Anglo-Saxon grave goods at Special Collections

Over the last few weeks our intern, Harry, has been working with a number of 5th and 6th century Anglo-Saxon grave goods for our Object Conservator, Alison Draper. In this post, he shares some of the background to the Bones without Barriers project, and his role in checking and preparing the materials for delivery to the University of Central Lancashire Archaeology department.

“The original Bones without Barriers project began as a joint archaeological research project including students and staff from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire, organised by Dr Duncan Sayer, Richard Mortimer and Dr Faye Sayer. The primary aim of the project, which ran from 2010-14, was the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery first discovered at Oakington, Cambridgeshire in 1926. By 2012 a total of 66 skeletons had been excavated, bringing the total number of graves discovered in the area to an astonishing 110. Furthermore, the project uncovered an even greater number and variety of grave goods, found buried alongside men, women and children including knives, spearheads, brooches, hair pins and combs.

Although the excavation site and the wealth of material uncovered was a substantial discovery in itself, the work done at Oakington was also notable for a number of additional feats. In 2010, the UK Ministry of Justice granted the project a permit allowing them to excavate human remains without barriers, which in turn facilitated an ‘open access’ approach to the dig and fostered greater levels of interaction between the professionals on-site and the wider community. Both groups expressed this relationship throughout the project’s duration through the organisation of school visits, on-site tours, and lectures and debates surrounding the future of the excavated remains. For those involved, this was clearly a central aspect of the excavation and has done much to highlight what can be done to build stronger ties between professional archaeologists and the wider communities impacted by their work.

Adult woman discovered in grave no.84

Following the completion of the dig our Object Conservator, Alison Draper, received all materials, excluding skeletal remains, for post-excavation processing and conservation. This process included cleaning, repairing and repackaging each item as well as producing a ‘conservation document’ for every find discussing the condition of the object, the materials used in its construction and the conservation practices/techniques used in its repair. Alison asked me if I would list each object and establish whether any further deterioration had occurred since they were last removed from storage.

As someone with a background in ancient/early medieval history, I jumped at the opportunity to work with material including items associated with medieval combat, such as spearheads and a shield-boss. However, I soon discovered that these were in the worst state of deterioration due to the fact that iron corrosion takes place at a significantly higher rate than other metals. This became increasingly clear as many of the iron objects were almost unidentifiable to a non-specialist such as myself, and it often became necessary to check x-ray images taken by Alison to make out the original shape of the objects. A particularly good example of this is the large girdle hanger (a belt-like item depicting key-shaped ornaments often found buried with Anglo-Saxon women) excavated in 2012. Here is the image of the deteriorated girdle hangar with the x-ray shown underneath:

The deteriorated girdle hanger
The x-ray of the girdle hanger

In contrast to the deteriorated state of the iron finds, objects made from materials including copper alloy, glass, bone and amber were much better greater preserved. Furthermore, I began to discover that these finds, more closely associated with domestic life, revealed a greater picture of the daily life and activities of people living in 5th and 5th century England. Perhaps my favourite example of this is the bone comb. As well as being in almost perfect condition, it reflects an essentially timeless and mundane activity – everybody has to comb their hair!

Bone Comb in excellent state of preservation.

The collection also holds a number of copper alloy brooches and wrist clasps which emphasize the importance of shared cultural identity among the Anglo-Saxons through repetitive imagery and geometry. This is evident in the repeated use of the cruciform shape and animal faces; as well as the fact that they are frequently found buried with their owners, indicating that they were valued both in life and death. I found these objects fascinating as they help to build a more detailed image of the people they belonged to, how they presented themselves, what they valued and how they interacted with their community and the world around them.

Large cruciform brooch.
Underside of large cruciform brooch
Well preserved example of wrist clasps with surviving surface decoration.

Overall, this project has been one that I have enjoyed immensely. Not only have I had the opportunity to handle, study and research objects well over a thousand years old, but I have also increased my confidence in handling and observing archaeological material, something I have only engaged with sparingly in the past. This experience has given me a more detailed understanding of the conservation process, the work involved in assessing condition, cleaning, and repairing objects, which I am sure will be of great benefit in future.”

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