Down by the River: Archaeological, palaeoenvironmental and geoarchaeological investigations of the Suffolk river valleys

Benjamin Gearey, Henry Chapman, Andrew Howard

Research output: Book/ReportBook


Whilst East Anglia has long been known as a key area for the preservation of important Palaeolithic archaeological and palaeoenvironmental deposits, relatively little study of the Holocene record has previously been carried out.
This volume presents the results of palaeoenvironmental, archaeological and geoarchaeological investigations focused on the Post-Glacial record preserved in the Suffolk river valleys. The work discussed includes two phases of Historic England/Aggregate Levy Sustainability Funded palaeoenvironmental assessment (pollen, radiocarbon dating, beetle and diatoms) under the auspices of the Suffolk River Valleys Project (SRVP); various environmental archaeological commercial projects across Suffolk largely carried out by Birmingham Archaeo-Environmental, University of Birmingham, under PPG 16 and subsequent legislative frameworks; and the archaeological excavation and associated palaeoenvironmental analysis of three late prehistoric timber alignments on the floodplain of the lower Waveney Valley at Beccles, Barsham and Geldeston

Five sites were selected on the Rivers Waveney, Little Ouse, Lark and Blackbourne (Beccles, Hoxne, Hengrave, Ixworth and Brandon) by the SRVP, with cores from floodplain contexts recovered for palaeoenvironmental assessment following desk based assessment, including interrogation of archaeological information derived from the Sites and Monuments Record and topographic data from Light Detection and Ranging analyses (Chapter 2). The palaeoenvironmental assessments showed that Holocene sequences were preserved at all of the locations except Brandon, but that the chronological range and state of preservation of palaeoenvironmental proxies was variable
across the sites. An initial programme of radiocarbon dating also produced a series of anomalous determinations. This led to SRVP Phase II, which included a second round of sampling and radiocarbon dating of multiple samples to
investigate this issue. The results indicate that a range of factors associated with the formation processes of floodplain peats may be responsible for the significant age differences between samples from the same depths
observed in the SRVP sequences.

Chapter 3 presents a summary of the results of palaeoenvironmental and geoarchaeological investigations Summary carried out in Suffolk between 2005 and 2012, as part of archaeological mitigation associated with commercial developments in the river valleys of the Gipping, Stour and Lark and along the east coast. The scale and scope of these studies varied but typically included some form of stratigraphic recording accompanied by assessment of palaeoenvironmental potential if appropriate, alongside recommendations for further work if needed. However, only one of the sites investigated (Stowmarket Relief Road, River Gipping) was taken to full analysis (beetles, plant macrofossils, molluscs and radiocarbon dating). Here an 8m floodplain sequence, provided evidence of Holocene environmental change and human impact c. 9000–c. 1100 years BP. Whilst the level of analytical detail provided by the SRVP and the commercial projects restricts comprehensive conclusions regarding landscape evolution, the results demonstrate the largely untapped research potential of the river valleys in Suffolk and also provide hypotheses concerning the timing, pattern and process of fluvial development, human activity and landscape change during the Holocene.

Bank realignment work at Beccles in the lower Waveney Valley resulted in the discovery of three late prehistoric wetland archaeological sites at Beccles, Barsham and Geldeston (Suffolk), which were excavated as part of commercial (Beccles, Barsham), University of Birmingham training excavation (Beccles, Geldeston) and Historic England funded research projects (Beccles) (Chapters 4
and 5). These sites all consisted of triple alignments of timber stakes that were constructed across the floodplain of the River Waveney during the later Iron Age but with evidence for continuing activity in the Romano-British period. The most detailed and comprehensive study was carried out at Beccles and included geophysical survey, palaeoenvironmental analyses, assessment of the condition
of the archaeological wood and palaeoenvironmental proxies, geochemical analyses and a 2-year period of hydrological monitoring of the c. 500m long monument (Chapter 6). These data indicate that the greater proportion of the site and associated organic deposits are above the watertable for much of the year and hence the potential for the preservation of the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental record in situ over the long term is threatened.

The final chapter (Chapter 7) presents a summary of the current state of knowledge of Holocene environmental change and the archaeological record in Suffolk, focusing on the evidence from the various river valleys. The possible
form and function of the Waveney timber alignment structures is discussed and compared to other similar sites from around the United Kingdom. It is suggested that these structures may have acted to delineate routeways to, from
and across the river and also as territorial markers associated with river travel, both local and perhaps into the southern North Sea. The Barsham and Geldeston sites may have formed a single monument that stretched across the River Waveney. The final chapter concludes with a discussion of specific techniques employed during the work at Beccles, including the trialing of a novel geophysical approach at the site, laser scanning to record wet-preserved archaeological wood in three dimensions, the use of digital approaches to provide ‘virtual reconstructions’ of the timber alignments and to hence improve public engagement with wetland archaeological sites, which are otherwise ‘hidden’ from public view. The volume concludes with a brief summary of research questions that future palaeoenvironmental and archaeological study of the Suffolk river valleys could seek to address.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford
Commissioning bodyEnglish Heritage
Number of pages226
ISBN (Electronic)9781785701696
ISBN (Print)9781785701689
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2016


  • Archaeology
  • palaeoecology
  • Modelling
  • prehistory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology


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