Ahead of Planned Rail Line, Archaeologists Uncover Early Medieval Cemetery

The team found 138 graves and a large assortment of artifacts and personal objects

A series of empty graves
Researchers found the remains of more than 140 individuals, in addition to hundreds of artifacts. Courtesy of HS2

A team of British archaeologists has uncovered an early medieval burial ground—which they say is one of the largest ever discovered in England. Roughly 140 men, women and children are buried there with a range of objects dating from the fifth and sixth centuries.

“The significance of this site for our historical and archaeological understanding of Anglo-Saxon Britain is huge,” says Rachel Wood, the team’s lead archaeologist, in a statement. “It is not a site I would ever have anticipated finding—to have found one of these burials would have been astonishing, so to have found so many is quite unbelievable.”

The team, working ahead of the planned HS2 high-speed rail project, found the cemetery in Buckinghamshire, England. While they also found evidence of Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman activity, they say that the early medieval cemetery was the most notable discovery.

Spinal vertebrae with a metal object
This metal object was found lodged in the spine of a young man buried at the site. Courtesy of HS2

In total, the site holds 138 graves, with 141 regular burials and five cremation burials. Most of the individuals were buried with a range of objects, suggesting that they once formed a wealthy community. Among these graves, researchers found more than 2,000 amber beads, 51 knives, 15 spearheads, 40 buckles and 89 brooches.

The objects vary from grave to grave, giving researchers clues about how each person lived and died. One woman, likely a high status member of the community, was buried with ivory, jewelry and an ornate green glass bowl. Another grave contained the remains of a young man with a sharp iron item lodged in his spine. Researchers believe that the man may have died when someone attacked him with this object from the front.

That man also had a blue stain on his collarbone, which came from a brooch once used to hold up a cloak, reports the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood. Researchers found many others with two such brooches, one on each side of the collarbone, which would have been used to hold up outer robes.

The team also found two glass beakers similar to ones made in northern France at the time, which may have been used to drink imported wine. Other finds were more mundane: Researchers uncovered a range of beauty and grooming supplies, including combs, tweezers, toothpicks and ear wax removers.

A pair of very old copper tweezers
Personal grooming items, including these copper tweezers, were among the artifacts discovered. Courtesy of HS2

The excavation was one of many conducted along the route intended for a high-speed rail line, which is expected to open its first leg between 2029 and 2033. Over the past few years, some 1,000 archaeologists have excavated more than 60 sites along the HS2 route, BBC News reports. Other discoveries include a large Roman settlement and two “astonishing” Roman statues.

“The fifth [and] sixth centuries are not ones that we know a lot about,” Wood says in an HS2 video. “All the objects that we found here will really be able to tell us a lot about these people.”