Dramatic discovery of early Christian cemetery at Great Ryburgh sheds light on first days of new religion in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 08:49 16 November 2016 | UPDATED: 08:49 16 November 2016

An aerial view of the MOLA excavation site at Wensum Park, Great Ryburgh

An aerial view of the MOLA excavation site at Wensum Park, Great Ryburgh


The moment when paganism and Christianity collided in our county may have been uncovered with the “dramatic” discovery of 81 uniquely preserved burial plots that could date back 1,400 years.

Grave are the earliest found in Britain

The wooden grave markers, east-west alignment of the coffins and the evident lack of grave goods all support the Christian origins of the cemetery.

The 81 dug-out coffins discovered comprise oak trees split in two length-ways and hollowed out. This type of coffin is first seen in Europe in the Early Bronze Age and reappears in the early medieval period. From Britain they are mentioned in antiquarian records from the late 19th century, but this is the first time they have been properly excavated and recorded by modern archaeologists. The burials, in hollowed out logs, were positioned in the lower half and the upper half rested on top to form a lid. Although they are not decorative, it would have taken considerable effort to hollow a single coffin, an estimated four man days. The fact that evidence for similar burial rites is also found in earlier cemeteries may signify the blending of pagan and Christian traditions.

The six plank-lined graves are believed to be the earliest known examples from Britain. The graves were cut into the ground, lined with expertly hewn timber planks, the body placed inside and planks positioned on top to form a cover. The relationship between the two burial types is not fully understood, but may denote an evolution in burial practices. Tree-ring dating is being undertaken to date the timber.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said the site has “immense potential for revealing the story of the community who once lived there.”

An early Anglo-Saxon cemetery was unearthed at a dig in Great Ryburgh, and is thought to be the first time coffins from the early Christian period have been found intact in the UK.

Along with the remains of a small church or chapel, the discovery could have “immense potential” for revealing how our ancestors lived, and died.

Archaeologists from MOLA uncovered the cemetery in an excavation funded by Historic England in advance of a conservation and fishing lake and flood defence system at Wensum View. The waterlogged conditions of the river valley led to the remarkable preservation of burials that are extremely rare in the archaeological record, including plank-lined graves and tree-trunk coffins dating from the 7th-9th century AD.

James Fairclough, archaeologist from MOLA, said the combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the “perfect conditions” for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive.

An archaeologist carefully excavates Anglo Saxon human remains and a dug-out coffin at the Wensum Park dig siteAn archaeologist carefully excavates Anglo Saxon human remains and a dug-out coffin at the Wensum Park dig site

“What we have here is the first time we have found coffins from this period preserved in the UK,” he said. 
“What this possibly means is we have the indication of the use of wood for coffins from the earlier Anglo-Saxon period, when there were more pagan traditions.”

In total 81 coffins were discovered, 76 in dug out coffins and six in notably rare plank-lined coffins.
“Within the cemetery these are not kept separately from each other - they are in the same rows,” added Mr Fairclough. “Hopefully when we are doing our analysis of the individuals it will tell us if they were buried in different periods.

“Based on their size they all seem to be adults, but we are hoping to work out things like age, gender, diet and health, and work out if they are from the same family groups.
“Specialists in Norwich Castle Museum say this will fall into a gap they have in their records. In most cases these coffins do not survive, so this gives us a unique insight into how the dead were being treated throughout the entire period.

“The situation on site was extremely rare, so the surrounding area is hopefully just as well preserved.”

Reconstruction of tree-trunk coffin with lid from early Anglo-Saxon grave 772 at Mucking Cemetery II, EssexReconstruction of tree-trunk coffin with lid from early Anglo-Saxon grave 772 at Mucking Cemetery II, Essex

The finds from the dig will be held at Norwich Castle Museum once analysis has been carried out on the remains.

Curator Tim Pestell said: “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.”

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