The pretty village of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast presented something of a challenge to the development and research teams at Time Team towers. Nature has taken its course along the Suffolk coast, eroding it at a rate of several metres a year. In the medieval period this led to the eventual abandonment of the site as a port.
All this is intended to put in context the work that is done today by the environment agency; to protect the existing properties and land still in danger of erosion, and by English Heritage; to protect the archaeology, now in a rather precarious position along the coastline. The arrival of Time Team on the scene was the result of a long collaboration with English Heritage and the fact that one of team members is a former resident of Suffolk with a long-standing interest in Dunwich. We hoped that we would be able to tell the story of this extraordinary site and make a serious contribution to knowledge of the archaeology, important for the future management of this important part of Suffolk heritage.
Our first task in developing the project was to ensure that there were no major objections to proposed work and that all relevant national bodies were on board. Just a few of the bodies involved included English Heritage, the County Council, the Environment Agency, Natural England, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and the Ministry of Justice. All these bodies and departments had to be carefully consulted to ensure that our work was not going to pose any problems for the local flora and fauna, contribute to erosive processes along the coastline and would take due consideration of the fragile nature of the archaeology in the area.
Once the above challenges had been met and a project design agreed by all parties it was time to consult the most important people in the equation - the people of Dunwich itself. Luckily we received an enthusiastic response from the community and had invaluable help during the research process from local experts and the Dunwich Museum. We were ready to go.
Time Team shoots always throw up surprises. Sometimes it's the archaeology, sometimes the environment. In this case it was a car park! Our primary target was a medieval hospital; the 'Maison Dieu' - or as we came to understand, more like a hospice than a hospital. Evidence suggested this was under a car park next to the famous Flora Tea Rooms (good fish and chips!). Our work was hampered by all sorts of challenges - not least of all the coach loads of tourists turning up for an ice cream and parking directly on top of the archaeology. We hadn't quite anticipated the number of pipes and other services running all over the site either.
In the event we did find evidence of the building, if not the building itself, under the tea rooms... Thankfully we had a second target area; Greyfriars Priory. This site has probably 20-30 years before it goes over the edge of the cliff and into the sea so our work would be making a very direct contribution to a site on the English Heritage Monuments at Risk register. Unfortunately, these sites do not exist in isolation...
In order to understand the development of Dunwich our work at the site employed a multi-disciplinary approach. We were lucky enough to have invaluable assistance from the Environment Agency, who provided what is known as 'change analysis' from their long-term aerial study of the Suffolk coastline. This allowed us to see for ourselves the changing coast and really understand the challenges both to our medieval ancestors and to people today. We also had assistance from David Sear at Southampton University who provided us with his extraordinary acoustic sonar work conducted just off the Dunwich coast. This data allowed us to see the remains of medieval Dunwich still visible on the sea-bed.
So it is safe to say that Dunwich was a wide ranging project involving a huge amount of cooperation between and collaboration with numerous agencies and individuals. We couldn't have done it without you... Time Team salutes you!