Anglo-Saxon warrior burials – a link with late Roman Colchester?
Archaeological excavations on the site of the Hyderabad and Meeanee barracks off Mersea Road in Colchester have revealed a number of burials including two ‘spearmen’ likely to be of Germanic, possibly Saxon, origin. The two men had each been equipped with a round shield and a spear. One of them also had a dagger held in a belt around his waist. They were laid to rest on their backs with their shields on their chests and their spears by their sides. The wooden parts of the weapons have almost completely decayed away but the ironwork (mainly shield bosses, spear heads and the dagger) survived in situ. The men were not buried with metal helmets or body armour although they may have worn cheaper leather alternatives instead.
The burials are part of a cemetery of unknown extent only part of which as yet been examined. At least than eleven burials have been identified in the current phase of work. More are expected to be found when excavations resume later in the year.
The site lies immediately adjacent to a housing estate where many Anglo-Saxon spears and shield remains from burials were found in the late 19th century when it was built. This recent discovery is evidently part of the southern end of the same cemetery. A few years ago, more burials were found close to the south side of the Roman circus. These were 4th century or so in date and were characterised by the presence of small ring ditches containing a single burial in their centres. This latest discovery includes two examples of the same kind of ring ditch suggesting an ethnic link between the two groups, ie the Anglo-Saxon burials may have been the dead of descendants of the group whose dead where buried next to the Roman circus.
The date of the two warrior burials is as yet unclear. They are probably Anglo-Saxon (c 5th or 6th century) and thus post-Roman but there is the tantalising possibility that they were 4th or early 5th century in which case they would have lived in the town in Roman times. If they are the latter, they will be very significant because, if as seems possible, they would presumably have been part of a local, Roman-period militia. Their apparent close association with the Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered in the late 19th century would provide physical evidence backing up the story of the end of Roman Britain which comes down to us from two ancient histories of Britain by Gildas and Bede. Here the two monks, one writing in the 6th century and the other c AD 700, describe how peoples from outside the Roman empire who were settled in Britain in exchange for military service came to revolt against their British masters and defeat them thereby opening the way to the conquest of much of eastern and central Britain by their own kind from across the North sea.
More work remains to be done on the date and ethnic origin of the two men since this will help clarify if they were indeed part of the garrison of the late Roman town or if they were part of a group of incomers who arrived after the collapse of Roman Colchester. To this end, we hope to commission some isotope analysis on their teeth to see if their country of origin can be identified and we may also explore their dna to see if more can be gleaned about their genetic background and familial relationships.
Developer Taylor Wimpey has been working hard with the Colchester Archaeological Trust to make sure that these important remains are fully explored and recorded before the site is redeveloped for housing. Director of the Archaeological Trust, Philip Crummy, said that ‘Taylor Wimpey deserves huge credit for the very significant archaeological successes of recent years on the Garrison site including, of course, the discovery of the Roman circus. Nothing would have been achieved without the company’s continued support and very substantial funding.’
Also involved with the excavations is RPS who act as archaeological consultants to Taylor Wimpey and manage the project on their behalf.