A Pagan Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Norton-on-Tees
In the summer of 1982, children playing on a rope-swing beside Mill Lane noticed human bones in the hollow scoured out by their feet. The Police were initially called, who in turn called in the archaeologists.
The bones were those of a woman aged between 25 and 35, who had been buried with some of her personal possessions, including a bronze brooch (right) and a necklace of glass and amber beads. These finds were dated to the 6th century AD.
An Anglo-Saxon burial had been discovered.
Excavations by Cleveland County Council Archaeology Section (now Tees Archaeology), between 1984 -1985, revealed the full extent of the cemetery. The archaeological evidence suggests that the cemetery was in use for several generations, from around 550 AD to 620 AD.
The site was found to contain 120 burials, nearly all of them aligned north-south. The orientation of the graves indicated that this was a Pagan cemetery (Christian graves are aligned east-west). Pagans also believed in an afterlife and placed objects in the grave that would come in useful along with offerings of food and drink.
The burials were of mixed age from infant to elderly and there was an even balance of males and females.
The majority of the burials were either lain out on their backs or crouched on their sides. A small proportion were face down, as if they had been simply thrown in the grave. Perhaps these people were treated differently or even killed at the graveside as a punishment for a crime or perhaps some form of taboo such as witchcraft!
Men and women tended to be buried with different types of grave goods, men with weapons and women with jewellery, combs and tweezers.
The quality and amount of grave goods denoted the status of the individual. One important woman in her early twenties was buried with a pair of decorated silver bracelets (right), three silver pendants, three brooches, a string of beads, sleeve-clasps and a set of iron keys.
Keys were only buried with females and denoted the bearer as the head of the household.
Males were often buried with weapons. The number of weapons indicated the individual’s rank or status. One man at Norton was buried with a shield, spear and seax (a single edge sword) marking him as one of the highest ranked individuals.
Poorer individuals were often buried with only a few beads and perhaps an iron knife or buckle.
Preservation at the site was variable but in some cases remarkable. One male grave included a wooden bucket (right). This was made from staves of yew held together with bronze bands. It is a very rare find and denotes the grave as being of high status. Perhaps the bucket contained a meal or drink for use in the afterlife.
Three cremations were excavated at the site. These often contained the remains of more than one person and could also include animal remains, perhaps this is evidence of feasting or making offerings of food at the funeral pyre.
The finds and remains from the cemetery are now in store but are frequently accessed for display and new research. In 2006 a forensic reconstruction was commissioned based on the skull from a female grave demonstrating how far the available technology has progressed since the original excavation.
In 2012 the human remains from Norton were loaned to the University of York for further research.
Amongst the new techniques to be applied with be analysis of the plaque on teeth to reveal more about diet and possibly occupation (traces of flax have been noted in plaque elsewhere in the country).
Stable isotope analysis will also be carried out to determine the birthplaces of the individuals within the cemetery. Different isotope signatures are embedded within each of us in our early years and can be matched to different regions of the UK and indeed the continent.
The now out-of-print report on the excavations can be downloaded in full from the Archaeology Data Service. Please use the link below (you will need to accept the ADS terms and conditions in order to view the report). Our Anglo-Saxon Teesside booklet is also available for download along with a colouring sheet for younger viewers based on the finds from the cemetery.