Warham Camp July 2023 – Archaeological investigations as part of the Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project

Warham Camp July 2023 – Archaeological investigations as part of the Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project

The Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project is a strand of work at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture examining the similarities and differences between the extremities of Eurasia in prehistory and proto-history. It is a precursor to the focus of the Nara to Norwich project. The first millennium BCE sees much social, economic and technological change across Eurasia. Around 500 BCE we see the rise of written philosophy and complex religions, along with the advent of coinage becoming common place. In Britain developments around this time include the first archaeological evidence for chariots, along with a new type of art style, often referred to as Celtic, beginning around 400 BCE. In this respect, Celtic Art can be seen to demonstrate the interconnectedness of communities across large distances at this time with the art present in a broad band from Ireland, via Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.[1] Arguably, Celtic Art, particularly the style known as La Tène, along with the arts of the steppe form a continuum of related styles across much of Eurasia during the Iron Age and show a particular visual perspective at work during this time.[2]

This year our investigations were focused on this mid to late first millennium period at Warham Camp an Iron Age (800BCE – 43CE) fort in north Norfolk near the town of Wells-next-the-Sea, a well-preserved set of earthworks with two banks and two deep ditches. The fort is located next to the river Stiffkey in a dramatic valley side location. We are trying to better understand the date of the monument and to characterise the types of activities taking place within it. The aim is to set this monument into a multi-scale framework for understanding change during the first millennium BCE. Our theory is that these monuments, sometimes characterised as unproblematically defensive in their intended construction and use, were in fact used in a variety of ways. Some hillforts, such as one of the most extensively excavated, Danebury in Hampshire, contained a range of evidence for activities including the storage of grain, sacrifice of animals (and probably people) and were lived in, at least some of the time.[3]  Other Iron Age forts, such as the marsh fort at Sutton Common, Derbyshire, show little evidence for permanent settlement but contained many four-post structures, thought to be for the storage of grain, and later held several mortuary related structures.[4] Norfolk has relatively few hillforts but there is a group in the northwest associated with rivers that flow into the sea on the north coast and into the Wash. In contrast some parts of Britain, particularly the Scottish borders and parts of Wales have large numbers of hillforts.

Warham Camp was subject to two previous archaeological investigations, first in 1914 by Harold Saint Gray, an archaeologist who, along with Arthur Bulleid, excavated the Iron Age sites of Mere and Glastonbury Lake Villages in Somerset. Gray therefore knew about the British Iron Age and was able through his investigations to determine that Warham Camp dated from this period. Previously, it was thought that the enclosure likely dated from the Viking Age, for instance being recorded as a Danish Camp on the first and second editions of the Ordnance Survey maps. As well as finding evidence for both Iron Age and Romano-British activity at the camp, Gray was able to confirm that none of the apparent site entrances were original.

In 1959 the site was excavated by Rainbird Clarke, Keeper of Archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum. His team, which included a 15-year Peter Wade Martins –who later became the first County Archaeologist for Norfolk—focused on the defences, uncovering evidence for a palisade at the top of the inner bank.  

The aim of our investigations this summer was to accurately date the construction of the monument and characterise the types of activity in the interior. Our work consisted of excavating 24 trenches, most measuring 2m x 2m mostly in the interior with one 2m x 4m trench to examine the deposit sequence in the inner ditch and a further two 2m x 2m trenches to examine the base of the banks. We are now examining the range of material and artefacts from the excavation. It is early days, but some key aspects are now clear. Unlike some developed hillforts in Southern England, such as Danebury and Maiden Castle, it does not appear that Warham Camp was intensively lived in during the Iron Age. Rather, the remains suggest periodic occupation that did not result in the building of significant structures, such major houses, or the excavation of pits for the storage of grain. Later during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE the camp was used by iron smiths but again this did not result in the building of major structures. Our excavations of the inner of the two ditches provides a great opportunity to try to date the early silting of the ditch which should provide good material for radiocarbon dating and allow us to make an accurate assessment of the date of the monument’s construction.

A further core aim of the project is to create inclusive opportunities for people to volunteer in archaeological research, whilst exploring how such research can have a positive effect on health and wellbeing. The first fieldwork season took place at Arminghall Henge, partnering with several organisations focused on mental health and well-being, coordinated by the Restoration Trust. This year’s work again included the Restoration Trust, along with school and college age participants from Synergy Multi-Academy Trust.

The fieldwork was international in scope with researchers and participants from Japan, Nigeria and Mauritius. We also had the privilege of welcoming colleagues from Daiichi Gosei, a Japanese company specialising in making archaeological tools. They kindly demonstrated a range of equipment which proved popular with the Warham Camp team.

Japanese colleagues at Warham

Thanks to our funders: National Lottery Heritage Fund, Society of Antiquaries London, University of East Anglia, Arts and Humanities Research Council and Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society.

Andy Hutcheson

[1] Duncan Garrow and Chris Gosden, 2012. Technologies of Enchantment? Exploring Celtic Art; 400 BC to AD 1000. Oxford, OUP.

[2] Peter Wells, 2012. How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Vision, Patterns, and the shaping of the mind in prehistoric times. Princeton, Princeton University Press. Peter Wells, 2020. Eurasian Iron Age interactions: A perspective on the sources and purposes of La Tène style (‘Celtic’) art. In C. Nimura, H Chittock, P. Hommel and C Gosden (eds.) Art in the Eurasian Iron Age: context, connections and scale. Oxford, Oxbow.

[3] Barry Cunliffe, 1984. Danebury: an Iron Age hillfort in Hampshire. Volume 1, the excavations, 1969-1978: the site. York, CBA Research Report. Doi.org/10.5284/1081698.

[4] Robert Van de Noort, H. Chapman, J. Collis, G. Ayala and M. Rouillard, 2007. Sutton Common: the excavation of an Iron Age ‘marsh-fort’. York, CBA Research Report.


Project partners:

Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Department of Archaeology, University of CambridgeMatthew Brudenell, Mark Knight, Len Middleton
Restoration TrustRob Fairclough, Laura Drysdale, Darren France, Ian Browlie
Synergy Multi-Academy TrustMichael Pittaccio and Leeanne Reid
Rekihaku – National Museum of Japanese HistoryProfessor Takehiro Matsugi
Taisho University, TokyoProfessor Makoto Tomii
Sainsbury Research Unit, UEAProfessor Anne Haour
Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara PrefectureProfessor Kazuaki Yoshimura
University of KyotoShinji Nimura – Doctoral Candidate