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March 2013 Meeting Report

Richard Mortimer on Excavations of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery and settlements at Oakington

At our March meeting we enjoyed another very interesting talk by Sawston archaeologist Richard Mortimer. His subject was the ongoing excavations of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery and settlements at Oakington, the first burials being discovered by Alan Bloom in 1926 at his recently purchased nursery garden site. Four Anglo-Saxon burials were discovered, one of which had a spear, knife and shield boss as grave goods. Further digging around failed to yield anything more and the burials were pretty much forgotten until 26 more graves were discovered in the 1990s during the construction of a children’s playground. These skeletons were subsequently reburied next to the playground in a brick-built 'tomb'.

Further excavations were carried out on the cemetery in 2006/07 when the Parish built a pavilion and sports pitch, bringing the number of graves found to nearly 50. Following this excavation a local Archaeological and Historical Society (OWHS) was set up and geophysical surveys were carried out (some by the ARG, two of whom are SVHS members). Richard, alongside the OWHS and local secondary schools then began to excavate test pits throughout the village to plot the historical spread of the settlement.  Thus far, 50 test pits have been excavated, mostly in people’s front and back gardens.

In 2010 a partnership was formed with the University of Central Lancashire to run a research and training excavation on the cemetery site over the next few years. Excavations have since been carried out each summer with local people, volunteers and groups of students and the number of excavated burials has increased to 110 skeletons from 105 graves. In 2012, in order to find out more about the original reburied skeletons, the mass grave by the children’s playground was opened and the bodies retrieved. The decay caused by reburial was shown to have done considerable damage to the bones and their packaging: they have now been cleaned, repackaged and are stored with the rest of the collection.

Of the 105 graves found at Oakington the majority have contained grave goods, a common feature of early Anglo-Saxon burials (dating to AD 450-650). Very few of the men were equipped with weapons on burial. The standard Anglo-Saxon weapon set would comprise spear, shield, and knife, with swords being rare. The women were buried in their finery, with brooches, amber beads, pins and cuff-fasteners being commonplace, and combs and key-sets rarer. A large number of graves, particularly those of children, also contained either whole pottery vessels or broken shards of pottery.

One surprising feature of the Oakington cemetery is that 43% of the graves were of children, and half of these were infants.  This is an unusually high percentage, but only because the smaller the child the shallower the grave, and shallow graves suffer more from truncation (generally by ploughing) in later years. Something perhaps harder to explain is that, of the adult graves, only about 34% were male. This may link in with the lack of weapon burials - it is possible that many of the men died elsewhere, perhaps in battle.

There were two especially noteworthy burials uncovered during the 2012 excavation. One was a richly furnished female burial with a large cruciform brooch and two smaller long brooches. The bones of her unborn baby were still in her pelvis, indicating that she had probably died in childbirth. The student excavators christened her 'Queeny' (N.B. she would not have been a Christian in life). Another interesting burial was that of a man around 45, buried with a spear and a knife. He had fractures in one of his arms, almost certainly defence wounds caused in combat and degenerative arthritis in his back which must have severely hindered his mobility.

Test pit excavations in the village, alongside study of old, and current, map evidence, has revealed that Oakington lies on the route of an old track way that runs northwest to southeast connecting a number of the Fenland villages and shadowing the Roman Via Devana which runs about 2-5km to the south. The Via Devana connected the larger Roman towns, from Chester to Leicester, Godmanchester and Cambridge to Colchester, following the line of the present A14. This route way can be shown to mark major tribal boundaries both in the Anglo-Saxon and Later Iron Age periods and there are suggestions both route and boundary have even earlier origins.

Intriguingly Richard pointed out that the distribution of place names ending in -ham was significantly greater to the north of this track way/border line than to the south where -ton endings predominated. Both these are Anglo-Saxon place-name elements, and translate as settlement or homestead, but perhaps there is a more subtle distinction, to do with the linguistic differences between Angles and Saxons?

Responding to a question about the Sawston Saxon burials on Huckeridge Hill, Richard was quite confident that the present sewage treatment plant and the Bonfire field (the old quarry) are very likely to be the site of a similar Anglo-Saxon cemetery.  There is nothing 'special' about Oakington that Sawston does not have, all Oakington has had that marks it out is the opportunity to start delving (or digging) into its history.

Non SVHS members are  very welcome to pop in to our Heritage Centre at the Sawston PC Office in Link Road on Monday mornings where you can ask our archivists Bryan Howe or Andrew Little about any aspect of Sawston History.

Bruce Milner

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