Wednesday 27 June 2012

Oakington: Life and death in the East Anglian Fens

Anglo-Saxon skeletons have been surfacing for almost a century in the fields of Oakington. Now a new project has laid bare the trials and tragedies of a small 6th-century Fenland community. Duncan Sayer, Richard Mortimer and Faye Simpson bring flesh to the bones.

 In 1926 four early Anglo-Saxon burials, one equipped with a spear, knife and shield boss, were discovered in an Oakington village field, in Cambridgeshire. Described as ‘[south] of the church’, the land had just been bought by Alan Bloom for his nursery garden. His interest piqued, Alan dug dozens more holes, only abandoning the hunt for further bodies when he hit undisturbed subsoil. Yet there were more to find. Construction of a children’s playground in the 1990s brought 26 burials to light, excavated by Cambridgeshire’s Archaeological Field Unit, while 2006 and 2007 saw Oxford Archaeology East recover 17 more. In 2010 and 2011 students and researchers returned to the site, opening new trenches on either side of the playground and revealing 27 further burials – including a pregnant woman, a warrior and, most exceptional of all, a large number of child burials from a period when they are notoriously scarce.

With several seasons left to go, Oakington is fully established as a substantial 6th-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery. But there is more to the site than that. Capitalising on the longer view that a research and community project provides, test pits and whole trenches have been excavated in gardens and open spaces throughout the village. The tantalising results point to an early enclosed community – a Middle Saxon Burh – on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fen.

Cow and woman found in Anglo-Saxon dig

Archaeologists excavating an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Cambridgeshire say the discovery of a woman buried with a cow is a "genuinely bizarre" find. 

Archaeologists described the find as "unique in Europe" [Credit: BBC]
The grave was uncovered in Oakington by students from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. 

At first it was thought the animal skeleton was a horse. 

Student Jake Nuttall said: "Male warriors might be buried with horses, but a woman and a cow is new to us." 

He added: "We were excited when we thought we had a horse, but realising it was a cow made it even more bizarre." 

Co-director of the excavation, Dr Duncan Sayer, from the University of Central Lancashire, said: "Animal burials are extremely rare, anyway.