Norfolk's Archaeological Curiosities

The NHER is full weird and wonderful records. This short article highlights some of the most unusual.

Spells and Charms 

Several of the records on the Norfolk Historic Environment Record describe protective spells and charms. These were popular from the 15th to the 17th century. In fact spells and charms continued to be used later in Norfolk than elsewhere in the UK. These include apotropaic marks (NHER 19463) painted onto beams at Tudor House, Alburgh. These red and blue painted magical signs were designed to protect the people living in the house from evil. More examples have been found at Poplar Farm (NHER 34693) The Cottage (NHER 37399) and Meadowley (NHER 37584), Carleton Rode. Other marks have also been recorded hidden in people’s houses – at No 34 Millgate, Aylsham (NHER 40161) there is an important 19th century fireplace with freemasonry symbols.

Another way of protecting the house was to bury protective objects underneath or in the entrances – the doors, windows and chimneys. At Mitre House, Acle, a horse skull and bridle were found under the door (NHER 12199). At The Grange, Aldeby (NHER 15090) a shoe was found underneath a cupboard next to a fireplace. Another shoe, this time containing a wooden needle, was found in the chimney at 22 Bunwell Street, Carleton Rode (NHER 36123). At The Priory, Banham (NHER 10844) a 16th or 17th century copper alloy bowl was found inside a chimney. Part of the skeleton of a goose was found buried beneath a miller’s house (NHER 15964) at Besthorpe. These strange objects were all designed to protect the people who lived in the house.

A 15th century alabaster figure of St Paul was found up a chimney in a cottage in Bergh Apton (NHER 10438). This might have been a protective charm but an alternative interpretation suggests it might have been hidden in the cottage during the Reformation.  

X-ray of a witch bottle found in Earsham.

X-ray of a witch bottle found in Earsham. (© NCC)

A witch bottle was another spell used to protect the house. In a house in Earsham a sealed pottery witch bottle containing nails and copper alloy pins was found inside one of the fireplaces (NHER 16279). It was believed that this would confine evil spirits, protecting the house, until the bottle was opened.

Not all of the charms are medieval or post medieval. An extremely rare example of a Roman charm or curse, engraved onto a gold sheet (NHER 39283) was found in Billingford. The Greek and Latin inscription appeals to the god Abraxis. A Roman lead curse tablet was found in the River Wensum (NHER 9819). The tablet curses someone who has stolen a long list of items from Brumasius including a pair of leggings.

Remembering the dead

Gravestones and memorials are very personal and consequently are sometimes rather odd! Two late 19th century headstones in the churchyard at St Mary’s Church, Ashby St Mary (NHER 10335) depict flocks of geese and turkeys. These commemorate the lives of a local couple who kept the birds. A remarkable mid 14th century wooden effigy of a knight has survived at St Andrew’s Church, Fersfield (NHER 10910). The knight is thought to be Sir Robert du Bois who paid for the tower of the church to be built. The memorial for John Fox at St Andrew’s Church, Colney (NHER 9339) describes how he died after being run down by a wagon and horses. There is also a warning to the reader of the memorial to not drive dangerously.  

Late 19th century headstone depicting man with flock of turkeys in St Mary's churchyard, Ashby St Mary.

An unusual 19th century headstone in the churchyard of St Mary's, Ashby St Mary. (© NCC) 

At St Mary’s Church, Elsing (NHER 3062) there is an elaborate memorial brass to Sir Hugh Hastings. This is one of the best surviving examples of medieval brasses in the country. The remains of Sir Hugh were excavated in 1978. At St Andrew’s Church, Wickhampton (NHER 10396) two late 13th century altar tombs of Sir William Gerbrygge and his wife have given rise to a legend of two warring brothers. The legend suggests that God turned the brothers to stone.

Some of the dead are best left forgotten. Excavations at Thetford (NHER 49110) have recorded a burial that had been disturbed soon after the body was deposited. After the burial the body was dug up, the head removed from the body, and put back into the grave upside down. Although there is very little clear evidence for the existence of vampires many people in the past (and today) believe that these creatures drank the blood of humans. It has been shown that if people believed someone to be a vampire their grave was very often desecrated and their body mutilated. This might be what happened to the person in the grave in Thetford.

Not all memorials are quite so gruesome. Often they tell interesting stories about the people who have died. In the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Old Hunstanton (NHER 1136) are two headstones of 1784, one to an Excise man killed by smugglers and one to a smuggler who fell in the same skirmish. Sometimes the stories told on gravestones can be very sad. Floor slabs in St Peter’s Church, Riddlesworth (NHER 6120) tell how two ladies were killed in their beds at the hall when a chimney stack fell on them in a 'furious hurricane' in 1703. There are also memorials to heroes and heroines. One of the most famous is Nelson's Monument, Great Yarmouth (NHER 4302). Less well known heroes include Charlotte Atkins who is remembered at St Peter’s Church, Ketteringham (NHER 9515). She died in Paris after several attempts to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison.

Peculiar pleasures

Before the days of television and the internet people had to find ways to entertain themselves. Some of these now seem a little strange. The site of a 19th century brickworks in Banham (NHER 15985) was later converted into the pleasure garden. The garden included a brick tunnel for visitors to walk through in candlelight, and the remains of an airship from World War One. Bowling was a popular pastime. The bowling green at the Globe Inn, Blofield (NHER 12289) is the largest bowling green in the country and dates from before 1777.

Music was also an important entertainment. The blacksmith at Briston must have had a lot of time on his hands. He created an iron cello for All Saints’ Church, Briston (NHER 6548) in 1699. The cello was played in 1999 to celebrate its’ 300th birthday. Collecting was also a popular pastime. Antiquarians used to collect weird and wonderful objects. Four human skulls found during building work at Broome (NHER 10685) probably belonged to a collector. One had been filled with Plaster of Paris.

Norfolk’s saints and sinners

There are several 'Norfolk' saints. The most famous of these is Wulstan. The parish church at Bawburgh (NHER 9296) is dedicated to him. This Norfolk saint was carried to the site of the church by his bulls after he died in 1016. He become a patron saint of labourers and farmers. Legend has it that Wulstan’s body rested at St Wulstan’s well (NHER 9298) before its final journey to Bawburgh church. The well was a centre of medieval pilgrimage and its waters are reputedly a curative for scrofula - a disease affecting the skin of the neck.

The saints recorded in the database are balanced by the sinners. These included illegal smugglers who operated out of 225 to 226 Northgate Street, Great Yarmouth (NHER 18492). There is a secret room upstairs that is only accessible from the roof space. This may have been used to store smuggled tea. Old documents demonstrate that one of the occupants of the house was arrested for this offence around 1760.

More sinners lived at Philippo’s Farm, Fulmodestone (NHER 19773). The owner of the farm had the inscription created to memorialise his time in prison:

GAME LAW THEOLOGY

BIGOTRY

WHO CAN BELIEVE IT BLEST WITH COMMON SENSE THAT TAKING GAME IN LENT GAVE GOD OFFENCE

OR THAT UNTASTED PHEASANTS HAVE THE CHARM

H'ALMIGHTY'S FIERCE DISPLEASURE TO DISARM

IN MAJESTY ENTHRONED SUPREME DIVINE

DOES HE REGARD ON WHAT WE CHANCE TO DINE 1847

GAME LAW JUSTICE

TYRRANY

This memorial is erected to transmit to posterity the fact that in the middle of the 19th century the owner of this estate was committed for 14 days imprisonment in a Felon's jail by two clerical Justices for having taken and eaten his own game out of season as decreed by English statute law.

The people who built the punishment room at The Old Bull, East Harling (NHER 40653) were definitely sinners by today's standards. The punishment room was a small timber walled room in the attic with a door secured by a chain and staple. At least there was a slot in the wall that would have been used for passing in plates of food. Less serious sinners are also remembered in the archaeological record. St Peter’s Church, Ickburgh (NHER 5048) contains a strange reminder from one of the builders. He left a beer mug and bottle in the east gable of the building after being sacked for drinking on the job.

How did you find it?!

Most archaeological sites and finds are recovered by people actually looking for them – archaeologists, metal detectorists and fieldwalkers. Occasionally we get reports of finds recovered in rather more unusual circumstances. A Roman coin was found in 3 1/2lb cod caught off Bacton (NHER 11192).

Whilst pushing children on swings a member of the public spotted some pieces of medieval pottery in Beeston (NHER 18228). In 1961 a Neolithic flaked flint axe was found at the Costessey showground (NHER 7875). It had been pushed between the weatherboarding on the edge of the show ring. Where it was originally found is unknown. Another Neolithic flint axehead (NHER 1259) was recorded as coming ‘from the submarine forest in northwest Norfolk'. Half of the base of a medieval mortar was found in a rockery in Dersingham (NHER 34750). We don't really care how you find archaeology but we do want to maintain as complete a record as possible. If you find an archaeological object or site please report it to us as soon as you can.

Rarely spotted

Some of the archaeological sites recorded in the NHER are extremely rare. The dome trainer at Langham Airfield (NHER 1891) is one of only three that survive in the country. The dome was constructed in World War Two and was used for training anti-aircraft gunners, with films of enemy aircraft projected onto the walls for target practice. 

The unique tower of St Mary's Church, Burgh St Peter. Built on the base of an early 16th century tower the 18th century pyramidal construction most closely resembles a ziggurat.

The unique tower of St Mary's Church, Burgh St Peter. Built on the base of an early 16th century tower the 18th century pyramidal construction most closely resembles a ziggurat. (© NCC)

St Mary’s Church, Burgh St Peter (NHER 10746) has a unique 18th century tower that rises up in a ziggurat of 'building blocks', and originally had a spire or pinnacle on top. At Willow Farm, Cranworth (NHER 17894) there is a rare room tax sign, bearing the legend 'Cheese Room', referring to a window tax from which cheese rooms were exempt. These signs are usually only found in northern England, and this is the only known example from Norfolk.

In the late 1850s a war memorial was built to commemorate the end of the Crimean War in Attleborough (NHER 5567). This survives, despite having been hit by a car in 1983, and is one of only a few monuments to the Crimean War in Britain. The bunkers at Mundford Royal Observer’s Corps site (NHER 35421) are also very unusual. The men working here built a second bunker for their wives and children without official authorisation. This is the only Royal Observers Corps post to have a second 'family' bunker.

Norfolk's churches contain many rare and unusual features. East Anglia is well known for its round towered churches but many of them also contain interesting and often unusual features. At St Andrew’s Church, Little Massingham (NHER 2344) there is a wonderful collection of 19th century to modern graffiti on the tower's lead roof. One inscription is 'Beds and Herts 1942 Up the Army'. This is probably a reference to World War Two fire watchers and the local airfield. St Andrew’s Church, Gunton (NHER 6819) is an 18th century church designed in 1769 by Robert Adam. It is said to be the only Norfolk building by Adam, and his only complete church in the country. St Mary’s Church, Long Stratton (NHER 10077) contains a very rare example of a 16th century sexton's wheel. The wheel may have been used for determining the date of the Lady Day Fast. It is one of only two examples in the country. St Mary’s Church, Great Witchingham (NHER 7474) contains a 15th century Seven Sacrament font. This is one of the best examples of this kind of font in the country, and retains much of its original medieval paint. Churches are fascinating buildings full of history. You find out more about investigating churches in the How to Investigate a Church article on the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website.

As seen on TV

Norfolk’s beautiful countryside and historic buildings are often used as setting for television and film period dramas. Bintry Mill, Bintree (NHER 2932), an 18th century watermill set over a stream, was used in the 1996 BBC adaptation of George Eliot's 'The Mill on the Floss'. Lynford Hall (NHER 5150) has been used as a filming location for the television programs  'Allo 'Allo, Dad's Army and You Rang, M'Lord? Not all televison locations are glamorous though. An 18th or 19th century flint and brick barn on the quayside in Thornham (NHER 1319) was used as a location for the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations filmed in 1998.  

Bintry Mill, an 18th century watermill set over a stream. The mill was used in the 1996 BBC adaptation of George Eliot's 'The Mill on the Floss'.

Bintry Mill, an 18th century watermill set over a stream. (© NCC)

Some sites have to be ‘adjusted’ to make them suitable for filming. The exterior of 3 and 3A Kings Staithe Street, King’s Lynn (NHER 40055) were painted for the making of the film 'Revolution' in the 1980s. The paint was never removed. Unfortuntely not all sites survive filming. Hardingham Watermill (NHER 8859) was deliberately burned down during the filming of 'The Shuttered Room' in 1966.

The Norfolk Historic Environment Record even records the masts used to transmit television broadcasts. Tacolneston Transmitter is a 150m high radio and television mast (NHER 42823). It was built in 1956, replacing a temporary structure constructed the previous year. The mast was one of the first VHF radio masts built by the BBC and it is reported that during construction work a JCB excavator was used for the first time in Norfolk. Television transmissions began in 1966 and the mast was later shared with commercial television companies.

Record breakers

Norfolk's archaeology is full of record breakers. The Hethel Thorn (NHER 9504), a famous hawthorn tree, was first mentioned in the 13th century when it was in use as a boundary marker. The tree is now over 700 years old, and was reputedly a meeting place for rebels in the reign of King John. The tree is Britain’s smallest nature reserve. From the smallest to the tallest. High Mill or Southtown High Mill, Great Yarmouth (NHER 17962) was probably the tallest windmill in Britain. It was a ten storey high tower mill that was either 41m or 37m high. It was demolished in 1904 after which the bricks were supposedly used to build High Mill Terrace, now Gatacre Road. Yarmouth is full of record breakers. As well as High Mill there is the Regent Cinema (NHER 18094). This was once the most luxurious cinema outside London.

The oldest known standing domestic building in Norfolk is Hall Farm Barn, Hemsby (NHER 30804). This timber framed aisled barn was built around 1300. Hemsby is also the home of the oldest duck decoy in the country (NHER 27213). This dates back to the time of James I. We also have records of the biggest archaeological sites in the county. Earthworks of medieval ridge and furrow can be seen on aerial photographs of Hilgay (NHER 24136). Survey of the site revealed this to be the largest surviving block of medieval ridge and furrow in Norfolk, totalling almost 19 hectares.

The county also contains the first World War Two memorial to be erected, at St Mary’s Church, Great Bircham (NHER 1722). Many of the churches in Norfolk break records. The east window of St Andrew’s Church, Hingham (NHER 2979) is one of the biggest in England.

More modern sites are also record breakers. The first large tuberculosis sanatorium constructed in Britain was built between 1898 and 1899 in Gimingham (NHER 34342). The archive also contains a letter from the Guinness Book of Records so you could say we are offically record breakers. The letter requests information about a Palaeolithic flint handaxe that was found before 1927 in Sidestrand (NHER 6774).

Adults only…

Not all of our records are U rated. Some definitely require an 18 certificate. A pornographic copper alloy plaque (NHER 37363), probably dated to the 19th century, was found in Dersingham by metal detecting. A medieval pornographic door knocker (NHER 30139) has also been recorded.

During the Roman period the phallus was a symbol of fertility. It was frequently used not only on wall paintings but in small models hung on necklaces. Several examples of these have been found in Norfolk (NHER 28311, 35323 and 29401). Priapus was a Roman god of fertility who was depicted with a hugely inflated penis. A small lead model of the god has been found at Scole (NHER 30650).

Mad as hatters

Some of the archaeological records seem to indicate that some of the people who lived in Norfolk were rather strange. A brass seal found in Gooderstone in 1849 (NHER 12447) depicts a man with a lion's tail, star, and arrowhead, with the inscription 'I was a man'. It may be connected with Simon Browne of Shepton Mallet, Somerset, a 17th century lexicographer who went mad and believed that he had become a beast.

Some of the actions of people in the past are also a little strange. High Grove House, Walsingham (NHER 15508) may have been deliberately demolished by a gentleman living in Abbey Farm (NHER 15409) to prevent his mother in law moving into it. It is not only humans who seem a little mad. Deer can be pretty weird too. Langford Lodge (NHER 5039), a ruined medieval warrener's lodge is now completely ruined because deer have been gnawing on it to sharpen their teeth!

Some people do mad things with the archaeological objects they find. The head from a Roman marble bust was used as a bollard to prevent traffic driving onto a verge for several years in Roydon (NHER 21729). When the owner realised what it was the bust was put on sale at Christies in London. It made £55,000 pounds when it was sold in 1990.

Legends of treasure

There are many stories of buried treasure from Norfolk. Local traditions assert that treasure is buried in one of the Harpley barrows (NHER 3527). Moreover it is said that rabbits will not burrow in it, or if they do they soon come out. Strangely enough there are very few rabbit burrows in the barrow in question. However when the barrow was excavated in 1843 only Bronze Age pottery, cremated bone and fragments of charcoal were found. 

Photograph of The Great Stone of Lyng. Local legend says that it bleeds, that birds cannot be heard singing near it and that treasure is buried beneath it.

The Great Stone of Lyng. Local legend says that it bleeds, that birds cannot be heard singing near it and that treasure is buried beneath it. (© NCC)

The Great Stone of Lyng (NHER 3057) is also subject to local legends, including allegations that it bleeds, that birds cannot be heard singing near it and that treasure is buried beneath it. There is a local legend of 'Catholic treasure' hidden in room beneath the village cross at Caston (NHER 5775). Stories from Hoe suggest that there was a well in the village and that a treasure chest was recovered from it (NHER 14243). The most famous of treasures that may be buried in Norfolk is King John’s treasure. Work in 1963 in the Wash located bits of silver and gold (NHER 24560) that were thought to be related to the treasure but the objects were found to be undateable. Further work in 2003 to 2005 to locate the treasure also failed (NHER 40716). Perhaps it is still out there waiting to be discovered.

Archaeologists get it wrong too…

Although we do our best archaeologists don't always get it right first time. We keep a record of our mistakes to prevent anyone else repeating them! Analysis of aerial photographs is notoriously difficult. A Bronze Age ring ditch was recorded on a photograph of Harling (NHER 34735). It was later found to have been formed by lunging horses (leading them in circles on leads whilst breaking them in!). It is not only aerial photographs that sometimes flummox us. An object from Horsford was originally identified as an Iron Age or Roman lead head (NHER 25941). It was later identified as a figure from a 19th century tobacco jar.

Inspirations

Norfolk’s archaeology has been an inspiration to many people. Some examples are highlighted in the Archaeology and Art section of the website. To end this selection of curios here is Clement Scott's poem 'Garden of Sleep' inspired by St Michael’s Church, Sidestrand (NHER 6797):

On the grass of the cliff, at the edge of the steep,

God planted a garden - a garden of sleep!

'Neath the blue of the sky, in the green of the corn,

It is there that the regal red poppies are born!

Brief days of desire, and long dreams of delight,

They are mine when my Poppy-Land cometh in sight.

In music of distance, with eyes that are wet,

It is there I remember, and there I forget!

O! heart of my heart! Where the poppies are born,

I am waiting for thee, in the hush of the corn.

Sleep! Sleep!

From the Cliff to the Deep!

Sleep, my Poppy-Land,

Sleep!

 

In my garden of sleep, where red poppies are spread,

I wait for the living, along with the dead!

For a tower in ruins stands guard o'er the deep,

At whose feet are green graves of dear women asleep!

Did they wait, as I wait, for the days that may be?

Was it hope or fulfilling that entered each breast,

Ere death gave release, and the poppies gave rest?

O! Life of my life! On the cliffs by the sea,

By the graves in the grass, I am waiting for thee!

Sleep! Sleep!

In the dews by the deep!

Sleep, my Poppy-Land,

Sleep!

This article has highlighted some of the curios recorded by the Norfolk Historic Environment Record – many more unusual, interesting and odd finds can be found by searching the database online at the Norfolk Heritage Explorer site.

M. Dennis (NLA), 13 February 2007.

Norfolk County Council logo Heritage Lottery Fund logo

Powered by HBSMR-web and the HBSMR Gateway from exeGesIS SDM Ltd, and mojoPortal CMS
© 2007 - 2017 Norfolk Historic Environment Service