A Pig in a Coffin, A Pregnant Goat, and a Dog That Died in Childbirth: What Were Bizarre Animal Remains Doing in an Anglo-Saxon Church?
A group of archaeologists carrying out a routine excavation at a Greek Orthodox church in Shropshire, England, made an extraordinary discovery on the final day of their dig – bizarre animal burials, a pit of human skulls, and the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church. So why were animals ritualistically buried on consecrated ground?
Discovery Takes Place on the Final Day of the Dig
The site was being investigated after Shropshire Council gave consent for housing adjacent to the church. The archaeologists were on a mission to find the remains of a wooden beam, post or other object that would help them to accurately date the site, before it was due to be sealed to make way for a road and car park. Luckily, on the final day of part of the dig, they found the determining piece of evidence that they were looking for: a 15-inch section of an upright wooden post, thought to be a door post. Project manager Janey Green, of Baskerville Archaeological Services, told Shropshire Live , “I had a hunch there was an Anglo-Saxon church here, the site was rumored to be Anglo-Saxon and the vital piece of evidence that we need to be able to prove that it is Anglo-Saxon came at the last hour literally!”
Janey Green and her team of excavators with the wooden door post found at Sutton Farm. Credit: Baskerville Archaeological Services
Animal Burials Pre-date the Christian Period
Archaeologists also said the finds, which include a calf, a pig and a dog that died while giving birth, were "unprecedented". In total, two dogs, a calf, some birds and a pig were discovered on the site at the Greek Orthodox Church, on Oteley Road, along with the remains of an early medieval woman and a pit full of human skulls. Miss Green speculates the animal burials pre-date the Christian period, “It was a huge surprise to find these burials in a church graveyard. To find animals buried in consecrated ground is incredibly unusual because it would have been a big no no. The bones don’t show any signs of butchery and the animals appear to have been deliberately and carefully laid in the ground. The site is a few hundred meters from known prehistoric human burial mounds so they may be connected,” she told Shropshire Live .
She also suggests that it would be impossible for the remains dating back to the Victorian period, even though she thinks that the use of technology will help them to accurately define the dates of the finds, “Initially I thought I may have come across a whimsical Victorian burial of a beloved pet. But the Victorians usually left objects in the graves such as a collar, a letter or a posie of flowers and we haven’t found a shred of evidence of anything like that here. Neither is there evidence that the animals were fallen farm stock that were disposed of in modern times. The next step is to have the bones carbon dated and we’re hoping funds would be available for that,” she told Shropshire Live .
More than Six Months of Work
For the end, Ms. Green mentioned that the company had been working on the site for more than six months even though they managed to unearth the animal burials just recently. "We didn't in our wildest dreams imagine we would find what we have," she said. The company was called in as a condition of the planning consent given by Shropshire Council for homes to be built opposite. Ms. Green also stated that she did not know why the animals were buried together and speculates a number of theories, including a possible link to a nearby Bronze Age site. The remains will now be tested to determine their age before being re-buried on the site.
Top image: Janey Green of Baskerville Archaeology Services digging up bones in Oteley Road. Credit: Baskerville Archaeological Services