Encountering a cherished Cotswold child
A chance metal-detector find has led to the excavation of a highly unusual 6th-century grave in Gloucestershire. Katie Marsden, Matt Nichol, and Richard Osgood report.
A few years ago, in a Cotswold field near Tetbury, a metal-detectorist was about to make a singularly important discovery. Chris Cuss had walked over many fields in the area before, but on this day his finds would prove to be particularly illuminating. Pieces of Roman pottery scattered the surface of the arable field that he was exploring, and the ploughsoil yielded more objects from this period, including brooches and coins – but it was the emergence of hints of high-status Anglo-Saxon activity that gave Chris pause. Together with the iron shoulders and tang of a sword, and fragments of glass, he uncovered a silver-gilt sword pommel and buckle. As these latter two artefacts are considered ‘Treasure’ in law (see ‘Further information’ box at the end of this article), Chris immediately reported his discoveries to the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s local Finds Liaison Officer, Kurt Adams – and investigation of the site began.
The opportunity for archaeological exploration was an exciting prospect: these discoveries were all new additions to the area’s Historic Environment Record, meaning that any further information would be extremely valuable for future research. The immediate priority was to contextualise the finds properly (and to gather enough information to advise the farmer on potential future ploughing regimes). With that in mind, the Gloucestershire County Council Archaeology Service (led by Toby Catchpole) set out on a preliminary fieldwork investigation and geophysical survey at the spot indicated by Chris. Their work bore swift dividends – just 21cm below the surface, the team found an iron sword tucked into a cutting in the natural limestone bedrock.
The discovery of human bones alongside this weapon quickly confirmed that Chris’ original finds had come from an Anglo-Saxon burial. Its occupant had been laid to rest with a number of other prestigious grave-goods, including a glass cone beaker and a fragmented copper-alloy cauldron or bowl, while the sword was complemented by further warrior accoutrements, such as a shield (represented by its boss and rivets), and two iron ferrules from spears. A spearhead was also found on the surface of the field some 5m away, possibly separated from the grave by ploughing. Yet, despite this martial array, the first impression of the skeleton was that the bones were not very large – perhaps not even those of an adult.
At this stage, work was limited both in time and scope, and the grave was not completely excavated, but the case for further investigation was clear. Subsequent larger-scale magnetometry work by Dave Sabin of Archaeological Surveys revealed the extensive archaeological landscape in which the burial lay, showing a myriad of linear ditches and features running across the whole field. These hinted at a multi-phase site of some importance, scattered with enclosures and possibly even prehistoric ring-ditches – clearly, there was much more to explore. Moreover, now that the burial’s contents had been exposed, they would start to deteriorate without rapid intervention. Given the importance of the discovery and the fragile condition of both the metal finds and the human bone, the report into the initial investigation noted, it would be appropriate to fully expose and excavate the grave and to analyse the materials recovered – and it was critical that this work should take place as swiftly as possible.
Finding funding for archaeological work is never easy, even with experts volunteering their time. We are thus extremely indebted to the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society for the generous provision of a grant to enable our recent research to proceed. We were even more fortunate in that the locally based commercial unit, Cotswold Archaeology, was willing to donate staff and professional expertise to ensure best practice by all. Having assembled this ‘coalition of the willing’, we drafted a project design to help focus our investigation – and this is where we pick up the story.
In May 2019, a combined team of veterans and volunteers from the MoD’s Operation Nightingale initiative (see CA 354) and Breaking Ground Heritage, working alongside the professionals from Cotswold Archaeology, set out to establish what else could be learned about the Anglo-Saxon burial, and what other secrets the site held, given the complex nature of the geophysics. While the work (dubbed ‘Exercise Shallow Grave’ by the MoD) was rigorous, conditions could have been a lot worse – camping in glorious Cotswold countryside, we were blessed by exceptional weather, as well as by fascinating finds.
Our first steps were cautious ones: after marking out our trenches using DGPS (Differential Global Positioning System) surveying, all excavation was carried out by hand. Although the topsoil was shallow and regularly tilled, it was still heavy work without recourse to a machine to strip the area, but the team was keen to approach the site in this fashion in order to evaluate which techniques could be employed safely. In all, three areas were opened for investigation, aiming to test the geophysics results, and to ensure we were able to investigate fully the remarkable known Anglo-Saxon burial.
Our initial finds were not all early medieval in date, however. The first trench to be opened, a long L-shape that we put in over a series of rectilinear features cutting through the limestone, revealed the presence of ditches and a pit containing copious quantities of Roman pottery. Far to the south-west, we also discovered the poorly preserved burial of an infant that, at first glance, seemed typical of Roman traditions (newborns were often interred within the floor levels of buildings, rather than joining the adult dead on the outskirts of settlements). As this child lay on top of a cut feature holding late Roman pottery, though, they may well in fact have lived and died in the early Anglo-Saxon period.
To the south of the main area of investigation, a 1m² test pit was soon enlarged to encompass an area some 2m by 3m. Here we were hoping to find out more about an intriguing linear anomaly showing up on the geophysics, but initial findings were not particularly promising
– excavation revealed a layer of limestone paving with some of the stones arranged vertically. After careful cleaning, though, our impressions swiftly changed: those vertical stones could now be seen to stand in a sub-rectangular cut, and proved to be the final fill of another grave lying immediately below the very thin ploughsoil.
This rock-cut burial contained the remains of an adult, aligned roughly east–west and accompanied by a number of artefacts pointing to a late 6th- or early 7th-century date. These included a stone spindle-whorl, an antler prong (possibly for use in weaving), a knife, a poorly preserved silver brooch, and two exquisite large amethyst beads, placed either side of the individual’s head. The beads are drilled for suspension, although no trace of what they were attached to has survived – could they have been sewn to clothing that this person was buried in, or, given their location in the grave, might they have been earrings?
The human remains from this burial were examined by Sharon Clough of Cotswold Archaeology, who established that this individual had been over 30 years old at the time of their death, and possibly older than 40. Thanks to the fairly poor condition of their bones, estimates of their stature are problematic – but what is particularly intriguing is that, despite the typically ‘female’ selection of objects accompanying them in death, many of the anatomical traits of this skeleton tend towards more ‘male’ attributes. We hope to investigate this apparent discrepancy more closely through aDNA analysis in the future, but it nonetheless provides a timely warning to archaeologists (were one needed) that one should not attribute a specific sex to a burial based purely on artefacts found within the grave.
FINE OBJECTS AND FRANKISH CONNECTIONS
As our investigation returned to Chris Cuss’ original findspot, the previously discovered ‘warrior’ burial would also prove to be extremely exciting. It lay between our other two trenches, immediately south of the Roman ditch mentioned above, and geophysics for this area indicated that it too lay within a complex of linear features, possibly the foundation trenches of a building of some sort. Given how fine the grave goods accompanying this individual were, this was curious – it did not strike us as the most auspicious place of deposition for such an important burial. Further hints of the person’s status emerged as the team re-excavated the grave, which was shown to be a shallow burial again partly covered with limestone slabs. Careful trowel work beside its occupant’s (strikingly small) femur revealed an item that glinted in the May sun as it was exposed for the first time in 1,500 years: a complete glass bowl. Although broken, all the fragments of this green-tinged vessel were in place. We also recovered further shards of the cone beaker seen in the earlier dig. Finding glass vessels in Anglo-Saxon graves is not especially common; finding two of them is very rare.
Even aside from the scarcity of such finds, the glass bowl presents something of an enigma. Its small size, c.11cm in diameter, makes it similar to a kind of object well known from Anglo-Saxon graves called a ‘palm cup’ – but its profile is incredibly shallow, more reminiscent of a dish than a cup or bowl. Research is ongoing, but one of the possibilities currently being explored is that this may have been a ‘curated’ Roman artefact. Another line of investigation is that the dish might be of Continental origin, an idea sparked by discussions about the position of the spear ferrules within the grave (towards the head of the burial rather than at the feet), which an independent specialist has suggested may hint at Frankish connections.
Speaking of the more martial objects in the grave, while the original excavation recovered a shield boss and a sword, our more recent work identified another bladed item: a large knife placed close to the individual’s pelvis, associated with copper-alloy fittings and a small amount of organic residue that might hint at it having been worn on a belt with decorative fittings. Many further fragments of copper-alloy sheeting were also found, almost certainly representing more pieces of the probable bowl or ‘cauldron’ discovered previously, though as things stand it looks nigh-on impossible to reconstruct the form of the vessel from these myriad pieces. Even so, all the fragments have been recorded using DGPS, eloquently demonstrating the spread caused by a century of land-use and highlighting the fragility of the remains at the site.
Towards what remained of the person’s skull, we noted a blackened area containing several small, dark metallic items. Silver. This was going to prove incredibly difficult to excavate, and so all the objects were lifted in a block of soil, which was carefully transported to be X-rayed by Pieta Greaves of Drakon Heritage in readiness for her to micro-excavate it in a laboratory setting. The images produced by the X-ray showed fluted strips (similar to sword scabbard mouths or even to the metalwork used to repair the lyre found in the 6th-century princely burial at Prittlewell, Essex – see CA 352), as well as a number of metal loops and rivets. What do these come from? Will this block hold the remnants of a drinking vessel, a small bucket, a casket, or something completely different? At the moment, these are simply tantalising possibilities, as we prepare for the block to be examined in greater detail – watch this space for more news.
What, then, can we say about the occupant of this well-furnished grave? Equipped with a sword, shield, two spears, two glass vessels, a knife on an adorned belt, and an elaborate silver object, this is certainly one of the most important Anglo-Saxon burials known in this part of Gloucestershire, and its contents are consistent with a late 6th-century date. What is surprising, though, is that all of these objects, which might normally be taken as a sign of high social status and a warrior role within their community, accompanied a very young individual who, despite the relatively poor condition of their bones, appears to be between 7 and 11 years of age, most likely 9 or 10.
If the age of the grave’s occupant seems incongruous, so too does the nature of their deposition. Elaborate 6th- and early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon graves like those at Sutton Hoo, Prittlewell, and Taplow were provided with distinct burial contexts, be it in a ship or chamber. While the Cotswold child’s inhumation was admittedly not of this regal magnitude, it was still handsomely furnished – and yet, for all the important accoutrements, the burial was shallowly inserted into the top of a Roman ditch-like feature with the natural limestone present just beneath. By contrast, much greater effort appears to have been taken over creating the grave of the adult with the amethyst beads, whose burial was dug into the limestone bedrock to a depth of c.30cm. What, if anything, is the significance of this? Perhaps the Roman structure (if that is what it proves to be) that preceded the child’s burial represented something of local significance or was a place that was important to the child and their community? Its location was certainly special, being on high ground commanding fabulous views today and, presumably, in the past too.
Given the potential pitfalls, explored above, of discerning an individual’s sex through their grave goods, it is also appropriate to consider their role in life in the same vein – does having a sword necessarily equate with being a warrior? This person was still a child, palpably too young to fit our 21st-century idea of a ‘warrior’, and yet had been committed to the ground with a sword, shield, and spears. Might these objects instead indicate their social standing and status, or perhaps the role that they might have fulfilled had they lived to adulthood? This being said, the child certainly lived in turbulent times: the excavation site was located in something of an Anglo-Saxon hinterland where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Battle of Deorham in AD 577 resulted in a victory for the Saxon king Ceawlin and his son Cuthwine over the British kings Conmail, Condidan, and Farinmail, after which the cities of Bath, Gloucester, and Cirencester fell to the Saxons. If we are correct in thinking that this young person died in the later 6th century, then they lived in extraordinary times for this region.
The project has now moved into its post-excavation phase, with further analysis of the artefacts, including excavation of the silvery soil-block scheduled. Samples of the human remains have been sent to the Francis Crick Institute in London in the hope of extracting aDNA to determine the sex of the individuals and to find out further facts about their lives. We also hope to return to the site to obtain as much information as possible from a location that is still vulnerable to any ploughing. What further evidence for structures might we uncover? Is the Roman phase of occupation bigger than first thought, and is there any evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement relating to the individuals buried there? Can we discover any evidence for connections between the people interred at this site other than the proximity of their graves? As things stand, we can only speculate about all of these matters – nevertheless, we already have enough material to facilitate much future scientific work, which may help point us towards some of the answers. This area of Gloucestershire clearly has huge potential for future study, but it has already yielded a fascinating insight into this period of the Cotswolds’ history, as well as into how an Anglo-Saxon community mourned and commemorated one particular child.
Under the Treasure Act, all finders of potential Treasure have a legal obligation to report their discovery within 14 days to the local coroner in the district in which the find was made. For more information on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure process, see CA 331, and visit www.finds.org.uk/treasure.
Katie Marsden is a Finds Officer at Cotswold Archaeology and has been an operation nightingale volunteer since 2012. Matt Nichol is a Senior Project Officer at Cotswold Archaeology. Richard Osgood is Senior Archaeologist at the Ministry of Defence, and co-founded Operation Nightingale in 2011.