An exceedingly natural burial

The French do make my life difficult sometimes. For once I’m not talking about the Normans, or even the French public toilets of my childhood holidays.

I have an alert set up for when “Anglo-Saxons” get mentioned in the news, and it’s often filled with French newspapers talking about us. Like, I know we as a country left the rational world a good ten months ago and are charging onward to the moon yelling “WE CAN DO ANYTHING!”, but still, stop clogging up my early medieval interests!

Eventually I found a couple of recent pieces of news about Anglo-Saxon discoveries. Sadly these won’t be quite as thorough as I was able to be with the cannibalism vs vampire story, because I can’t find the original report behind either story.

Today’s is about … well, not quite mummified trees. Kind of exactly the opposite, if you’re associating mummies with heat and drying out. Preserved. Really stunningly well-preserved.

(I tried to come up with an Old English heading along the line of “waterlogged trees” but couldn’t find any decent adjectives and couldn’t for the life of me think what tense the verb would be in (trees which had been soaked???). Ah language skills, I miss you.)

The story is about a discovery of two very rare types of Anglo-Saxon grave on a dig in Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. I’ll link you to the funding body’s article, Historic England, for want of a better source. I don’t know if I can use the images from that so I won’t – you should really go and look at them!

(I love learning about things like this. It can be so difficult to picture people from a long time ago without actual things to look at.)

As it obviously by now, these graves involved trees. The majority, with 81, were tree trunks. I think they were oak trees. These had been cut in half lengthwise and hollowed out. The bodies went in the bottom half and the top half was the lid. To continue the mummy theme, imagine a kind of tree sarcophagus. (Click the link up there and you’ll find an option to explore one of the coffins in 3d!). This is an ancient form of burial which we first see evidence for in the early Bronze Age, so, around 2000BC.

Forgot to mention: not only were the graves still around, so were the skeletons inside! Truly phenomenal preservation.

One of the things that I found most fascinating about this form of burial is that the trees had to come from somewhere, reliably, in large quantities. Did the Anglo-Saxon community involved “farm” the trees? “Death Orchards”? Did they perhaps trade for the trees with other areas? And the work was extremely intensive, up to 4 days work according to the Historic England article, so again was that labour which came from within the Norfolk community or was that bought in? If it wasn’t skilled work, just difficult, maybe slaves were involved? I would assume that the burials would be high-status but there were so many of them!

(Yes, the Anglo-Saxons had slaves. I’ll try to do something on this later)

The remaining six graves were even rare and more unusual. The grave space was cut into the ground and then the area was lined with planks of wood and more planks were used for the covering/lid. These are thought to be the earliest examples of this type of burial yet found in England.

However, the buzzword on most of the newspaper articles about this was “Christian”, because the lack of buried possessions and apparent timber church foundations nearby, along with east-west oriented placement, suggests this rural 7th – 9th century Norfolk settlement was Christian. There’s a novel Christian funeral for you – inside a tree.

The only reason that these pieces of wood remain so astonishingly intact is apparently:

James Fairclough, Archaeologist from MOLA said: “The combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive, revealing remarkable details of Christian Anglo-Saxon burial practices.””

Lots of future study is planned on the bodies and the coffins to find about more how they lived and died, and finds from the dig will be kept at the Norwich Castle Museum.

There we go, a summary of a unique find. Hopefully in a while I can link back to this blog as I discuss their findings on the skeletons’ lives, but if not I have certainly enjoyed reading around the internet about this.

Hope you enjoyed reading too; let me know!


An exceedingly natural burial

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