August and September 2022 saw the second season of archaeological excavation on the site of the East Anglian royal settlement at Rendlesham in Suffolk [EXH17]. This has been undertaken as part of the community archaeology project Rendlesham Revealed which is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and managed by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service.
Between 2008 and 2017 archaeological survey (a combination of systematic metal-detecting, geophysics and aerial photography) and targeted excavation identified the site of a rich and extensive settlement complex of the 5th to 8th centuries AD. This is the most extensive and materially the wealthiest settlement site of its time known in England and can be identified as the site of the East Anglian vicus regius (royal settlement) recorded by Bede in Historia Ecclesiastica [EXH14]. Bede wrote that Rendlesham was the place where the East Anglian King Aethelwold stood sponsor at the baptism of King Swithelm of the East Saxons between the years AD 655 and 663.
The finds recovered by metal-detecting establish the date, extent and wealth of the settlement, and their distribution across the landscape gives clues to how it developed over time and where different activities took place. In particular, they indicate that a royal residence was established here around AD 570 and that for the next 150 years this was the centre from which a major province of the East Anglian kingdom, focused on the valley of the River Deben, was ruled. However, only excavation on a larger scale could provide more detailed information about the character of the site, the rulers whose place this was, and the lifeways of the people whose labour and skills supported the East Anglian rulers. Rendlesham Revealed allows for three seasons of excavation on key parts of the settlement complex to address these questions.
Our first season of excavation, in the summer of 2021, showed that there was an extensive area of domestic occupation in the north and northeast of the settlement complex. People were living here from the 5th century, and there is evidence that some, at least, were wealthy and important. This local importance was probably the reason why the royal site was established immediately adjacent in the later 6th century. To the south of this we identified a zone that appears to have been given over largely to craft activity, including fine metalworking, and to the large scale butchery and processing of animals for food. The scale of activity suggests that beasts were being brought in from surrounding farms as food renders.
This season’s excavations targeted what we believed to be the area of the royal residence, south and west of the areas investigated in 2021, and the results were everything that we could have hoped for. We opened two trenches, 40m x 30m and 30m x 15m in size, which revealed the foundations of a large and elaborate timber hall, the perimeter ditch of the royal compound, and the remains of food preparation and feasting which show the consumption of vast quantities of meat, mainly beef and pork. We recovered dress jewellery, personal items, fragments of glass drinking vessels and pottery, and environmental samples that will tell us about the crops grown and eaten, other plant foods, and the use of wild resources.
The Hall, 23m long and 10m wide, was part of a royal compound covering an area of six hectares set within the larger settlement complex, and occupying a prominent position overlooking the river Deben. The floor area of the hall is five times that of a normal dwelling-house of the time, and there would have been other such Halls within the royal compound, making an emphatic visual statement about the importance of the place and the power of those who ruled from it.
The East Anglian kingdom, covering modern day Suffolk and Norfolk, was made up of several regions like that centred on Rendlesham, and the Kings travelled between them to rule and to be seen to rule. Here, at Rendlesham, the first Kings of the East Angles, accompanied by their household and armed retinue, would have administered justice, received tribute and diplomatic envoys, feasted their followers, and distributed gifts and favours.
This season’s excavation confirms that this is the place of the royal centre and royal baptism recorded by Bede. The medieval parish church of St Gregory is close by, and it is tempting to suppose that it is on the site of a succession of earlier churches – perhaps even the building in which Swithelm was baptised. There is, however, no evidence for this and Swithelm may have been baptised not in a church but in a temporary baptistry or in the River Deben – Bede records the missionary Paulinus baptising converts in the River Glen at the Northumbrian royal centre of Yeavering. Our archaeological discoveries do, though, illuminate the physical and architectural setting of the baptism, and emphasise how the process of conversion was enabled by Kings and enacted through the institutions and infrastructure of secular lordship. The valuable metalwork and evidence for lavish feasting revealed at Rendlesham is exactly what would be expected from the gathering for a royal baptism which would have involved days of ceremonial and the provision of hospitality for the retinues of two kings and a bishop.
Local people are a vital part of this four-year community archaeology project which engages local residents, schools, young people, and volunteers from south-east Suffolk and Ipswich. There is a range of opportunities for volunteers to be trained in on-site archaeological survey and excavation, as well as taking part in hands-on experimental archaeology events, specialist and family workshops, guided walks and exhibitions. This year over 250 volunteers from the local community were involved in the excavation, including young adults from the Suffolk Family Carers, clients from Suffolk Mind, and over 100 local school children from Rendlesham, Eyke and Wickham Market primary schools. It has been a joy to work with our terrific team of partners and volunteers, who can be proud of what they have achieved – a major advance in our understanding of the early East Anglian Kingdom and the wider North Sea world of which it was a part.
Prof Christopher Scull
Principal Academic Lead
Header image: Rendlesham site on the last day of excavation in 2022. In the larger trench, the excavated foundation of the Great Hall and the perimeter ditch of the Royal Compound can be seen. In the smaller trench an area of rubbish dumping has been sampled on a 1m grid. © Suffolk County Council; photo by Jim Pullen