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A Bronze Age settlement and an American P-51D Mustang – what NDR excavations revealed about Norfolk history

PUBLISHED: 15:13 16 April 2018 | UPDATED: 15:13 16 April 2018

Excavation at Gazebo Farm, where an American P-51D Mustang crashed during World War Two.

Excavation at Gazebo Farm, where an American P-51D Mustang crashed during World War Two.

Archant

Neolithic pottery, Bronze Age settlements, an important iron industry, and the remains of an American P-51D Mustang – excavation work along the Broadland Northway has revealed much about the fascinating history of the area. Tom Phillips, senior project manager at Oxford Archaeology East, which carried out the excavations, explains.

The gun camera ID tag recovered from the plane crash site at Gazebo Farm. The gun camera ID tag recovered from the plane crash site at Gazebo Farm.

As part of the early works for the NDR, Oxford Archaeology East carried out excavations along the route of the road between January and September 2016.

Nineteen discrete areas were investigated (totalling 20 hectares), revealing a landscape inhabited since early prehistoric times.

Finds of Neolithic struck flint found in many of the areas attest to the earliest land-use, as did a single pit at Bell Farm, Horsford, which contained a large quantity of Early Neolithic pottery (c 4,000-3,500 BC).

A cluster of Bronze Age sites were identified at the western end, in Taverham and Horsford. Principal among them was Bell Farm, Horsford, where a nationally important Middle to Late Bronze Age settlement (c 1,500-850 BC) extended across the two hectare excavation area.

Fragments of pottery were among the findings at Bell Farm which provide evidence of occupation at the site. Fragments of pottery were among the findings at Bell Farm which provide evidence of occupation at the site.

The settlement was highly unusual because its main boundaries were formed not by ditches, but by lines of posts, which either formed fencelines or screens arranged into a rectilinear field system.

The lines of posts enclosed a rectangular ditched enclosure, which may have been the earliest part of the settlement in the Middle Bronze Age. At least 13 post-built structures or roundhouses were spread across the settlement, while finds of pottery, burnt flint and struck flint, along with items such as a fired clay spindle whorl, provide evidence of occupation at the site.

Towards the eastern end of the route, spread over five separate areas in the parishes of Beeston St Andrew, Sprowston and Rackheath, evidence for Middle Saxon iron smelting was discovered. The Middle Saxon date (c AD 650-850) came not from artefacts but through radiocarbon samples obtained from charcoaling pits.

These features formed the buried remains of charcoal stacks, which would have provided the large amount of charcoal required for smelting.

Excavation at Beeston St Andrew, where evidence for Middle Saxon iron smelting was discovered. Excavation at Beeston St Andrew, where evidence for Middle Saxon iron smelting was discovered.

Within the same areas there was evidence of ironstone extraction pits, metalworking waste and the remains of small furnaces or smelting pits in at least two of the excavation areas. The iron smelting provides evidence of an important industry to the north of Norwich, at a time when there must have been a high demand for wrought iron within the expanding Saxon town.

Along the route there was also evidence for medieval rural field systems and roadside settlements, mainly dating to the 13th-14th centuries. These have been located close to modern day roads, leading out of villages such as Great Plumstead, and provide evidence of a heavily exploited agricultural landscape.

One of the more unusual elements of the project was the investigation of a Second World War crash site at Gazebo Farm in Rackheath. The plane, an American P-51D Mustang, from 479th Fighter Group “Riddles Raiders”, was based at Wattisham in Suffolk. The Mustang crashed on April 22, 1945 during the 200th mission celebrations for the 467th Bomb Group, based at Rackheath. At the controls was 1st Lt Robert 
C Young, who was killed in the accident and subsequently buried at the American Cemetery in Cambridge.

Although the location of the crash site was known, the extent of the debris and the impact was not, which meant careful metal-detecting and removing the topsoil gradually.

At least 13 post-built structures or roundhouses were spread across the settlement at Bell Farm. At least 13 post-built structures or roundhouses were spread across the settlement at Bell Farm.

The topsoil contained hundreds of small fragments of aluminium from the plane – mainly small rivets and sheet aluminium from the exterior of the plane, as well as .50 calibre ammunition.

Surprisingly, there was a small impact crater approximately 50cm below the surface, which contained part of the fuselage frame, a gun camera ID tag (see right), several pieces of bakelite from internal fittings and poorly preserved fragments of the engine block.

The last item to be recovered was the crumpled remains of the plane’s propeller spinner. The remains of the Mustang have subsequently been split between Wattisham Station Heritage Airfield Museum and New Farm Aviation Heritage Museum.

OA East has now completed the assessment stage of the post-excavation work and is currently compiling the full analysis report, which will be followed by publication of the results.

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