Excavation can be daunting and often fruitless work. But when archaeologists began to dig at a rural site in England, they soon realized that they’d struck gold. Indeed, what they had found were not just ancient graves from a mysterious historical period, but something that rarely survives the passage of time.
Perhaps best symbolized by the ever popular, 5,000-year-old Stonehenge, England’s long and rich history is world-renowned. Indeed, archaeological discoveries from the Medieval, Roman and Prehistoric periods continue to appear every year. And in November 2016 an amazing 7th-century find became part of that list.
Like many other great discoveries, this archaeological site in the rural county of Norfolk was found by accident. It all started when Gary Boyce, a local landowner, set out to create a fishing lake and flood defense scheme in the village of Great Ryburgh.
But in order for the development to be approved, the area first had to be surveyed. Because of this, local archaeologist Matthew Champion came to investigate the site, which is near the Wensum River.
Soon enough, Champion discovered something peculiar in the soil. Promisingly, he had unearthed a piece of ancient Saxon pottery, suggesting that the area could be an archaeological site. And so a group of experts from Museum of London Archaeology immediately came in to investigate.
Convinced that the area held more secrets, the archaeologists began excavating. And to their surprise, the sandy soil revealed buried human remains. In fact, the workers discovered so many graves that it quickly became apparent that an ancient cemetery lay beneath.
Better yet, the pottery discovered suggested that this ancient burial site dated back somewhere between the 7th and 9th centuries. This put it right in the middle of what is known as the Anglo-Saxon era, which lasted from 410 to 1066.
But that’s not the only thing that got the archaeologists so excited. In fact, what makes this find so special is that the corpses were found inside coffins constructed from timber. Because wood decays quickly, the fact that these coffins had remained largely intact for centuries is nothing short of a miracle.
And according to James Fairclough, the lead archeologist of the project, the coffins were preserved because of the area’s unique environmental conditions. He told The Guardian, “The combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive.”
In fact, the 81 coffins are believed to be the first ones discovered intact from this era. Prior to this, the only evidence of this type of burial came from staining left by decayed wood. In addition, the archaeologists also discovered six graves lined with wooden planks. These are not only extremely rare but also the earliest acknowledged examples of such burial practices in Britain.
However, it’s not yet clear why there are two different types of burial at the site. One early theory suggested that this may relate to the social status of the deceased. However, further examination did not show any differences between those buried in the coffins and the plank-lined pits. Another possibility is that the burials belong to different time periods.
Additionally, the team also found the remains of a wooden structure believed to have been a church. Combined with the fact that the burials were oriented east-west and lacked valuables, this provides ample evidence to suggest that this was an early Christian cemetery.
Indeed, Christianity is said to have been introduced to England in the 6th century. It happened when pagan Anglo-Saxon monarchs were converted to the religion by a visiting Saint Augustine. Accordingly, this would make the site one of the earliest examples of Christian burial in all of the United Kingdom.
Interestingly, each coffin appears to have been constructed from an oak tree that was first split in half and then hollowed. The body would then be placed in the bottom half and covered by the top half. Archaeologists estimate that each coffin took about four days to make.
Moreover, given that evidence of similar burial methods has been found in older, pre-Christian cemeteries, this suggests that the Norfolk site represents the gradual merging of pagan and Christian beliefs. Indeed, such wooden coffins are said to have been used throughout Europe as early as the Bronze Age, some 2,000 years B.C.
As local museum curator Tim Pestell explained, “The site was in use in the heyday of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, and positioned next to a strategic river cross.” Pestell went on to say that the discovery serves as a “dramatic example of how new evidence is helping to refine our knowledge of this fascinating period when Christianity and the Church were still developing on the ground.”
Indeed, the archaeologists hope that the site will help them better understand the culture of the Anglo-Saxon period. Duncan Wilson, chief executive of the preservation organization Historic England, explained, “These rare and exceptionally well-preserved graves are a significant discovery which will advance our understanding of Middle-Saxon religious beliefs and rural communities. This site has immense potential for revealing the story of the community who once lived there.”
Additionally, the find may also provide more information about the development and history of East Anglia, one of the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon period. After all, there are no documents referring to East Anglia at such an early date.
For the next step of their analysis, the scientists plan to use tree-ring dating to identify the exact age of the timber used for the coffins. In addition, they will also perform standard DNA and isotope testing of the well-preserved remains.
Furthermore, it’s hoped that this data will reveal more about the origins of the people, how or if they were related, and how they lived and died. It may even uncover such complex details as their health and diet. Meanwhile, the best examples of the wooden coffins will be conserved and put on display at Norwich Castle Museum, while the remains will be laid back to rest.