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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fulfill 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 had been an exceptionally well-furnished burial, but its neighbour (Grave 2) was rather less elaborate. The remains of its occupant had survived in only a very fragmentary state, and the skull was crushed into pieces, but this skeleton is also thought to have been that of a young woman. She had been buried with a finely crafted pin made from bone or antler, and a near-identical pair of square copper alloy buckles. Positioned just above and just below the pelvis, these latter items may have secured some kind of long-decayed bag or purse – parallels are known from some Frankish and Kentish cemeteries.
Further along the row, the individual who had been laid to rest in Grave 3 was represented by similarly partial remains – in this case, the bones on the right side of their body were much better preserved than the left side – making it difficult to deduce much about them, although they seem to have been another older teen or young adult. It could be that this was a third female burial, as they too seem to have been accompanied by a possible chatelaine. Together with an iron loop, the team found some typical components of this kind of domestic toolkit: a set of iron shears, a knife (again with a horn handle and traces of a possible leather cover), and what is thought to be a T-shaped key.
Objects like these were sometimes held up as symbols of the female head of the household – keys in particular feature as such in Old English literature – and it could be that this was another high-status woman. Grave 3 was the largest of the burials, its outline measuring 2.4m in length and 1.5m in width, meaning that it could have easily accommodated a coffin. While no trace of this kind of container has survived, CAU noted that some of the grave’s upper fill had slumped into the burial, which might hint at the collapse of some kind of casket or other wooden structure.
Grave 4 contained another young adult, though their remains were so badly preserved that their precise age and sex are unknown, and no grave goods had survived to help with this – they do seem to have been a tall individual, however.
What does this distinctive cluster of burials signify? All four of the individuals have been sampled for radiocarbon dating by SUERC, which helped to clarify how the small cemetery developed. Surprisingly, this analysis revealed that while all four graves came from the 7th century, they had apparently been buried over a period of two, perhaps even three, generations. The order of the burials was also completely unexpected. Graves 2 and 4 seem to have been broadly contemporary (c.AD 597- 651 and c.AD 597-654 respectively, at 95.4% probability), and represent the earliest burials in the sequence. Grave 3 (c.AD 646-677) was perhaps a generation later. The greatest surprise, though, came from the bed burial.
Grave 1 was not the founding burial as had been suspected, but the youngest of the set, dating from c.AD 661-768. This also meant that the elaborate interment coincided with the final shift away from the contemporary settlement on whose outskirts it lay. It was time to investigate the relationship between the cemetery and the settlement more closely.
LOOKING TO THE LIVING
The village’s location may have been chosen for its proximity to the river, though the presence of a possible barrow (which is thought to have covered a double Beaker burial that the project also uncovered, and which features on the cover of CA 338) may have been an added attraction – Bronze Age burial mounds are elsewhere known to have formed a focus of Anglo-Saxon activity (CA 306). It appears to have been only a small hamlet, comprising four sunken-featured buildings (SFBs) and a larger post-built hall, but it is likely that the settlement’s full extent was not uncovered, and that it extended to the north outside the excavated area.
Certainly, the presence of the hall and the more elaborate burials, as well as some sherds of fine imported Continental pottery, which were recovered from the site’s refuse, suggest that the village could have boasted a higher status than originally assumed. Picked out in beam slots and postholes, the hall’s outline was slightly truncated by later agricultural activity but it is thought to have measured 15m by 7m – this would have been an imposing structure. Together with the SFBs, other more domestic features included a number of wells and pits, and a semi-circular arrangement of posts that might have provided a screen or windbreak for some kind of open-faced pen or workshop.
From these structures, which mostly seem to have been infilled with midden material when they went out of use, CAU was able to unpick a wealth of clues about the living members of this community, to complement what they had deduced about the dead. Many of the finds reflect typical domestic activity of the period – querns, whetstones, weaving tools like pin beaters – though there were also a number of finely worked antler/ bone objects hinting at higher-status crafts. These included a slender tapered pendant decorated with incised chevrons and geometric patterns, a length of trimmed bird bone, which is likely to have been a needle case, and a round gaming piece.
We can also determine what these people were eating: over 26,000 fragments of animal bone were excavated from the settlement, some 60% of which came from the SFBs. These suggest that the early medieval menu was dominated by cattle (45% of the bone that could be assigned to a species), sheep or goat (32%) and pig (8%), with a much smaller amount of horse, deer, and hare remains. It seems that the consumption of wild animals was sporadic at best – rather, these villagers were sufficiently skilled at rearing livestock, or at least had a sufficiently reliable supply of such meat – that hunting was not much of a necessity to them.
This pattern is also mirrored in the 203 bird bones that were recovered from the site; the vast majority of these were from domestic fowl and geese, supplemented by a very small number of wild birds (ducks, cranes, waders, and a few songbirds). Fish bones were present in even smaller quantities, all from locally available species like pike, eel, perch, and chub – a picture that, interestingly, is also reflected in isotope analysis that has been carried out on the four Trumpington skeletons. This revealed that their diet had been largely based on meat and plants, with little in the way of marine or freshwater fish.
The team also discovered evidence of animals that were more likely companions than kept for food; amongst the refuse was one cat bone and 31 from dogs, while three complete dog skeletons were found in ditches and the beam slot of one of the SFBs. These were large animals – two would have stood 50-59cm high at the shoulder and the other 47cm – and were probably kept as hunting or guard dogs.
A WOMAN OF IMPORTANCE?
This apparently small settlement has given up a huge amount of information about the lives and activities of its occupants, as well as the lavish funerary rites that they were able to accord to a number of their dead – yet the purpose of this burial, remain a mystery.
Given the ostentatious cross had been buried with the Grave 1 teenager, might this settlement, which today lies in the shadow of Trumpington’s medieval church tower, have been an early Christian community? The presence of less obviously religious objects in the burials, such as knives and combs, does not necessarily point to pagan practices – the early Church never issued an edict against grave goods. Rather, furnished burials seem to have faded away fairly organically by the 8th century as Christianity took hold across Anglo-Saxon England (see CA 285).
For this young woman to have been buried with such expensive jewellery, she must have held some importance within her community, and may even have been of royal birth. Perhaps this area was home not only to the excavated village, but to one of the fledgling religious communities that are known to have sprung up across East Anglia during the 7th century, and which were not infrequently headed by high-status women. Might the Trumpington teenager have held such a role? Either way, it seems that Trumpington’s early Anglo-Saxon settlement did not long outlive this apparently significant young woman.
The full findings of the Trumpington excavation, spanning the Neolithic to Anglo-Saxon periods, are published in Riversides: Neolithic Barrows, a Beaker Grave, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Burials and Settlement at Trumpington, Cambridge, by Christopher Evans, Sam Lucy, and Ricky Patten, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (distributed by Oxbow Books), £45, ISBN 978-1902937847.
This feature appeared in CA 343.