The excavation of the Early Anglo-Saxon village of West Stow in Suffolk, England, opened a new chapter in the archaeological study of Anglo-Saxon England. Although many pagan Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and burials were excavated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, very few settlement sites were investigated archaeologically before the 1960s. The site of the West Stow village is on a sandy terrace overlooking the Lark River in Northwest Suffolk. Under the direction of Stanley West, almost the entire Early Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow was excavated during eight field seasons between 1965 and 1972. These excavations shed new light on settlement patterns and subsistence practices of the earliest Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of eastern England.
The West Stow area has long been recognized as an archaeologically important region. In the mid-nineteenth century, workers who were seeking ballast for barges discovered an Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery near the village site. Although the workers collected many Anglo-Saxon artifacts, the cemetery site was never excavated properly. As a result, archaeologists currently are unable to determine which items were buried together. The objects recovered from the cemetery include weapons, jewelry, and a stone coffin. In addition, Roman pottery kilns were found on the site in 1940. The late Roman site of Icklingham, still under excavation, is located about 4 kilometers (about 2 miles) west of the West Stow village. Icklingham is a large open site that may have served as a market center or possibly as the center of a large Roman estate.
A primary goal of the West Stow village excavations was to understand the plan of the Early Anglo-Saxon settlement. Excavations at the site revealed seven small rectangular timber halls surrounded by about seventy smaller buildings. The smaller structures are known as sunken-featured buildings (SFBs), because they were built over roughly rectangular pits that were about 0.5 meters deep. One to three postholes, which would have held upright posts, were sunk into the short ends of the pits. These posts would have supported the roofs of the SFBs. The halls probably were the main farmsteads, and the SFBs seem to have served as workshops and farm outbuildings. For example, large numbers of loom weights were recovered from SFB 15, suggesting that this building may have served as a weaving shed. Based on the number of halls, the West Stow settlement included about seven individual farms.
Artifactual evidence indicates that the West Stow village was inhabited from the early fifth century to the mid-seventh century. Pottery and metalwork suggest that the village was first occupied in about a.d. 420. The presence of Ipswich ware, distinctive kiln-fired pottery that was produced on a slow wheel, indicates that the village must have been inhabited until about a.d. 650. Detailed chronological analyses indicate that no more than three or four farmsteads were occupied at any one time, so West Stow was probably more of a hamlet than a true village.
One of the main goals of the West Stow excavation was to study Early Anglo-Saxon farming and animal husbandry practices. The technique of flotation was developed in the 1960s to recover small seeds and other plant materials from archaeological soils. West Stow was one of the first sites in Britain where flotation techniques were used. Remains of wheat, rye, barley, and oats were recovered from several of the Anglo-Saxon features at West Stow. Some of the fifth-century features produced the remains of spelt wheat (Triticum spelta), a form of wheat that was grown commonly in Roman Britain. The presence of this variety of wheat may indicate some degree of continuity between Roman and Early Anglo-Saxon farming practices. By the seventh century, however, spelt wheat seems to have disappeared from Anglo-Saxon agriculture. It was replaced by other varieties of wheat and rye.
The West Stow site produced more than 180,000 animal bone fragments that could be used to study Anglo-Saxon animal husbandry and hunting practices. These faunal remains have shown that the denizens of West Stow kept herds of cattle, sheep, and pigs. The cattle probably were grazed on the rich pastures along the Lark River edge, while the sheep would have been herded on the drier upland areas behind the site. Pigs were most numerous in the early fifth century; most likely they were herded in the wooded areas along the river terraces. Herding was supplemented by the occasional hunting of red deer, roe deer, and waterfowl; poultry keeping; and fishing for pike and perch in the Lark River. The early Anglo-Saxons also kept a small number of horses. These animals, which were the size of large ponies, may have been used for riding and traction, but they also were eaten on occasion. The large, straight-limbed Anglo-Saxon dogs were about the size of modern German shepherds. They may have been used as hunting, herding, and guard dogs.
One of the most difficult questions for archaeologists to answer is exactly who lived at the West Stow village. Based on traditional historical evidence, the early Anglo-Saxons were seen as migrants from continental Europe who entered Britain shortly after the withdrawal of Roman military power in about a.d. 410. Later scholarship has suggested that the Anglo-Saxons may have been a small military elite that took control of eastern England in the fifth century. In that case, the denizens of West Stow may have been native Britons who adopted Anglo-Saxon material culture, including pottery, metalwork, and building styles, from their Continental overlords. While it may never be known with certainty who lived in West Stow village, the archaeological evidence for spelt cultivation points to significant economic continuity between the Romans and the early Anglo-Saxons.
A program of experimental reconstruction of the West Stow farm buildings was begun in 1974. Several SFBs and a single hall have been reassembled using early medieval tools and techniques. These buildings currently are part of a county park that is open to the public.
Crabtree, Pam J. West Stow: Early Anglo-Saxon Animal Husbandry. East Anglian Archaeology 47. Ipswich, U.K.: Suffolk County Department of Planning, 1989.
West, Stanley. West Stow: The Anglo-Saxon Village. East Anglian Archaeology 24. Ipswich, U.K.: Suffolk County Department of Planning, 1985.
Pam J. Crabtree