Oakington: Life and death in the East Anglian Fens

5 mins read

Anglo-Saxon skeletons have been surfacing for almost a century in the fields of Oakington. Now a new project has laid bare the trials and tragedies of a small 6th-century Fenland community. Duncan Sayer, Richard Mortimer and Faye Simpson bring flesh to the bones.

In 1926 four early Anglo-Saxon burials, one equipped with a spear, knife and shield boss, were discovered in an Oakington village field, in Cambridgeshire. Described as ‘[south] of the church’, the  land had just been bought by Alan Bloom for his nursery garden. His interest piqued, Alan dug dozens more holes, only abandoning the hunt for further bodies when he hit undisturbed subsoil. Yet there were more to find. Construction of a children’s playground in the 1990s brought 26 burials to light, excavated by Cambridgeshire’s Archaeological Field Unit, while 2006 and 2007 saw Oxford Archaeology East recover 17 more. In 2010 and 2011 students and researchers returned to the site, opening new trenches on either side of the playground and revealing 27 further burials — including a pregnant woman, a warrior and, most exceptional of all, a large number of child burials from a period when they are notoriously scarce.

With several seasons left to go, Oakington is fully established as a substantial 6th-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery. But there is more to the site than that. Capitalising on the longer view that a research and community project provides, test pits and whole trenches have been excavated in gardens and open spaces throughout the village. The tantalising results point to an early enclosed community – a Middle Saxon Burh – on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fen.

Taking it with you
Of the 70 graves found at Oakington, 46 contained grave goods — a common feature of early Anglo-Saxon burials (AD 450-600). Men were often equipped with a weapon set comprising a spear, shield, sword and seax, or combination of them. Some sets would have been found wanting on the battlefield, with one male uncovered in the 1990s excavations sent to the grave with just a shield. Women could be accompanied by more elegant and elaborate grave goods. As well as the iconic paired brooches, a range of dress items including combs, beads, purse rings, pins and latch lifters, are often present. Alongside such signature masculine or feminine objects, gender-neutral goods include pots, sherds, knives, belt buckles and animal bones.

Only three males with weapons have been found during the recorded excavations (1994-2011), while 18 female graves contained brooches. Children also seem to have been treated as a distinct group, and it is striking that seven of the nine whole pots found so far came from juvenile graves. While the two vessels from adult graves were full-sized domestic pots, those buried with children were all small cup-sized pots – little pots for little people. This contrasts with earlier excavations that found many children with a single pottery sherd placed over their hip.

Treatment of the bodies themselves is also revealing. One curious characteristic is that many of the bodies are a poor fit for the graves that contain them. Given the wealth of grave goods, this can hardly be due to a hurried burial or lack of respect. It may simply be that neither bodies nor graves were measured before digging began. This would imply the corpse was prepared elsewhere, probably in a living area, but perhaps a hall building. The gravediggers were then left to estimate, or remember the size of the person to be buried. When both elements were ready, mourners would process with the clothed corpse to the cemetery, where the deceased would be laid out in the grave as best it could. Then, objects like pots or spears and shields would be placed around them.

Reading the bones
Life in the past is often characterised as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It is cemeteries that allow us to test this, by examining the skeletal scars that reveal the realities of life. Burials with or without goods from across Oakington, for example, show raised levels of enamel hyperplasia in their teeth. This deformity was brought on in childhood, probably by a mixture of severe food shortage and infectious diseases. Because it occurs across the entire cemetery population, it is unlikely to be the result of a single famine. Instead, chronic food shortage was a real prospect for every member of this community — at least during childhood.

Two burials from the 2011 season provide a particularly vivid glimpse of life in 6th-century Oakington. A richly furnished female burial was found on the edge of the site. Containing a large cruciform brooch and two small long brooches, this triple brooch burial made her grave one of the three wealthiest from the site. The students duly named her ‘Queeny’. Yet unusually for a wealthy individual, she was not buried more centrally within the cemetery. The abundance of objects on the upper half of her body prompted the excavators to leave the pelvic area until the end of the excavation. This proved a fortunate move, as the earth contained lots of tiny bones close to and resting on her pelvis, as well as belt fittings  that indicated a much larger stomach than her small frame suggested. ‘Queeny’ was clearly pregnant when she died.

Her baby was lodged low down and sideways in the pelvic area. Today such babies are delivered by C section because unless they turn, they cannot fit through the birth canal. We do not know if ‘Queeny’ died in or before childbirth, but it would probably have been fatal for both mother and child if the baby had become stuck there. Being faced with such an emotive cause of death made it hard for the excavators not to concoct scenarios in their heads — a painful death, a partner in grief, and a bright future shattered by tragedy.

Yet while ‘Queeny’ was clearly loved, her burial also betrays some mixed emotions. As a triple brooch burial she was honoured with one of the three wealthiest burials in the whole site. But was she already an important member of the community, or did the tragic nature of her death determine this treatment? Tellingly both the location of her grave on the edge of the site and its East-West orientation, when most bodies were laid to rest South North, set her apart from the other cemetery occupants in a less flattering way. Perhaps she owed this marginal position to a death that was treated with superstition, leaving her branded ‘polluted’.

A second burial from the 2011 excavation proved equally interesting. A male over 45 years old went to the grave with a spear and knife. He had two different skeletal pathologies: a forearm fractured at both the radius and ulna, and a degenerative type of arthritis involving the formation of bony growth and fusing of the lower spine. The former was an old, but not unserious wound which may have been caused in conflict. The lower arm is a classic site for defensive wounds, though any blow that broke both bones would have been administered with considerable force. As the man got older, the arthritis would have severely hindered his mobility and caused intermittent pain. By the time he died, this old warrior would no longer have been able to wield his spear effectively in combat.

Oakington is also exceptional in preserving large quantities of infant burials from a period when they are notoriously rare. The relatively low numbers of children from early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries contrasts to other preindustrial societies, which usually suffer high infant mortality. Preliminary analysis indicates that just over half of the Oakington burials were children aged c.12 years or less. Of these, 29% were infants, aged six or under. This may seem high, but a 30% infant mortality rate is consistent with that experienced in the Roman period and Middle Ages. As this part of the village was only briefly ploughed, it seems likely that this is what has preserved a full cross section of the local demographic — including neonates, infants and children. Their fragile bones were not buried as deeply as adults’ bodies because of the shorter length of their graves, leaving them at the mercy of the plough, and masking the true scale of Anglo-Saxon infant mortality.

This is an extract, but you can read the full article in CA 261

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