1500 year old cemetery discovered near Suffolk coast

Carefully excavating through the sand – Photo: Suffolk County Council

A large Anglo-Saxon cemetery, dating back as early as the 6th century, has been discovered near the Suffolk coast.

Excavations took place at Oulton, near Lowestoft, ahead of a housing development being built by Persimmon Homes. Over 200 sets of remains were discovered, with some graves containing copper-alloy brooches, wrist clasps, strings of beads made of amber and glass, small iron knives and silver pennies.

The excavation of these type of cemeteries in their entirety is rare in England. The site has similarities with nearby Sutton Hoo and Snape, with the unusual phenomenon of many skeletons only visible as ‘sand-silhouettes’, a delicate form of preservation.

Andrew Peachey of Archaeological Solutions Ltd, who carried out the excavations, said: “Our archaeologists painstakingly excavated the delicate remains of 17 cremations and 191 inhumation burials. Due to the highly acidic soil the skeletons had mostly vanished and were luckily preserved as fragile shapes and shadows in the sand. These shadows also revealed traces of the wooden coffins that some of the individuals were buried in.

“Unusually, many graves also included fragments of pottery and in some cases complete decorated pots. Weapons were rare, with a sword in one grave, iron spear heads in three others, and at least one shield – the metal fittings of the shield remained in place around the silhouette of the dissolved wooden boards. Many of the artefacts were so fragile they had to be block lifted for micro-excavation in the labs at Norfolk Museum Service for analysis and conservation – they were even able to recover pieces of textiles and leather.”

Looking over the cemetery – Photo: Suffolk County Council

The site appears to represent a small farming community buried over several generations with male, female, child and infant burials. Interestingly, the cemetery was in continuous use during a time which saw major changes in burial practice and the conversion to Christianity. 

John Eldridge, director in charge at Persimmon Homes, said: “We feel privileged to be part of such an exciting find and it quickly became clear that our Woods Meadow development was subject to a significant piece of history. We always take our responsibilities very seriously when it comes to archaeological investigation and we were happy to support the extensive excavations to ensure that Suffolk’s and England’s history could be properly investigated, recovered and recorded.”

The work was monitored by officers from the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, a spokesperson added: “This is a nationally significant discovery and continues to evidence what a historic place Suffolk is. The site lies within the 7th Century Kingdom of the East Angles, made famous by the royal burial ground at nearby Sutton Hoo. It is important we oversee and record this work so that we can understand the community buried here and its connections to other finds in Oulton and the nearby settlements and cemeteries at Carlton Colville and Flixton.

“The work here would not have been possible without the generosity of Persimmon Homes, the expertise of Archaeological Solutions Ltd and the work of our officers to make sure that the cemetery was recorded and excavated to the highest standards.”

A pot can be seen placed next to the head of a skeleton – Photo: Suffolk County Council

All remains have now been fully excavated ahead of the development and are undergoing post excavation analysis. The area has been fully mapped and recorded and building work has now begun.

The finds and remains will now undergo specialist analysis, details of the site will be documented, and the entire archive will be deposited with Suffolk County Council’s Archaeology Service. Once this work is complete, they will be available for researchers and local museums to borrow on loan for display to the public.

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