In 2011 Graham Vickers was scouring a barley field outside the quiet English village of Little Carlton with his metal detector when he found a medieval writing implement buried in the freshly plowed soil. Although the ornate silver stylus had lain silently below the surface for more than 1,200 years, it turned out that it had one more extraordinary story left to write since the relic has led archaeologists to discover a long-lost Anglo-Saxon island that was once a bustling center of international trade and a crossroads of civilizations from across northwest Europe hidden underneath the otherwise ordinary-looking field.
After Vickers reported his intriguing find to the government-funded Portable Antiquities Scheme, which encourages the voluntary reporting of archaeological objects unearthed by the public in England and Wales, further investigation revealed a trove of Anglo-Saxon relics—21 styli used to inscribe wax tablets, approximately 300 dress pins and a horde of coins dating from the 7th and 8th centuries.
University of Sheffield archaeologist Hugh Willmott examined the bounty of artifacts harvested from the barley field, and once he saw the solid silver stylus that Vickers initially detected, he knew that the Anglo-Saxon settlement hidden underground was far from typical. “That’s because a writing implement like this is a very high-status object,” Willmott said in a statement on the university’s Facebook page. “We can conclude from it that this site isn’t an ordinary village—it’s a monastic site or a secular elite site for controlling trade and exchange.”
Further clues about the history of the medieval community came from over 100 coins, called sceattas, that were used at high-status trading sites across northwest Europe. “It also tells us about local context,” Willmott said. “We’ve got elites minting a currency, wanting to control resources.” University of Sheffield students who dug nine evaluation trenches to further study the site found significant quantities of Middle Saxon pottery and butchered animal bones.
Willmott said the most exciting find for him was a small lead tablet with faintly scrawled letters that spelled “Cudberg,” a common female name in the Middle Saxon period. “This object is all that survives of this individual,” the archaeologist said. “When you’re holding this bit of lead, you’re holding the one surviving element of that human being. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s really very special.”
Along with University of Sheffield doctoral student Pete Townend, Willmott conducted targeted geophysical and magnetometry surveys of the site. Using the collected data, the archaeologists created a computer model to visualize the landscape as it was around 750 A.D. The farmland near Little Carlton has been dry for centuries after being drained 300 years ago, but by digitally raising water levels three feet to their early medieval heights, the researchers discovered that the barley field, now encircled by dry land, had once been an island ringed by a channel of the River Lud that provided access to the North Sea, located five miles away.
Although the archaeologists note their investigation is still in its early stages, they theorize that the island, which measured 220 yards by 275 yards, was once home to a monastery or a center of international trade. The presence of coins from various parts of mainland Europe offered evidence of commerce with Germany, Scandinavia and the Low Countries. Loom weights unearthed by archaeologists indicated that the Anglo-Saxons may have exported woven textiles while importing pottery and wine. Home to approximately 200 inhabitants, the Middle Saxon settlement in the kingdom of Lindsey, which later became part of Northumbria, may have thrived for a few hundred years until its abandonment around the time when the Vikings began to pillage the British Isles.
The original discovery by Vickers was kept quiet until now in order to allow archaeologists to conduct their studies, but the details of what Willmott calls Britain’s most important archaeological find in decades have now been reported in the most recent edition of the British publication Current Archaeology. “Our findings have demonstrated that this is a site of international importance,” Willmott said, “but its discovery and initial interpretation has only been possible through engaging with a responsible local metal detectorist.”