English archaeologists have announced the discovery of the remains of a teenage girl buried in the Early Middle Ages. The circumstances of her burial were very unusual, suggesting she may have led a tragic life.
In ninth-century Cambridgeshire, as a community prepared to abandon their settlement, they took down the elaborate entrance gate and replaced it with a grave. In it were the remains of a young woman, aged just 15, buried face down in a pit and perhaps with her ankles bound together. This unusual grave gives us insight into a rare Early Medieval burial practice, and perhaps even contemporary attitudes towards those within the community who were considered different.
The young woman was found by archaeologists at an Early Medieval settlement near the village of Conington in Cambridgeshire, part of the National Highways A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon Improvement Scheme, where excavations took place between 2016 and 2018. Her remains have now been studied by experts as part of ongoing analysis by MOLA-Headland Infrastructure (MHI), and now archaeologists can begin to tell her story.
Although by the ninth century, the kingdoms of England were Christian, burial in graveyards associated with churches was not the norm. Early Medieval England did not have set burial traditions, however, one consistent aspect of burials in this period was the body being arranged face up. Being buried face down in a pit marks this young woman out as different.
Analysis of her remains by MOLA osteologists (human bone experts) revealed evidence of childhood malnutrition. She also had a spinal joint disease, made worse by carrying out hard manual labour from a young age. This all suggests she was of low social status. We don’t know exactly how she died, but because of her age, and with her remains showing no evidence of a long, serious illness, she may have died suddenly or unexpectedly.
The pit the young woman was buried in previously held a large wooden post, part of the enclosure’s entry gate, which was taken down as the settlement’s use came to an end. While the reuse of this large hole as a grave could have been purely opportunistic, the face-down placement of the body suggests the location holds much more importance and has similarities with other unusual Early Medieval burials.
Borders and boundaries appear to have been reserved for significant or unusual burials in Early Medieval England. Around 30 miles away at Higham Ferrers in Northamptonshire, a woman was buried face-down in the settlement’s boundary ditch. The date of her burial was late 8th-9th century, and just like at Conington, it took place near the close of the settlement’s use. This individual was missing their arms, head, neck, and fourth lumbar, and has been interpreted as an execution victim.
To be buried face-down is thought to have been a social expression of ‘otherness’, a burial practice reserved for people considered outside of Early Medieval society. This includes those who looked or acted differently from the rest of the community, those of low social status, as well as individuals who suffered violent or unexpected deaths.
“This burial provides an interesting, albeit tragic, opportunity to view the realities of life, and death, for those seen as outsiders in the past,” explains Don Walker, MOLA Senior Human Osteologist. “We will probably never know exactly how this young woman was viewed by the community she grew up in, but the way she was buried tells us she was almost certainly seen as different. Her burial rites may have reflected the nature of her death, or her social identity or that of her family. As well as being buried face down on a boundary, the position of her ankles suggests they may have been tied together. This implies that the community took extra measures to ensure she could not ‘return’ from the grave.”
Evidence suggests the burial may have been one of the community’s final acts. Radiocarbon dating showed the young woman died between c.680-880 AD (late seventh to ninth centuries), whilst archaeological work on site revealed all activity at the settlement ended during the eighth and ninth centuries. The settlement’s name, Conington (literally. King’s Town) indicates it functioned as one of many ‘administrative centres’ for the Mercian kings. It was likely abandoned when the Kingdom of Mercia began to lose power in the early 9th century. If her burial was contemporary with the end of the settlement, it could have been a symbolic final closure of the site.
More information about the project and discoveries can be found at www.molaheadland.com/a14.
Top Image: Close up of the Conington Burial ©MOLA Headland Infrastructure