Archaeologists teamed up with volunteers and a group of injured military veterans to excavate a portion of Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain, an archaeological site in southwestern England. They Exavated a burial ground dating to the 6th century AD.
The site, which is presently a military training site, has a history dating back to the Early Bronze Age. Since digging began last year, over 80 burials have been found, as well as the remains of jewellery, decorated pottery and weapons.
On the last day of an excavation by soldiers within the military training lands on Salisbury Plain, they found a comrade in arms: the grave of a sixth century Saxon warrior, buried with his lance by his side and his sword in his arms.
His bones and possessions, which included a handsome belt buckle, a knife and tweezers, were remarkably well preserved inspite of his grave lying under a military trackway on which tanks and massive military vehicles have been trundling across the plain.
Pattern welded swords, high status objects, are rarely found intact: his was lifted in one piece, complete with traces of its wood and leather casing.
The soldiers were very moved by the discovery of a man they felt would have shared some of their experiences.
They joined the unearthing at Barrow Clump as part of Operation Nightingale, an activity to help the recovery of veterans of recent conflicts, particularly Afghanistan, by including them in archaeology.
The scheme, working with Wessex Archaeology, has been so successful that several of the veterans have retrained as professional archaeologists.
“It was a classic last day of the dig find – there was such a buzz across the site, the soldiers definitely had a sense of kinship,” Richard Osgood, senior archaeologist with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation stated.
“I have to admit I also thought ‘there goes my budget’ – there was quite a tricky discussion afterwards with the MoD because of the sudden increase in conservation costs.”
The finds have been taken for further investigation and conservation work at Wessex Archaeology, and will eventually be given to the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.
Barrow Clump has a remarkably long history of human activity. The Bronze Age burial mound built on an even older Neolithic settlement, was reused as an Anglo Saxon cemetery.
It had already been harmed by ploughing, but permission to excavate a listed site was granted because of damage by more recent trouble makers – badgers which were burrowing out the whole site, and kicking out human bones as they dug.
This year’s excavation was just beside the burial mound – “the badgers are joyfully back in residence in the barrow now” Osgood said – carried out in scorching heat and clay as hard as concrete, to investigate the extent of the burial ground, and the condition of any archaeology under the trackway.
The 3 week excavation uncovered scores of Saxon burials, men around the edge of the site, women and children in the centre, with grave goods including weapons and gems.
They included a man with a less well preserved sword, and a little girl buried with a large amber bead. One of the graves held a young boy buried curled as if in sleep, one of the few without any grave goods.
The splendidly armed warrior was discovered when a metal detector being used for a last sweep of the site on the final afternoon gave an unusually strong signal.
The archaeology, Osgood stated, was generally better preserved than in the ploughed fields outside the army lands. “We discovered one grave directly below the track, and the skull, only 5 centimetres down, had not even been cracked – so from a curatorial point of view that was very reassuring.
He believes the dead came from a settlement in the valley below: “It’s that Saxon thing of looking up the hill and knowing your ancestors are up there on a site that was already ancient and unique.”