Butter Churn from the Saxon Period, found at Norton Bridge.

Saxon butter churn found in Staffordshire sheds light on life in Mercian Kingdom

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Archaeologists working on the site of a rail improvement project in the UK have discovered the lid of a butter churn from the Saxon period.

The discovery of a wooden object at Norton Bridge, reported in the Staffordshire Newsletter , was made on the site of a new flyover currently being constructed by Network Rail along with 11 new bridges. The work is being carried out in order to remove a bottleneck on the busy West Coast Main Line.

The artifact was discovered among the remains of worked wooden stakes and wood chips on waterlogged peat near Meece Road, just south of Yarnfield in Staffordshire. Radiocarbon tests have dated the wooden lid to 715 to 890 AD when the area was part of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The results show that the artifact is roughly the same age as the famous Staffordshire Hoard , the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold found anywhere in the world.

The Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in a field in Hammerwich, near Lichfield in July 2009, is perhaps the most important collection of Anglo-Saxon objects found in England. 2009, David Rowan, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in a field in Hammerwich, near Lichfield in July 2009, is perhaps the most important collection of Anglo-Saxon objects found in England. 2009, David Rowan, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. ( en.wikipedia.org)

Archaeologists originally believed the lid to be far older, as evidence of prehistoric occupation has been discovered nearby. Furthermore, no pottery or other metalwork was found on the site, which could have helped to date the artifact. Dr Emma Tetlow of Headland Archaeology said she was delighted by the find as precious little evidence of the Mercian kingdom has been discovered in the UK so far. Wooden artifacts and other organic evidence from the Saxon period are very rare indeed.

“During this period this part of Staffordshire was part of the Mercian heartland and was populated by a pagan tribe called the Pencersaete” said Dr Tetlow. “Existing knowledge of this period for the north and east of the Midlands and the UK in general is very scarce, so this find is fantastic and of regional significance.”

Dr Tetlow said that the climate of the area at that time would not have been too different from that experienced by people in the UK today as the country was becoming affected by dynamic climate change at the start of what is now known as the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ . This was a short climatic interval that is thought to have taken place roughly between 900 and 1300 AD, predominantly affecting the Northern Hemisphere. The Pencersaete would therefore have had to endure unsettled and stormy weather including flooding and a general increase in temperature.

Map of England showing where Mercia was located in the 700-late 800’s.

Map of England showing where Mercia was located in the 700-late 800’s. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Butter churns were containers, looking much like a wooden barrel, used to convert cream into butter. They had a hole in the lid through which a pole was inserted. This was then used to agitate the cream in order to disrupt the milk fat, the membranes of which break down thereby creating lumps called butter grains. These join with each other to form larger globules and when the air is forced out of them the mixture becomes buttermilk. Constant and continued churning forces the globules together to form butter. Consumption of butter can be traced as far back as 2000 BC.

Butter churning equipment with all the features for churning, storing, and processing. At the Beskid Museum in Wisła. Photo by Piotrus, 2008.

Butter churning equipment with all the features for churning, storing, and processing. At the Beskid Museum in Wisła. Photo by Piotrus, 2008. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The archaeologists intend holding an information day when members of the public can view the finds and discuss them with Dr Tetlow and her colleagues. Dr Tetlow is also planning to write a paper on the discovery for the Stafford and Mid-Staffs Archaeological Society.

Mercia was one of the seven great kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, the other kingdoms being East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. It was ruled from a capital at Tamworth and expanded rapidly during the 6 th and 7 th centuries, becoming one of the ‘big three’ kingdoms alongside Northumbria and Wessex. The first ruler of Mercia was King Icel (515-535 AD) and the last was Queen AElfwynn (918 AD) who was deposed by King Edward the Elder of Wessex when he rode into the kingdom and conquered it . The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions this episode, commenting that “ the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all dominion over the Mercians, and carried into Wessex, three weeks before mid-winter; she was called Ælfwynn.” Mercia reached its strongest point during the rule of King Offa when the kingdom dominated much of central England.

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