Archaeological digs reveal the layers of history beneath our feet

In January, just as news of the discovery of a significant Anglo-Saxon cemetery was reported in Northamptonshire, the star-studded film The Dig was released on Netflix. The film’s story about the extraordinary discoveries at Sutton Hoo evoked the drama and wonder of archaeological excavation and was a reminder of how much history lies beneath our feet.

The newly discovered cemetery excavated in Overstone Leys was found on a Barratt and David Wilson Homes development just 30 minutes from Oundle. The site dates to the Anglo-Saxon period and is a significant discovery for the region. Closer to home, however, is the story of a dig at Nassington in 1942, just three years after the Sutton Hoo discovery, which undoubtedly had an influence on the Nassington excavators.

Northamptonshire has a rich ancient history, with artefacts from digs having been found that date back 4,000 years. The Nassington dig contained artefacts from the Roman occupation, but more significantly, the finds documented layers of information about settlement by the Saxons, and settlement by Anglians: “two cultural forces at work, distinguishing two stages in the early history of the occupation.”

The cemetery in Nassington was by far the largest in the area, despite the damage caused by its unusual discovery. The site was discovered during the construction of a gravel pit in June 1942 while over two feet of dirt was being moved.

The construction workers were in for a surprise when they churned up 1,000-year-old bones.

However, the mechanical scrapes would wreak havoc on the historical finds, shattering smaller bones and sweeping away delicate artefacts and pottery. Despite this hiccup, Northamptonshire archaeologists, joined by pupils from Oundle School, were still able to gather a wealth of information from the site.

Gold gilt brooches belonging to a woman of importance were found at Nassington

From topsoil damage, it was clear that the graves had been looted by grave-robbers many centuries earlier. Luckily, three graves were relatively undisturbed, and bore evidence of Roman occupation.

The bones from the cemetery were large and well-formed, including a man’s skeleton that was estimated to be seven feet tall. However, many bones showed signs of severe arthritis and rheumatism, most likely caused by malnutrition. Couples were found buried together, and skeletons from ages 10-50 were found throughout the cemetery. Fifty graves were found in total, but the true number could not be counted due to the destruction caused by the construction machinery.

Most of the discoveries were dated to the Anglo-Saxon era 410-1066AD. The most striking finds of the dig were the artefacts, including intricate brooches and beads. Signs of Roman occupation were found towards the north of the site, with the bottom of a wooden vessel and various hearths with charred animal bones.

Both men and women carried small knives, but spearheads, wooden buckets and shields were exclusively found with men. Women’s graves contained the more historically significant treasures, with jewellery consistent with other digs all the way from York to Surrey, including intricate findings such as sleeve clasps used to hold up dresses, belt fittings, buckles decorated with animals, and beads.

The beads were the artefacts most decimated by the diggers, but the team was still able to find 74 beads, including blue and green glass, blue guilloche with red dots, and amber beads, which could have come from the East Anglia coast. The pottery was also heavily damaged, but the designs that were salvaged were traced from across Britain to northern Germany.
Among the finds were objects that were regarded as loot or acquisitions from earlier Celtic sources. One was an iron pin with its head fashioned in the shape of a shepherd’s crook.

Boys from Oundle School were lucky enough to assist the professional archaeologists on this dig, and a collection of some of the artefacts was given to the school.

Excavators spend their time digging in the dirt, but their work is not as dry as dust, as viewers of The Dig discovered.

The Antiquaries Journal 1944 report of the Nassington dig is instrumental in telling us about the ancient history of settlers in the area, and also about how digs were conducted at that time. The report concluded with the “devout hope” that future excavations of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries would conform to all the demands of modern archaeology “to serve to illumine the dark page of the valley’s past”.

Noa Anderson
May 2021