Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Found Beneath Demolished University Housing

The find may shed light on life in Britain after the withdrawal of Roman forces in the fifth century A.D.

Anglo-Saxon graveyard found in Cambridge, England
Archaeologists discovered the graveyard beneath 1930s housing at Cambridge University. Dronescapes

For decades, students and staff at Cambridge University slept on top of a roughly 1,500-year-old graveyard.

As Donna Ferguson reports for the Guardian, the British university’s King’s College discovered the Anglo-Saxon cemetery while tearing down 1930s buildings ahead of construction of new housing.

Caroline Goodson, a King’s College historian and archaeologist, tells the Guardian that because the remains are remarkably well preserved, researchers will be able to learn about everything from the deceased’s genetic relationships to the foods they ate.

“The alkaline soil, which is typical around here, hasn’t decomposed the bones,” she says.

The site is home to more than 60 graves, the majority of which date to between 400 and 650 A.D., reports Louis Hodgson for Cambridge’s independent student newspaper, Varsity. Many of the burials contain grave goods, including bronze brooches, weapons, pottery and bead necklaces. Archaeologists also discovered earthworks from the Roman period; a few of the graves may date to that era (43 to 410 A.D.).

Sam Lucy, a medieval archaeologist at Cambridge, tells BBC News that a “small cluster” of graves are deeper than the others and lined with stone, which was “not normally an early medieval practice.”

Per BBC News, archaeologists have known of the existence of an early medieval cemetery in west Cambridge since the 19th century. But as Goodson tells the Guardian, the team from Albion Archaeology was surprised to discover the burial site’s size. The find enhances scholars’ understanding of what happened in the area after the Roman military withdrew from Britain in the early fifth century.

Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Found Beneath Demolished University Housing
Many of the bodies were found buried with grave goods, including bronze brooches and pottery. Albion Archaeology

“We already know that Cambridge wasn’t fully abandoned,” Goodson says. “But what we’re seeing now is a clearer and clearer picture of life in the post-Roman settlements.”

She adds that Cambridgeshire’s early medieval residents were probably a mix of people descended from the area’s Roman-era population and newcomers from continental Europe.

“They are no longer living as the Romans did, they’re eating differently, dressing differently and finding different ways of exploiting the land,” Goodson says. “They are changing the way they are living during a period of considerable fluidity.”

Anglo-Saxons were people of Germanic descent who migrated to Britain during a time period that overlapped with the Roman withdrawal of forces from the island. Their dialects formed the basis of Old English.

The college found the discovery so intriguing that it decided to appoint a new four-year research fellow in late Roman and early medieval archaeology to work on the site.

“These finds are tremendously exciting for King’s, and I’m delighted that the Research Fellowship will enable a substantial research project,” says Michael Proctor, provost of King’s College, in a statement. “The wonderful new accommodation being built at Croft Gardens will help generations of students in the future; and what we have found during construction will also give us a unique opportunity to learn much more about the past.”