Young archaeologists dig up a mystery

Jul 05, 2007

A group of teenagers taking part in a Cambridge University archaeological dig have unexpectedly unearthed the mysterious remains of a woman who could be more than 1,000 years old.

Pupils from Sir John Leman High School in Beccles and Kirkley Community High School in Lowestoft uncovered the ancient skull during a Higher Education Field Academy dig in the village of Chediston, near Halesworth. The dig was organised by Cambridge University archaeologist Carenza Lewis – well-known to television viewers from Channel 4's Time Team.

Cambridge University experts believe that the body, the rest of which is likely to continue the east beyond the excavated area, belonged to an adult woman who lived in the village either in medieval or Anglo-Saxon times. But the site of the burial is mystifying, leading to questions about who she actually was.

In particular, the woman was buried outside the churchyard – although tantalisingly close to it. The burial spot is just a stone's throw from the graveyard of St Mary's Church (itself an ancient site) and there have been no other human remains found so far in the immediate area.

“At the moment we don't know why this woman was buried outside the graveyard. She may have committed some awful crime, or been thought not to be Christian”, Carenza said.

From the medieval period onwards it was firmly believed that burial in unconsecrated ground condemned the soul to limbo, with no chance of ever going to heaven. People who could not be buried on consecrated ground included suicides, criminals, un-baptised babies, and non-Christians, although the Church usually tried to apply such rules as charitably as possible, denying as few people as possible the awful fate of perpetual limbo.

The woman was, however, buried east to west, the standard form of Christian burial, suggesting that those who buried her must have considered her to be a Christian. With this in mind, the other possibility experts are considering is that the burial of this woman actually occurred longer ago, before the graveyard occupied its present position.

“The skull was found in an area of the village that in the past has turned up pottery and other remains that are late Anglo-Saxon in date, including a timber building,” Carenza added. “It may be that a church much older than the present building stood near here before the Norman Conquest, and that the body we found was buried in its graveyard, which was in a different place to the one we know today. Discoveries of this sort are very rare, and so this is very important. If this theory is correct, it is likely there will be other bodies buried nearby.”

The dig in Chediston was part of an ongoing series of Higher Education Field Academies run by Access Cambridge Archaeology. The scheme, based at the University of Cambridge, aims to bring together school pupils, rural residents, local history societies and the University in an ongoing archaeological investigation into the development of villages and hamlets across the country.

Young people have the chance to run their own mini-excavations over two days and the hope is that this will give them the chance to develop skills, confidence and enthusiasm for attending university in the future. Previous Field Academies have generated a 60% increase in numbers wanting to go on to higher education.

At the same time, the project is revealing important new information about the development of different communities dotted around the English countryside and their past.

“Archaeology is quite a unique subject in that, with the right expert support, you can get involved and actually make important new discoveries without any previous experience,” Carenza, who directs Access Cambridge Archaeology, added.

“This kind of find is part of the beauty of these field academies. We don't know what's out there and what the results are going to be – we send these children to live excavation sites, and the evidence they uncover can be quite spectacular.”

Source: University of Cambridge

Explore further: Researchers create methylation maps of Neanderthals and Denisovans, compare them to modern humans

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

'Highway from hell' fueled Costa Rican volcano

Jul 31, 2013

If some volcanoes operate on geologic timescales, Costa Rica's Irazú had something of a short fuse. In a new study in the journal Nature, scientists suggest that the 1960s eruption of Costa Rica's larges ...

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

Apr 17, 2014

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...