Aerial view of Wharram Percy Medieval Village
Aerial view of Wharram Percy Medieval Village © Historic England NMR_17531_07
Aerial view of Wharram Percy Medieval Village © Historic England NMR_17531_07

10 Years of Extraordinary Archaeological Discoveries

Historic England celebrates 10 fascinating archaeological discoveries of the past decade.

As 2019 draws to a close, Historic England is looking back at some of the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries from the past decade. From the well-preserved remains of 3000 year old homes abandoned to fire, to the Elizabethan playhouse where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was premiered, these discoveries have helped transform our understanding of how people who came before us lived their lives, made their homes and traded across the world.

This has been a truly remarkable decade of landmark archaeological discoveries. The past never ceases to surprise us. Over the past ten years archaeologists have learned where Richard III was laid to rest, about what kind of food our Bronze Age ancestors on the Fens ate and how medieval villagers in Yorkshire mutilated corpses to prevent them rising from the dead. There is always more to learn and I look forward to the next 10 years of amazing discoveries.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England

There have been many fascinating discoveries over the past ten years, but here we have gathered together some highlights.

Must Farm Bronze Age Settlement, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire

Although archaeologists knew there was something important at this site, it wasn’t until 2015 that a major excavation revealed the remains of a remarkably intact Bronze Age settlement, made up of timber roundhouses raised on stilts above the marshy ground.

Shortly after being built, the settlement was destroyed in a catastrophic fire and the roundhouses, with most of their contents still inside, were preserved in the water-logged ground, giving us a time capsule of everyday life 3,000 years ago. Found within the roundhouses were finely woven textiles made from plant fibres, stacks of cups, bowls and jars complete with food and spoons still inside, suggesting that the people living there were forced suddenly to leave everything behind when their homes caught fire.

The excavation, carried out by Cambridge Archaeological Unit and jointly funded by Historic England and Forterra, also led to the discovery of the largest, earliest complete Bronze Age wheel in Britain. The level of preservation at the site meant that archaeologists could determine that the roundhouses had turf roofs, wickerwork floors and the people who lived there ate wild boar, red deer and pike.

Learn more about Must Farm

The remains of The Theatre, the first successful Elizabethan playhouse built in London

The remains of The Theatre were revealed following initial indications of an Elizabethan playhouse from trenches in 2008. In 2016 The Theatre was scheduled, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

It was built in 1576-7 and is the earliest known example of a polygonal playhouse in London. Comparable to The Globe, its design was inspired by classical Roman theatres, with three tiers of galleries and an open yard into which extended a raised stage. A popular venue, a number of playing companies were associated with it, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Company that included Shakespeare as an actor. It is thought that Shakespeare’s 'Hamlet' was premiered there in 1596 with Richard Burbage as the lead, and Christopher Marlowe’s 'Faustus' was first performed there in 1592.

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Phallus and Roman Bust Discovered amongst Roman Soldier’s Graffiti at Hadrian’s Wall Quarry, Carlisle, Cumbria

New Roman graffiti including a relief sculpture of a phallus -a Roman ‘good luck’ symbol - was discovered in the remains of a quarry near Hadrian’s Wall at Gelt Woods in Cumbria in February 2019.

Known as ‘The Written Rock of Gelt’, the inscriptions were made by the Romans while they were repairing Hadrian’s Wall in 207AD. It was thought they included a group of nine inscriptions of which only six were legible, however more have been found including a caricature of the commanding officer in charge of the quarrying and one datable inscription ‘APRO ET MAXIMO CONSVLIBVS OFICINA MERCATI’ referring to the consulate of Aper and Maximus. This offers proof of rebuilding and repair work to the Roman frontier in the early third century AD.

The graffiti was discovered during a project to record them before they are lost through erosion, funded by Historic England and carried out by archaeologists from Newcastle University.

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The 'London' Shipwreck Revealed Its Secrets, Southend, Essex

The London is one of England’s most important 17th century shipwrecks. It blew up in 1665 and sank off Southend-on-Sea where it lies in two parts on the sea bed.

It was excavated by Historic England, Cotswold Archaeology and licensed divers between 2014-2015 to find out more about life on board and to retrieve important artefacts before they could be lost forever due to damaging currents and sea worms. An array of fascinating items from musket balls, ingots and navigational tools to personal items including leather shoes, pewter spoons and coins were recovered. An extremely rare and well-preserved wooden gun carriage was also brought to the surface – the only known example from this period in existence.

The warship played a significant role in British history as it was part of a squadron that brought back Charles II from the Netherlands in 1660 to restore him to the throne.

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Fear of the ‘Living Dead’ in Medieval Yorkshire

Scientific studies of medieval human bones excavated from Wharram Percy, a deserted village in North Yorkshire, showed that corpses were burnt and mutilated after death. Experts from Historic England and the University of Southampton suggested that this could be evidence of action taken by villagers to prevent the dead rising again. Medieval folklore held that the dead could rise from their graves, spreading disease and menacing the living.

In research published in 2017, the scientists found that many of the bones had knife-marks consistent with decapitation and dismembering. There was also evidence of burning and the deliberate breaking of bones after death. The team considered but discounted theories that the bodies were treated in this unusual way because the people were viewed as outsiders or that their remains were cannibalised by starving villagers. The theory that this treatment was due to fear of the living dead best fits the evidence, and if correct, shows the dark side of medieval beliefs.

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Britain’s Earliest Rabbit Found, Sussex

A tiny rabbit bone found at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex was confirmed to date from the 1st century AD, revealing our furry friends arrived in the country 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Rabbits are native to Spain and France and it had been thought they were a medieval introduction to Britain. The 4cm piece of tibia was discovered during excavations in 1964 but had been overlooked at the time.

In 2019 a Historic England zooarchaeologist recognised the bone belonged to a rabbit and verified this through genetic testing. Radiocarbon dating showed the rabbit was alive during the Roman occupation of Britain and wasn’t a more recent bunny that had burrowed into the ancient site. This animal may have been kept as an exotic pet - scientific analysis suggests it was kept in confinement and the bone didn’t reveal any butchery marks.

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Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, Great Ryburgh, Norfolk

In 2016, archaeologists uncovered an important Anglo-Saxon cemetery containing over 80 extremely rare wooden coffins that were preserved in the wet ground at Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. They were discovered during an excavation by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) funded by Historic England, in advance of a new lake and flood defence system being built.

The waterlogged conditions of the river valley led to the remarkable preservation of the tree-trunk coffins as well as plank-lined graves which date from the 7th-9th century AD. Believed to be a Christian cemetery, the graves and evidence for a possible church on the site, are greatly adding to our understanding of early Christian Anglo-Saxon communities and their funeral practices.

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Roman settlement at Scotch Corner, North Yorkshire

Discovered in 2017 as part of a road improvement scheme, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a major Roman settlement which pre-dates settlements in York and Carlisle by 10 years, telling us that the Romans probably expanded their occupation into Northern England earlier than we previously thought.

The archaeological team also found a startling range of Roman objects during the investigations, from Roman shoes and keys, to a snake-shaped silver ring, a rare amber figurine and the most northerly example of coin production ever found in Europe.

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Remains of Greyfriars, Leicester, where the grave of Richard III was discovered

Long known to be the site of a medieval monastery, in August 2012 the University of Leicester, the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council began an ambitious excavation to search for the grave of King Richard III. His remains were discovered under a car park in the city centre and identified by DNA analysis of surviving descendants.

Further excavations revealed the extent of Greyfriars, the site where Richard III was buried after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Recognising its status as “one of the most important sites in our national history”, Greyfriars was granted protection as a scheduled monument in December 2017. Greyfriars was an early 13th century Franciscan friary, which played an important role in the social and economic evolution of medieval Leicester, before its dissolution in 1538.

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Iron Age/Roman Settlement in Gillsmere Sike, Killington, Cumbria

This site was discovered by Historic England’s aerial archaeology team in 2012, who photographed the late Iron Age or Roman settlement from a light aircraft. Historic England’s flying archaeologists identified two round houses, separated from the surrounding land by an embanked boundary with an entrance on the southern side, opening towards a stream.

The settlement is sheltered by rising ground to the south and commands views north to the Howgill Fells. The remains of medieval or post medieval ploughing, known as ridge and furrow, appear as undulating lines on the landscape and they show that this area was in agricultural use for many years. The hot dry summer of 2018 also led to many further archaeological discoveries from the air.

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Advances in archaeological science

Over the last decade, scientists have made numerous advances in research methods that help us better understand sites from the distant past. One of the most far-reaching is the improvement in the accuracy of radiocarbon dating which enables more precise dating of archaeological sites.

Advances in scientific dating have enabled us to narrow down the dates of sites from centuries to decades. For example, we discovered in 2011 that there was an intense building period more than 5,550 years ago in which monuments such as the Neolithic enclosure at Maiden Castle in Dorset and Windmill Hill in Wiltshire were built, used, then sometimes abandoned within a single generation.

We also previously dated Neolithic sites between 4,000BC – 3,500BC and have now narrowed the span to within 25 years. It’s therefore possible that in Wessex in the 3630s BC, the builders of the Windmill Hill causewayed enclosures might have attended the final funeral at the West Kennet long barrow.