Sixth-century Anglo-Saxon woman discovered by British soldiers in Operation Nightingale

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 Injured British soldiers have helped uncover the remains of a sixth Century Anglo-Saxon female in an excavation project to preserve the remains of a burial site on Salisbury Plain in southern England.

‘Davina’, as they have named the woman is believed to have died in her late teens to early 20s. She appears to have been a person of note, as she was buried in what would have been a prestigious burial site. They have also found the remains of an Anglo-Saxon male, who was buried with a bronze shield.

The archaeological dig is part of Operation Nightingale, a six week excavation and rehabilitation programme for injured soldiers with an interest in archaeology. They are investigating an area known as Barrow Clump, which lies on lands held by the British military within Salisbury Plain, is currently on the English Heritage ‘Heritage at Risk’ list due to extensive burrowing by badgers.

The badgers are burrowing into the site and kicking up human remains and ancient burial relics. Operation Nightingale, with the support of Wessex Archaeology and English Heritage, plans to excavate the site to document and preserve the remains from further damage, before rebuilding the cemetery mound.

“We are very lucky to be part of this dig as soldiers – normally we wouldn’t be able to do this as it’s a scheduled Neolithic burial with an early Pagan Anglo-Saxon burial cut into it,” explained Rifleman Laurence Savage, 5 RIFLES, who is on his second archaeological dig with the project.

“Archaeologists can’t normally do this, as archaeology by its very nature is destructive so you can’t usually dig into protected scheduled monuments. It’s only because the badgers are causing so much damage that we are allowed to excavate, so to be part of this dig as a soldier is a real privilege.”
‘Davina’

Once digging began, the team uncovered what is believed to be an Anglo-Saxon brooch, as well as the grave.

“We believe ‘Davina’, as she has been named by the soldiers, was in her late teens to early 20s when she died, based on the fusion of her bones. We don’t know how she died, and probably won’t unless the laboratory can find traces of disease in her bones,” said Richard Osgood, Senior Historic Advisor for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, and organiser of the dig.

“We can assume that she was somebody of note though for her to be buried here in such an important location, although she wasn’t buried with any precious stones that would signify wealth. This is a prestigious burial site as it can be seen from all around the area, so to be buried here you would have to have had some status.”




Davina was buried with her arms crossed over her pelvis, and is presumed to be Pagan as her grave is in a north-west to south-east position, rather than Christian burials that are east west facing. She would have lived, and died, long after nearby Stonehenge had been abandoned though adds Richard, who is hoping the dig will uncover another 14 or so graves.

“We are hoping to find between 15 and 20 graves, with various burial artefacts, during the dig, based on the number found by English Heritage when they explored part of the site in 2003. There has been a long-term problem with badgers digging up human remains here – indeed Davina is missing a number of bones, although some may have rotted away – so this is an important project that brings together a lot of disparate groups that also aims to improve the lives and skills of soldiers through archaeology.”

This is the second excavation project for Operation Nightingale, which this month received a special award from the British Archaeological Awards in recognition of its innovative use of archaeological work to boost the recovery and career prospects of military personnel injured in Afghanistan.

“Operation Nightingale isn’t about just inventing jobs for injured servicemen. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) takes looking after the historical sites on its land very seriously. Of the 738 scheduled monuments nationwide, 306 of them are on Salisbury Plain, while there are a further ten world heritage sites on MoD land, as well as six registered battlefields, and 840 listed buildings,” says Richard.

“We don’t know yet what the award we are going to be presented with will be called, as the archaeological profession has created a new award for us in acknowledgement of what the Army is doing on this project, so it is a real honour.”

The soldiers themselves with the support of the archaeological professionals involved will not only carry out the excavation but will then produce a published report to record their findings at the site.

Sgt Diarmaid Walshe, who is also a qualified archaeologist, said, “These soldiers have all endured a lot during operational tours. Due to complex nature of the injuries that are being experienced in Afghanistan the Army is looking at new and innovative ways to promote recovery. The BAA award means as much to the soldiers participating in the project, as it does to those of us leading the work.

“We have already seen that archaeology enhances their rehabilitation process. It also gives soldiers a very different view of Salisbury Plain along with the heritage associated with it. We are investing time and resources in these soldiers in the firm belief that fieldwork and recording will aid their recovery.”

Eight soldiers are moving on to study archaeology at University of Leicester, thanks to the programme.

Learn more about the project from the Operation Nightingale/Project Florence Blog

Sources: University of Leicester, British Army

Sharan Newman