More Than 80 Exceptionally Rare Anglo-Saxon Coffins Found in Previously Unknown Cemetery

More Than 80 Exceptionally Rare Anglo-Saxon Coffins Found in Previously Unknown Cemetery

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Archaeologists have made an exciting discovery in a river valley in Norfolk, England. They have unearthed a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon cemetery dating from the 7th-9th century AD. Moreover, they also found remarkably preserved tree-trunk coffins and rare ‘plank-lined’ graves.

A Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) press release says that archaeologists found 81 dug-out coffins and six plank-lined graves in the waterlogged river valley when they were called in to excavate at Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. The excavations were funded by Historic England and took place as works began on a conservation/fishing lake and flood defense system.

This is a rare discovery as previous Anglo-Saxon wood coffins have only been identified by stains on the ground from the decayed wood. As James Fairclough, archaeologist from MOLA, said in the press release: “The combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive, revealing remarkable details of Christian Anglo-Saxon burial practices.”

A reconstruction of tree-trunk coffin with lid from an early Anglo-Saxon grave at Mucking Cemetery II, Essex.

A reconstruction of tree-trunk coffin with lid from an early Anglo-Saxon grave at Mucking Cemetery II, Essex. Credit: Historic England and Judith Dobie

The coffins are made of oak tree trunks that were split in two then hollowed out. The MOLA press release says that while they are not decorative, the coffins certainly would have taken a large amount of effort to make – about four days of hard work. They note in the press release that this type of burial pre-dates Christianity and may be an example of mixing Pagan and Christian traditions.

In contrast, the plank-lined graves are the earliest of their kind to be found in Britain to date. These graves were lined with timber planks (which are currently undergoing tree-ring analysis). The deceased person was placed on top of the timber, and a “cover” of planks was placed over them.

Aerial view of the archaeological excavations at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, England. © MOLA

Aerial view of the archaeological excavations at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, England. © MOLA

Although analysis has just begun, the discovery is already providing new information on the unknown Christian site and life in an early Christian rural community. As Tim Pestell, Curator at Norwich Castle Museum, where the discovered artifacts will be held, said in the MOLA press release:

“This find is 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. Detailed analysis of the cemetery provides the hope of better understanding the actual people living according to this new religion.”

Pestell also explained how the discovery may help to fill in some blanks about the history of the region. He said:

“The site was in use in the heyday of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia and positioned next to a strategic river crossing. As with much of East Anglia at this early date, we have no documentary sources that relate to this site and so it is archaeological finds like this that are crucial in helping us to understand the development of the kingdom.”

MOLA Archaeologists excavating the graves. © MOLA

MOLA Archaeologists excavating the graves. © MOLA

Sutton Hoo is another archaeological site located in East Anglia, England. It is found near the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk and is famous for its Anglo-Saxon burial mounds. The best known of the graves at Sutton Hoo is an elaborate ship burial which was believed to have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon king. The exquisite grave goods that were discovered in the ship’s burial chamber shed some light on the elites of early Anglo-Saxon England. But what about other individuals who lived more modest lives?

Researchers from the Great Ryburgh site will perform a series of tests such as ancient DNA, stable isotope, and dental calculus analysis to try to learn more about the individuals buried in the Christian cemetery. In the future, the archaeologists hope that they will be able to say where the deceased came from and their relationships to each other, as well as their diet and health conditions while they were alive.

Top Image: A plank lined grave with human remains at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, England. © MOLA

By Alicia McDermott

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