Trumpington’s Anglo-Saxon bed burial

Discovered near Trumpington during excavations by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, this young woman was interred in a rare ‘bed burial’ during the 7th century. The metal fittings that once held the furniture together can be seen all around her. (PHOTOS: Cambridge Archaeological Unit, unless otherwise stated)

An excavation on the edge of Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, has uncovered a cluster of intriguing Anglo-Saxon graves, including the rare remains of a young woman lying on a wooden bed, accompanied by lavish grave goods. Carly Hilts reports.

Some 1,400 years ago, a young woman not yet out of her teens was laid to rest in spectacular style close to the River Cam. Her grave, on the outskirts of a small Anglo-Saxon hamlet, was the final addition to a short row of 7th-century burials, and the most elaborate. Dressed in fine linens and beautifully crafted gold-and-garnet jewellery, she had been laid out on a wooden bed that was buried with her. Not long afterwards, though, the community to which she had belonged shifted to the north, and the land where she had lived was given over to early medieval agriculture, never to be resettled – until now.

This enigmatic group of graves and structures was uncovered during Cambridge Archaeological Unit’s excavations ahead of a new housing development at Trumpington, a village just south of Cambridge (see CA 266). Funded by the Trumpington Meadows Land Company, the investigation ran from June 2010 until May of the following year, and revealed a wide array of features spanning thousands of years. These findings have now been published in a new McDonald Institute monograph, Riversides: Neolithic Barrows, a Beaker Grave, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Burials and Settlement at Trumpington, Cambridge, on which this article draws, focusing on the site’s early medieval archaeology. (We will explore the prehistoric finds in a future feature.)

As it happens, the discovery of Anglo- Saxon burials at Trumpington Meadows came as a complete surprise, as no sign of any activity linked to this period had been identified during either the desktop or field assessments that were carried out ahead of the excavation (this particular section of the site could not be trenched at the time due to crop growth). The village church is not recorded as standing any earlier than AD 1200, and the nearest known contemporary sites lie some 2km to the south at Harston Mill, and 5km to the north – the King’s College Garden Hostel excavation, which revealed a cemetery of around 20 7th-century graves.

This composite image shows the four definite Anglo-Saxon burials uncovered during the project (a fifth possible grave lay some 13m away). They were numbered 1-4 (left to right); Grave 1, the bed burial, is on the far left.

The Trumpington project produced rather fewer burials: a tight group of four graves lying in a row, all of them oriented with the head end pointing west-north-west, and a possible fifth 13m to the south-west. Due to the local soil conditions, preservation of the skeletons that they contained was largely poor – most of the individuals were missing the bones from their chest area and extremities – while the fifth grave contained no human remains at all. It is only presumed to be a grave because of its shape and proximity to the others – if it was a burial, its short length suggests it would have contained a child.

The condition of the bones meant that it was hard to establish the sex of some of the individuals (beyond assumptions based on their grave goods), but their teeth had survived mostly intact, meaning that their age could be determined with more confidence. Of the four skeletons, these all appear to have been older teenagers or young adults, at least two of which were probably female. One of these, the bed burial (Grave 1), was initially assumed to be the earliest of the group, forming a focus for the rest of the small cemetery.

Overlooking the excavation site (the stripped areas beyond the church) at Trumpington Meadows.

RARE REMAINS

Grave 1’s occupant had only been around 16-18 years old when she died, but the manner of her burial suggests that she was held in high esteem – and may have held high status – within her community. She was lying stretched on her back with her right hand tucked just under her pelvis and her left arm crossed over her chest. Her skull, meanwhile, was raised a little in the grave so that her face was looking slightly forwards – perhaps suggesting that her head had originally rested on a pillow.

Evidence for the bed itself was unmistakable; all around the woman’s body were iron plates and cleats, picking out the rectangular shape of its now-decayed frame. From the size and layout of these metal fittings, CAU could deduce that the bed had measured around 60cm by 155cm, and that it was made of planks – probably, based on the riveted plates, with two forming each side and three making up a taller headboard. This latter part seems to have been adorned with some kind of decorative markings, an exciting find for the early Anglo-Saxon period from which little carved wood (with the exception of the fragmentary coffin of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral) survives.

Some of the metal elements of the bed on which the young woman had been laid.

Although the wooden headboard’s preservation was decidedly patchy, patterns could be reconstructed from intact pieces and imprints in the corroded iron fittings, suggesting that it was decorated with curved lines and areas of hatching. As for the make-up of the bed itself, the presence of 13 metal eyelets indicates that the frame could have been strung with ropes in order to form a kind of hammock – possibly supporting a straw mattress and blankets (traces of fine yarns preserved on some of the metalwork hint at a thick, blanketlike material with an appearance like twill) on which the young woman would have lain.

Although rare, bed burials are a known phenomenon from mid- to late 7th-century England, with notable clusters in East Anglia and the South- West, while isolated examples are recorded from North Yorkshire and Derbyshire. It seems to have been a rite primarily accorded to women, and women of elite status judging by the elaborate grave goods that frequently accompany them. The Grave 1 teenager was no different in this respect.

ORNATE OBJECTS

These ornate pins, originally placed close to the young woman’s neck, may have once fixed a veil to her outer clothing.

In the area of the young woman’s neck or upper chest, the team discovered an intricately worked gold cross inlaid with a geometric pattern of cloisonné garnets. Beautifully preserved with no signs of repair, this item measured just 3.5cm in diameter, and on the back of each of its flared arms was a small loop so that it could be attached, perhaps directly to clothing. Although unusual, such objects are not unknown – this find is just the latest addition to a small group of gold-and-garnet cloisonné crosses, all dating to the 7th century, from sites including Wilton, Ixworth (both in Suffolk), and Holderness (East Yorkshire). For the most part, these crosses seem to be associated with female burials (though a striking example was also found in St Cuthbert’s coffin) – indeed, the Ixworth example was also recovered from a female bed burial.

Gold and garnets had also been used to make a pair of linked pins that would originally have lain near the young woman’s neck (they had slipped into the skull cavity after burial). These are rare objects – such items were more commonly made in silver or copper alloy, and indeed no direct parallels for the Trumpington pins, with their distinctive teardrop-shaped garnets, have yet been identified – but the pins and cross also speak of the far-reaching connections that this site was part of. Their garnets would have been imported from central Europe or even from as far away as India or Sri Lanka.

This chain of interlinked iron rings from Grave 1 is thought to be part of a chatelaine, a kind of belt from which early medieval women hung useful household objects like keys and knives.

Given the pins’ location on the woman’s body, it is thought that they may have been used to secure a veil to her outer clothing – this garment might be represented by a scatter of blue-green beads on the left side of her skeleton, which could have decorated the edge of a fringed shawl. This would tie in with the traditional understanding of what women wore in 7th-century England – a long-sleeved wool dress over a linen chemise, with a linen veil or shawl covering her head – and traces of fine linen tabby preserved on some of the corroded metal surrounding the Trumpington teenager’s body might well have come from some aspect of her dress.

The women of this period also sometimes wore a chatelaine, a kind of belt from which household items could be suspended, and it seems that this young woman had also been buried with one. A silvered mount and a chain of seven copper-plated iron rings, found between her legs, are thought to have been attached at her waist to fulfil this function. A small iron knife – preserving the remains of a horn handle and leather sheath – found below her left elbow may also have been worn on her belt, and on her right side were the remains of what is thought to be a bone or antler comb.

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 343. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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