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Secrets of the Past Uncovered

Important discoveries at Lyminge in Kent are being made with the help and support of local groups

After an extensive pilot phase of fieldwork was completed in 2010, the Kent village of Lyminge was tantalisingly poised to give up the secrets of its Anglo Saxon past. But Project Director Dr Gabor Thomas concedes that when the Lyminge Archaeological Project embarked on a new AHRC-funded three-year campaign of excavations on the village green in June 2012, even he was surprised by the discoveries that followed.

The project's main objective is to pioneer a holistic approach to the archaeological examination of Anglo-Saxon monastic landscapes on the site of a documented seventh-century monastery, relating core buildings to their wider landscape context.

There were hints that substantial traces of the village’s status as a royal centre in a pre-Christian age and its subsequent absorption into a network of monasteries survived. However, the extent of their preservation — and unequivocal evidence of a major Anglo Saxon royal complex that included a number of large timber buildings — was a revelation. And they provide a fascinating narrative of how a significant place in the English countryside changed in transition from a pagan kingdom to a Christian land with a network of monasteries.

“What I’d hoped we would find was something like what we ended up with, but not in such a spectacular form,” says Gabor. “It is extremely rare to find buildings on this scale. We know of similar sites because they show up nicely as crop marks on aerial photographs – hall-complexes with characteristic layouts. But only a couple have been subject to excavation because the sites are protected. Lyminge is the first new discovery of an Anglo Saxon royal complex in over a generation.”

The three-year AHRC grant means that the Lyminge Archaeological Project will be able to build on the substantial impact it has already had on the community and throughout Kent, and achieve outreach beyond its immediate academic importance. Gabor was able to employ a research assistant — Dr Alexandra Knox, whose Lyminge Blog has helped to disseminate the results of the excavation — and a data manager who is building a fully integrated database of all the discoveries and information recorded during the excavation.

Gabor says the strategy of embedding the project in local networks has created important benefits. It will continue to exploit the strong links it has forged with Kent Archaeological Society and Canterbury Archaeological Trust to promote knowledge transfer and develop a package of public outreach and educational activities.

Canterbury Archaeological Trust has provided two professional archaeologists to help with the excavation, and its schools education officer is running a programme of events at primary and secondary level, organising site visits when the excavation is in progress and using the project’s materials as the basis for classroom activities.

Paul Bennett, Director, Canterbury Archaeological Trust, says: “The haul is remarkable. Kent is rich in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries but buildings on this scale are as rare as hen’s teeth. As an Archaeological Trust we are committed to working at Lyminge. As well as paid staff, a lot of our staff will continue to volunteer for the excavations in 2013 and 2014, and their participation has been integrated into our workload.”

The project will culminate in a 2014 exhibition of the best finds at Maidstone Museum. As Gabor explains, being able to demonstrate how the project could use archaeology to promote public outreach was a key part of its application for funding. In the event, its engagement with the community has been one of the project’s most striking dimensions.

In 2012, twice-weekly inductions for members of the public created a networ of local residents who took active part in the process of excavation and the washing of artefacts. The mix of students from the Universities of Reading and Kent, experienced volunteers and new enthusiasts getting their first taste of archaeology made for a superb collaborative environment. Regular open days also attracted strong local and media interest.

“The excavation really did help create an open and inclusive climate and environment,” says Gabor. “We’ve had calls to set up a local museum in the library. Unanticipated spin-offs – a project stall at Lyminge village fete in May, a network of local artists inspired by the project who will hold an exhibition of their work in Folkestone, our engagement with a re-enactment group which has its own permanent site complete with a hall — will increase over the life of the project.

“This isn’t about an academic team being airlifted in for six weeks every summer. The community feels actively involved. At Lyminge, it’s made the difference between having a passive interest and taking part in archaeology.”

For all the scale of the complex revealed by the excavation to date, the discovery of an Anglo Saxon horse-harness mount encapsulates the excitement of the Lyminge output for Gabor.

“Foundations of assembly halls generally produce hardly any finds,” he says, “so the volume here was very productive. But the mount was exceptional. Most comparable examples have been found by metal detectors — so they have no archaeological context. Others have been re-used as brooches as an accompaniment to female burials. Although ours was broken, it had been broken through use. It speaks beautifully about the role Lyminge had, and the people who visited and accompanied the king - mounted warriors, for example, who were the elite in Anglo-Saxon England. It comes from a time of a cult of the horse and therefore has tremendous religious and ideological resonance.”

For further information, please go to the Reading Archaeology Lyminge website.

Article by Piers Ford

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