Early English Cemetery May Blend Paganism and Christianity

Plank lined grave.  Photo courtesy of Historic England.
Plank lined grave. Photo courtesy of Historic England.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology working in Norfolk, England have found a well preserved Anglo-Saxon cemetery dating between AD 600 and 800.  The cemetery, excavated because of a flood defense system slated to be built in the area, is exceptional because of the types of graves discovered - plank lined and tree trunk - and what they collectively mean.  


The plank lined graves are as the name suggests, graves dug into the ground and lined, floor and sidewalls, with hewn planks.  The body was then placed inside the grave and another set of planks was installed to form the grave’s lid. 


Tree trunk graves revolve around the coffin, which again as the name suggests, was made from a tree trunk.  The 81 tree trunk graves found at the site were made from oak trees.  The felled trunks were cut to length, split in half longways, and hollowed out to make room for a body.  The body was placed in the hollowed cavity and then the trunk halves were put back together so that the deceased was completely encapsulated.


Archaeologists believe the cemetery may represent a blending of pagan and Christian rituals.  Christian rituals are indicated by the wooden grave markers, the east-west coffin alignments, and the lack of grave goods associated with the bodies.  The tree trunk burials, however, are an older style of burial indicative of pagan influence.  


Tim Pestell, Curator at Norwich Castle Museum, where recovered materials will be housed said, "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.


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."



Continuing research includes ancient DNA testing, stable isotope analyses, and dental calculus analyses.  By the end, archaeologists hope to answer questions about the overall health of the population, their diets, and their relationships to one another.  The project has been funded by Historic England.

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