Overlooking the MOLA excavations at Great Ryburgh. (Photo: MOLA)
Archaeological work beside the River Wensum in Norfolk has revealed more than 80 rare Middle Saxon log coffins and plank-lined graves, preserved by their waterlogged environment – the first time that such coffins have been found in these numbers and such good condition in Britain. What can the unusual finds tell us about an early Christian community? Carly Hilts spoke to James Fairclough, MOLA, and Barney Sloane, Historic England, to find out more.
While excavating waterlogged land beside the River Wensum, the last thing archaeologists from MOLA expected to find were graves – let alone a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon cemetery containing dozens of rare timber coffins and plank-lined graves in an unprecedented state of preservation – yet this unlikely turn of events is exactly what happened during recent work near Great Ryburgh, Norfolk.
Hints of the site’s archaeological potential had initially been identified during research by local archaeologist Matthew Champion, and when the owner of a nearby four-star holiday cottage decided to create a lake (for conservation purposes, and to offer fishing to his guests) and flood defences on the same spot, Archaeological Solutions was commissioned to investigate the 1ha affected as part of the planning process. After this, MOLA carried out excavations immediately before and during the construction of the lake.
Initial discoveries in the southern portion of the site were all distinctly domestic in nature: two Roman kilns; a web of Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, and later medieval drainage ditches; and, towards the northern end, a massive boundary ditch. Incised across the entire site, this 3.5m- to 4m-wide division was stuffed with fragments of butchered animal bone and Middle Saxon (c.AD 650-850) pottery. The discovery of such quantities of refuse spoke of a once-thriving early medieval community somewhere in the vicinity – yet no other clear sign of such a settlement could be seen. Beyond this boundary, however, the team began to uncover burials.
It is hoped that analysis of the remains of the people buried at Great Ryburgh will shed more light on the nature of the community they lived in. (Photo: MOLA)
Among the first five or six graves excavated, one contained something thought to be very unusual: a coffin crafted from the hollowed-out trunk of an oak tree. This was initially interpreted as the burial of a particularly high-status individual, perhaps a community elder or local leader whose elevated position in life had merited special treatment in death. As more graves emerged, however, it quickly became apparent that, far from being a mark of exclusivity, log coffins were actually in the majority. Of the 89 graves revealed to-date, 81 contained hollowed-out trunks, while six more used timber in a slightly different way, lining the grave cuts with expertly hewn planks.
It was a remarkable and totally unexpected development. Although the use of wooden caskets or grave linings in early medieval burials is not unknown, it is usually only hinted at by fragments of degraded timber or soil stains. The discovery of near-complete coffins is a much rarer occurrence, dependent on a very narrow set of environmental conditions – and to find them in such numbers is completely unprecedented. The Great Ryburgh examples survive only thanks to a fluke of local geology producing a fortuitous mix of acidic sand and alkaline water. The opportunity to explore such a site under modern conditions was not one to be taken lightly, and at this stage Historic England stepped in to provide funding and scientific advisors for further investigation. What would this work reveal?
At present, analysis of the finds is only in its very early stages, and no artefacts to help establish their date have been recovered, grave goods being entirely absent – although three fragments of Middle Saxon Ipswich ware pottery were identified in the grave fills. Dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) has so far produced one result, however. A sample taken from one of the plank-lined graves suggests that the cemetery had been in use during the mid 8th century, and that these may be the earliest plank-lined burials yet found in this country.
The dug-out coffins refer to even older funerary practices: burials of this kind are first seen in Europe in the early Bronze Age, before reappearing in the early medieval period. Yet if the Great Ryburgh graves were harking back to earlier, perhaps ancestral, pagan customs, the cemetery itself seems to have been a Christian one: all of the graves are oriented east–west (except for two earlier graves that lie north–south and are thought to be possibly Roman in date), and none of their occupants are accompanied by objects of any kind.
The graves were arranged in three rows, with no signs of intercutting. (Photo: MOLA)
It was a neatly organised burial ground, the graves forming three orderly rows with a couple of eastern outliers, which showed no sign of intercutting, perhaps suggesting that they were originally marked in some way. Furthermore, as some of the rows appear to extend towards the north-west, perhaps continuing outside the excavated area, it is possible that this is in fact only part of an even larger cemetery. On this matter, at least, the archaeology provides clear clues – but what are we to make of the two different approaches to using wood?
This is an extract from a feature published in CA 322. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe.