Friday, 3 August 2012

The Seggs

Out on the boundary of a rural parish I have a sense of being anywhere, nowhere. Only the map tells me I am on a significant line, with perhaps a ditch or hedge to anchor this information to a sensed place.

I am standing on the edge of the shallow valley of the River Dove. It drains part of the plateau of central Suffolk, wending its way quietly northwards into the River Waveney at Hoxne. A jungle of bushes and marshy ground lies before me, rioting with nettles and reeds on an unkempt portion of the floodplain; local people call this area the Seggs. Other parts of the valley have open, grazed meadows and wooded margins, but the Seggs keeps an unruly isolation. It is fed by floodwater in winter and the discharge of a side valley, the Birdwalk Brook, little more than a ditch which drains the Eye Industrial Estate, a mile and a half away. It lies exactly on the parish boundaries of Eye and Brome & Oakley.

Aerial view, courtesy of Google Maps

My story began here in 1996, when the Environment Agency decided to deepen the channel of the Brook with a mechanical digger. The Industrial Estate was expanding, and more run-off was expected. I decided to look at the excavated spoil spread beside the ditch. At that time I was investigating local archaeology, by walking the fields owned by my landlord Mark Prior, and I had turned up Mesolithic, Neolithic and early Bronze Age flint work. I hoped to find more prehistoric evidence preserved in the peat and alluvium of the valley floor. I soon found animal bones scattered in the spoil, including cattle skulls. There were two slabs of Niedermendig lava quern stone, and a sherd of greyware pottery. I decided to look at the freshly cut walls of the ditch to see where this stuff was coming from. 
Peat and alluvium exposed where the Birdwalk Brook
entered the Dove valley. Summer 1996.
Over the course of two months I excavated a layer of compacted peat beneath the floodplain alluvium of the Dove, recovering bones from it (cattle, horse, pig, dog), also worked roundwood and evidence of a wattle fence, but no pottery or metalwork. Geomorphologist Alistair Pitty and soil scientist Bill Corbett helped me understand the sub-surface geometry of the peat and alluvium by hand-drilling a series of core-sampled transects across the basin. I explored the Brook a little way upstream and found evidence of a dumped clay dam spanning its valley. Since the sediments and fossil pollen at Diss Mere, five miles away, had been so well studied, I thought it might be possible to relate the environmental evidence here to a robust local framework going back 10,000 years.


Gradually the story of the archaeology and geology came together in some hypotheses about the history of the site. Far from being a quiet, forgotten corner of the Dove valley, the Seggs could tell a story of human business and environmental change.  
  • The animal bones came from a farmstead at the Seggs, possibly later prehistoric, and the peat dated from this time.
  • The arrival of farming in the Dove valley, possibly in the Iron Age, led to increased run-off from local fields, and hence deposition of the layer of alluvium over the peat. 
  • There was a mill sited where the Brook enters the Seggs, perhaps in Mediaeval times.

I wrote a simple report of my findings and gave the excavation archive to the Suffolk Archaeological Service for posterity. There it stayed until 2010, when I met Ben Gearey who was excavating the Iron Age site at Barsham in the Waveney valley, and I told him my story. We revisited the site, now much overgrown, and he took some wood samples for carbon-14 dating. 
The results dated the worked roundwood to 420-610 AD. So we have rare evidence of life in the post-Roman period in East Anglia - the time of early Anglo-Saxon settlement and the age of Arthur. 

This information has transformed my awareness of the Seggs. Somewhere here, on the boundary between the two parishes, there was a farmstead where people were born, lived and died. Perhaps they were Christian Britons, but they are more likely to have been among the pagan Angles or Saxons whose settlement sites are typically found along the valleys of Suffolk. I am reminded of West Stow in the Lark valley. Perhaps they buried their dead in the cremation cemetery discovered in 1818, a half a mile away at Waterloo Plantation. They lived in the days before Christian parishes, and when the boundaries were drawn here, perhaps in the 8th century, the existence of their homestead may already have been forgotten. People had moved by then to village centres on higher ground, leaving the valley to its pagan desolation - its trees, meadows and wetland - much as we see it today.
The Seggs reminds us of an abandoned ancestral geography, and when I walk there my awareness is dense with all the silent memories written into the sediments of the valley floor, which only excavation could give a voice to.


  1. wow...great job you've done here Tim. Your passion for geo-archeological exploration is quite impressive. I really enjoyed this piece on Seggs. Archeological Service of Suffolk will forever be grateful to you for your interesting findings. I'm enjoying your works an I'm more encouraged to do more research in the area of geoconservation. Nice one


    1. Hi Folarin,
      I would have liked to include a photo of the horse's skull I excavated, but I gave it to the Archaeology Service. I hadn't appreciated until then that horses have canine teeth!
      Geoconservation has occupied a lot of my time over the last few years. Raising people's awareness of the wealth of geological assets is an important part of this - which is what you are doing with Naijatreks.
      Keep up the good work!


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