The edible dead
The glory that was York
Town of tin
Editor Simon Denison
If it shines, it is gold
David Miles recalls finding Christian jewels in a cemetery of West Saxons newly converted from pagan beliefs
One of my favourite finds was a gold medallion from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Lechlade in Gloucestershire, which I excavated for the Oxford Unit in 1985. One of the reasons it is fondly engraved in my memory is that this was one of the last times I was a proper archaeologist getting my hands dirty - I became Director of the Unit the following year.
At the time we were involved in a major landscape study of the Upper Thames Valley, unravelling the history of fields in the area. This site, which was going to be a housing development, was a flat area of former arable field, featureless on the surface but which had cropmarks that we thought were late Bronze Age enclosures intersecting with Roman fields and cutting through early Bronze Age barrows.
When we started digging we did indeed find those enclosures - but within a matter of minutes we also started to find human remains which were completely unsuspected. As we scraped off the topsoil we saw the dark outlines of graves, and in some of them the bones were very close to the surface. The site turned out to be one of the largest Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the Thames Valley.
It was densely packed with graves. A lot were aligned north-south and a lot were east-west, and these east-west graves were stratigraphically later, connected with the adoption of Christianity after about AD 650.
The dress worn by the rich women was very interesting. In the 5th and 6th centuries they all had distinctive regional or tribal dress - here, it was West Saxon. Basically if you were travelling through southern England at this time you'd have known where you were by the way that women dressed. But when you get to the 7th century, you have the first generation 'English' burials because the rich women are wearing a dress which is pan-Saxon.
Whereas the earlier burials show evidence of contact with the northern world, particularly in amber beads and objects with German and Scandinavian-style influences, the later generations in the east-west graves show influences that are more to the South, to Merovingian Gaul, to Constantinople and beyond.
So instead of amber they are now wearing amethysts. If you rub amber it becomes electrical, it is a symbol of the sun and is very much a pagan stone. Amethysts are a symbol of heaven because of their colour, and are still worn in bishops' rings today. The first generation Christians did not give up their habit of being buried with all their finery, and particularly with protective amulets, but the amulets now have Christian significance. Instead of necklaces of wolf's teeth they wear beaver's teeth because the beaver is not so associated with the pagan gods.
The other thing you get with the later burials is a lot of gold and silver, especially gold medallions worn in the throat, set with garnets which probably represent the blood of Christ. The gold is probably from Merovingian coins melted down, and the garnets could have come through Constantinople from Northern India or even Ceylon. So here was a small community in Lechlade whose network went right across the world as far as Ceylon.
The medallion that I particularly remember, part of a necklace, was a circular gold pendant with a cross made out of filigree gold, with a garnet at the centre and four garnets in each of the four quadrants. There were a number of medallions in the cemetery but this one was the finest.
Lure of gold
It's a dreadful cliché to be excited by gold, but the thing about gold that is so remarkable in the ground is that it looks so damned new. No matter how many times you find gold objects you are always shocked that they have been lying in the ground for 1,400 years or whatever, but look like they have only been there since yesterday.
Excavating, at least on a good site, allows you to get really absorbed into an activity which is both intellectual and physical, and nothing gets in the way of it. You don't have any interruptions. The job I do now couldn't be more different - though I wouldn't say I miss digging. Being an archaeologist is a bit like being a footballer. You have a period when you are fit and active, but when you get older, you get rather more aches and pains. You're not as fit as you were.
David Miles is the Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005