DCS Local Heritage Event : Visit to West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village

Saturday 7th July 2018 Return to Alumni Events

The visit to West Stow Anglo-Saxon village had taken a long time to organise as they are very few Saturday adult guided tours. The two that we were offered in 2017 clashed with other Darwin events but early year negotiations this year settled on July 7th. West Stow is not just around the corner from Cambridge so it was surprising to get 17 people booked and to meet for a 10.30am start, especially as it was very hot, somewhat muggy and the Breckland environment looked as if it had dried up and crisped to vegetation fragments long before.

Our guide Stephanie placed us carefully in the shadow of a convenient tree and introduced the site explaining that most of it was experimental so that the buildings were constructed according to the best data at the time and then assessed for the likelihood of being used by the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants. It was a theme that would be applied over and over again on our tour. We were told that the reconstructed site we were visiting was only a small part of the whole site excavated but it was thought that only a few family groups lived on the site at any one time and each house was occupied by an extended family. Eight buildings have been constructed all of which show different constructions depending on the types and number of post holes e.t.c. The settlement was occupied over the period AD420-650.


Stephanie's Introduction

Sunken House

Moving to the Sunken House

The sites of the buildings were only indicated by post holes and dug pits, the latter corresponding to the floor areas and we moved to one of the oldest ones as our first stop (Sunken House) and squeezed into it, standing in the shallow pit. Stephanie explained that the original belief was that the inhabitants used the pit base as a floor, there they had a central fire so that the construction of the dwelling was just a roof down to the ground without walls other than the pit sides. However only a few habitations had evidence of fires and when one was found, the fire was close to a wall and therefore the roof material. After constructing the house we were in, it was found that not only would water seep into the pit but so would sand, so after a few months the pit would be visibly less deep.

A second construction made in the same way was dismantled and remade with walls supporting the roof and Stephanie explained the ideas used for construction. All the constructed houses were made with tools appropriate to the time of the Anglo-Saxons. Initially the wall wood slats used on the site were not pegged together but it was discovered that it did weaken the walls after a time so now it is thought that they were pegged by the original inhabitants. We were shown the building without wall pegs (Oldest House) which is now propped up. These constructions were all made with floors over the pit, which is the present thinking, but the pits are still an enigma as they vary in depth quite considerably.

The Oldest House

Looking at the Oldest House

The Hall

In the Hall

Having been in the Weaving House, which had a loom and attracted lots of questions, we moved onto the hall. This was a large building thought to be used for the community, having a central fire but no evidence of a chimney or any upward escape for the smoke then we moved into a typical worker's house (Living House). Stephanie took us through the sort of ideas and evidence for the use of the hall as well as it's construction, the food eaten, the possible community use and it's preparation from attack as well as the likely furniture in the houses. She had lots of knowledge about the political background of the time as well as evidence from other Anglo-Saxon sites and evidence from a nearby Anglo-Saxon cemetery.


Leaving for the Living House

Stephanie was not only employed but was a volunteer also. She explained how she had lived in the huts in winter for several days, tested the use of looms in the low light levels of the buildings and the construction of objects using willow weaving techniques and many other facets of their way of life. All of the very many questions were answered or discussed with a lot of knowledge and with amazing enthusiasm which made her one of the best guides we have had on any trip. Very many thanks go to her as she made the trip so successful.


Last house but still the questions!

Pictures by Helen and Terry Moore (Click on the pictures for larger versions)

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