Lyminge archaeology of national importance leads to call for more local museums

This article was written by Ray Duff and is an extended version of an article in theĀ September/October 2012 edition of ‘Folkestone Creative’, first published on Hawkinge Gazette local news website 14 Sept 2012.

Whilst the ‘ A Town Unearthed’ archaeology and local history project centred on Folkestone moved to an end in 2012, though researching and Test Pits are still ongoing, a further three year archaeology dig was begun at the nearby village of Lyminge.

Started in 2008, near the environs of the Parish Church of St Mary and St Ethelburga, the dig has already found a great deal of new information about the Anglo-Saxon period locally.

This includes a pre-Christian Royal Saxon site, later Monastery, and related buildings associated with Queen Ethelburga dating between the 6th to 7thC AD and beyond. A few further finds on this area were Bronze Age in origin.

This year though, a 30m sq area was opened on Tayne Field (the village green) and some very significant earth features needing investigation were immediately seen. An area just above a nearby stream on the southern side of the Green; which flows into a nearby ‘ Nailbourne’ stream running northwards along the Elham Valley; was full of Mesolithic (approx 6-8000BC) flint finds including various ‘tools’ and struck items, along with some bone. It is likely the site of hunter-gatherer era occupation, and important as only one or two other such sites are known of in Kent. However, further investigation needs to be undertaken to find the extent of the nearby stream in times past, as it may have been wider and stronger flowing thus washing some of the flint finds to the site.

Nearby, across the ‘southern’ part of the uncovered area, there are also trench, post hole features and pits which have been linked to Saxon/Norman (11/12thC AD) activity close to buildings of the time near what is now the pub. Most of the pits were found to be ‘cesspits’,1 or 2 mtrs in depth, and these have produced much evidence of the diets and lifestyles of that time. Some of the other pits are shallow earlier Saxon era ones but their usage is as yet unresolved.

In the ‘northern’ half of the excavation area were natural chalk layers cut through with 3 medieval ditches leading down to a larger boundary ditch crossing the site east-west, this dated to about the 15thC. The three ditches though also cut through pits with 9/10thC AD Saxon era finds.

Most importantly though, in the northern half of the area wall-trench remains from a large 21m long by 8.5m wide timber framed Saxon hall linked to the Royal site nearby (found in 2010) were discovered and provisionally dated to about AD600.

This is around the end of King Aethelbert’s reign, going into King Eadbald’s time. It is another rare find; and very likely one of national importance; as only two other similar ones are known. One being at Cowdrey’s Down, Hants and the other at Yeavering, Northumbria – this the royal site of King Edwin who married Ethelburga.

The ‘southern’ main entrance to this hall is pointing towards the nearby site found during the 2008-2010 excavations; and the post-holes of this, and it’s directly opposite slightly smaller ‘northern’ exit, have been found to be very large likely involving massive oak uprights perhaps over 60cm wide each.

At the ‘eastern’ end of what would have been a mostly communally occupied hall is a partitioned off area likely for those of a social higher-status. A few meters beyond this eastern end are what appears to be signs another, albeit smaller, Saxon building/hall which suggests there is very likely more of such under the rest of the village green site.

To the north-east of the main hall is again another very rare find known as an early Saxon ‘sunken-featured building’. These structures, a covered ‘pit’ into which building and other materials were deposited, are known of across Northern Europe, even into Spain, but the Lyminge one is significant as it appeared undisturbed since filling and closure. Two rare curved bone combs were found here amongst much else that can tell us about the human and animal occupation as well as general activities on site.

Other finds across the site have included much animal bone, flat combs, pottery, beads and glass etc; along with horse related items that indicate a high-status person on site. Further, there were a number of fish-bone and oystershell etc finds, along with ‘quernstones’ at the base of one of the Saxon hall exits and other greensand fragments; all of which may suggest regular links to Folkestone’s harbour and East Cliff areas.

Some Roman era finds have also been unearthed but no sign of any settlements so people were most likely just losing them as they passed through the valley. Some finds from the Iron Age and Neolithic have also previously been found in the nearby area but again, as yet, no sign of settlements.

This site has also led to a number of intriguing questions being asked. One is why there appear to be significant historical gaps in the occupation of the area; and another is why was St Ethelburga’s Monastery built at fairly remote Lyminge when all other such are on the coasts & rivers; though it’s most likely because it was already a royal pre-christian Saxon site.

The project is led by Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading, assisted by Canterbury Arch’ Trust; including Keith Parfitt who led the ATU digs; and Kent Archeaology Soc. Students from various universities have also been involved along with some volunteers from A Town Unearthed. The project returns to Lyminge in July 2013 for approximately 6 weeks.

Finally, in my view, since Shepway now appears to have two historical sites of national importance- East Cliff and Lyminge- along with all the other known historical sites across the district such as, amongst many others: The Leas Lifts, Fishing Harbour, The Bayle, Castle Hill, Napoleanic Martello Towers, three Castles and the origins of the British Army at Shorncliffe; isn’t it time for everyone to consider a large Shepway Heritage Centre rather than just the proposed small museum, and existing Library resource centre?

Or alternatively, a series of museum sites which could form a trail for visitors and locals alike, and which housed and exhibited all locally related historic and art collections, many of which are currently still hidden away or held elsewhere.

Further info on the project via: www.lymingearchaeology.org

2012 dig blog http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/lyminge/

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