The discoveries at Elmswell Farm started back in the 1870s, when John Mortimer began excavating some of the many prehistoric burial mounds in the area. In one, he found an early Bronze Age person buried with a hawk, some amber beads, a copper dagger and a gold-decorated wrist-guard. Later, he discovered that this mound also concealed a further 46 Anglo-Saxon burials.
Then, in the 1930s, the Roman finds came tumbling in. Among them were 37 coins (one of which was Iceni), plenty of pottery and, in the neighbouring field, clear evidence of a Roman ladder settlement that had been occupied from the late Iron Age to the early Anglo-Saxon period.
As if that wasn’t enough for one farm, aerial photos taken by the RAF revealed the outline of another settlement – this time a deserted medieval village.
Over the last few years, metal detectorists have continued to report remarkable finds, and surveys have also added new details to the Iron Age, Roman and medieval villages.
What’s more, the remains of an 8th century palace were found just two miles away, and a nearby church at Driffield has been linked with King Aldfrith. With evidence of such a strong Anglo-Saxon presence in the area, it seems likely that excavations at Elmswell might also uncover new evidence of the lesser-known kingdom of Deira.
This project has grown out of the exceptionally strong personal commitment shown to the land’s heritage by the farmer, John Fenton. But it’s still a working farm, and with every passing day it becomes more and more important to figure out exactly what archaeology survives and where.
The farm has maintained the same ancient boundaries for over a thousand years, since at least the time of Edward the Confessor. Such a continuous parcel of land is unique, and worthy of study in its own right. But the thing that makes the archaeology here so special and so valuable to our understanding of the past is the sheer number of distinct archaeological remains, which together span 5,000 years.
For archaeologists, there’s little more precious than a multi-period site like this, because these are the ones that really help us tie together the stories of all the different people, traditions and cultures that have come and gone over the millennia.
Elmswell will be especially important for anyone interested in the early medieval and medieval periods. For a start, there’s an entire deserted medieval village to be explored, complete with crofts, tofts and holloways.
There’s also the Roman ladder settlement, which includes a 4th century villa, and which seems to have been inhabited from the late Iron Age, right through the Roman period and into the early Anglo-Saxon occupation.
Now add in the fact that 46 Anglo-Saxon burials were found on the farm, the area’s links with Anglo-Saxon royalty and connections with the kingdom of Deira, and you can start to see why we think Elmswell has the potential to fill in so many historical blanks.
On top of that, the farm sits in the Hull valley, which is famous for having square, as well as round, Iron Age burial mounds. Elmswell has turned up some rather curious Iron Age finds of its own, but it also has earlier ones – including several Bronze Age burial mounds. There was also a cache of stone tools, taking us even further back in time. Again, it’s a trail of dots just waiting to be connected.
From an entire medieval village, right back to 5,000 years in the past, Elmswell Farm has so much just waiting to be explored. We can see its potential, and we hope you can too!