Village Farm, Spofforth

Project Profile

Project Title :

Village Farm, Spofforth, North Yorkshire

Client :

Miller Homes Ltd

Type of Work :

Excavation



Project Gallery 



Disarticulated charnel in Zone C   Skeleton 78, mature male buried face down  
Skeleton 247, a sharp force trauma   Spinal fusion  
Xray of chest hinge   Iron fitting  

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Village Farm, Spofforth



Down among the dead men (and women) of Anglo-Saxon Spofforth

Back in June 2001, workmen cutting foundations for a new housing development on the former site of Village Farm at Spofforth, North Yorkshire, were surprised and alarmed when human remains began to appear within the trenches. Work was halted immediately and the appropriate authorities informed but after preliminary investigations it turned out that they had stumbled upon a previously unknown and unsuspected Anglo-Saxon inhumation cemetery dating to the late 8th and 9th centuries AD. NAA were called to undertake an emergency excavation of the site which later proved to contain 169 articulated burials as well as a considerable amount of charnel representing the disarticulated remains of a further 250 individuals.

Many of the inhumations were badly disturbed, predominately by the re-cutting of graves during the lifetime of the cemetery but also by later activities associated with Village Farm. This made the job of excavation very challenging, involving the careful digging of a number of complex areas where there was a sequence of overlying and intercutting graves. All human remains were removed from the area to be impacted by the development but further burials were noted extending to the south and east of this. These individuals were left undisturbed but the area recorded as being of high potential should further work be planned in the village in the future.

All the individual inhumations identified were orientated west to east and to the north lay the remains of several fragmentary walls which may have represented a related church or chapel. Both sexes and all age groups from children to adults were represented amongst the population, providing a wonderful snapshot of life -and death- in a mid to late Anglo-Saxon community and making it of enormous interest in terms of furthering our understanding of the period. Specialist examination of the human remains by a palaeopathologist has produced some interesting results. Infant mortality at or around the time of birth was high and certain childhood conditions were also common. This may have been the result of a number of factors including poor diet, unhygienic living conditions and generally lowered immunity. Of those who made it to adulthood, women appear to have outlived the men who largely died between the ages of 18 and 35. Degenerative joint diseases were common and various forms of trauma were identified, suggesting an active population engaged in heavy physical labour. Of particular interest were three adults, two of which were young males, who appeared to have died a violent death resulting from a blow to the head. Although it is not possible to determine whether these individuals were actively engaged in combat, they had strong physiques and wounds caused by sharp-edged weapons.

Careful excavation has shown that the majority of those interred at Spofforth were not buried in coffins but placed directly in the ground; some placed in very economical grave cuts. However, there was some evidence for a number of chest burials. The wood of the chests survived only as a stain on the soil, but iron fittings - including hinges, locks and hasps - survived and have subsequently been dated by specialist assessment to the late 8th and 9th centuries. This suggests the cemetery has its origins in the mid Anglo-Saxon period or earlier. One possibility is that these chests were reserved for people of distinct status, probably defined by wealth or social standing rather than, for example, ethnic group.

A series of radiocarbon dates from samples associated with the burials suggests that they range in date from AD 660 to 890, although two have slightly later dates (AD 880 - 1020). These dates reinforce the importance of this burial population as belonging to a significant transitional period in English history. The presence of the chest burials, for which there are both English and Continental parallels, means that there could have been continental influences here which might be reflected in the origins of some of the individuals. Isotope analysis is currently being undertaken in an attempt to further clarify this aspect of the story.

The post excavation work undertaken on the Spofforth burials and ironwork has already revealed a great deal about the life of its inhabitants in the mid to late Anglo-Saxon period and the nature of their burial practices. However, work is still underway on the preparation of an archaeological monograph covering the site. This will include further detailed finds and human bone analysis, as well as comparative studies and final evaluation of the results regarding our understanding of the social and technological history of Anglo-Saxon England.


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