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‘At the end of the day I was digging a hole’ - how finding 81 Anglo Saxon coffins in Great Ryburgh nearly ruined builder

PUBLISHED: 08:24 28 February 2017 | UPDATED: 09:48 28 February 2017

Gary Boyce with some of the Anglo-Saxon coffins. Picture: Ian Burt

Gary Boyce with some of the Anglo-Saxon coffins. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2017

It started out as a project to dig a fishing lake and ended with the earliest ever find of Anglo-Saxon Christian burials in the UK. But the story behind their discovery is as fascinating as the discovery itself. Tom Bristow reports.

Aerial view of the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Great Ryburgh. Photo: MOLA Aerial view of the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Great Ryburgh. Photo: MOLA

Gary Boyce began digging a fishing lake on his land next to the river Wensum in Great Ryburgh at 8am on January 13, 2016.

Before midday he began finding something that archaeologists who had surveyed the site by his home had missed – one of the biggest and earliest Anglo-Saxon Christian burial grounds ever found.

Over the coming weeks, archaeologists would excavate 81 coffins dating from the 7th to 9th Century.

“It was totally mixed emotions.” Mr Boyce said. “I was in a state of shock.”

A plank lined grave with human remains at the dig site in Great Ryburgh. Photo: MOLA A plank lined grave with human remains at the dig site in Great Ryburgh. Photo: MOLA

An archaeological survey had told him there was little on the site and there was no room in his finances for weeks of delays and excavations.

But the project has been delayed by a year and he estimates it has cost him £250,000.

“I nearly lost the house,” he said. “I had to go to the bank to borrow against a find of national significance.”

But despite being of huge historical value, the coffins are worth little and these unique bits of history are now being stored in Mr Boyce’s outbuilding.

The coffins are being stored in Gary Boyce's outbuilding in Great Ryburgh, despite being hailed as a hugely significant historial find. Picture: Ian Burt The coffins are being stored in Gary Boyce's outbuilding in Great Ryburgh, despite being hailed as a hugely significant historial find. Picture: Ian Burt

The 51-year-old builder had put in a planning application for a fishing lake 14 months earlier in October 2014.

He wanted to reduce frequent floods, increase bio-diversity and provide a home for endangered crucian carp for the National Crucian Conservation Project.

Mr Boyce was asked to complete an archaeological survey before North Norfolk District Council would grant planning permission and he hired a firm called Archaeological Solutions in August 2015.

The company dug three trenches but its initial report said “finds were sparse”.

Gary Boyce at the fishing lake on his land at Great Ryburgh where the burials were found. Picture: Ian Burt Gary Boyce at the fishing lake on his land at Great Ryburgh where the burials were found. Picture: Ian Burt

An archaeologist friend of Mr Boyce’s later took a look and checked the heaps of soil dug out of the trenches with a metal detector.

He found more than 200 pieces of pottery as well as animal bones - evidence of human habitation.

They told the archaeological company about these finds and the company’s report was revised to state “a substantial number of finds were found” in spoil heaps dug from the trenches.

“They missed all of these items,” Mr Boyce claimed.

Gary Boyce found lots of Anglo-Saxon coffins and bodies on his land at Great Ryburgh. Picture: Ian Burt Gary Boyce found lots of Anglo-Saxon coffins and bodies on his land at Great Ryburgh. Picture: Ian Burt

But Archaeological Solutions claimed Mr Boyce and his archaeologist did not find the evidence of human habitation until several weeks later.

“It would seem that the spoil heaps had weathered and finds, not previously apparent, were visible,” director Claire Haplin said.

The council granted planning permission in October 2015 and archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) were brought in as the dig began.

“We knew we had habitation, but there is a massive difference between habitation and a burial site,” Mr Boyce said. “When I had the burials it changed the ball game massively.

Archaeologists examining the graves. Photo: MOLA/PA Wire Archaeologists examining the graves. Photo: MOLA/PA Wire

“If I had known they were there we wouldn’t have been excavating them. I would have got a university involved to excavate it and I would have changed the shape of the lake.”

Historic England stepped in to pay for the exhumations and took the skeletons away, but Mr Boyce said this was a fraction of the cost. This has included putting his building business on hold for more than a year while digging the lake.

There was also a delay with Historic England starting the excavations in February 2016 which he said cost him £5,000 a week in labour and machinery he had hired for the lake dig.

“It smacks you in the face because I did everything that I was asked all the way through,” he said.

Undated handout photo issued by MOLA showing an aerial view of graves lined with wooden planks and coffins made from hollowed-out tree trunks that have been found in a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday November 16, 2016. The burial site, thought by experts to be the final resting place of a community of early Christians, was discovered in an excavation carried out ahead of a scheme to create a wildlife lake and flood defence system. See PA story HERITAGE Graves. Photo credit should read: MOLA/PA Wire

NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder. Undated handout photo issued by MOLA showing an aerial view of graves lined with wooden planks and coffins made from hollowed-out tree trunks that have been found in a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday November 16, 2016. The burial site, thought by experts to be the final resting place of a community of early Christians, was discovered in an excavation carried out ahead of a scheme to create a wildlife lake and flood defence system. See PA story HERITAGE Graves. Photo credit should read: MOLA/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.

At one point, frustrated by the delays and financial losses, he began moving hundreds of tonnes of soil back to the area of the lake where the bodies were found to cover them up again.

The archaeologists took the bodies away and samples from the coffins, but left the coffins on site. Mr Boyce hopes to donate one to Norwich Castle Museum.

After the dig, Mr Boyce and a friend spent nine weeks sifting through the dug out soil.

They found Anglo-Saxon artefacts, including coins, dating back to 650 AD.

The bodies will be returned to Mr Boyce and he hopes to rebury them close to where they were found, while he is considering auctioning the coffins.

As for the lake, he is hoping to open it this spring.

“It is absolutely mad,” he said. “At the end of the day I was digging a hole. I’m looking forward to opening it, then getting my life back on track.”

Treasure!

Jewellery unearthed by landowner Gary Boyce close to the site of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Great Ryburgh has now been officially deemed treasure at two separate inquests.

Area coroner Yvonne Blake opened inquests into a Roman silver finger ring, dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD, and a post-medieval silver gilt pin at Norfolk Coroner’s Court on Monday morning.

Both had been found by Mr Boyce near the Great Ryburgh site, where in January of last year a cemetery of 81 Anglo-Saxon burials dating from more than 1,100 years ago were discovered.

Mr Boyce found both items using a metal detector in October of last year in soil dug from the exhumation.

The post-medieval gilt pin is believed to date from between the 8th and 10th century AD.

Reports from the British Museum about the finds confirmed they qualified as treasure for both age and precious metal content.

How was the find missed?

Mr Boyce’s archaeologist friend put in a complaint to the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) about Archaeological Solutions, which was hired to survey the site and which dug three trenches.

He claimed the firm had overlooked significant finds during its evaluation, failed to properly identify certain finds and submitted a “sub-standard” report.

The CIfA panel agreed work was “below standard” but said it did not breach its code of conduct.

The first report from Archaeological Solutions was described by the CIfA panel as a “poor piece of work” and “inaccurate”.

Archaeological Solutions said it strove to “achieve the highest standards”.

“We are always happy to receive comments and improve work practices,” director Claire Haplin said.

“The trenches did not represent a site-wide survey and did not overlie the Saxon burials, which were then unknown.”

What happened when?

•October 2014: Mr Boyce puts in a planning application for a fishing lake and flood prevention scheme at his home in Great Ryburgh.

•August 2015: An archaeological firm carries out a survey of the site showing little previous human habitation. It digs three trenches.

September 2015: Mr Boyce and a friend find more than 200 pottery shards and bones around the three trenches.

•October 2015: The archaeological survey report is revised after their find.

•October 2015: Planning permission is granted.

•January 2016: Digging of lake begins, first burial is found on first morning. Historic England contacted about finds.

•February 2016: Funding with Historic England for exhumations of burials agreed but delayed.

•May 2016: Exhumations of the burials begin.

•July 2016: Archaeologists leave site.

•February 2017: Final work to project being carried out before spring opening of lake.

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