“When you’re working on the dig, modern life falls away and you’re left imagining just how magical this landscape would have looked,” archaeologist Andy Hutcheson tells me.

“People are fascinated by Arminghall, it’s a combination of the mystery and the sheer age of this site: it’s a spectacular place.”

%image(15845468, type="article-full", alt="Volunteers at work at the Arminghall Henge dig.")

We are at Arminghall Henge, Norfolk’s answer to Stonehenge (the two sites were of comparable size) a lost landscape which was once hugely significant to our ancestors.

A footpath from White Horse Lane just outside Norwich leads into a wide meadow which dips and rises as if the turf has been laid haphazardly by a giant.

Spanned by pylons leading to a humming electricity sub-station, and ringed by train lines and the drone of the Southern Bypass, you have to work hard to tap into the old magic.

But it is there, hidden in those dips, the echoes of our ancestors rising once a year to greet the winter sun.

%image(15845469, type="article-full", alt="A Geo Phys map showing the magnetic suceptibility of the materials in the soil of Arminghall Henge.")

This site was discovered from the air in 1929 by Wing Commander Gilbert Insall VC, who spotted circular cropmarks on a flood bank of the River Tas below its junction with the Yare.

A week later, prehistoric Britain expert and archaeologist Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford visited the site but it was not until 1935 that it was first excavated.

%image(15845470, type="article-full", alt="The 1935 dig at Arminghall Henge.")

Arminghall’s hidden henge is surrounded by ring ditches, banks and funeral barrows within one of the densest collections of Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments in Eastern England. Its significance cannot be underrated.

Sir John Grahame Clark’s original excavation established that the circular rings spotted from the sky were two ditches, with the soil between them heaped up to form a bank. A viewing platform, Andy believes.

In the middle of the rings would have been a wooden henge. Eight huge tree trunks up to 10m tall that dwarfed the people who stood below them.

%image(15845471, type="article-full", alt="Volunteer Petra Jones from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, at work in a post hole at the Arminghall Henge dig.")

The likelihood, said Andy, was that the posts would have been rolled to the site and then erected using an A-frame: archaeologists believe the bottom of the posts were charred before being placed, having found carbonised material at the bottom of the post holes.

The horseshoe of posts stood like silent sentries, as part of a wider group of ceremonial sites in this area which also includes nearby Markshall and a clutch of funeral barrows close by.

Below our feet, the dead are with us, albeit likely in the form of dark shadows, the traces of poorly preserved bones that have crumbled to dust over many millennia.

%image(15845472, type="article-full", alt="Volunteers, Jody Sayer, front, from Norwich, and Fiona Cawley, from Carlton Rode, at work in the inner ditch at the Arminghall Henge dig.")

Arminghall henge is believed to have been aligned with Chapel Hill to the south-west, now obliterated by the London to Norwich railway line, where in midwinter, the sky offered a gift to those who watched it.

Here was a magical gateway to a winter wonderland: as the Winter solstice sun set, if you viewed it from what was once a mighty henge, it set down the slope of nearby high ground, like a ball of fire rolling down a hill and into the river.

%image(15845473, type="article-full", alt="Showing the cross section of post hole three at Arminghall Henge.")

Andy estimates that the size of the site means gatherings of up to 2,000 people could have happened here, and the winter solstice would have been hugely significant.

After endless long nights, when stocks of food were low after the bounty of summer and autumn, when the ground was frozen like iron and the sun barely scraped above the horizon all day, that rolling ball of fire would have signified hope that days would lengthen and warmth would return.

New excavations at Arminghall, led by the Centre for Archaeology and Heritage at the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Institute, follow Clark’s original dig.

The Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project is a new archaeological research project which aims to place Norfolk’s prehistoric archaeology in an international context and simultaneously explore the potential of such projects to contribute to participants’ health and wellbeing.

%image(15845474, type="article-full", alt="Volunteers Elizabeth Barham, and Oliver Moxham, who is doing a Phd in archaeology at Cambridge, at work cleaning the area to see the layers, at the Arminghall Henge dig.")

Arminghall is the first phase of the project, in partnership with the Restoration Trust and Cambridge Archaeological Unit, which seeks to involve a wide range of people who have not taken part in archaeological research before.

The site is predicted to be subject to extensive flooding risk by 2050, brought on by climate change – which could destroy geoarchaeological information – and has been under threat from mankind for centuries.

%image(15845475, type="article-full", alt="The plan of Arminghall Henge (the dig site is marked in blue)")

Intensively ploughed, it has been carved into by train lines, and covered in pylons that lead to a large substation just metres away which saw the destruction of two barrows/ring ditches in the 1950s and more in the 1960s.

Then there was the construction of the nearby Norwich Southern Bypass. "We call it ‘persistent place’,” Andy tells me, “…the fact that despite all that has happened here, and despite the passing of time, you can still clearly see the remains of what was here thousands of years ago.”

It is thought that an ancient Anatolian race, who migrated north from the Mediterranean region around 6,000 years ago, and who eventually replaced the indigenous people who had largely been hunter-gatherers since the previous Ice Age, built the UK’s henges.

The migrants would have brought new farming techniques, pottery, animals, seed and religious and cultural belief them: a potent argument for the importance of migration.

Arminghall lies on a gravel terrace in a natural bowl surrounded by views of higher ground, with Norwich to the north, and it would have been excavated originally with flint tools and shovels made from the scapulas of animals.

%image(15845476, type="article-full", alt="The blue circle represents the diameter of the posts at the Arminghall Henge dig, which may have been about ten metres tall")

“We think the timber circle was built first and then the henge was created and that the bank created would have formed a kind of amphitheatre,” said Andy.

“You can imagine some kind of religious or ceremonial activities taking place or some kind of governance, a little bit like parliament.”
Andy is manager of the project, which has been grant-aided by the Society of Antiquaries London and the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society.

A research fellow at the Sainsbury Institute’s Centre for Archaeology and Heritage, he has been working on the site for three weeks with around 45 volunteers, including those from The Matthew Project.

With Clark’s drawings and observations plus high-tech LiDar maps, which use laser light to create a 3D representation of the earth’s surface, the original excavation site has been reopened and trenches and test pits dug.

While the process of excavation is still reassuringly human – observing, digging, scraping, brushing, labelling – later, science will be called on to lend a hand, with Accelerator Mass Spectrometry used for carbon dating to offer a more detailed date for the Henge.

%image(15845477, type="article-full", alt="Arminghall Woodhenge photo from "The Norwich 'Woodhenge'" by J.G.D. Clark. Picture: EDP Library")

At present, the monument is dated between 3525 and 2700BC, but new techniques may be able to offer a date within 10 years of the henge being built.

“Most people would have reached the henge by river and it would have been very clear that this was an important site, a gathering location,” said Andy.

“There would have been a great big bank with a steep slope and it’s likely that in the vicinity there would have been a camp.

“Stonehenge is a comparable site and we know there’s evidence of feasting there: animals were brought from highland such as North Wales or Scotland, so we know it was somewhere people visited from across the country.”

%image(15845478, type="article-full", alt="A tray of some of the finds at the Arminghall Henge dig.")

The dig’s ‘finds’ consist of worked flint, pieces of pottery, and soil to analyse – to an untrained eye, they may look unremarkable, but these remnants could hold the key to finding out more about prehistoric Norfolk life.

There’s also an unusual cobbled area which has been found deep beneath ground level which needs to be investigated: work will continue long after the trenches have been covered, although Andy hopes to have some answers before the end of the year.

%image(15845479, type="article-full", alt="Packed flints at the bottom of the outer ditch at the Arminghall Henge dig.")

But while carbon dating can offer facts, getting inside the spiritual mind of our ancestors is far more difficult, making Norwich’s henge even more intriguing.

“There’s some evidence to suggest that at one point, the henge itself was burnt – we’ve found burnt material at the bottom of the trenches – and possibly that marked its end,” said Andy, “I’d love to be able to travel back in time and just see what ceremonies took place here, what it looked like when it was being used.”

Within days, Arminghall's secrets will be buried once more and the henge will return to nature - but perhaps soon we will know more about the people who made this place and who lived and died here.

Next year, the team will begin work on a project at Warham Camp in North Norfolk.