Northamptonshire’s largest Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered

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A triangular-shaped bone comb with faded etchings on the top and many of the teeth missing from the middle.
This bone comb, dating to AD 500-600 and probably used as a weaving tool, was found within one of the Anglo-Saxon structures recently discovered along with a large cemetery at Overstone. CREDIT: MOLA

A large Anglo-Saxon cemetery has recently been discovered at Overstone in Northamptonshire. With 154 interments, it is the largest burial ground from this period ever found in the county.

The 15ha site was excavated by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) throughout 2019, overseen by RPS Consulting, working on behalf of Barratt and David Wilson Homes in advance of development. This investigation revealed burials accompanied by diverse grave goods: nearly 3,000 artefacts were recovered in total, reflecting the status of the individuals interred on the site. Jewellery was one of the most prevalent finds, including roughly 150 brooches, 15 rings, 75 wrist clasps, 15 chatelaines, and over 2,000 beads, while many of the individuals were accompanied by weapons – 25 spears, 40 knives, and 15 shield bosses were found during the project. There were more everyday artefacts, too, shedding light on the early medieval community’s life – these included cosmetic kits and bone combs, as well as some rare fragments of textile, which have survived as they were placed next to metal objects which have caused them to mineralise.

As well as this extensive evidence for the dead, there were plentiful signs of the living: it is rare for an Anglo-Saxon cemetery and settlement to be uncovered in a single excavation, but the Overstone site also contained a cluster of 22 structures (a mixture of sunken-feature buildings and post-built structures), while a further 20 structures were found dispersed across the site, associated with field systems.

In addition to the Anglo-Saxon discoveries, a number of prehistoric features were excavated, including three Bronze Age round barrows and 46 prehistoric burials (radiocarbon dating revealed the earliest of them to date to c.2000-1900 BC) buried within four Bronze Age buildings.

Simon Markus, Project Manager at MOLA, said: ‘The Overstone Leys site contains by far the biggest Anglo-Saxon cemetery ever found in Northamptonshire. [This site] will help us understand the way people lived in both the Anglo-Saxon period, around 1,500 year ago, and during the Bronze Age, nearly 4,000 years ago. The human remains will tell us about diet, health, and even the origins of the people themselves, while their buildings can teach us what their day-today lives were like and how they utilised the local landscape in these two different periods.’

This news article appears in issue 373 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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