Great Ryburgh (G-B): Anglo-Saxon secrets emerge out of the mud

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Rare graves lined with wooden planks and coffins made from hollowed-out tree trunks have been found in a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

The burial site at Great Ryburgh, near Fakenham in Norfolk, is thought by experts to be the final resting place of a community of early Christians. It was discovered in an excavation carried out ahead of a scheme to create a wildlife lake and flood defence system.

It is the first time such "exceptionally" well-preserved Anglo-Saxon wooden graves dating from the 7th to 9th centuries have been found in Britain.

Anglo-Saxon coffins rarely survive because the wood rots, and previous evidence of burials has largely consisted of staining in the ground from decayed wood.

But waterlogged conditions in the Wensum river valley, with a combination of acidic sand and alkaline water, were perfect for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive, experts said.

Stream img 6The coffins were discovered by workmen digging a new fishing lake. Credit: MOLA

Stream img 1 181 coffins have been found at the site, preserved in the waterlogged ground. Credit: MOLA

Stream img 2Artist's drawing of what the coffins would have looked like when they were carved more than a thousand years ago. Credit: MOLA

Some 81 dug-out coffins have been uncovered, made from oak trees splitlength-ways down the trunk and hollowed out, with the body laid in one half and the other used as a lid.

It is the first time such coffins, which appeared in Europe in the early Bronze Age and reappeared in early medieval times, have been properly excavated and recorded by modern archaeologists in the UK.

And the six plank-lined graves which the dig has uncovered are very rare in the UK, and are believed to be the earliest examples found in the country, experts said.

The dig has been carried out by MOLA independent archaeology service and funded by government heritage agency Historic England.

The experts have unearthed evidence the burial site is a Christian one, including a timber structure thought to be a rare example of an early church or chapel, as well as wooden grave markers, east-west alignment of graves and a lack of grave goods which would be expected in a pagan site.

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said: "These rare and exceptionally well-preserved graves are a significant discovery which will advance our understanding of Middle-Saxon religious beliefs and rural communities.

"This cemetery has been revealed because under the current system, archaeological surveys are required before work on a sensitive site starts.

"This site has immense potential for revealing the story of the community who once lived there."

Research and testing of the bodies, including DNA sampling and looking at material found on teeth, will help build a picture of where the people came from, whether they were related and what their diet and health were like.

The finds from the dig will go to Norwich Castle Museum, whose curator Tim Pestell 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."

Gary Boyce, landowner of Wensum View where the burial site was found, said: "It's really exciting to have such a rare and important heritage site on my land.

"We set out to create a lake to maximise conservation and biodiversity, to alleviate flooding in the river valley and create a new spot for anglers to fish, and along the way have revealed the hidden secrets of the area's past."

Stream img 3DNA analysis of the skeletons will help to build up a better picture of who was buried at the Great Ryburgh site. Credit: MOLA

Video report by ITV News Anglia's Natalie Gray =