Story of one of the largest Saxon cemeteries ever found in Wessex revealed 42 years after its discovery

By Ben Miller | 19 June 2016 | Updated: 17 June 2016

One of the largest Saxon cemeteries ever found in Wessex contains cremations, grave goods and warrior burials

A photo of a Saxon skull found in Wessex
Found in Collingbourne Ducis in Wessex, this skull shows a well-healed trepanation. There is no indication that the man had suffered any head injuries prior to the procedure© Wessex Archaeology
Cremations, inhumations and graves accompanied by shield bosses, knives and spearheads were among the 77 burials at one of the largest Saxon cemeteries ever discovered in Wessex, say archaeologists who have released their findings after re-examining a site first excavated during the 1970s.

A local woman alerted the local council in the village of Collingbourne Ducis when she saw bones protruding from the ground at a housing development site in late 1973. More than 30 graves were found there by archaeologists in 1974, with a further 86 – believed to date from between the 5th and 7th centuries – uncovered in 2007.

“Immediately we saw that there were grave cuts,” says Neil Fitzpatrick, of Wessex Archaeology, who have just published the full results in a new monograph.

A photo of a Saxon skull found in Wessex
These are the remains of a stave-built wooden bucket. The fittings, base and rivets are tinned copper alloy, and decorative appliques would have been mounted on the upper rim© Wessex Archaeology
“We have nearly ten cremations. With the number we’ve had here plus those found in 1974, it’s officially the biggest early Saxon cemetery in Wiltshire so far, which is pretty cool.

“All of the burials seem to have an iron knife. We’re not too sure if it’s symbolic of reaching a particular grave, but some of the infant or small child burials have got them as well. There are virtually grave goods with everything.

“We’ve certainly had warrior burials with shield bosses and spearheads of varying types. One guy was underneath an inhumation without any goods – he had a sword with him which was in really good condition.

A photo of a Saxon skull found in Wessex
This partially gilded copper alloy bell-shaped brooch has a human face decoration© Wessex Archaeology
“We’ve also had crouched burials which are slightly unusual. They tend to have no grave goods or just an iron knife.”

Females tended to be buried with reused Roman beads made in the Saxon period. Small, long Germanic brooches, often with spiral decorations, also featured in the late Iron Age/Romano-British cemetery.

“One open area of relaid chalk seemed to be a central focus,” says Fitzpatrick. “We had an increase in graves.

A photo of a Saxon skull found in Wessex
The lower thoracic and upper lumbar region of a tuberculous spine from an older adult woman (left), compared to a normal spine (right)© Wessex Archaeology
“They appeared to be in graves with different orientations. Most of the early Saxon stuff will be pagan and you’ve obviously got Christian influence left over from the later Roman period.

“You occasionally have a higher status grave which is the focus of a smaller group. You might have people buried around a grave where they had personal loyalty to that person – possibly members of what you might term a household.”

The split could have separated people of varying statuses. “They might even be a different kind of cultural sector of society," explains Fitzpatrick. They may be sub Romano-British.

A photo of a Saxon skull found in Wessex
The cleaned and conserved version of the bell© Wessex Archaeology
“Some of them have literally been on the surface, where you hit the skull.

"We’re also getting funerary structures. If you imagine a modern cemetery you have a small mausoleum structure with a roof, possibly, and it’s just held up with four posts, like a shack or a hovel.”

These buildings, known as four-posters, were found on both sides of the cemetery during 11 weeks of work.

A photo of a Saxon skull found in Wessex
This copper alloy keystone garnet disc brooch, found loose in the subsoil, is similar to an early 7th century example found in Faversham, Kent© Wessex Archaeology
“It would have been wooded with trees,” adds Fitzpatrick of the site, which 1,600 years ago would have offered some spectacular vistas of the surrounding landscape. “The trees would have been removed when the graves were dug. It would have been an absolutely stunning view from the top of the hill.”

The conditions on the ground are however archaeologically difficult. “Some of these graves are actually dug along the glacial feature and backfilled with the deposit that was left along the glacial feature,” says Ritchie. “It’s an absolute nightmare.

“For a chalk site this is some of the worst natural material I’ve worked on for 23 years. But we’ve got a very, very high success rate.”

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Three places to find history in Wiltshire

The Salisbury Museum
Home of the Stonehenge gallery, Warminster Jewel and famous Monkton Deverill gold torc, as well as displays of prehistory in Early Man, Romans and Saxons, the medieval history of Old Sarum and Salisbury (with the renowned Giant and Hob Nob); the Pitt Rivers (father of modern scientific archaeology) collection; ceramics and costume; a pre-NHS surgery and Turner watercolours.

Chalke Valley Festival, Wake
For one week at the end of every June, this normally sleepy corner of England comes alive to the sound of Merlin engines, cannon-fire, muskets and music. Set in fields in south-west Wiltshire, the festival’s home lies in an idyllic part of the world.

The Rifles - Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum
Situated in Salisbury's Cathedral Close, the public displays are housed on the ground floor of a grade II-listed building dating from the 13th century. Landscaped gardens lead to the River Avon, overlooking the water meadows.
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