River Post

During work being carried out as part of the Broadland Flood Alleviation Project a number of wooden posts were discovered in the river bank of the River Waveney just north of Beccles. The initial inspection by Suffolk County Council decided that the posts could be of historical interest and it was decided to carry out a more extensive archaeological excavation to discover if there were any further objects buried in the land alongside the river. Birmingham University carried out a first dig in 2007 and uncovered sufficient significant additional finds to warrant further excavation work in 2008. Two other similar excavations one at Barsham and another across the river from Barsham found similar wooden posts.

The most significant feature discovered during the excavations on Beccles Marshes were a series of aligned timber posts that suggested a trackway. Eventually a total of 69 posts were found, 67 of oak and 2 of alder. The posts were arranged in threes and there was evidence of repairs being carried out implying that the trackway was in use for some time.

The timbers excavated were between 0.7m and 1.7m tall and between 0.2m and 0.28m in diameter, but were originally estimated to be between 1.8m and 5.8m in size and placed vertically into the ground so that between 1.2m and 3.9m would have been exposed above ground. Between the posts there was evidence that brushwood had been laid horizontal, presumably to provide a dry or drier footpath. Some of the posts had been tapered to a point and had evidence of having notches and grooves carved into their sides, presumably either to aid installing the timbers or to provide ways of securing other timbers to them. A number of the timbers were sent away for dendrochronological dating and all of them were found to date from 75BC. This implied that a significant amount of effort had gone into the construction of the trackway in a short space of time. The timbers had also been carefully selected as they are all examples of straight worked coppiced timber.

While excavating the posts a range of other finds were uncovered, predominantly Late Iron Age pottery fragments but also Early Roman items, flints some of which showed signs of being worked, animal bones and hazelnut shells. One of the River Posts has undergone preservation treatment and is on permanent display in Beccles and District Museum. The example is some 2m tall and clearly shows the tapering and cut notches.

The existence of the trackway raises the obvious question of what was it for. The Iron Age was a period of time where much of the forest was being cleared and people were moving towards arable farming. There is evidence that trees were felled and then started to regrow and then were cleared again, indicating that this was a gradual process. The alignment of the posts seems to lead towards the river and then on to a section that ran close to the edge of the river although not completely parallel. Perhaps the trackway led to a crossing point, certainly it looks like the location is the narrowest part of the floodplain and perhaps the best crossing point. Similar posts on the northern side of the river have not been found. The aligned posts would have been a striking feature across the marsh and perhaps more than just a practical way of getting across.

Another question is “Who would have used the trackway?.” The area is part of the region inhabited by the Iceni, in fact it was very much in the centre of their area, but due to the nature of the land it was one that was thought to have been sparsely populated.

The two other excavations have not turned up so much material as at Beccles, there being some 29 posts found at Barsham and these date to about 100 or so years later than the Beccles ones and so early Romano-British. The posts at the third site are yet to be dated (NB from a talk given in 2015 I believe that these posts are slightly older than the ones at Beccles). But the combination of the three sites so close together indicates that there was purpose and function to these trackways.

The full details of the excavations and the conclusions drawn can be read in the following three reports, copies of which are available to view at the museum:

Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society Volume 77 pages 231 to 250.

Compartment 26, Beccles Marshes, Suffolk 2006 BCC043: Excavations of a brushwood trackway and causeway. Assessment Report and Recommendations.

An Archaeological and Palaeoenvironmental Assessment of the Timber Post Rows at Barsham Marshes, Suffolk.

The finds are also discussed in following book which can be borrowed from Suffolk Libraries.

Down by the river : archaeological, palaeoenvironmental and geoarchaeological investigations of the Suffolk river valleys by Gearey, Chapman and Howard (Oxbow Books, 2016).

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