23 November, 2007

‘Anglo-Saxon’ cemetery discovered in Yorkshire

A three-year archaeological excavation has identified the first high-status English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) cemetery known in the north of England. The exact location of the site has not been announced, but is near Loftus in Cleveland, North Yorkshire, and from the picture of the site on the Kirkleatham Museum website it appears to be on a headland above the coast (scroll down to the third picture, and I think you can see the sea in the background). The cemetery is on the same site as an earlier Iron Age settlement, so presumably the graves must have been dug through the Iron Age structures, though this isn’t specified in the press reports. I wonder if this is chance, geography, or an indication that the site was still regarded as special in some way?

The cemetery contained 109 graves, arranged in a deliberate plan with an entrance to the south. One of the graves was covered by a low burial mound. One burial was that of a high-status woman laid on a bed, and with her were found three spectacular gold brooches. According to the report on the local council’s website, the most spectacular brooch was made using gold from Merovingian France, and the others are thought to have originated in Kent. Presumably the gold could have been identified as Merovingian by trace element analysis – gold from different sources contains slightly different trace quantities of other metals, which can be measured by mass spectrometry and other techniques – though this isn’t specified in the press reports. It isn’t clear from the reports so far whether the lady with the brooches was laid under the burial mound, or whether the mound covered a different grave.

The Kirkleatham Museum website has a picture of a spectacular gold and garnet brooch from the dig, presumably the brooch identified as being made of Merovingian gold. More pictures are available on the BBC Tees website, and see also Martin Rundkvist's post on Aardvarchaeology. The archaeologist leading the dig, Steve Sherlock, dates the brooch to around 650 AD, and is quoted as saying, “it must have been commissioned from the best craftsmen in Anglo Saxon England and I think it would have been the jewellery of an Anglo Saxon Princess.”

He goes on to observe that the site is only 10 miles from St Hild’s abbey at Whitby, and to suggest that the lady with the brooches probably knew St Hild. Which raises the interesting question of who she might have been. The jewellery is rich enough to indicate that she was a lady of very high status, possibly royal. The royal houses of Northumbria and Kent were linked in the 620s, when Eadwine of Northumbria married Aethelburh daughter of Aethelbert of Kent. Aethelburh fled to Kent after Eadwine’s death in 633, taking with her their young daughter Eanflaed who was brought up at the Kentish court. In around 651, Eanflaed returned to Northumbria to marry her cousin King Oswy. Kent had close links with the Merovingian Frankish kingdoms, as Eanflaed’s grandmother (Aethelburh’s mother) Bertha was a daughter of the Frankish king, so a brooch made of Merovingian gold would be entirely logical. Perhaps Eanflaed, or someone important in her entourage, brought the brooch with her when she came north to marry Oswy.

Could the lady with the brooches be Queen Eanflaed of Northumbria herself? Unlikely, as Bede (Book III Ch 24) tells us that Queen Eanflaed was buried in the church of St Hild’s abbey at Whitby, along with King Oswy, their daughter Aelflaed, and King Eadwine (in Eadwine’s case, possibly only some of him). It may be possible that Bede mistook the location. Another possibility is that the lady with the brooches was a friend or confidante of Eanflaed, perhaps having come with her from Kent or perhaps having been given the brooch as a gift.

Another interesting observation is that if the cemetery dates to the mid seventh century, Northumbria was officially Christian by then, having been converted once by St Paulinus from Canterbury and King Eadwine in 626 and again (after a year of chaos following military defeat) by Bishop Aidan from Iona and King Oswald in 634 or so. Christian burials don’t usually contain grave goods, to the chagrin of archaeologists who are thus denied valuable dating evidence. Rich burials are more usually associated with non-Christian religions. Perhaps, as is very likely, tradition in Northumbria was slow to change. Or perhaps there is another Merovingian connection here. Sixth-century Merovingian royalty were buried with spectacular grave goods, despite being Christians (for example, see the tomb of Queen Arnegunde at St Denis in Paris, excavated in 1959). Queen Arnegunde was buried in 580-590. Perhaps the lady with the brooches at Loftus knew of this Frankish burial tradition – perhaps she was even from Merovingian France herself – and wished to emulate it?

Probably we will never know the details. What seems certain is that the site is one of the most important finds in early English archaeology.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Maybe people practised a mix of Christian and pagan funeral rites - to be on the safe side, so to speak. Look at how blurred the lines between both were in Iceland where a praise poem for a bishop could be composed using the pagan kenningar. I have a feeling people back then were not so picky about religious purity. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Fascinating! Delighted to hear that such an important site has been discovered.

Carla said...

Gabriele - That's quite likely, and certainly seems to be the case for the Merovingian kings, who are roughly contemporary with the Loftus cemetery (assuming the mid seventh century date is confirmed). Evidently no priest told them they weren't allowed to have richly furnished burials. People may not necessarily have seen grave goods, or their absence, in terms of a religious statement, but more as a right and proper way of doing things, a way of showing proper respect for the dead person or of giving them a decent send-off. There's an example from late Roman Britain of a woman buried with ornaments and jars and an inscription that identifies her as Christian. Nowadays people will sometimes put personal objects in the coffin, without necessarily believing that the dead person is going to need them in any afterlife. It's quite possible to have ritual without any particular religious belief attached to it - just watch students in an exam carefully laying out their lucky rock on the desk, checking that they're wearing their lucky socks and writing with their lucky pencil, or for that matter technicians in a lab who hold that you mustn't look at the scintillation counter results until it's finished all the samples or the experiment won't have worked. People don't really go in for logic and consistency :-)

Alianore - yes, it just goes to show that you never know what might turn up, doesn't it?

Bernita said...

I agree. Am always suspicious of these absolute claims about what is done and not done according to religious dictum.
Fascinating find!

Carla said...

Bernita - a fascinating site indeed.

Unknown said...

Very significant find. Gold was a important possession in England during the years mentioned. Graves for commoners were left to the families. Graves of the esteemed were ritualistic events shrouded in ancient religious customs, both pagan & Christine. Noteworthy is the term..."Artistic": Much of what remains today from this period are low grade hand crafted attempts at jewelry. Could the gold relic's be symbolic of religion? I'd have to see some close-ups. Safe to say however that people, were people, even in 670-80 BC. Could be just a 'whim' that the brooch's found their way to the grave. In need of more info.
David L. Southwell

Carla said...

Hello David, and welcome. Indeed, more information would be very useful (always the case!). I understand there's going to be an interim report published in the spring of 2008, so it would be worth looking out for it on the Teeside Archaeological Society page.