26 May 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

Largest Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered in Britain illuminates ‘Dark Ages’

Archaeologists working on HS2 (the purpose-built high-speed railway line) have discovered a rich Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, where almost three-quarters of the graves contain quality grave goods.

The items uncovered are dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. The site contains 138 graves, 141 inhumation burials, and 5 cremation burials, in addition to evidence of Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman activity. One of the largest Anglo-Saxon burial grounds ever uncovered in Britain.

Many of the burials had two brooches on their collarbones, indicating that they were used to hold up clothes like a cloak or a peplos – a long garment worn by women with shoulder brooches. The brooches were manufactured in a variety of styles, including gilt disk brooches and silver coin brooches. A pair of little square-headed brooches were discovered — a miniature version of the famed Chessell Down Brooch, which is on exhibit at the British Museum.

A set of copper alloy brooches uncovered during HS2 excavations of an Anglo Saxon burial ground in Wendover.
A set of copper alloy brooches was uncovered during HS2 excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground in Wendover. Photo: HS2

One person, a female, was discovered with a large number of items, the quality of which suggests that she was a high-status member of the site’s buried population. She was buried with a whole elaborate glass bowl composed of pale green glass, believed to have been manufactured around the turn of the fifth century and hence might have been of Roman heritage. Other burial items included multiple rings made of copper alloy, a silver ‘zoomorphic’ ring, brooches, discs, iron belt fittings, and objects made of ivory.

Glass bowl, possibly Roman, uncovered during HS2 excavations of an Anglo Saxon burial ground in Wendover, Buckinghamshire. Photo: HS2

Some of the items uncovered could have been imported from across Europe, such as amber beads, and various metals and raw materials used to make the artifacts. Two glass cone beakers were uncovered intact, which are similar to vessels made in Northern France, although they were also making them in England at the time.

The beakers, which would have been used for drinking liquids such as wine, may suggest the people there had access to fine beverages from abroad. The vessels have decorative trails in the glass and are comparable to the “Kempston” type cone beaker, uncovered in Bedfordshire in 1891, with one currently on display in the British Museum.

Anglo Saxon decorative glass beads
Anglo Saxon decorative glass beads. Photo: HS2

 Overall, the excavations recovered over 2000 beads, 89 brooches, 40 buckles, 51 knives, 15 spearheads, 7 shield bosses, and a bucket made from iron and wood.

Talking about the excavations, Mike Court, Lead Archaeologist for HS2 Ltd, said:

“As we near the end of our archaeology fieldwork on Phase One of HS2, we are just at the beginning of our understanding of how the discoveries will improve our historical knowledge of Britain.

A silver “zoomorphic” ring. Photo: HS2

“The archaeological finds made at this site in Wendover will not only be of interest to the local community but are of national importance, providing a valuable insight into life in Anglo-Saxon Britain.”

Whilst the majority of burials were inhumations, many were buried with vessels that were similar in style to cremation urns but were placed in graves as accessories. One of these had a unique style with horns protruding out, and distinctive “hot cross bun’ stamps – a fairly common Anglo-Saxon motif.

HS2

Cover Photo: HS2

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