Dig 2 has produced extremely interesting results; and evidence from the five test pits excavated in 2015, coupled with results from the West Wickham Big Dig in 2013 and reappraisal of work by HDAG in the 1980s is shedding new light on village development and allowing us to move closer towards understanding how and why settlement developed at the church end of the villag.
A similar sequence of soil formation was recorded in all five test-pits – c.0.3m of turf and topsoil overlying c.0.2m of subsoil, with natural clay typically reached c.0.5m below ground level. In one test-pit dug over the possible medieval occupation site north-west of the church, an additional c.0.2m of soil build-up was recorded from which a large assemblage of finds of 10th-14th century date were recovered, evidence that this area of raised ground is probably a medieval house platform which was abandoned sometime before the 15th century. A possible post-medieval surface of compacted chalk and flint was recorded in another test-pit in the same field.
A large assemblage of finds was recovered. These predominately date to the Saxo-Norman and High Medieval periods (AD 850-1400), suggesting continuous occupation at this end of the village since at least the 10th century. A small assemblage of worked flint and a single sherd of Roman pottery were also recovered but noticeably, late medieval and post-medieval material was largely absent from the two fields.
The first evidence of continual activity at the church end of the village dates to the Saxo-Norman period (AD 850-1150). Ten sherds of pottery in fabrics identified as Thetford ware (AD 850-1100), Stamford ware (AD 850-1150) and St Neot’s ware (AD 900-1200) were recovered from four of the five test-pits, with three of the four test-pits producing two or more sherds. This comprises 11.5% of the total ceramic assemblage recovered in 2015.
In 2013, five test-pits near the church each produced a single sherd of Saxo-Norman pottery (WWI/13/4, 7, 8, 9 & 10) including the test-pit dug in Field 1 (WWI/13/4). This rate of recovery is far below the average for the Eastern Region, in which on average just over 10% of test-pits excavated in CORS produced at least two sherds of Saxo-Norman pottery. However, recent results suggest that this is, at least in part, a product of the excavation methodology employed in 2013. Combining the results from 2013 and 2015, in which 4/23 test-pits have now produced two of more sherds of Saxo-Norman pottery, as opposed to the original 0/18 test-pits, and the percentage rises from 0% to 17.4%, a figure somewhat higher than the average for the Eastern Region.
Settlement at Wichamme (Wickham), clearly distinguished as separate to settlement at Eanheale (Yen Hall), is first recorded in a charter of AD 974. Archaeological evidence from the parish appears to support this, with at least two separate foci of settlement identified within the modern parish. Fieldwalking around Yen Hall has identified a large, localised area of pottery of 10th-11th century date, whilst Saxo-Norman pottery has now been found in test-pits around the parish church.
So far, it is difficult to determine whether the small quantities of material recovered from the 2013 and 2015 test-pits is evidence of occupation in the immediate vicinity or a sign of less intensive land use, such as manuring of arable fields. However, it is noticeable that, at present, the only test-pits to produce Saxo-Norman material are those located at the church end of the village and not those at Streetly End or Burton End. This distribution might suggest a focusing of activity in this area during the late 9th or 10th century which would subsequently develop into the modern village, with Streetly End and Burton End both developing at later dates.
By the late 11th century, when the village is recorded in the Domesday Book (1086), three estates or manors are described – Enhale (Yen Hall), Wicham (Wickham) and Stradleia (Streetly). The village had a church by c.1200. The tower of the present building may date to the 13th century but much of the structure is of 14th century construction or later. There would have probably been a church on the site from a much earlier date, however. This would have started as a wooden structure which was eventually rebuilt in stone. Its position at the south-western end of the ridge of high ground gives it a prominent aspect in the centre of the parish, situated on the road from Balsham to Worsted Street (the old Roman road) and Horseheath. A moated site at Manor Farm, opposite the church, may be the site of the manor house for Bernhams manor, which was created from part of another pre-Conquest estate and which was originally held by Aubrey de Vere. It is tempting to suggest then, that Wicham first developed as a small hamlet arranged around the church and a late Saxon manorial site sometime in the 10th century, eventually superseding settlement at Yen Hall and Streetly, both of which can probably trace their origins back to Roman villa sites.
High medieval and late medieval
All five test-pits produced pottery of high medieval date (AD 1150-1400), the group constituting 85.1% of the total ceramic assemblage. The bulk of the pottery from Fields 1 and 2 (82/87 sherds = 94.3%) is believed to be stratified, coming from subsoil or occupation layers which date to the 12th-14th century. Much of the material is small and abraded and appears to have been circulating in the soil for some time, probably as a result of manuring fields under arable cultivation and therefore not likely to be evidence of occupation in the immediate vicinity.
However, one test-pit (WWI/15/3) excavated on a possible occupation site previously identified in 2013 (WWI/13/4) produced an assemblage of fifteen pottery sherds and fifty-two animal bone fragments along with smaller quantities of charcoal, burnt stone, burnt daub/fired clay and oyster shell. The average sherd weight in this test-pit was somewhat higher that in the other test-pits, an indication that material had moved less frequently in the soil after its initial deposition, and this was the only test-pit to produce a mixture of pot rims and body sherds. This material was recovered from a c.0.2m thick layer of dark soil which formed over the subsoil and was sealed beneath the topsoil. It was not present in any other test-pit but its presence here would explain why there appears to be a slightly raised square platform of ground in this area of Field 1 (approximately 25m x 25m and encompassing test-pits WWI/13/4 and WWI/15/3). All told, this additional accumulation of soil and the greater assemblage of finds recovered from it are compelling evidence that this platform is the site of habitation in the 12th-14th century.
Earthworks in Field 1 suggest that the house platform is situated on the north side of a sunken way as it enters the village from the north-west. Projecting the line of this sunken way eastwards, it would run beneath the 14th-century chancel of the parish church before joining the present Horseheath road as it intersects the High Street. This is probably the original line of the Balsham to Horseheath road and much of the village would have lay to the north of it, laid out in a series of long narrow closes between two perpendicular roads which extended away, parallel to each other, to the north-east. These are the present High Street and a back lane which is still preserved today as earthworks in Field 1 and a field-edge footpath further north. Houses would have been predominately built along the High Street, positioned just below the ridge line on the south-easterly facing slope, or built opposite the church which probably originally stood on the south-westerly side of the Balsham to Horseheath road next to the moated site at Manor Farm. In the 14th century the parish church was enlarged, necessitating the repositioning of the road to its present location south of the church, between it and Manor Farm.
No pottery of the late medieval period (AD 1400-1550) was recovered from the test-pits, a trend seen in other test-pits at the church end of the village. In 2013, just two test-pits produced a single sherd of late medieval pottery each. This severe reduction in the volume of pottery recovered suggests that much of the land around the church, including the occupation site in Field 1, was abandoned or put to other uses by the beginning of the 15th century. This decline is notably worse than average for CORS in the Eastern Region and it may be a result of the various plagues and famines of the 14th century, most notably the Black Death of 1348-9.
However, radical changes in settlement pattern such as this can have other contributing factors. Changes in agricultural practice around the village in the 15th century with fields close to the village core transitioning from arable cultivation, where pottery would have been regularly introduced into the soil through the manuring of the fields, to more pastoral activities would also account for a reduction in pottery in Fields 1 and 2. Restructuring the village following the enlargement of the church and the movement of the road might also account for some sites, such as the occupation site in Field 1, being abandoned. In reality, it is probably not a single event that caused the rapid depopulation of the village at this time but rather a combination of a number of factors including those discussed above.
Across the village, finds show that this late medieval ‘decline’ was uneven, with no pottery from Burton End, some pottery from the church end of the village, to pottery in all test-pits in Streetly End. If this provides a true representation of settlement in the parish during the late medieval period, it would appear that Burton End and much of the church end of the village was entirely deserted in the post-Black Death era but that Streetly End continued to thrive and possibly expand. More dispersed forms of settlement may have also been active at other sites around the parish at this time, including manors/farms at Yen Hall, Streetly Hall and Hill Farm, but at present we have no data on the late medieval occupation of these sites.
Post-medieval and modern
Evidence from test-pits suggests that recovery at the church end of the village did not happen until after the end of the medieval period but was robust when it did occur, with the dispersed, hamlet-dominated character of the high medieval period continuing well into the 20th century.
Small quantities of post-medieval and modern material (AD 1550 – present) were recovered from the topsoil in all five test-pits, including pottery, building material, glass, clay pipe and metalwork (including a knife blade, nails and barb-wire). In one test-pit in Field 1 (WWI/15/2) a compacted layer of chalk, flint and brick lying over the subsoil may be the remains of a post-medieval surface but generally topsoil was thick (typically 0.3m) and relatively clean. This, and the paucity of finds recovered from it, suggests that both fields have probably been given over to pasture for a long time.
An enclosure map of the village, dated 1812, shows that Field 1 was formerly three separate pastures called Horse Pond Close, Camping Close and Church Ley Close. Field boundaries correspond with the lines of the medieval sunken ways in the field and the enclosure award lists these fields as ‘ancient enclosures’, suggesting that the fields are old, perhaps even contemporary with use of the sunken ways before they fell out of use at some point in the 14th century.
The medieval occupation site lies in the south-western corner of Horse Pond Close, presumably named after the large pond which still occupies much of the area to this day. To the west lay Church Ley Close and to the south was Camping Close. A sales particular of the Horseheath Estate, dated 1777, lists Camping Close as Camping Ground.
‘Camping’ derives from the Middle English verb campen meaning ‘to fight, contend or strive’. It is an East Anglian name for the popular medieval game of ‘football’. From at least the mid-14th century a field in the village, often close to the parish church or where footpaths and lanes converge, was usually given over to communal recreation. This further supports the notion that parts of Field 1 have been pasture since at least the late medieval period, if not earlier.
Field 2 was previously divided into Bowling Green Close, closest to the church, and Town End Close to the south. Hedge banks still survive as earthworks in the field today marking this former division. It remains unclear why Bowling Green Close is so named. In 1777 it was simply Bowling Close but whether or not it had a recreational use is unknown.
From the late 19th century up until the Second World War, Camping Close was used as a cricket pitch (it can clearly be seen in an aerial photograph taken by the RAF in 1945). It was also still used for occasional football matches until the creation of a proper playing field in the 1970s.
Dig 2, coupled with results of earlier archaeological investigations is allowing us to move towards a new understanding of when and how settlement at the church end of the village originated and developed. Evidence suggests that continuous occupation did not begin at this end of the village until the late 9th or 10th century, probably starting as a small hamlet arranged around the church and a possible late Saxon estate centre which were sited at the end of the ridge with a prominent aspect over the surrounding valleys. Occupation continued west of the church until the 14th century when enlargement of the church nave and chancel necessitated a restructuring of the village layout and the abandonment of some occupation sites, a ‘decline’ probably exacerbated by the plagues and famines of the period. From the 15th century onwards land west of the church appears to have been given over to permanent pasture with the village continuing to develop to the east and north in its present location.
Of the three ‘Ends’ that comprise West Wickham, the church end is the earliest ‘nucleated’ settlement in the village, apparently pre-dating settlement at Burton End and Streetly End by more than a century. These later settlements were, however, in existence by the 12th century as pottery finds show. This is considerably earlier than found in the written record which does not mention either settlement by name until the 14th century. Dispersed settlement elsewhere in the parish, at Yen Hall and Streetly Hall, is much earlier, perhaps originating at known Roman villa sites in the vicinity.