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Archaeological activities in Wymeswold
What was known?
Before the Wolds Historical Organisation was formed there had been a few tantalising glimpses of previous inhabitants in this area from chance finds and the activities of metal detector users. However none of these added up to very much. For instance, the evidence for pre- activity in Wymeswold was particularly limited. A flint scraper fragment of indeterminate age, an early bronze age flint arrowhead and a late bronze age axe were all found to the west of the present village. More recently a beautifully made polished neolithic stone axe was found in the parish.
Our iron age 'ancestors' are equally elusive. About 1990 a few fragments of iron age pottery were found on a ridge-top to the south of Wymeswold village. With imagination, but no substantiating evidence, these sherds may have come from a burial once marked by a barrow. Less tentatively, the Fosse Way probably existed before the Romans, as it follows a clearly-defined ridge from the Soar Valley. On the Fosse, at what is now the north-east of Wymeswold parish, is the site of the Roman town of Vernemetum. The name has been translated as 'Great (or Especially) Sacred Grove' and generally supposed to denote a major iron age sacred site. And this is really all we knew about the pre-Roman activities in the parish.
During the Roman occupation, the town of Vernemetum presumably had a significant impact on the surrounding farming economy. However, no evidence of 'high status' brick or tile Roman villas has been reported in any of the surrounding parishes. On the basis of evidence elsewhere in the county, we might expect isolated 'low status' mud-and-thatch farmsteads from iron age to mid-Anglo-Saxon times. Two hoards of Roman coins were discovered by metal detector users, with another just to the north of the present parish. The relationship of these to settlements is, at best, vague. Numerous Roman brooches have been found by metal detector users but, again, these do not imply settlement sites.
When the Romans departed the wolds probably reverted to scrubby woodland. However, there are tantalising clues to some important Anglo-Saxon activities around Wymeswold. To the north of the Vernemetum site, just inside Willoughby parish, part of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery was excavated during the construction of the bridge over the A46. Grave goods include many Frankish brooches and a Kentish style disc brooch together with some shield bosses, swords and knives.
According to eighteenth century antiquarians, there were local tales of the ruins of an Anglo-Saxon church to the south of the Vernemetum site. Discoveries by metal detector users of late Anglo-Saxon metalwork include eleven or more small 'strap ends' (which decorated the leather or cloth thongs used to tie the shrouds; see illustration) and appear to confirm the existence of a Christian burial ground here. The otherwise fairly regular spacing of early minster churches leaves a gap in the northern part of Leicestershire. In the absence of any other candidates, this early Anglo-Saxon church may have been such a minster site.
Three burials, one with a knife and all tentatively dated as Anglo-Saxon, were excavated to the west of Wymeswold village. More significantly, a mid-Anglo-Saxon silver-gilt disc-headed pin and a gilt-bronze 'plate' brooch were found by Pat Grattan of Wymeswold, in a field to the east of the village (see illustration). Their quality makes them of national importance and they are now on display in the Jewry Wall Museum. It is reasonable to suppose that these high-status artifacts were associated with royal burials.
Anglo-Saxon coins have been found in Leicestershire, at least five have been found in Wymeswold parish. The designs suggests trading links with East Anglia at this time.
By the eighth or ninth century the pattern of isolated farmsteads had been fundamentally changed by bringing the houses together to form the village of Wymeswold. As with nearly all other midlands parishes, this means most of the evidence over the last 1200 years or so lies under the houses and gardens of the modern village.
Field walking and related activities
Most of the artifacts mentioned so far had been found before the Wolds Historical Organisation was founded in 1986. A small group met regularly between 1988 and 1992 in an attempt to add more detail to the parish's past. Thanks to the goodwill of local landowners and farmers, approximately 17 percent of the arable fields in Wymeswold parish (equivalent to about 7 percent of the whole parish) were investigated.
This involved walking systematically across recently-ploughed fields looking for fragments of pottery and other human artifacts. The location of all finds was recorded in 'zones' of 10 by 30 metres, which enabled later plotting of distribution.
This field walking revealed a previously unknown Romano-British settlement of about the third century to the north of Narrow Lane. Other fields revealed evidence of arable farming activities in the Roman era (the so-called 'manuring scatter' of small quantities of pottery which would be dispersed when the all-purpose muck heap was consigned to the fields).
The metalwork finds indicate important Anglo-Saxon activity in and around the parish. Rather frustratingly, no evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement was discovered by field walking. However, early medieval pottery (typically wares produced in Nottingham) or later medieval pottery were found in two-thirds of the fields walked. This again indicates arable farming activities rather than settlement.
Although not strictly field walking, the same team also discovered Roman pottery during the construction of houses to the east of the village. Thanks to the co-operation of the builders, Leicestershire Museums were able to conduct a three-day 'dig' which revealed two shallow ditches. One of these contained late iron age pottery, including an almost-complete upturned pot, and the other ditch contained evidence of early Roman occupation, including a small brooch. This suggests that a farmstead once stood nearby (probably under the present car park area of Wymeswold Hall) where people were living before and after the arrival of the Romans.
One of the sherds of Roman pottery from this site proved to be especially fascinating – as the museum staff recognised it as part of a Roman cheese press. So, cheese making in Wymeswold goes back nearly 2,000 years!
In 1993 a short report on the field walking activities was prepared and copies provided for Leicestershire Museums. This is now online as a free PDF.
Pat Gratton and Hector ('Mac') McDonald were especially helpful to the field walking activities. Sadly, both have since died.
Originally published in Wolds Reflections 1997; minor update June 2017.
Copyright the author.