It was a Friday in July 2018, the last day of a three-week archaeological dig on England’s Salisbury Plain, about 40 miles from the sacred stones of Stonehenge. Two of the volunteers on the dig noticed a strong signal from their metal detectors. And when they dug down, they found something that has astonished and delighted experts.
Salisbury Plain is in south-west England, mostly in the county of Wiltshire. Its chalk downlands cover some 300 square miles. It’s well known for its archaeological riches going back as far as the Stone Age. The landscape is punctuated by Stone Age and Bronze Age burial mounds known as barrows. And then of course, there’s the magnificent Stonehenge.
The plain is a favored spot for hikers and naturalists, but not all of it is open to the public. In fact, parts of it are actively dangerous to wanderers. That’s because a substantial area of Salisbury Plain, as much as half of it, is owned by the Ministry of Defense and used for military training – including live munitions exercises.
In fact, the dig that we mentioned earlier was part of Operation Nightingale. This is an innovative project involving British Army soldiers and veterans plus archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology, a charity. The aim of the project is to help ex-servicemen who’ve been wounded physically or mentally to recover by giving them hands-on experience of archaeology. Many of the ex-soldiers involved saw action in Afghanistan.
Giles Woodhouse of Wessex Archaeology attested to the effectiveness of the Nightingale project when he spoke to the Salisbury Journal. “As a former serviceman, archaeologist and supporter of Operation Nightingale, I have been amazed by the power of archaeology in aiding the recovery of veteran and serving wounded, injured and sick personnel, as epitomized at the long-running Barrow Clump excavations on the edge of Salisbury Plain,” Woodhouse said.
The Operation Nightingale dig on that July day was excavating a burial mound called Barrow Clump. It’s located about 40 miles north of Stonehenge, just outside the village of Ablington and on military land. The excavation of this barrow was urgent because it was suffering severe damage, compromising the archaeological remains within it.
You might think that its location on military training land would be what was putting Barrow Clump at risk, but you’d be wrong. In fact, it was the wildlife of Salisbury Plain that was threatening the integrity of the site. The culprits were European badgers, burrowing into the mound and disturbing ancient graves.
In fact, the biggest threat over the years to Salisbury Plain’s ancient barrows has been the farmer’s plow. It turns out that Barrow Clump had been damaged previously by plowing. However, that stopped in 1990 when it was designated as a historical site of national importance. But apparently no one had told the badgers.
The history of the Barrow Clump site dates back to the late Stone Age when there was a settlement there. A Bronze Age barrow dating back 4,000 years sat atop the Stone Age site, and in turn the Anglo-Saxons later used this in the sixth century as a burial place. The dig in 2018 was carried out on a plot adjacent to the mound at a Saxon cemetery.
There had been previous explorations of the site before Operation Nightingale arrived. Lieutenant Colonel William Hawley had investigated the site in the 19th century, and a dig there had happened in 2003-4. Nightingale first excavated there in the three years from 2012 with soldiers from an infantry regiment, returning again for the July 2018 dig.
And the 2018 dig had been a great success, uncovering many Saxon graves. The men’s burials were arrayed around the boundary of the site, while the center was given over to women and children. Many of the graves contained jewelry and weaponry. One young girl was buried with a sizable amber bead, which we can imagine must have been her prized possession in life.
But it was on the last day of the dig that the most spectacular find came to light. And it was two veterans who made the discovery. Paul Ewins and Paul Barnsley came across the last resting place of a Saxon warrior from 1,500 years ago.
Both the skeleton and the grave goods were exceptionally well preserved. The sixth-century warrior had been buried with his sword across his arms and his spear next to him. Also buried with the man were his belt buckle, a knife and a set of tweezers. There were even remnants of the sword’s leather and wood scabbard.
As Giles Woodhouse told the Salisbury Journal, “The recovery of the sword from an Anglo-Saxon warrior burial by two veteran participants was an exciting and fitting finale – modern day veterans honoring a soldier from a bygone age whose ongoing battles have been eased by the occupational and social benefits of the project.”
Barnsley, 47, one of the pair who found the Saxon warrior, served with the Royal Artillery until 2002. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also spoke to the Salisbury Journal. “I did my first dig last November, on the Clump, it was very cold. I have always been interested in history since I was a child and I find digging up the past fascinating,” Barnsley said.
“Getting away really helps with my PTSD, while you are doing the archaeology you are not focused solely on your PTSD, it puts you in a good place,” Barnsley continued. “Excavating the warrior graves is really interesting, I was a warrior and there is a link. I found excavating a child’s grave very moving, he was about the same age as my own eight-year-old son, it made you stop and think.”
What’s more, it turns out that the fact that Barrow Clump is on military land is a positive when it comes to its preservation. Archaeologist Richard Osgood told The Guardian that the archaeological remains at Barrow Clump were generally in better condition than those outside the military zone in farmland.
“We found one grave directly below the track, and the skull, only five centimeters (two inches) down, hadn’t even been cracked – so from a curatorial point of view that was very reassuring,” Osgood said. Speaking to the Salisbury Journal, he added that the Saxon warrior’s sword, properly called a “lang seax,” may be the only one of its type ever found in Britain.
And Osgood also pointed out that, “the fact that we are working with military veterans of the 21st century excavating warriors of the sixth century, it is a really lovely thing to watch.” Osgood believes that the people in the graves probably lived in the valley below the Barrow Clump site.
The Barrow Clump finds uncovered by the veterans and archaeologists will now be the subject of further intensive study. Then they will be handed over to the Wiltshire Museum in the town of Devizes. Let’s leave the final word to Barnsley, speaking at the Barrow Clump site. He said, “Looking around behind me you can see a path to an Observation Post set up on a recent exercise, this is 1500 years of military history.”