Anglo-Saxon warrior burials at RAF Lakenheath and Colchester garrison

On Monday (24th October), the Colchester Archaeological Group (CAG) presented the fourth in their winter programme of lectures for 2016/17 here at the Roman circus centre. This lecture was titled ‘RAF Lakenheath Anglo-Saxon cemeteries’ and it was given by Joanna Caruth, the Senior Project Officer for Suffolk Archaeology CIC (Community Interest Company) (formerly the Suffolk County Council archaeological field unit). RAF Lakenheath is in the parish of Eriswell near Brandon, and Suffolk Archaeology are based at Needham Market, both in Suffolk.

Suffolk Archaeology have uncovered evidence of a remarkable Anglo-Saxon cemetery at RAF Lakenheath, associated with the site of an Anglo-Saxon settlement site at Brandon. They excavated 270 Anglo-Saxon burials there in 1997 and 60 burials in 1999. On their web-site, Suffolk Archaeology describe their forthcoming report, The Anglo-Saxon burial grounds at RAF Lakenheath, Eriswell, Suffolk, by Joanna Caruth: ‘… the Anglo-Saxon cemeteries [were] excavated in four phases at RAF Lakenheath between 1997 and 2008. A total of 426 Early Anglo-Saxon inhumations and 17 cremations have been excavated on three discrete but closely sited burial grounds dating from the second half of the 5th century to the mid-6th, with burials appearing to continue at a single site until c. AD 650. Uniquely at RAF Lakenheath, a successor Middle Anglo-Saxon burial ground has also been located …’ *.

The cemetery at RAF Lakenheath included two early Anglo-Saxon horse and warrior burials, one uncovered in 1997 and one in 1999: the 1997 example included a gilded ceremonial bridle. Both of these burials were covered by a barrow and defined by a ditch, and are dated to the 6th century. The horse and warrior burial of 1999 was described in that year: ‘… The warrior himself was interred with a full set of weapons including sword, shield and spear … The burial provides further evidence of the early Anglian tradition of animal sacrifice at the grave of a dead warrior chieftain. The famous early 7th century cemetery at Sutton Hoo, on the Suffolk coast, included one warrior burial immediately adjacent to a separate grave containing a slaughtered horse …’ (British Archaeology, no 50, 1999, blurb published online).

Interestingly, the Trust has been conducting archaeological investigations at the famous old Colchester garrison for over 15 years. The Army garrison was decommissioned after 2000 and is currently being redeveloped for civilian residential use. (RAF Lakenheath is still an operational airbase.) The Trust’s HQ and the Roman circus centre are now housed in a former military building within the old Colchester garrison. Even more interestingly, we have uncovered evidence of several Roman cemeteries and a large number of burials at the old garrison, and some of these burials have been identified as Anglo-Saxon, on our remarkable archaeological site at the former Meeanee and Hyderabad Barracks off the Maldon Road, outside the walled town centre. The Trust conducted an archaeological evaluation here in 2010 and an excavation in 2011.

On Site A of our Meeanee and Hyderabad Barracks site, we uncovered a cemetery of 14 cremation burials and 70 inhumation burials which dated from the mid Roman period, but which also seems to have been in use in the late 6th century or early 7th century. Eight of the inhumation burials had each been placed within a ring-ditch, and five of these produced Anglo-Saxon grave-goods including beads and weapons, ie shield-bosses, spearheads and knives. These early Anglo-Saxon burials included two ‘warrior’ burials. One of the ‘warrior’ burials (AF38) had been defined by a ring-ditch. The burial produced some remarkable metalwork (iron) finds, including a circular shield boss with a small central spike, shield studs, a buckle, a spearhead, and a knife (CAT Report 628). The deceased male had, therefore, been buried with a full set of weapons, with a weapon on each side and a shield laid on his chest. Colchester was an early Anglo-Saxon royal vill, the administrative centre for the region. It was an important fortified town and, within the walls, its Anglo-Saxon inhabitants constructed huts and also utilised the standing remains of Roman buildings and re-used Roman building materials for their own buildings. These Anglo-Saxon burials at the old Colchester garrison are very interesting and provide a small insight into the history of Anglo-Saxon Colchester.

Trust archaeologist Ben Holloway supervised our fieldwork on the site, assisted by the Trust’s excavation team.

The Trust’s archaeological projects at the former Meeanee and Hyderabad Barracks were funded by Taylor Wimpey.

Read CAT Report 628 in the Trust’s online archive at . Visit the web-sites of RAF Lakenheath at and Suffolk Archaeology at .

The images show a photo. of Colchester ‘warrior’ burial AF38 during excavation, and the plan and profile of the burial with drawings of the small finds (Plate 6.7 and Fig 30 of CAT Report 628), and a photo. of part of the site, showing a ring-ditch with burials.







* ‘… These sites [at RAF Lakenheath] represent the largest and best-preserved Anglo-Saxon cemetery group available for modern analysis not only in East Anglia but effectively within England. Many of the earlier burials were furnished with personal items characteristic of the period: weaponry with the men; conspicuous dress-accessories with the women. As well as the familiar, more spectacular finds include two horses, one adorned with a splendid gilded bridle, four swords, shears, buckets and imported brooches. The comprehensive study of the chronological development of Anglo-Saxon culture and burial rites as demonstrated by this cemetery will have wide-reaching implications for the many local, regional and national cemeteries previously excavated and those to come.
The presence of the nationally important horse and warrior burial achieved international publicity and offers a tangible link to the burial rites of the Continent, while the unique occurrence of an Anglo-Saxon horse bridle found in position on the horse’s head offers the best opportunity so far to examine Early Anglo-Saxon horsemanship and its military and social role.
The cemetery excavations form part of an almost continuous sequence of archaeological projects undertaken at RAF Lakenheath over the past 20 years …’ – at .


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