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Antiquity Vol 82 Issue 316 June 2008

A seventh-century royal cemetery at Street House, north-east Yorkshire, England

Steve Sherlock & Mark Simmons

The transition from Pagan polity to Christian kingdom in England is marked by the appearance of rich tombs, of which the best known are those at Sutton Hoo (Carver 2005). Recent discoveries which have added to the corpus are notable for their wealthy women (at Redcar and Ely). The latest aristocratic burial ground to be investigated, described here, lies in north-east England. It was superimposed on a prehistoric monument and contained a high ranking woman on a bed surrounded by 109 graves, arranged two by two.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Plan of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery to show the graves defining the cemetery, the location of the bed burial and grubenhaus. The dark postholes may represent a building or fence line to the SE of the bed burial. Click to enlarge.


Introduction

Excavations at Street House near Saltburn, Yorkshire, began in 2004 with a small excavation to examine two crop marks in a field adjacent to a Neolithic long cairn and mortuary structure (Vyner 1984). This excavation was part of a programme of research into Iron Age settlement in the Tees Valley. Early results suggested that one of the sites was an Iron Age enclosure dated after 380-160 cal BC, while the other was a Romano-British enclosure. In addition to the evidence for Iron Age and Romano-British settlement the discovery of a seventh century Anglo-Saxon cemetery was a complete surprise.

The Anglo-Saxon cemetery

In 2005 30 Anglo-Saxon graves were found overlying the Iron Age roundhouses. At that time we thought this cemetery would form a linear pattern of seventh-century graves associated with prehistoric monuments, similar to those found on the Yorkshire Wolds at sites like Garton Green Lane Crossing (Mortimer 1905). It therefore came as a surprise to discover during 2006 and 2007 that they were the western side of a more complex monument, comprising a total of 109 graves in a unique square-shaped layout around a central mound, bed burial and possible mortuary building (Figure 1).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Glass beads, fragments and re-used bangles from graves in 2007. Each image represents an assemblage of beads from a grave. The scale is graduated at 1cm intervals. Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately the preservation of organic remains on the site tends to be poor due to an acidic soil. While no human remains were recovered, a total of 64 individual graves contained artefacts (59 per cent of the total). The grave-good assemblages included a number of very high-status burials with gold and silver jewellery, 15 graves contained beads (Figure 2), 25 with ironwork including girdle hangers, knives, boxes and a sword, and other items included potsherds and fragments of glass. Significantly, all the artefacts that are datable are considered to be seventh-century and many of the higher status pieces have a Kentish origin or inspiration. Undoubtedly the most significant object is a unique shield-shaped pendant with cloisonné garnets and two bulla pendants found in grave 42 in association with the bed burial (Figure 3).

The bed burial

From the position of iron fittings within the grave we can tell that the bed in grave 42 was rectangular, approximately 1.8m by 0.80m by 0.30m with an inclined headboard attached by two stays of twisted iron on either side. Each side of the bed was made up of two horizontal planks, held together by a number of decorative iron cleats around the outside, of which at least nine examples survive. These cleats seem to have been fixed down each side at regular intervals and are unusual in shape, each being formed from a flat iron strip averaging 25mm wide, with each opposing end having been split in two and the resulting four ends bent back to make two opposing loops at each end.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Gold objects from grave 42 comprising two beads one blue and a gold wire bead. Nearby were two cabochon pendants each of different design. The largest piece was a shield shaped pendant with over 50 cloisonné cells and a scalloped shaped gem in the centre. This pendant is unparalleled in Anglo-Saxon England. The scale is graduated at 1cm intervals. Click to enlarge.

More complex ironwork decoration is also apparent at the head and at the foot of the bed. The top of each headboard stay has been attached to or flattened out to make a rectangular mount which grips the top edge of the headboard. At the foot end one similar mount survived. This example is slightly concave, suggesting that the top edge of the footboard was scalloped. A number of large headed and possibly decorated nails are also present on the foot. Each corner at the foot end also has an unusually large iron U-shaped staple which stood proud of the woodwork. This suggests that they could have held something, possibly carrying handles, although nothing similar was found at the head end.

Significance of the site

One of the more intriguing aspects about the Street House cemetery is the arrangement of the graves that appear to form the square boundary to the cemetery (Figure 4). This is certainly unique in Anglo-Saxon England although a square arrangement for Anglo-Saxon cemeteries has been recognised elsewhere. The best examples of burials within a square plan re-use earlier monuments such as the graves within an Iron Age enclosure at Garton Station, Yorkshire (Stead 1991: 22). At Broomfield, Shropshire, 31 seventh-century graves lay in rows aligned E-W within the enclosure of an Iron Age farmstead (Stanford 1995). The degree of order within the cemetery at Street House is remarkable, with a double row of graves on the north and south sides that are equally spaced, being 2.5m from the east side of one grave to the next and the distance of 2m between the north of the outer row and the south of the inner row. This mathematical precision can be followed through three corners of the cemetery.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The site after excavations in 2007, looking towards the SE with Iron Age roundhouse 8 in the foreground. The central area under crop and two spoilheaps was excavated in 20052006. Click to enlarge.

This high degree of order within the cemetery suggests that the graves were marked out as one incident or event. No graves intercut: some graves contained stakeholes as possible grave markers, and there are three possible stone markers. The close date range of the objects, some being from Kent, the organisation of the cemetery, the significance of the aristocratic burial with low burial mound and the unfilled cemetery together suggest a group of people of high status from outside the region. In addition, there is a grubenhaus (sunken floored building) and a possible timber building within the cemetery. It is suggested, as a working hypothesis, that because of the status of the royal princess on the bed, she may have lain temporarily on a bed in the grubenhaus prior to mourners arriving at the 'funeral'. It is recognised that this ritual is unparalleled on this type of site, but then so much of what has been discovered at Street House was previously unknown in Northern England.

Further work

A programme of geophysics in 2007 has shown a series of enclosures and further features outside the Iron Age enclosure. These are to be evaluated in the summer of 2008 assisted by Teesside Archaeological Society and with the support of the landowner.

References

  • CARVER, M.O.H. 2005. Sutton Hoo. A seventh-century princely burial ground and its context. London: British Museum Press.
  • MORTIMER, J.R. 1905. Forty years researches in British and Saxon burial mounds in East Yorkshire. London: A. Brown & Sons.
  • STANFORD. S.C. 1995. A Cornovian farm and Saxon cemetery at Broomfield, Shropshire. Shropshire History and Archaeological Journal 70: 98-165.
  • STEAD, I.M. 1991. Iron Age cemeteries in East Yorkshire (English Heritage Archaeological Report 22). London: English Heritage in association with British Museum Press.
  • VYNER, B.E. 1984. The excavation of a Neolithic cairn at Street House, Loftus, Cleveland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 50: 151-95.

Authors

  • Steve SherlockFreelance archaeologist & research student, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK (Email: stephen.sherlock@ntlworld.com)
  • Mark Simmons Hartlepool Museums & Heritage Service, Hartlepool, UK (Email: Mark.Simmons@hartlepool.gov.uk)

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