Post-excavation analysis of a grave discovered on a hillside just north of Shoreham-by-Sea suggests that its Anglo-Saxon occupant may have met a violent end.
The human remains were found by Archaeology South-East (the contracting division of the Centre for Applied Archaeology, University College London), who were working in advance of construction for the Rampion Offshore Wind Farm within an area of the South Downs Way known for its prehistoric burials. This skeleton, though, was found lying face-up, with arms positioned at the side of the body, and on an east–west alignment – characteristics more typical of a Christian burial than a prehistoric one. There was no evidence of a coffin or any grave goods, but radiocarbon dating placed the individual’s death in c.AD 1010-1025. As no other remains were discovered nearby, it appeared likely that this was an isolated burial rather than part of a previously unknown cemetery – something very unusual for the later Anglo-Saxon period.
In order to learn more about this individual, and to explore the mystery of their lonely grave, the skeleton – which, fortunately, was almost completely intact – underwent detailed osteological analysis. This revealed that the remains were those of a man aged 25-35, who had led a laborious life: evidence of a back injury caused by repeated stress indicated that he had probably spent a lot of time bending or twisting in his work. His bones also bore traces of a well-healed fracture on the left ulna (the outer bone of the lower arm); this type of injury is commonly called a parry fracture, as it is most often caused by protecting one’s face or head from a blow, although the precise cause can never be completely certain.
While the man had survived this incident, a later violent encounter had evidently proved fatal: one of his neck vertebrae displayed two unhealed cut marks from a sharp, bladed weapon that were probably made at or around the time of death. From the position and depth of the mark, it is probable that the cut was inflicted from the right side of the neck and, as the wound is slightly deeper on the outer margins of the vertebra, this would mean that the victim was either struck from behind by a left-handed opponent cutting right to left, or from the front by a right-handed opponent cutting across backhanded. Either way, it is likely that the man’s throat was slit, possibly signifying that he was the victim of an execution.
It is hoped that further examination of the remains, including strontium isotope analysis, will shed more light on the life of this individual, including where he grew up.
This article appeared in CA 342.