Shadows of the Dead: Anglo-Saxon Burials are Spooky Sand Silhouettes

Archaeologists in Britain have uncovered a remarkable Anglo-Saxon burial ground that dates back to the 6th or 7th century AD. This Anglo-Saxon burial site is rather unusual as it consists of spooky silhouettes of the deceased in the sandy soil. The skeletons have long since disappeared. It is believed that this eerie site can help historians to better understand the early Anglo-Saxons and the world-famous burials at Sutton Hoo.

The Anglo-Saxon cemetery was found in Oulton, near Lowestoft, in Suffolk, in southern England. Some land was being cleared for agricultural use when it was uncovered. Experts working with Archaeological Solutions Ltd began to investigate the site and what they found was astonishing. They uncovered an intact Anglo-Saxon burial , that is at least 1400 years old.

Shadows of the Dead in the Earth

Some 200 graves were found and they included both cremations and burials. The Daily Mail reports that ‘due to the acidity of the soil and the poor preservation methods used upon entombment, no bones remain, just shadow-like ‘sand silhouettes’ of the skeletons.’

Some 200 Anglo-Saxon graves have been found, including cremations and burials. (Suffolk County Council)

Some 200 Anglo-Saxon graves have been found, including cremations and burials. ( Suffolk County Council )

Anything organic has disappeared, but the impression of many of the deceased has been preserved in the sandy soil. Andrew Peachey, who led the dig, is quoted by Archaeology saying that “Due to the highly acidic soil the skeletons had mostly vanished and were luckily preserved as fragile shapes and shadows in the sand.”

This is a phenomenon that has been found elsewhere. Peachey is quoted by the Smithsonian as saying that “These shadows also revealed traces of the wooden coffins that some of the individuals were buried in.” The impression, or shadows, have been studied in-situ.

The graves once contained some of the earliest Anglo-Saxons who lived in England. They were a Germanic tribe who originated in Germany or Denmark and who settled on the island after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and eventually laid the foundation for the modern English nation.

Carefully excavating the Anglo-Saxon burial ground. (Suffolk County Council)

Carefully excavating the Anglo-Saxon burial ground. ( Suffolk County Council )

Remarkable Anglo-Saxon Burial Goods

Among the objects found were personal decorations including brooches, wrist clasps, and amber and glass beads. A number of knives, coins, weapons, and a shield, were also found. Remarkably, some organic remains such as leather and textiles were also discovered. Peachey is quoted by the Daily Mail as saying that “Unusually, many of the graves also included fragments of pottery and decorated pots.”

Many of the graves included fragments of pottery and decorated pots. (Suffolk County Council)

Many of the graves included fragments of pottery and decorated pots. ( Suffolk County Council )

These finds were very fragile and if removed they could disintegrate. So, the archaeologists took them out of the earth in the block of earth. The Smithsonian reports Peachey as saying that “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.”

The Anglo-Saxon Community

The Anglo-Saxon burial ground had contained the remains of men, women, and children. It is believed that they all came from several generations of a farming community. This discovery is a wonderful opportunity to understand the lives of ordinary people in Anglo-Saxon times. The BBC quoted a Suffolk Archaeological Service statement that “studies would help establish the graveyard’s links to other local sites.” There are several other significant Anglo-Saxon sites in this part of England.

Studying the artifacts found in the Anglo-Saxon burials provides a wonderful opportunity to understand the lives of ordinary people who lived during that time. (Suffolk County Council)

Studying the artifacts found in the Anglo-Saxon burials provides a wonderful opportunity to understand the lives of ordinary people who lived during that time. ( Suffolk County Council )

The BBC reports Suffolk Archaeology Service as stating that the site “lies within the Kingdom of the East Angles, made famous by the royal burial ground at nearby Sutton Hoo .” This Anglo-Saxon site is located near Woodbridge, Suffolk. In 1939, archaeologists excavated two burial mounds from the 6th and 7th century AD and found an intact ship burial.

Treasures of Sutton Hoo

It is believed that King Rædwald of East Anglia was laid to rest in the vessel found in the mound. Most of the ship’s wood has long since decayed in the acidic soil, but its outline was found. As a result, according to the Daily Mail the vessel found in the mound is often called a ‘ghost ship.’

Many treasures were found in the royal burial and they included an ornately decorated full-faced helmet, a shield, a sword, and many precious examples of metalwork. These are now all on exhibit in the British Museum . There has been some controversy over who should be credited with the amazing discoveries at Sutton Hoo, and this was the subject of a 2020 movie called The Dig .

Studies are ongoing at the Suffolk site, with the ghostly graves and the results will be compared with other Anglo-Saxon burial sites. A Suffolk county council spokesman is quoted by the Daily Mail as saying that “This is a nationally significant discovery and continues to show what a historic place Suffolk is.” It is hoped that many of the grave goods retrieved from the sandy soil will eventually go on display in a local museum.

Top image: The Anglo-Saxon burials found in Suffolk are being described as ‘sand silhouettes’. Source: Suffolk County Council

By Ed Whelan

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