Between the 7th and 12th centuries, criminals who were put to death in Anglo-Saxon England were often interred not in community graveyards, but in separate burial grounds. Archaeological evidence of such sites is relatively rare, but traces of a recently discovered example have been uncovered on the outskirts of Andover. Jeremy Clutterbuck reports.
South of the River Anton, the chalky Hampshire landscape is rich in archaeological remains. There, in the mid-1970s, excavations by the Andover Archaeological Society (AAS) revealed a virtually complete Anglo-Saxon cemetery, dating from the late 5th to 6th century. It was dubbed Portway East.
In 1981, part of a second cemetery, a few hundred metres away, was also uncovered by the AAS. This site – Portway West – dated from the 7th to 8th century, and is thought to be the successor burial ground to its neighbour.
At first glance, these appeared to be conventional early medieval cemeteries: most of the burials at both sites had been interred respectfully, and according to traditional contemporary rites, but two men, found at Portway West, were more unusual. Not only had both individuals been consigned to the same grave, but both were missing their heads. ‘Deviant’ burials like these are sometimes associated with capital punishment; indeed, there are a number of Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries known across the chalk downland – at Guildown (Surrey), at Stockbridge Down (Hampshire), and two at Winchester. Early medieval law codes included the death penalty for crimes including theft and absconding from penal slavery, although nonlethal punishments like mutilation, ransom, and being ‘sold beyond the sea’, as well as a system of paying compensation known as wergild, were also provided for.
The definitive study of execution sites was carried out by Andrew Reynolds of UCL (in 2009 he proposed that there are 27 known examples in this country; Alyxandra Mattison of the University of Sheffield has since suggested refining this number to nine), who outlined a number of distinctive characteristics. They are often found beside routeways, barrows, or other landmarks, and stand out because of strikingly unusual burials – bodies that have been laid in their graves face down or in other, often contorted, positions; bodies with their heads removed or with signs of their hands or feet having been bound; and multiple bodies crammed into the same grave cut. Two clusters of such graves have been found at Sutton Hoo, one on the cemetery’s eastern fringe, the other scattered in the shadow of one of the royal barrows (see CA 331).
During the earlier Anglo-Saxon period, we find these kinds of burials among more conventional graves. It appears that, at that time, wrongdoers who had been put to death could still be buried in community graveyards. But it has been suggested that the adoption of Christianity, the growth of kingship, and the formation of the English state led to the evolution of separate cemeteries for executed criminals. As the parish church became the dominant hub of community interaction and exchange in the late Saxon period (c.AD 850- 1066), and the churchyard effectively became the ‘proper’ passage to the afterlife, a mix of emerging Christian belief and residual Germanic lore is thought to have provoked a superstitious reimagining of the edge of settlements – and any associated earthworks or barrows – as having more negative spiritual connotations.
These liminal places were geographically and ideologically ideal for formal executions, and there criminals could be buried, cut off from the rest of the community, in a phenomenon that spanned the 7th to approximately the 12th century. Portway West’s apparently long chronology led Nick Stoodley of the University of Winchester to suggest, in 2006, that as this cemetery had seemingly not developed into a formal late Saxon execution site, then one might perhaps lie undiscovered close by. His words would prove to be remarkably prescient.
A CEMETERY EMERGES
In 2016, archaeological work began on a brownfield site about 500m from the Portway cemeteries – the planned location of a new Aldi store on Weyhill Road, on the western edge of Andover. Cotswold Archaeology had been commissioned by Aldi to carry out a watching brief during the construction process, and as work commenced, it quickly became apparent that the south-west corner of the site was home to a dense cluster of graves. It was decided that, while the watching brief would continue on the northern half of the site, the entire southern portion would be stripped under archaeological supervision, and carefully recorded. As this new phase progressed, the cemetery began to give up its secrets.
The surviving area of the burial ground measures 21m east–west by 14m north–south, but it is likely that it was originally much larger: some of the outer graves had been truncated by modern services and foundations – something that may account for the apparent gap in the graves that was recorded towards the eastern side of the cemetery – while parts of the site had also been ploughed, with scars clearly visible in the chalk.
Despite this damage, some 95 graves have been identified, containing the remains of an estimated 124 individuals – though disarticulated pieces of bone point to the presence of around another 35. This was not a tidy cemetery with orderly rows of burials, but a complex jumble of intercutting graves, oriented on all points of the compass, and with quantities of disturbed bones found in their infills.
It seemed that the burial ground had been in use for some time, and the examination of the occupants of its graves revealed tell-tale signs that this could indeed be the predicted execution cemetery. Analysis by Cotswold Archaeology osteoarchaeologist Sharon Clough showed that the bones were overwhelmingly those of young men. Of the adults whose sex could be determined, 97% (90 out of 93) were male, and 69% had been under 35 years old when they died – in fact, the largest subgroup was those aged 18-25. Nor were there any elderly individuals or very young children, both of which you would expect to find in a typical cemetery population. Instead, the skeletons spoke of a darker purpose for the site.
Many of the individuals had been laid in their graves face down, with a smaller number placed in a crouched position on their side, and seven of the graves contained multiple bodies. Numerous skeletons also bore the marks of a violent end: there were up to 23 examples of decapitation, as evidenced either by a skull that was missing, or placed between the individual’s legs or at their feet, or by cut marks to the neck vertebrae, lower jaw, or head. Some 27 people had also been committed to their graves with their hands or feet apparently bound – as might be expected from unwilling victims of execution – and an iron swivel fitting, found in one of the graves and identified as a type of hook often fitted to chains, has been interpreted as part of a possible restraint (similar examples are known from the 12th century).
Bound hands are sometimes associated with death by hanging – as they are with some of the ‘execution burials’ at Sutton Hoo – and, indeed, two of the Weyhill individuals had fractures to their second cervical vertebrae, which hints at such a fate. Isolated cases of mutilation also seem to have taken place at this site: the 35- to 45-year-old man who was recorded as Sk1240 is thought to be the first osteologically confirmed example of a person whose hands had been cut off at or around his time of death. The severed hands had been tucked under their unfortunate owner’s pelvis when he was buried.
SUPERSTITIONS AND SURPRISES
If the make-up of the burial ground meets many of Andrew Reynolds’ key characteristics for an execution cemetery, the site’s prominent location adds to its likelihood. It lies on the boundary of both the Hundred and the parish, straddling the probable route of the Roman road from Silchester to Old Sarum (the projection is based on better-surviving sections to the north-east and south-west). Given this interpretation, though, it is poignant to note that it was not only adults interred here: the partial remains of at least one 8- to 12-year-old child (possibly two) were recovered among the Weyhill dead.
Such discoveries were not entirely unexpected: early Anglo-Saxon laws applied the death penalty to offenders as young as 12 (for crimes including stealing goods worth more than eight pence), and these rulings were common enough occurrences that in AD 930 King Athelstan raised the age of criminal responsibility to 15. He was concerned, it is recorded, that it was ‘cruel’, and that an excessive number were being killed below this age. How much influence this had on actual regional practices is not known, though – and it is worth noting that, in England, the judicial system continued to execute children into the early 19th century.
Given the brutal end that many of the Weyhill individuals seem to have met, it is perhaps not surprising that hints of superstitious fears on the part of those who buried them have also been observed. One of the skeletons was found with the long bone of a different individual laid across their neck, while another had a large stone set beside their skull. Were such efforts intended to pin the deceased in their graves? At other known execution sites of this period, flints placed on skulls and bodies covered with heaps of bones, stones, or planks are thought to have been motivated by a fear of the dead coming back, and a desire to keep them in the ground.
Other burial rites are harder to interpret, though. One individual had the remains of a mature ewe, decapitated but otherwise articulated, laid over his left leg, while another was accompanied in the grave by a sheep’s skull and lower jaw bones. The meaning of these arrangements remains obscure, and have no clear echo in surviving law codes, but burials containing animals are known from three other execution cemeteries – two of them fewer than 15 miles from our site. At Stockbridge Down, two graves include a decapitated dog and a sheep skull respectively, while four newborn lambs had been laid across the knees of an individual interred at Old Dairy Cottage, Winchester, and a cow was recorded during the excavations at Sutton Hoo.
It is possible that at least some of these animals might in some way reflect the crime committed by the individuals that they were buried with: Andrew Reynolds suggests that the Stockbridge Down dog might be evidence of a conviction for coursing. He also notes a reference from before AD 955 in the charter bounds of Chalke, Wiltshire, of an execution taking place ‘because of the goat’.
MEETING THE DEAD
What can we tell of the executed individuals themselves? In addition to their age and sex, osteological analysis also revealed that they were largely of average height for the time (estimated from their long bones). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their low average age, there was little sign of age-related disease among this group, but a small number of congenital conditions were observed, including one case of spina bifida occulta and one of Klippel-Feil syndrome (a fusing of two or more vertebrae in the neck, resulting in a shortened neck with a limited range of mobility). We also saw low levels of infected bones and sinus problems, while nine individuals showed signs of cribra orbitalia, a distinctive pitting in the eye sockets that speaks of ill health or malnutrition in early life; it is hoped that isotope analysis will shed more light on their adult diets.
As might be expected for executed criminals, the Weyhill dead had not been laid to rest with elaborate grave goods. Very few artefacts were recovered from the burials at all, other than 11 iron objects, mostly buckles, and a small number of worked bone items, including a handle for a knife or other tool. A single silver coin of Aethelred II (Aethelred ‘the Unready’, r.978-1016) was also found in the hand of a young man of 17-24, recorded as Sk1220, who had been buried face down with his hands bound behind his back. This latter discovery represents the only direct dating evidence for the graves, but radiocarbon analysis would reveal that any late Saxon interpretation for the cemetery was only part of the story.
The number and density of the graves implied that, if all were from the same period, late Saxon Andover must have been a particularly lawless place. The intercutting graves, though, speak of a site with a much longer lifespan. Our next step was to try to unpick the burial ground’s internal organisation, and to establish how it had developed. To that end, 15 samples of human bone were submitted for radiocarbon dating at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) in Glasgow. The results were surprising.
Although a number of the dated inhumations were indeed from the late Saxon period, the cemetery’s window of use proved to be much wider. The earliest grave for which we currently have dating evidence, lying on the north-eastern fringe of the burial ground, was middle Saxon (AD 650-850), while at the other extreme one young adult appears to have been buried in the 13th to 14th century – a strikingly late date that presumably also applies to a second young adult, whose remains were not sampled, interred in the same grave. The majority of the burials, though – around 60% – were not Anglo-Saxon at all, but Norman in date (1066-1154), with a particular spike provisionally identified for the reign of William II (r.1087-1100).
With most of the interments apparently spanning the 8th-12th centuries, if we calculate the possible shortest and longest likely durations of the cemetery, and its population of around 159 dead, executions might have happened there every two to four years on average. Moreover, if the burials do continue further to the south and south-west of the excavated area, as suspected, a larger number of inhumations could hint at an even higher frequency of executions. Either way, this suggests that people were being put to death significantly more often at Weyhill than at other published execution sites: in 2016, a study of nine other such places suggested a minimum interval of seven and a half years between each occurrence.
Added to this, if the suggested 23 decapitations among the Weyhill dead is accurate, this would be the largest such assemblage from any currently known execution cemetery. (If we only count individuals with cut marks and repositioned skulls, it is joint first with Bran Ditch in Cambridgeshire.) As such, this site is a fascinating resource for studying cemeteries of this kind – and, with its good levels of preservation, a nationally important one.
ORIGINS AND ENDINGS
We also carried out isotope analysis to investigate the origins of some of these individuals. Samples from 11 skeletons were tested for oxygen isotopes, and five of these were also analysed for strontium isotopes. Of this latter group, research by Mandy Jay of Durham University suggests that data for four individuals falls within the ranges expected for a chalk location in Britain, while one (SK1211 – the 30- to 34-year-old man who was buried with a large stone beside his head) is an incomer to the site. Of the six for whom only oxygen data are available, four lie within the typical range for Britain, but the other two fall below that level, suggesting that they may be immigrants. Their values hint at a colder climate, like Scandinavia or north-eastern Europe. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the men – both possible decapitations – died in c.879- 1013 and c.1030-1185. This suggests that, while the majority of the people buried at our site may have been local, throughout the time the cemetery was in use, strangers could be found among the surrounding population and could be buried there.
By and large, separate execution cemeteries seem to have mainly faded from the English landscape by the 12th century. After the Norman Conquest, there seems to have been a cultural shift to allow offenders to be buried among the general population within graveyards once more, and towards corporal punishment being favoured over capital punishment – although substantive change only really arrived with the reign of Henry II (1154-1189). This is not to say that prominent displays of execution would have wholly disappeared, and indeed it is probable that dedicated execution sites would have continued in use, but cemeteries specifically set aside for executed individuals probably became sparser or went out of use.
Of the currently known and dated Anglo-Saxon execution sites, only Sutton Hoo has previously provided evidence for a similar duration of use to Weyhill, spanning up to six and a half centuries. This apparent rarity could be, in part, a product of the availability and number of radiocarbon dates for such cemeteries – at least four of the ten comparable sites were dug in the 1920s and 1930s, and while Norman artefacts and pottery were found associated with the graves at Stockbridge Down, absolute dates are not available. Staines in London, Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, and Oliver’s Battery in Winchester are all thought to have continued into the Norman period, based largely on radiocarbon dating, and the new data from Weyhill provides some of the most substantive evidence yet found to add to this picture.
The discovery of this exceptional cemetery is proving ever-more exciting and, with an extensive programme of scientific analysis (made possible by generous financial support from Aldi) still ongoing, it remains to be seen what other secrets the site might yet give up.
An interim report on the project can be found at http://reports.cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/report/aldi-weyhillroad-andover/. Its appendices include a description of each of the skeletons found at Weyhill, giving details of their sex, likely age, position in the grave, and the grave’s orientation, as well as any grave goods or unusual characteristics/signs of execution.
This feature appeared in CA 338.