the students on a tour around the college so they could see the facilities and get a sense of what it was like ot live there. Seeing the bar, common room, library and other spaces allows them to really understand what it might be like ot live away from home one day.

Back to work and it was on to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, were pupils were given a task to examine the museum’s collections and then present to the others, what they could learn about that culture’s settlements and resources from the collections. For instance, one team were show the Roman Cambridge collection and were able to reflect both on local industries, and trade from across the Roman region. Another looked at the Indus valley in Asia and discuss religious beliefs and settlement patterns there. It’s really great to be able to give pupils something to focus on in their visit, and relate their learning to what they are seeing. The students get a very well-rounded experience of university life and study from the visit. And to help them see how they could make the ambition to come to university a reality, we rounded things off with a more general talk on university, demonstrating how they could start thinking about their own subject choices and where they would like to go later in life.

The experience had a big impact on some of the students saying “This opportunity has helped me so much in my future. I am still deciding what to do when I am older but I found this trip helpful in deciding it.” WE Hobart High School. “I have gained a higher amount of confidence in doing new things also an understanding of archaeology and what it means as well as life in university and how it all works which I am grateful to have as I believe it will help me later in life.” DD Hobart High School.  [I have gained] “confidence in myself and the ability to do something new.” OM Old Buckenham High School

Teachers too commented how much the programme had improved over the last few years and praised the experience saying it had “Raised aspirations and a whole range of practical skills and academic knowledge. PN Thetford Academy. “Mixing with students from other schools. Hearing about university and the wide range of option there. Students have gained some independence and control over their own work.” RK Hobart High


Thank you very much for making my (Emily Ryley) last ILAFS such as success. The ILAFS programme will continue for the rest of the summer with Cat Collins taking over much of the organising but I will miss the students, and the archaeology!

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