Archaeological visibility of Post Roman and Early Medieval life in Worcestershire, as with much of England, is enigmatic, with burial sites generally providing the most significant archaeological insight into the period. With no distinctive earthworks to ease identification, the majority of Early Medieval burial sites in Worcestershire have been chance discoveries, including the two most extensive Anglo-Saxon cemeteries yet discovered in county, Beckford A and Beckford B. As a principal source of archaeological evidence burials and cemeteries have the potential to provide information on population, social structure, standard of living, trade, craft production methods, fashions, diet, health, ritual and belief.
Anglo-Saxon cemeteries typically date from the 5th to 7th century AD. The rise of Christianity, from the end of the 6th century bought with it new ideas and customs, including related to death and burial, and many Anglo-Saxon cemeteries appear to have fallen out of use as new ecclesiastical spaces were established.
Cemetery sites can contribute significantly to our understanding of the changing character of settlement in the Post Roman Period and the influence of Germanic settlers and culture on lowland Britain. Worcestershire has frequently been referred to as a ‘border zone’ between areas of ‘British’ influence and culture (broadly in the north and west) and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ influence and culture (broadly in the south and east) with the location of Early Medieval, pre-Christian, Anglo-Saxon cemeteries – which are notably concentrated in the south east fringe of the county – playing an important role in assessing the degree to which Anglo-Saxon settlement and culture had spread into what is now Worcestershire by the early 7th century (Atkin, date unknown).
Ford (1996) reviews archaeological evidence from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the catchment of the river Avon and suggests that in the 5th century there remained a substantial ‘British’ rural population in this area, and that relatively small groups of Anglo-Saxon settlers lived alongside this population.
In the parish of Conderton, in the valley of the Carrent Brook, the Anglo-Saxon cemeteries now known as Beckford A and Beckford B were excavated in the 1950s after sand and gravel digging operations unearthed human remains; post excavation work wasn’t undertaken until the 1980s.
Grave goods date both Beckford A and Beckford B to the late 5th to mid-6th century. In close proximity (c. 550m) to each other Beckford A and Beckford B are set within a multi period landscape inhabited continuously since the Bronze Age. Although no residual material from earlier periods was recorded during excavations Evison and Hill (1996) note that the spacing of the graves is suggestive of earlier tumuli, visible at the time, which may indicate a long-standing ritual landscape that endured into the 5th-6th centuries.
Beckford A consisted of 24 inhumation burials whereas Beckford B was a mixed cemetery, with 106 inhumations and 4 cremation burials, in the north of the site. The discovery of the cremations at the relatively shallow depth of 20-50cm raises the possibility that further cremation burials may have been lost, pre excavation, as a consequence of cultivation. In general graves in Beckford A were deeper (76cm to 127cm depth) than those in Beckford B (31cm to 114cm depth).
The majority of graves were recorded as single and separate from each other with likely clear grave markings on the surface supporting the theory that the locations of graves were clearly marked and identifiable.
In December 1996 selective salvage recording and survey was undertaken on the crest of Bennett’s Hill in Offenham – the southern extremity of Cleeve Hill, a scarp slope on the eastern side of the Vale of Evesham – following discovery of human remains and iron and copper alloy artefacts, subsequently identified as Anglo-Saxon. Complete (2) and fragmentary (1) inhumation burials, accompanied by further grave goods were unearthed confirming the site as an Anglo-Saxon cemetery of apparent moderate size, broadly dated to the 6th and 7th centuries. The discovery of an iron spearhead, in an area of modern disturbance (Trench 3) was noted as potentially indicating the presence of a fourth burial.
The two burials reasonably complete and in good condition were identified as a male and female. Burials were aligned north to south (head to the south) and lay in relatively shallow oblong grave cuts noted as being similar to the burials excavated at Beckford A and B (Dalwood and Ratkai, 1998, 13). Finds included a collection of 371 amber and rock crystal beads and 184 amber and 8 glass beads from Trenches 1 and 4 respectively. At the time of excavation resources did not permit completion of publication illustrations of the burials or artefacts, or analysis of the soil samples. Samples were recovered from the stomach area and pelvis area of each excavated burial, together with a control sample of the same volume from the grave fill.
During fieldwork a large assembly of Iron Age pottery, discovered 200m north east of the cemetery site and conducive of an important Iron Age settlement site, was reported to and examined by the project team.
Bennett’s Hill Anglo-Saxon cemetery was nationally scheduled in 2003 (national ref. 1020258).
A cemetery site discovered during quarrying on the southern slopes of Cleeve Hill, was described by Winningham Ingram in 1883-4 (cited in Dalwood and Ratkai, 1998) as ‘comprised of skeletons with the iron bosses of their moulded wicker shields under their heads, gilded bronze brooches on their shoulders, iron spear heads by their sides and clay or wooden cups in their hands’.
A cemetery site on Broadway Hill was revealed during quarry workings in 1954. Eight inhumation graves, with grave goods dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, were excavated by the Evesham Historical Society in 1955. Situated on the crest of a ridge, at c. 975ft, Cook (1958) notes that it was not possible to make a full exploration of the site because many of the graves had been destroyed. Orientation of the graves was west – east, with the skull found at the west end of the grave; there was no evidence for the use of coffins. Analysis of the remains of nine individuals identified 3 females and 4 males. No cremations were discovered during the excavation.
The discovery of a sword, with part of its scabbard surviving on which the bronze chape remained, four shield bosses, four spearheads, a knife and two amber beads, was recorded at Norton’s Pitch, Bredon’s Norton in 1838. Found by workman, during construction of the Birmingham to Gloucester Railway, no details of the excavation are recorded, and the actual position of the site remains uncertain. Studied by Shelley (1987) the spearheads and shield bosses were dated to the 5th-6th centuries, although the scabbard was noted as appearing 9th century in décor.
A burial(s), most likely 7th century in date, was discovered in 1862 on the southern bank of the Avon between Little Hampton and the railway bridge. The finds included ‘human bones’, three Anglo Saxon weapons, one a scramasax, and a set gold chain of oblong pieces of fine gold filigree linked by shorter, hollow, rounded pieces.
In c. 1877 material culture including, what was later recorded as a Roman glass melon bead, a 6th century amber bead and wolfs canine, was unearthed during gravel extraction in Bricklehampton.
In the later 19th century William Ponting communicated the discovery of Anglo-Saxon remains, by labourers digging for gravel, in a field near Upton Snodsbury. Deposited on a bank near the [Bow] brook, artefacts, indicative of a cemetery in use during the 6th century, were recovered including an almost complete necklace of about 130 beads of amber; a multi-coloured glass ball; six iron spear-heads of various shaft dimensions one with remains of a wooden shaft; a two-edged sword nearly three feet long and five fibulae – three of bronze cruciform shape (one being Anglian type and almost certainly of late 6th century date) and two saucer shape, both of which were more Saxon in character and bearing debased swastika and possibly debased egg-and-tongue ornament, both motifs of Roman origin.
In 1852 a single inhumation was recorded on the southern edge of Offenham parish. Exposed during ploughing, artefacts recovered reputedly included a spearhead and shield boss. In 1986 a single saucer brooch with the remains of surface gilding was discovered c.500 metres to the south east.
In May 1972 a north -south aligned (head to north) inhumation was disturbed during building works in Fladbury. 7.5m to the south ditches were observed in construction trenches. No grave goods or datable material was recovered.
In 1953 an inhumation, with associated artefacts, was uncovered on the Fairfield housing estate in Evesham. The position of the bones indicated that the body had been laid on its back with its legs towards the east. No indications of a cist or coffin was found. Artefacts recovered included beads, a pair of annular brooches, a pair of disc brooches, a saucer brooch, probably of the 7th century, a small bronze ring, an iron knife, and part of a (?)buckle.
The Worcestershire Historic Environment Record also notes potential Anglo-Saxon graves within a circular enclosure, south of Beckford, on the parish boundary of South Littleton, South of Sheen Hill and associated with St Anne’s Church in Wyre Piddle.
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Atkin, M (date unknown) The Anglo-Saxon finds from Offenham, Worcestershire and their significance, Worcestershire Historic Environment Record ref. SWR7481
Cook, J, M 1958 ‘An Anglo Saxon Cemetery at Broadway Hill, Broadway, Worcestershire’ in Antiquaries, vol. 38, pp. 58-84
Dalwood, H and S, Ratkai 1998 Salvage Recording at Bennett’s Hill Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, Offenham Interim Report, Report 539, Hereford and Worcester County Council
Evison, V, I and P, Hill 1996 ‘Two Anglo Saxon Cemeteries at Beckford, Hereford and Worcester’ in Council for British Archaeology Research Report 103. Adpower Halifax, CBA York
Ford, W, J 1996 ‘Anglo-Saxon cemeteries along the Avon Valley’ in Transactions of the Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeological Society 100, pp.59–98
Shelley, D, C 1987 ‘Bredon’s Norton an Archaeological Survey’ in Parish File. Worcestershire Historic Environment Record ref. SWR7075
Williams, H 1998 ‘Monuments and the past in Early Anglo-Saxon England’ in World Archaeology 30, no. 1, pp 90–108 Monuments and the past in Early Anglo-Saxon England on JSTOR (accessed 19th October 2022)