British

Archaeology

The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 100

Issue 100

May / June 2008

Contents

There is more content online than usual for this bumper issue!

news

Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2

features

John Wymer
Mike Pitts introduces an archaeologist with a fine eye for illustration

The Lost Royal Cult Of Street House, Yorkshire
The excavation of a unique Anglo-Saxon cult cemetery

Born digital: Making People Believe
How computers have changed the world of archaeology

The Office: Heritage and Archaeology at Fortress House
John Schofield finds unexpected things on Savile Row

Green Men & The Way of All Flesh
Richard Hayman uproots a fashionable myth

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones considers archaeological imagery, and The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland has a new website

100 letters & news

Some of the letters we received and news stories we revealed in the past 100 issues

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Communication is king, says Mike Heyworth, celebrating nearly 60 years of magazines

Extra online content

science

Sebastian Payne asks, what do forensic archaeologists do?

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston looks for early saints in Cornwall, and an introduction to visiting Cornwall's sites & monuments

my archaeology

Phil Harding, the man with five guitars

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

features

The Lost Royal Cult Of Street House, Yorkshire

Some 20 years ago Stephen J Sherlock uncoveredan Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Norton, Cleveland (the dig was published by the CBA). Recently, researching for a doctorate, he excavated an iron age settlement: and he found another Anglo-Saxon cemetery. It is, as he and Mark Simmons report, one of the most extraordinary discoveries in recent British archaeology.

For the past four years, Steve Sherlock has been excavating at Street House Farm, near Saltburn, North Yorkshire as he will be again later this summer. The work began as part of a programme of research into iron age settlement in the north of England, and focused on a cropmark of a rectangular enclosure, seen from the air, close to known prehistoric ritual monuments. These include the Street House long cairn, a neolithic mortuary structure excavated in 1979–1981.

A limited trial excavation in 2004 demonstrated the potential of the site, showing that two ditched enclosures were of iron age and Roman date. A geophysical survey suggested a number of features within these enclosures, and further excavations in the summer of 2005 revealed three iron age roundhouses in an area of 500m². There were also 30 graves, initially of unknown date: the acidic nature of the East Cleveland soil means that bone does not survive, and not all of the graves contained artefacts.

Whilst the significance of the graves was then a mystery, it was immediately apparent that the iron age settlement was particularly well preserved, with a floor surface and hearth surviving in the main roundhouse (number 3). Excavations in 2006 and 2007 brought the total to nine distinct roundhouses. We have evidence for on site cultivation of spelt wheat and barley, and also craft activities including the use of jet. There are two ritual deposits: a miniature quern stone found at the entrance to roundhouse 1, and a large pit within another roundhouse containing an iron spearhead, quern stones, pottery and red ochre. The most interesting find, however, consisted of two hearths complete with coarse ceramic furniture for the manufacture of salt by the evaporation of seawater. The enclosure is 200m from the sea cliffs, but at an altitude of 170m. The nearest similar salt working site is at Cowbit in Lincolnshire (though not at a similar altitude). A barley seed from roundhouse 3 has been radiocarbon dated to 210–40BC.

This left us with the graves. The examples discovered in 2005 were seen to cluster in two distinct groups, 17 within and around roundhouse 1, and 13 aligned in a north-south row. One grave in the row contained two silver discs and eight glass beads. At first we thought the discs were scutiform (shield-shaped) pendants similar to a pair found at the late sixth century ad site at Norton near Stockton-on-Tees. But after conservation they were seen to be reused coins of the Corieltauvi tribe dating from around AD43. Each has been precisely pierced to hang so that the cross-shaped design on the reverse views as an upright cross, with an apparently clear Christian symbolism. As well as iron items such as knives, buckles and latch lifters in 19 of these 30 graves, there were two other significant finds in 2005. One grave near the north-west corner of the site contained a fine langseax (a single-edged Anglo-Saxon sword); recent analysis suggests this knife once had decorated scabbard fittings. Another grave contained a gold bracteate (a coin-like amulet), three beads and a "girdle hanger" (thought to be a symbol of authority of high status women). These finds are all considered to date from the seventh century.

We believed that we had found a possible early Christian cemetery of some significance. But nothing could have prepared anyone for the surprise that awaited us. It was reasonably considered at the time that any further Anglo-Saxon features on the site would be comparable to those at other cemeteries of seventh century date, such as at sites on the Yorkshire Wolds, with burials laid out in a long row aligned upon a monument.

Returning to our original research focus, in 2006 we continued work directly to the east of our previous excavation, hoping to resolve questions relating to the iron age settlement. However, we soon uncovered a further 13 graves focused around the ploughed-out remains of a low mound of Anglo-Saxon date, of which only a ring ditch was well preserved. Nearby to the south was a grubenhaus a distinctive Saxon sunken-floor building which like the mound may have been associated with cemetery rites.

Bed burial

A number of these graves proved to contain burials of particularly high status. Grave 42, close to the western, open end of the ring ditch and on the same east-west alignment as the grubenhaus, is noticeably larger than any of the others. This was to prove to be the most significant burial within the cemetery. It has been positively identified as a "bed burial", with a large assemblage of artefacts. From the position of iron fittings within the grave (see plan on page 35 in printed magazine) we can tell that the bed was rectangular, approximately 1.8m long, 80cm wide and 30cm high, with an inclined headboard attached by two stays of twisted iron on either side. The bed sides were each made from two horizontal planks, held together by decorative iron cleats around the outside, of which at least nine examples survive. These cleats seem to have been fixed at regular intervals and are unusual in shape, formed from a flat iron strip averaging 25mm wide, with ends split in two and the resulting four ends bent back tomake two opposing loops. The cleats' bifurcated scroll decoration is reminiscent of the scroll work sometimes found on Anglo-Saxon buckets.

More complex ironwork decoration is also apparent at the bed head and foot. The tops of each headboard stay were attached to, or flattened out to make, a rectangular mount which grips the top edge of the board. At the foot end one similar mount survived. This example is slightly concave, suggesting that the top edge of the footboard was scalloped. A number of large headed and possibly decorated nails are also present on the foot. Each corner at the foot end also has a unusually large ushaped iron staple which stood proud of the woodwork. They could have held something such as carrying handles, although nothing similar was found at the head end.

However, what really makes this bed burial stand out is the accompanying grave goods. The deceased had at least one necklace of which three gold artefacts survive. Two are cabochon pendants, but the third, a large shield-shaped pendant, seems to be of unique form. It is approximately 40mm by 30mm and mounted by a central blue gemstone which has been carved into a scallop shell shape with eleven separate lobes and a scalloped lower edge. This scallop shell design is unusual, maybe unique in Anglo-Saxon jewellery. This central stone is surrounded by two rings of settings of square cloisons (cells) some 3mm deep, each originally holding a small red gem. Each gem is approximately 1mm thick with chamfered edges, and sits on fragments of very thin gold foil to better reflect the light. X-ray fluorescence analysis shows that there is an unusually low level of gold (37%) in the alloy of the large pendant's body, the rest being mainly silver with a little copper. This is a reflection of the debasement of the later Merovingian coinage which was the source of much of the gold in seventh century jewellery. It would also tally with the increased use of silver in gold alloys long noted in Kentish jewellery from the middle of the seventh century. Further planned analysis will undoubtedly shed light on this item's provenance and significance.

Unfortunately other grave goods have not survived in such good condition, with some being crushed as the foot end of the bed fell apart after burial. These items include part of a jet hair pin near the head end, and the possible remains of a small box or casket towards the foot end.

Immediately to the north of the bed burial is another grave (43) containing a necklace with beadsmade from gold wire and a triangular-shaped gold pendant of Anglo-Saxon date which has an iron age glass bead as the centre piece. This type of bead has a distribution based on Kent.

Interestingly similar triangular pendants are known from burials at Cow Low, Derbyshire, and from Roundway Down, Wiltshire, both of which are near to other known bed burials.

Following discussions with the local curatorial archaeologist, Robin Daniels, it was decided to try and define the full extent of the cemetery by carrying out another season of excavations in 2007. Two trenches were excavated, one to the north of earlier excavations and one to the south and east. Once again, the site did not disappoint any of the team. The cemetery has a unique layout, with most of the 109 graves forming an irregular square 36m east-west and 34m north-south. There are two entrances, one at the north-east corner and the other to the south. There seems to be a large degree of planning, withmany of the graves on the north side accurately dug at the same distance along each row with a constant space between the rows. No grave intercuts any other grave, and we think many were dug as part of the same event aligned upon graves in the four corners. There are three possible triangular-shaped stone grave-markers in the south-eastern corner of the cemetery, while on the north and west sides of the cemetery a number of graves have stakeholes in their bases that may be evidence of accompanying upstanding wooden structures.

We found 65 of the graves in 2007, containing artefacts that include iron knives, buckles, strap ends, girdle hangers, shears, latch lifters, perforated jet discs and fragments of glass vessels. Soil staining and the deposition of finds suggested the presence of containers like bags and boxes in a few of the graves. The most significant find last year was a gold bracteate from grave 70 on the north-eastern corner. There were also a further nine graves that contained beads, some of types rarely seen in the north. The spatial distribution of all of the finds across the site now showed that there were more graves with "high status" artefacts in the north and west rather than the south, with no ironwork and few finds on the east.

As previously noted, the extremely acid soil conditions on the site preclude the survival of bone and other organic remains. This means that there are no human remains present in any of the 109 graves, andmuch of the ironwork recovered is in a very poor condition. However, there is some mineralisation of textiles and wood on some of the iron items, including textile on the bed fittings in grave 42.

Pagan cult

The excavation at Street House has revealed a seventh century cemetery with several unique features for northern England. The plan and arrangement of the cemetery is without parallel, suggesting a high degree of social order both in its construction and in proscription of access to burial. The bed burial is one of only a dozen known in England, and is the most northerly so far discovered. It shares several features with the others, including the best known at Swallowcliffe Down, Wiltshire, although it is farmore complex in decoration and construction. Its primary location within a planned cemetery is also highly significant.

Although it is still early days, a number of themes are clear.There is a significant reuse of iron age items within some of the highest status burials, and the graves clearly respect the iron age features, suggesting that this site was chosen for a specific reason. Furthermore, whilst artefact parallels can be seen in other Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the north, in some ways the assemblage is noticeably Kentish, and strong links with East Anglia can clearly be seen in some of the jewellery and beadwork. Some suggestions of a Christian influence similar to that in Kentish assemblages is also apparent. This echoes historical evidence for connections between the Northumbrian royal family and Kent, including marriage between the two royal households and periods of exile from Northumbria back to Kent during family succession disputes.

Most importantly, however, the bed burial rite, the form of the langseax and the presence of a particular ornament (Salin's style II) on the bracteates, point strongly towards the second half of the seventh century. This is a significant time in the Anglo-Saxon north, with St Hild becoming abbess of Hartlepool in AD649 andmoving to establish the abbey at Whitby in 657. In this context we are seeing the creation at Street House of a new cemetery with rituals and artefacts from southern England.

We would suggest that together with the personal will to create such a cemetery, which paid respect to a pagan past within an area of Christian expansion, these are evidences for the actions of an individual of extremely high status.

The east-west orientation of the graves and the symbolismin the bracteates, coins and pendants, may suggest the deceased were Christians: but the setting within a prehistoric enclosure in a landscape of ancient burial monuments is more redolent of paganism. Neither do the bed burial, lowmound, unique site plan and grubenhaus suggest Christianity.

The person on the bed was clearly significant within northern England, and the people buried alongside were celebrated with a different type of rite than that becoming common within religious houses in the Kingdom of Northumbria. This is all the more remarkable when you realise that Street House and Whitby are contemporary and only 18km apart.

Quite who was buried on the bed at Street House we may never know, but we can speculate that this person was a female member of the local aristocracy, probably a princess and an outsider, whose personal status was strong enough to act as a catalyst for the site. Undoubtedly this individual was well known to people of similar status, such as St Hild and others described by writers like Bede. But away from Christian Whitby, she inspired a unique cemetery systematically laid out around her: she might, indeed, have been the focus of a pagan cult.

The cemetery had a short existence, with nothing that can be dated to before ad650 and nothing after 700 (data from the Norton cemetery suggest typical life expectancy then was 32 for men and 28 for women), and may not have been filled. The regular, uninterrupted layout confirms that all the graves were visible at once.

Where is the linked settlement? We do not yet know, although a geophysical survey has suggested there are further features to the south. We will be undertaking evaluation excavations in 2008 to discover more about this enigmatic site.

The Street House excavations are directed by Stephen J Sherlock, assisted by members of Teesside Archaeological Society, local volunteers, university students and local residents,with the valued support of the landowner, Alan Bothroyd and his family. The finds are being analysed by Mark Simmons at Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service, with the aim of full publication in the near future. Available now is The Excavation of an Iron Age Settlement at Street House, Loftus, North East Yorkshire 2004–2006 (£6 inc p&p) from stephen.sherlock@ntlworld.com

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