Archaeologists find remarkably rare preserved Middle Saxon cemetery with wooden coffins

By Richard Moss Published: 16 November 2016

Incredibly rare Anglo Saxon carved wooden coffins uncovered with their skeletons intact

a photo of human skeletal remains in a grave
A plank lined grave with human remains at Great Ryburgh ©MOLA
Anglo-Saxon coffins seldom survive. Wood from the period (410 to 1066) tends to decay over time and evidence to date has largely consisted of the merest traces and staining in the ground from the decayed wood.

But now archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology have made a breakthrough with a remarkable discovery preserved on the edges of a fishing lake and flood defence system at Wensum View in Norfolk.

The waterlogged conditions, with a unique combination of acidic sand and the alkaline water of the river valley, has created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves of an Anglo Saxon cemetery to survive across the millennia.

Extremely rare in the archaeological record, the rare find includes eight plank-lined graves and a further grouping of 81 hand carved tree-trunk coffins dating from the 7th-9th century AD.

Archaeologists believe the site may have been the final resting place for a community of early Christians. Evidence includes the remains of a timber structure, thought to be a church or chapel, of which there are few examples from this period.

Elsewhere remarkable evidence of Christian Anglo-Saxon burial practices include wooden grave markers, an east-west alignment of the coffins and an evident lack of grave goods.

a photo of a crouching woman in a high visibility jacket recording a grave
An archaeologist records human remains at Great Ryburgh © MOLA
an aerial photograph showing oblong shapes in the ground clustered together
Aerial view of the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Great Ryburgh © MOLA
The dug-out coffins comprise oak trees split in two length-ways and hollowed out. The type of coffin is first seen in Europe in the Early Bronze Age and reappears in the early medieval period.

In Britain dug out coffins are mentioned in antiquarian records of the late 19th century, but this is the first time they have been properly excavated and recorded by modern archaeologists.

The burials were positioned in the lower half the log with the upper half rested on top to form a lid. Although they are not decorative, experts say it would have taken considerable effort to hollow a single coffin, an estimated four man days. The fact that evidence for similar burial rites is also found in earlier cemeteries may also signify the blending of pagan and Christian traditions.

Matthew Champion, the local archaeologist who made the initial discoveries at the site, said the discovery will “significantly add to our understanding of just how the settlement patterns in the river valley developed over time.”

a photo of a woman in a high visibility jacket carefully removing mud from a skeleton in a grave
An archaeologist carefully excavates Anglo-Saxon human remains and a dug-out coffin © MOLA
a wide angled aerial view of an excavation next to a stretch of water
Another view of the archaeological excavations © MOLA
a drawing of a woman in a carved wooden coffin
A reconstruction of tree-trunk coffin with lid from an early Anglo-Saxon grave at Mucking Cemetery II, Essex © Historic England and Judith Dobie
The finds and remains are to be kept at Norwich Castle Museum and, according to Curator Tim Pestell, the site was in use “in the heyday of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia and positioned next to a strategic river crossing”.

“As with much of East Anglia at this early date, we have no documentary sources that relate to this site and so it is archaeological finds like this that are crucial in helping us to understand the development of the kingdom,” he added.

"This find is a dramatic example of how new evidence is helping to refine our knowledge of this fascinating period when Christianity and the Church were still developing on the ground. Detailed analysis of the cemetery provides the hope of better understanding the actual people living according to this new religion.”

Continued research and scientific testing, in the form of ancient DNA, stable isotope and dental calculus analysis, will help to develop biographies for the people buried. Archaeologists hope to be able to say more about where these people came from, whether they were related, and what their diet and health were like, once research is complete.

Explore one of the Middle Saxon wooden burials in 3D with this photogrammetry model © MOLA

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