Excavations on MOD land in Bulford, Wiltshire, have uncovered 150 Anglo-Saxon graves spanning the later 7th to early 8th century, and a host of prehistoric finds – as well as new insights into early medieval burial practices.
Containing the remains of men, women, and children, the burials were arranged in neat rows, packed closely together – though as none of the graves intercut, the team from Wessex Archaeology (excavating on behalf of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, ahead of the construction of new homes for army families) suggests that they may once have been picked out in some way.
‘It is likely that the graves were identified somehow, perhaps with some kind of marker or a low mound,’ said Wessex Archaeology osteologist Jackie McKinley. ‘This is a planned cemetery.’
She added: ‘This is a normal domestic cemetery, although fairly large for its date – we have males and females, ranging in age from newborns through to elderly people, and everything in between.’
One of the more surprising discoveries was a striking insight into how this planning might have been carried out, as the team identified a series of large post-holes picking out not grave cuts, but empty spaces at the end of a row of burials. Aligned with the head end of other graves in the row, it is thought that these markers may have represented available plots in the cemetery.
Many of the individuals had been laid to rest with personal items, from jewellery (including glass beads and brooches) and knives to more unusual prestigious objects such as a large antler comb decorated with patterns of rings and dots, and chevrons. Some items, such as cowrie shells from the Red Sea, speak of the community’s far-reaching trade connections, while others hint at their owners’ social status.
Some of the gravegoods found in the Bulford burials.
Another rare object, found placed on the chest of a young woman, was a ‘work box’ – a small cylindrical container so called because previous finds have sometimes contained pins. While no such items were discovered within the Bulford example, x-rays suggest it holds a number of as-yet unidentified copper-alloy fragments.
‘This was a status symbol, and may have had amuletic as well as functional properties,’ said Jackie. ‘This grave also contained what appears to be some kind of metal net bag, although we need to do more work on this to understand what it was.’
Another possibly high status individual was a man found in the largest grave on the site, who had been interred with an unusually large spear, its haft decorated with bronze bindings – perhaps a ceremonial object belonging to an important individual, the team suggests.
Analysis of the graves is still ongoing, but intriguing patterns in their distribution are beginning to emerge. So far, double graves seem to be limited to the southern half of the site, while towards the west archaeologists have identified an apparent concentration of ‘stepped’ graves, with a little lip at the top and bottom.
One cluster that stands out in particular is a small group of six burials on the western fringe of the cemetery, distinctively oriented north-south (all the other graves lie west-east, except for one where two children have been laid ‘top to tail’, as if in bed). Their occupants are all male, and their grave goods include the only spearheads yet found on the site.
‘We are still unpicking these possible patterns, but variations in burial customs might reflect different groups coming in, or different practices developing over time,’ said Jackie.
No sign of any associated settlement was found near the cemetery – the team suggests that this may have been located in the river valley nearby – but the excavation did uncover some clues as to why the Anglo-Saxon community may have selected this hilltop spot for their burials. Two prehistoric ‘hengiform’ monuments, possibly ring ditches or barrows, have been identified a short distance from the graves, and preliminary dating evidence suggests that these were in use from the Neolithic period into the Bronze Age. Might the area’s early medieval occupants been attracted to these enigmatic features and chosen to bury their dead in their shadow (as they have been shown to do at other Salisbury sites, such as Barrow Clump – see CA 306)?
Further signs of Neolithic ceremonial activity came with the discovery of a series of large pits, into which a range of unusual objects seem to have been deliberately placed. Most were found to contain sherds of Woodlands style grooved ware pottery, and axes or fragments of axes (including one of a distinctive green stone thought to come from Cornwall). Carved pieces of chalk – forming a bowl and a little ball – and flint hammerstones, as well as antler and aurochs bone were also found, but for Wessex Archaeology prehistory expert Phil Harding, a highlight was the discovery of a rare discoidal knife – a delicate, oval flint blade, of which only two other examples are known from the Stonehenge area.
‘What stands out is that there is very little domestic activity going on here,’ Phil said. ‘You don’t see much in the way of burning, or of flint-knapping debris. The pits’ contents seem more ritual/ceremonial in nature – in one, we found a piece of aurochs bone and a piece of antler placed together around almost the whole side of a pot, and capped with a large piece of flint – these look like deliberately placed deposits.’
Just as it was the prehistoric features that may have led to the creation of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery, so too were they the trigger for the excavation; the hengiform monuments are visible in aerial photographs and recorded in the local HER. But the later burials that began to emerge as investigations started came as a complete surprise for the team. It remains to be seen what else might be uncovered as the project continues – watch this space for more coverage in the news section of CA 315.