Saggy Horse Field


Saggy Horse Field has been considered of archaeological interest by the Project for several years and was nicknamed after a very saggy backed horse called Percy who used to live in the field until about three years ago. The fields real name, ‘the eastern portion of West Hall Long Meadow’, was thought to be too long and confusing for recording purposes so the Project’s nickname was used during our recent work in the field.Saggy Horse Field lies in the western half of the village roughly between the sites of the Anglo-Saxon village centred near Boneyard, and that of the Post-Conquest medieval village around West Hall. It lies immediately to the south of the site of the medieval manor owned by the Norwich Cathedral Priory and was once part of their lands.

The 1630 Estate Map indicates that the present field was once two separate plots, the southern portion being part of a field known as ‘Grasse Croft’ and was therefore probably pastureland during the medieval period. Despite this possibility it was decided to investigate the area to confirm the use of the field during the medieval period and to see whether the Anglo-Saxon settlement extended this far along the southern side of the valley. If evidence of both periods were uncovered it would offer an important chance to understand the development of the settlement during the transition from the Anglo-Saxon to medieval periods. In 2002 a geophysical survey was undertaken of the site, which indicated a jumble of possible ditches, gullies, pits or postholes in the southern portion of the site. To the north, a shallow scoop is evident on the ground running east to west along the edge of the river flood plain and the survey confirmed it as a distinct band of wetter soil likely representing a large ditch. Despite these good results, the survey was not clear enough to show exactly what lay beneath the ground and geophysics can rarely suggest a date for sites it discovers, so it was decided to dig two evaluation trenches.

Trench 1 was a rectangular trench measuring 7m x 5m and was sited in the north-west corner of the field. It was dug within the boundaries of the field known as ‘Grasse Croft’ and where the geophysical survey suggested ditches and pits might be found. The archaeology uncovered did indeed seem to suggest that this part of the site was pastureland during the medieval period. Thick layers of undisturbed topsoil and subsoil were evident and systematic metal detecting of the layers and the spoil recovered several metal finds thought to have been lost by their owners when passing through the site or perhaps tending animals there. Such finds included a medieval button, finger ring, decorative mount from a belt, and a hammered silver coin dated to around the 12th or 13th century. These layers sealed evidence of Anglo-Saxon activity on the site. A layer of soil that contained animal bone and pottery of late Anglo-Saxon date covered the northern part of the trench. Cut into this layer and also containing late Saxon pottery were several small gullies running parallel to each other, north to south down the slope of the site. It is likely that these were dug as drainage ditches and they are very similar in character and date to the many north-south gullies recorded on the Boneyard site to the east of Saggy Horse Field. Also associated with this phase of activity were a small shallow pit, a single posthole and a possible chalk post pad likely relating in some way to settlement activity.
More unexpected however was a phase of prehistoric activity. The main feature of this phase was a possible boundary ditch running east to west across the trench that had been recut once it had silted up. Both of these cuts contained fragments of Iron Age pottery, the secondary cut containing substantial amounts, as well as animal bone, and the occasional fragment of worked flint tool. Another possible ditch running north-west to south-east also contained Iron Age pottery and animal bone, while a pit and several possible postholes remain undated.

Trench 2 measured 1.6m x 20.0m running north to south across the western portion of the large east-west ditch indicated by the geophysical survey. This ditch proved to date to the medieval period and appears to be a continuation of the large ditch investigated in three different excavation trenches where it runs along the length of the Reeddam to the east of Saggy Horse Field. The portion excavated in Trench 2 was recut at least fourteen different times, the earliest of which may in fact date to the late Saxon period but dating as yet remains unclear. This initial cut and some of the earlier recuts appear to have silted up will alluvial sands and gravels suggesting that the ditch was a channel for free flowing water, essentially a canal. In its early form the ditch likely functioned as a crucial part of the medieval water system in the valley. We know that the river was dammed to form the Reeddam, a commercial reed bed on the eastern side of the valley, and was diverted through a complex system of moats around the two medieval manors directly to the north of Saggy Horse Field. Perhaps then, this ditch was designed to bypass the manorial complexes so that waterborne traffic associated with the reed industry at the Reeddam could transport crops freely up and down river. Later recuts to the ditch indicate that this function as a canal eventually changed. The later ditches silted up gradually under stagnant water conditions characteristic of a boundary ditch rather than a watercourse. Unlike in Trench 1, Anglo-Saxon activity was sparser in Trench 2, possibly due to its marginal position lower down the valley side and in the river flood plain. Only a single domestic rubbish pit containing large quantities of mussel shell, some butchered animal bone, fish bone and late Anglo-Saxon pottery was recorded. This waste possibly originated from the activity discovered on the drier land discovered upslope in Trench 1.

In contrast however, the prehistoric activity uncovered was more pervasive. A large ditch of late Iron Age date ran north to south down the length of Trench 2. It contained a silver-alloy East Anglian ‘Face/Horse’ coin dated to the second half of the 1st century BC, substantial fragments of pottery and some domestic waste such as animal bone, oyster shell and mussel shell. Its function however remains unclear but it was probably a boundary ditch perhaps to a settlement or homestead, or more likely a field. This ditch did however cut an earlier ditch that ran east to west across the trench. The east-west ditch contained no finds as only its base was preserved after being cut away by not only the north-south ditch but also the great medieval ditch. Nevertheless it can certainly be dated as late Iron Age or earlier by its association with the north-south ditch.

Twenty-three postholes and five stake holes were also excavated in Trench 2 and no datable finds were recovered from any of them. Their association with the ditches, each other and datable soil layers does suggest however that they are of Iron Age or earlier date. In such a long narrow trench it is also impossible to recognise any patterning amongst the holes, to suggest structures and consequently any functions for them. They may represent domestic buildings on the site or more simply activity associated with the nearby river. Whichever, they are clearly quite densely scattered suggesting substantial or prolonged activity.

Saggy Horse field then, paints a clear picture of substantial activity on the site during the prehistoric period tailing off after the Iron Age. The late Anglo-Saxons eventually settle the higher southern part of the site away from the river floodplain, which may have been used to dispose of their domestic waste. This distinction of the marginal lower floodplain area and upper drier portion of the field is then reinforced by the construction of the medieval water system along the edge of the flood plain. Even so the upper portion of the present field appears to have been be abandoned by this time becoming pastureland as is today.

Andrea Beckham