East Anglian Studies uncovers region's rich history

Published by  Communications

On 23rd Sep 2020

Reconstruction of the Roman Temple the Caistor team investigated
Reconstruction of the Roman Temple the Caistor team investigated over summer
It’s no secret that East Anglia has a rich and varied history: home to Celtic warrior queen Boudicca; Roman settlements; Julian of Norwich, the first woman credited with writing a book in English; the Witchfinder General; and through to the 20th Century’s influx of American troops on military bases dotting the region.

Each of those eras has left an indelible mark on the history and archaeology of Norfolk, Suffolk and the adjacent counties of Essex, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, providing a wealth of research material for the Centre for East Anglia Studies (CEAS).

Created in 1967, CEAS not only serves as a research and teaching centre within the School of History, but engages with the public through lectures and activities, such as the ‘What the Victorians Left Behind’ project’s community excavations.

Popular on Twitter for its jovial ‘Victoria’s Dustbin’ feed, the social history project is led by CEAS Director Prof Tom Licence. The project has garnered national and international media attention as Prof Licence, colleagues and volunteers excavated parsonage gardens and town dumping grounds, sifting through the remnants that tell the stories of previous residents. Did a long-ago family teach the children to read nursery rhymes on a delicate tea cup? Did the townsmen prefer fancy decorative clay pipes? Did a country vicar favour French champagne and Dutch gin (in at least one location: yes).   

As with other CEAS projects, ‘What the Victorians Left Behind’ explores different disciplines – from the revolution in disposable packaging to early advertising campaigns – while providing both a regional and international context. It offers clues to trading routes and partners, the influence of other cultures, and East Anglia’s place in the wider world.

Furthermore, CEAS makes the most of the region’s many ancient archaeological wonders, including the Caistor St Edmund site, not far from UEA’s campus. In the summer of 2019, CEAS members and seven UEA students took part in a dig that uncovered a massive Roman temple. The students were involved in excavating the foundations of the Roman temple, Iron Age layers beneath, and rubbish pits associated with the priest's house. They found artefacts including a bone gaming counter and coins that had been left as offerings.

In recent years, with CEAS support, students have also dug at Sedgeford (an Anglo-Saxon site in northwest Norfolk) and World War II US airbases, while public lectures from CEAS members have offered insight to the area’s lost country houses, the Civil War in East Anglia, medieval farming and family life, and more. A recurring theme of CEAS research is the links between people living in East Anglia with their contemporaries further afield – an aspect often disregarded for a part of England still seen as relatively quiet and remote.

The HQ East: the East of England’s Military Heritage project demonstrates clearly the binds between local communities and a huge influx of international arrivals. The project has included excavations of USAF and RAF bases around East Anglia and utilised former military personnel interested in archaeology, demonstrating what it was like to see quiet farm fields spring up into bustling barracks, hospitals and runways. It’s revealed the social history of troops’ drinking (Coca-Cola) and grooming (Old Spice) habits and located long-lost tokens, from dog tags to engraved watch straps.

After more than five decades, CEAS continues to expand our understanding of East Anglia’s past, whether it’s mapping heritage orchards or re-establishing public rights-of-way networks. And in this, the 400th anniversary year of the sailing of the Mayflower from Plymouth to Plymouth Rock in North America, CEAS will continue to unearth clues to the roles and influence East Anglian residents had on establishing themselves in their new world.

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