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.
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.
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?
It could be that the log coffins and plank-lined graves represent two evolutionary stages of the same practice, although the fact that both kinds of grave are scattered throughout the same rows suggests that they are unlikely to reflect a chronological progression (this phasing may become clearer as more dating results come in). Instead, might they have been used by groups with differing social status – perhaps the scarcer and arguably more finely crafted plank-lined graves contained the remains of elite members of the community, with the rougher dug-outs perceived as a more basic equivalent?
Certainly, many of the log coffins do not seem to have used particularly high-quality wood; rather, they frequently appear to have employed leftovers – sections from towards the top of the trunk, whose knotted and curving wood was not suitable for cutting into planks for other uses. Yet if there were status differences between the two kinds of burial, this social segregation is not echoed in their mingled distribution, and suggestions that the log coffins may have been seen as the downmarket option seem less likely when you consider that it would have taken an estimated four man-days to hollow out a single coffin – this was not a cheap or easy option.
In that case, might the use of varying qualities of timber suggest that the community accorded some kind of particular significance to the inclusion of wood in their burials, to the extent that having it was so important that you used whatever was available rather than go without? This trend – whether favoured for fashionable or ritual reasons – might be exemplified by one of the burials in particular, where a curved grave had been dug to accommodate a curved log coffin, in which a contorted skeleton was found, suggesting that the body had been squeezed into the space.
The human remains that these coffins contained are also largely intact, thanks to the waterlogged conditions – although fluctuating water levels mean that some of the small bones have been lost in many cases, while the weight of the wet, sandy soil has left the remains fragile and crumbly. So far, only limited examination of the bones has taken place, but an initial assessment of the size of the graves suggests that the vast majority of the individuals buried at Great Ryburgh are likely to be adults. Subsequent osteological analysis should reveal the breakdown of men and women in the cemetery population, which might shed further light on the nature of the community it served; if there is an even mix, the graves are likely to be associated with a domestic settlement, but a significantly male-dominated group might indicate a possible monastic community.
Search for a church
Whether the site’s inhabitants held religious or more worldly roles, there does not appear to be a clear link between the cemetery and any earlier phase of the village’s extant church (the current incarnation of which dates from the late Saxon/early Norman period). Although the newly discovered burials lie just 100m from this structure, if they formed part of its graveyard that would imply hundreds of inhumations filling the gap between the excavated site and the church – something that seems very unlikely for a small village, which would presumably have been smaller still during the Anglo-Saxon period.
There is no documentary evidence for another earlier church near the site – but tantalising hints of just such a structure might come from the archaeological record: MOLA’s excavations have revealed a promising void at the heart of the Middle Saxon cemetery (visible in the lead image for this feature). It is surrounded by the rows of graves, and within it lie the remains of a small timber structure. This building, which measured around 6m by 4m, is now represented only by a rectangle of beam slots, as well as fragments of four evenly spaced timbers, which survive in situ along its northern side. The entrance appears to lie to the south, and the structure is oriented on the same alignment as the graves, pointing east–west lengthwise. While no dating evidence is yet available for the building, that its footprint seems to have been respected by the graves does imply a connection. Might this have been some kind of small church or mortuary chapel associated with the cemetery?
Although there are many questions outstanding for the Great Ryburgh finds, it is hoped that further research will help to illuminate the cemetery’s significance. Archaeological work on the site has now concluded, but the next stage of the project will see a raft of post-excavation analysis brought to bear; the team hopes that dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating of some of the timbers from the graves will help to unpick the site’s development – as well as filling in what they describe as a ‘black hole’ in dendrochronological data for this period in the region – while DNA, osteological, and isotope analysis on the human remains will help to reveal more information about the origins, health, diet, and lives of the people buried there.
As for who these people might have been, the possibilities are as tantalising as they are currently open-ended. Might the cemetery have served an as-yet undiscovered trading centre, presumably located nearby to take advantage of easy access to the River Wensum? Or could this have been a more inward-looking religious community? The prominence of adults among the dead – unless children were buried separately in an unexcavated part of the site – lends credence to suggestions of a monastic population. Moreover, the uniformity of burial practices, and the orderly arrangement of the graves and lack of intercutting, might suggest that the cemetery was only short-lived, perhaps used by only a couple of generations – something that further dating analysis may help to clarify.
The team’s research has already revealed why the cemetery had been dug in what would, at first glance, appear to be counterintuitively boggy ground: historical documents report that the course of the river had actually been changed in more recent times, deliberately diverted to serve a nearby mill – something that makes the resulting waterlogging of the land, and the remarkable preservation that it permitted, seem all the more serendipitous.
Perhaps the most intriguing question raised by the site, however, is whether its strikingly conservative timber-related funerary practices represent a local quirk or, given that the use of wood in such contexts is known elsewhere, might this be a rare snapshot of a much more widespread phenomenon, illuminating previously littleunderstood Middle Saxon burial customs? Either way, the Great Ryburgh site has thrown open a window on an early Christian rural community and, as post-excavation analysis continues, one that may yet reveal many more secrets.
Read more about the finds at www.mola.org.uk/blog/discovery-rare-anglosaxon-burials-revealed and https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/survival-of-rare-anglo-saxon-coffins, and explore a 3D interactive model of a log coffin burial at https://sketchfab.com/models/116c131fac8443ccbec7ff2f19f5173a