Britain’s eclectic history means it’s a nation that is incredibly rich in archaeology. From well-known Neolithic sites like Stonehenge and Avebury, to Roman roads, Saxon hoards and Viking burial sites, the land beneath our feet provides many clues about the country’s past.
The story behind the remarkable finds at one of these sites, Sutton Hoo, is being brought to life in Netflix’s forthcoming film release The Dig, starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James, and based on John Preston’s novel of the same name. Fiennes will play Basil Brown, the amateur archaeologist who uncovered an extensive collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts which helped to shape the world’s understanding of medieval Europe. The Dig premieres on Netflix on 29 January.
Every year, the Council for British Archaeology also hosts the annual Festival of Archaeology, a collection of events designed to inspire people to delve into the country’s history. The festival is returning for its 30th year in 2021 and museums, heritage organisations and other societies will put on a range of events, allowing you to dig deep into Britain’s archaeological past.
Alongside several archaeological sites in the heart of our cities, many finds have been unearthed in the expanses of Britain’s countryside, giving you the chance to delve into the nation’s history and culture when we’re all able to travel again.
Sat in the centre of Bath and dating back to the first few decades of the Roman occupation of Britain in around 60-70AD, the Roman Baths provide a unique glimpse into life during that period. Although not discovered until the late 19th century, the remains of the vast Roman temple and bath house once formed part of a small settlement known as Aquae Sulis. The Great Bath is fed by hot spa water, while the changing facilities feature an early version of an underfloor heating system called a hypocaust – highly advanced technology at the time. The site offers history buffs the chance to learn about the numerous archaeological finds from the region, including the Beau Street Hoard, a set of more than 17,000 Roman coins that were found in the city. If you’re looking to explore the site from home you can also discover more with online tours, videos and a 3D model of the Roman baths and Pump Room.
Representing Britain’s – and even Europe’s – most impressive archaeological find, the incredible Anglo-Saxon royal burial site at Sutton Hoo unearthed an abundance of medieval treasures. In 1939, an amateur archaeologist discovered a burial mound featuring the imprint of a 27-metre long boat, complete with a central chamber containing the possessions of an Anglo-Saxon king, whose exact identity remains a mystery. Alongside swords, feasting vessels and silverware from the distant Byzantine empire, archaeologists uncovered an unusual ‘human mask’ helmet – one of only four from the period to survive to this day – as well as gold buckles, coins and other artefacts. Many of the treasures are now on display at the British Museum in London, while it’s also possible to explore the 255-acre Sutton Hoo estate, which is looked after by the National Trust
Once a thriving medieval monastery, the site at Greyfriars also has an important royal connection. It was here, following excavations under a car park in Leicester in 2012, that the grave of Richard III was found – the last English king killed in battle, at Bosworth Field in 1485. The friary, first developed in the early 13th century, is now a protected scheduled monument, while a visitor centre at the site explores the quest to find and identify him.
Telling the tale of the Roman frontier at Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda acted as a vital garrison base throughout their time in Britain. Regular excavations uncover new finds year after year, helping to piece together the region’s impressive history – many of these are displayed at the museum at the site. Set amid striking Northumberland countryside and featuring the remains of a bath house, barrack buildings and a religious temple, it is believed Vindolanda was demolished and reconstructed nine times. Relics discovered at the site include a set of wooden writing tablets, considered to be Britain’s oldest remaining examples of texts written by hand , alongside an array of coins, pottery and weaponry.
Located in the centre of the South Downs National Park, the remains of Bignor Roman Villa help to capture the imagination. Found in 1811 when it was hit by a plough, the rural villa’s exquisite mosaic floors survive to this day, showcasing the incredible craftsmanship of the era. Dating to around the 2nd century, excavations have revealed jewellery, pottery and a baby burial at the site. Stane Street Roman Road, a route linking London to Chichester, can be found a short distance to the south-east, one of many walking and hiking trails to explore.
Once home to the Roman temple of Mithras, the London Mithraeum sits in the heart of the City as part of Bloomberg’s European Headquarters, close to St Paul’s Cathedral. Archaeological excavations during construction for the building in 2012 unveiled a collection of incredible artefacts, many of which are displayed in the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE – a museum and reconstruction of the temple that exists just 100 metres from its original site. Featuring immersive experiences, it delves into the history of Roman London and a period when the capital was significantly different to how it is today.
Standing proudly overlooking Portsmouth Harbour, Portchester Castle has provided a striking defensive position on England’s south coast since the 3rd century. Initially a Roman fort – used to fend off Saxon invaders – it was developed over the centuries into a castle and vast royal residence. A number of the fortifications remain and it is regarded as one of the best preserved Roman forts in northern Europe.
Excavations in the 1970s at Coppergate in York uncovered a vast array of Viking artefacts from around 1,000 years ago. The site is now home to the Jorvik Viking Centre, which takes you on a journey back in time to explore life in that period. Some 40,000 objects were unearthed during the dig, including everything from shoes and shields to weapons, coins and pottery, all of which have been lovingly preserved by the York Archaeological Trust. The centre’s immersive experience delves into the dig itself and features reconstructions of the houses, workshops and streets of the Viking-age city of Jorvik, as it was all those centuries ago.
Another remarkable prehistoric monument is the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. First uncovered by storms in 1850, over the years winds and high tides have slowly revealed an array of stone dwellings and covered passages. The incredibly well-preserved site forms part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site and in the 1970s radiocarbon dating found it was probably inhabited for a period of circa 600 years, somewhere between 3200BC and 2200BC. A replica house details what life may have been like for people at the time, while the region’s striking landscapes and birdlife provide plenty to capture your imagination.
Dating back 5,000 years, the Callanish Stones predate England’s Stonehenge and carry great ritual and astronomical importance. Found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, thirteen stones form a ring, with a monolith near its centre, while five different lines of standing stones link to the centre. The Story of the Stones is explored at the Calanais Visitor Centre, which delves into the mysteries of why the Neolithic site exists. A chambered tomb may have carried ritual or religious importance, while others have theorised that the site may have lunar links.
Home to the largest Neolithic dolmen in Wales, a form of stone tomb, Pentre Ifan in north Pembrokeshire dates from around 3500 BC. The stone structure includes a huge capstone which rests upon three other blocks around 2.5 metres above the floor, and is part of a site which may have formed a vast communal burial. However, archaeological digs have unearthed minimal artefacts at the site, leading to several theories over what it originally looked like and what it may have been for. Maintained by Cadw, the Welsh Historic Monuments Agency, it’s a site steeped in mystery and set in the shadow of the striking Preseli Hills – the region that provided the bluestones found at Stonehenge.
Found amid the greenery of Anglesey, the Neolithic landmark of Bryn Celli Ddu features a henge and a central chambered tomb under a large mound. A thin pathway points to an octagonal space where human bones, arrowheads and carvings have all been discovered. Although shrouded in mystery, the site carries great importance around the summer solstice, as the rising sun shines straight down the passageway on the longest day of the year, lighting up the chamber inside. Anglesey is also renowned for its beaches and wildlife habitats, providing an abundance of outdoor spaces to explore.