Rollright Stones – Saxon Lady Question
In April 2015 metal detectorist Charles Wood of the Muddy Boots detectorists club was searching land near the Rollright Stones (http://www.rollrightstones.co.uk/) on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border. He was just outside land owned by the Rollright Trust, and local landowner David Haine had given the club permission. Some 60m from the King Stone, Charles started to dig. The first thing he found was a bronze pan and, suspecting it may be Roman, he called the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS, https://finds.org.uk/). Finds Liaison Officers arrived, and it was these FLOs who, continuing to dig, came across the skull and upper torso of a skeleton.
According to FLO, Anni Byard, the instinctive desire was to cover the skeleton, reinterring her there and then. However, because the pan had generated interest, they believed the grave was under immediate threat from treasure hunters. The police were called, the grave covered by a large concrete slab and the relevant agencies were called. An exhumation licence was given by the Ministry of Justice, and on Easter Monday 2015 this ancestor was exhumed.
Buried at a depth of around 18”, the near complete skeleton had been laid to rest in a north/south alignment. Initial examination suggests she is a woman who died in her mid to late twenties, around 5’3. Apart from a repetitive strain injury in her left shoulder, and evidence of possibly once having broken her tibia, she seemed to have been in good health. No cause of death is evident. A few toes had been lost due to an animal burrow. The grave was large – wider than needed for a single body, and she was laid out on the eastern side, suggesting that there had been some organic matter buried with her, no traces of which survive. This, together with the grave goods that have survived and the burial location near the Rollright Stones, all lead the FLOs and archaeologists to believe that she was of high status. Other than that, the grave is not unusual for one of Saxon England, from around the seventh century.
The grave goods (https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/717007 / record ID no. BERK-5105C90) meant that she and all the artefacts have spent many months with the coroner, who declared the goods to be treasure. It isn’t a vast hoard, the estimated value being around £2000, but the coroner declared it treasure in line with the 1996 Treasure Act, a few of the items containing more than ten per cent precious metal. Having been released by the coroner, together with her grave goods, this young woman was originally to go to the Warwickshire Museums Service, but WMS passed her over to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who hold all the rest of the Rollright Stones’ archive.
There are a few key questions here.
1) First of all, should the Muddy Boots have been given permission to dig so near the scheduled monument? While for some the Rollright Stones is of interest from solely an archaeological or heritage perspective, for others this is a profoundly sacred place. PAS was in part set up specifically to deal with the huge number of finds of archaeological significance that are found by metal detectorists each year. Since its creation in 1997, nearly 1.3 million finds have been registered, including artefacts from prehistoric to 18th century Britain. It is not a legal obligation for a detectorist to share their finds information with PAS. Should there be more stringent legislation? Should there be broader protection for the vicinity of ancient scheduled monuments, ancient temples?
2) Secondly, what will happen to this Saxon ancestor now? Incorporated into the Ashmolean Museum’s collection she is to undergo a process of full examination and research, led by Prof Helena Hamerow (http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/find-an-expert/professor-helena-hamerow). Her specialism is Early Medieval archaeology and in particular the role of women in that period, so our Rollright ancestor fits perfectly into her field of interest. Funding for the research is likely to be available because of that perfect fit. Should the woman be put through this process of scientific investigation? What is the possible value of such research? Because she lived in a period when Christianity was moving through Britain, there is debate as to whether she may have been a Christian. Research couldn’t prove this, but it may tell us where she was brought up. Does it matter?
3) Thirdly, what will happen to her once the research is complete or the funding runs out? Should she be reburied and if so where and how? It’s not an impossibility.
Update: Helena Hamerow has told HAD that the bones will undergo conservation then research, this likely beginning in 2018. She also plans “to radiocarbon date the burial and to see if we can establish whether or not the woman buried there grew up locally by stable isotope analysis. An osteological report on the bones will be published in due course, along with the main report.”
If anyone would be interested in having time with this individual ancestor, as she has now been accessioned into the Ashmolean Museum’s collection, applications would need to be made to the museum. The curator in charge is Dr Eleanor Standley. We would be interested in whether you are successful. Please do share your story.
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