‘Stunning’ Anglo-Saxon burial site found along HS2 route

‘Stunning’ Anglo-Saxon burial site found along HS2 route

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An Anglo-Saxon cemetery containing the remains of more than 140 people buried with some of their favorite objects, including jewelry, knives and even a toiletry kit, has been discovered by archaeologists working on route HS2.

The site, near Wendover, Buckinghamshire, contained an “impressive body of findings”, said historian Dan Snow. “Traditionally, this period has been dismissed as a dark age. But archeology has filled in the gaps.”

Pieces of spine and iron spearhead

The skeleton was found with an iron spearhead embedded in the thoracic vertebra. Photography: HS2/PA

The findings “will tell us more about how our predecessors lived, struggled and ultimately died,” he said. “It is one of the best and most revealing post-Roman sites in the country.”

One skeleton, a male aged between 17 and 24 at the time of death, was found with a sharp iron object embedded in his vertebrae, suggesting he suffered a violent death. The osteologists who examined the skeleton believe that a gun was thrust into his body from the front before it fitted into his spine.

A vivid blue stain on her collarbone came from a brooch used to hold clothes. Many of the skeletons at the site were found with two collarbone brooches holding capes or peplos – long outer garments worn by women – in place.

A female skeleton was found with a wide range of possessions, including an ornate pale green glass bowl believed to have been made around the turn of the 5th century, indicating she was a person of high status. Other items found with her remains included rings, brooches, iron belt accessories, and ivory objects.

The site contained 138 graves with 141 inhumation graves and five cremation graves, making it one of the largest Anglo-Saxon cemeteries discovered in Britain. Over 2,000 beads have been unearthed, along with 89 brooches, 40 buckles, 51 knives, 15 spearheads, and seven shield bosses.

Rachel Wood, lead archaeologist at Fusion JV, the company that carried out the fieldwork, said it was a “once-in-a-lifetime find.”

Dan Snow with spearhead discovered in HS2 digs

Dan Snow with spearhead uncovered in HS2 digs. Photography: HS2/PA

“It is rare to discover Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, especially with so many individuals – men, women and children – and such an incredible array of funerary goods. Almost all individuals were buried with fantastically decorated brooches, but we also found glass and amber beads, swords, shield heads, spearheads, fantastically decorated ceramic jewelry – many unique objects.

“The 5th and 6th centuries are not the ones we know a lot about, and all the objects we find will be able to tell us a lot about these people. It gives us a great picture of society.”

Most individuals appear to have been relatively wealthy, able to import some of the items from across Europe. Two glass tumblers that were discovered intact would have been used to drink wine brought to England from abroad. The beakers are similar to those made in northern France, although some were also made in England at the time.

The findings include personal care items such as earwax removers, toothpicks, tweezers, combs and a tube that could hold a cosmetic such as eyeliner.

A team of 30 archaeologists worked on the site for nearly a year, completing the fieldwork in 2021. In addition to the Anglo-Saxon cemetery, evidence from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman activity has been discovered.

The HS2 route proved to be rich in archaeological finds. More than 1,000 archaeologists have worked at 60 separate sites between London and the West Midlands over the past three years.

Objects that have been unearthed will be preserved and many will eventually be displayed in museums. But larger discoveries will be demolished to make way for the new railway line.

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