The Grave Digger’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Grave Digger’s Tale

by Jane Richardson

Bronze Age round barrows (c. 2000 BC onwards) and the distinctive Iron Age square barrows of the Arras culture (5th to 1st centuries BC) are well known on the high Wolds of eastern Yorkshire, and they indicate an elaborate and enduring way of marking a person’s passing. So when archaeologists from Archaeological Services arrived at Easington in Holderness, they were not too surprised to be digging ancient graves. They knew that the excavations at Easington were being carried out in a landscape renowned for early prehistoric round barrows, but what was found during the investigations told a very different and unexpected tale. Instead of Bronze Age round barrows, the archaeologists found the cremated remains of Iron Age people and, later, the burial of a Roman body. Associated with them was evidence for a long-lived settlement: roundhouses, enclosures, metal-working industry and farming.

Also laid to rest at the site, but this time within a relict Roman landscape of infilled ditches and decaying banks, were three Early Saxon (6th-century AD) individuals. Positioned neatly between two redundant ditches, lay a grave containing the body of a large, robustly built male aged between 36 and 45 years. He was buried with a small iron knife. A reconstruction of how this burial might have looked is shown here.

Reconstruction of burial
Reconstruction of an Early Saxon burial at Easington

The neighbouring grave contained the remains of two individuals, a juvenile between 6 and 10 years and a young adult between 20 and 25 years. These were buried with an iron knife, an iron socketed spearhead and two copper alloy buckles and plates. It is tempting to view these people as a family group. Isotope analysis on their remains suggest that they were all local people. The archaeologists did not identify their settlement, though, and it has probably been lost to coastal erosion. It is estimated that an Early Saxon settlement at Easington may have been as far as 6km out at sea from the present coast.

Moving north from Easington, Archaeological Services also excavated Iron Age and Roman settlement remains on the northern edge of Bridlington. Here enclosures, roundhouses and corn driers were investigated and a farming community, perhaps concentrating on arable crops, was proposed. Again the archaeologists needed to investigate a number of graves, but these were very different from those at Easington. Six people had been buried at the Bridlington site, but all six were babies, all under 3 months old. While infanticide is possible, it is more likely that these babies were still-born or had died of natural causes during their first vulnerable weeks of life. Their burial in a non-cemetery setting, within the settlement itself, is not uncommon for infants of this period. Their burials are not seen as the discard of unwanted infants, but instead have been linked to fertility rituals.

While the monumental burial mounds of the Bronze Age and Iron Age that are so common in eastern Yorkshire were not part of the excavations at Easington and Bridlington, the graves investigated still provided valuable information on Iron Age, Roman and Early Saxon culture. Importantly, excavations of the Iron Age and Roman settlements also highlighted how some of these people once lived.

Grave Digger's Lab

Jane Richardson is a Senior Project Manager for Archaeological Services WYAS, a commercial archaeology company based near Leeds. For further information see www.arch.wyjs.org.uk. The reconstruction of the Early Saxon burial was drawn by Chris Fern, a freelance archaeologist and illustrator.