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Archaeologists find evidence of early Christian plank-lined burials

Archaeologists from MOLA have uncovered rare plank-lined graves and tree-trunk coffins dating from the 7th-9th century AD.

The important Anglo-Saxon cemetery was discovered as part of an excavation funded by Historic England in advance of a conservation and fishing lake and flood defence system at Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. The waterlogged conditions of the river valley led to the remarkable preservation of burials.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “These rare and exceptionally well-preserved graves are a significant discovery which will advance our understanding of Middle Saxon religious beliefs and rural communities.

“This cemetery has been revealed because under the current system, archaeological surveys are required before work on a sensitive site starts. This site has immense potential for revealing the story of the community who once lived there.”

Archaeologists have revealed evidence that this may have been the final resting place for a community of early Christians, including a timber structure thought to be a church or chapel, of which there are few examples from this period, reports MOLA.

Discoveries made at the cemetery are thought to suggest Christian origins, notably wooden grave markers, the east-west alignment of the coffins and the lack of grave goods.

Anglo-Saxon coffins seldom survive because wood decays over time. Evidence to date has largely consisted of staining in the ground from decayed wood.

The 81 dug-out coffins at Great Ryburgh are created from oak trees split in two length-ways and hollowed out. This type of coffin is first seen in Europe in the Early Bronze Age and reappears in the early medieval period.

From Britain they are mentioned in antiquarian records from the late 19th century, but this is the first time they have been properly excavated and recorded by modern archaeologists.

The burials, in hollowed out logs, were positioned in the lower half and the upper half rested on top to form a lid.

Although they aren’t decorative, it would have taken considerable effort to hollow a single coffin, an estimated four working days. The fact that evidence for similar burial rites is also found in earlier cemeteries may signify the blending of pagan and Christian traditions.

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