Many of these finds originate from a chain of community burial sites along the river Avon in the south Midlands (Warwickshire & Worcestershire). Situated between the territory of what would later emerge as the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, the people buried here in the 5-6th century belonged to neither, yet are enmeshed in the origins of both. This community was also sandwiched between conclusively 'Anglian' territory and the Welsh Kingdoms, so might better be termed 'Anglo-British' than 'Anglo-Saxon', with clear signs of local Romano-British continuity intermingling with migration and change. Living in a 'transport triangle' criss-crossed by Roman-roads and navigable rivers, this community arguably provides the perfect case-study for engaging with the complexity of ethnogenesis / identity formation, and transformation, from late antiquity into the early medieval period in lowland Britain.
In recent years we have undertaken a long-running project to re-create some of these treasures, to raise awareness of these amazing finds hitherto not on public display, and in particular, to reconstruct the image of a series of individuals from this 6th century community, based on the archaeology of specific burials, providing an opportunity to come 'face-to-face' with the folk who lived in the heart of what is now England, at the crossroads of kingdoms, 1500 years ago.
These reconstructions were unveiled at a series of public events at Sutton Hoo (National Trust) in summer 2023.
Since the Thegns of Mercia was founded in 2012 we have invested significant time and resources in promoting forgotten finds from the Midlands. Most famously in 2018 we unveiled a radical new interpretation of the Benty Grange Helmet from Derbyshire, excavated in 1848, and, earlier, the uniquely decorated shield from Bidford-on-Avon grave 182 (excavated in 1923) – the second most elaborate shield in Anglo-Saxon archaeology - the remains of which, in the keeping of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, had at that time not been on public display for generations. We have also raised awareness of the piecemeal-excavated cemetery at Alveston Manor, Stratford-on-Avon and particularly its highest status burial of a lady who died around 600 CE whom we dubbed “The Alveston Manor Queen” – buried with a great-square-headed brooch which remains the largest and most elaborate of its kind in the entire archaeological record.
These belong to a chain of cemeteries along the Warwickshire Avon valley which begins around Coventry (the Bagington cemetery beside Lunt Roman fort, beside the junction of Watling Street and the Fosse Way), runs southwest past the Longbridge cemetery, the peculiar ritual site of Blacklow Hill, the large community cemetery of Wasperton, the great hall complex at Hatton Rock, the aforementioned Alveston Manor settlement and cemetery, onward to Bidford-on-Avon with its cemetery, productive site / marketplace and important river-crossing, and past a dozen others before joining the Severn at Tewkesbury. This chain of settlements and cemeteries is remarkable, both as a western frontier of the putatively ‘Anglo-Saxon’ furnished burial rite, but also, as one of only two major river basins with significant early ‘Anglo-Saxon’ activity which drains westward into the Celtic Sea. The material culture of these cemeteries highlights substantial trade connections in all directions, and shifting influence over time upon a de-facto proto-kingdom which was eventually folded into Mercia at some point in the early 7th century. Some of these cemeteries, however, see late Roman burials intermingled with post-Roman ones, a high frequency of both Roman and nominally ‘British’ finds, and signs of continuity of Romano-British settlement and industry.
Indeed the cemetery at Bidford is so massive that it has been regarded as 'supra-local' - ie. serving a much wider community than those which lived immediately local to it (Tompkins, 2017). This, together with trade, might explain the unusually wide variety of dress items found in burials there.
The cemetery was discovered during the cutting of the new road (near to the route of the Roman one) in 1921 where workers unearthed a number of disturbed Anglo-Saxon finds. This was followed by a more systematic excavation of the ‘gravel plateau’ 150 yards from the Roman road and 200 yards from the old ford (Humphreys et. al. 1923) in the summer of 1922, uncovering approx. 112 graves including around 80 inhumations and a not-precisely-recorded number of cremations. Further excavations in the summer of 1923 (Humphreys et. al. 1924) brought the total number of graves to 214; again, a mixture of inhumations and cremations. Most of the finds from these excavations ended up in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-on-Avon.
Over all Bidford-on-Avon is the largest Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the region but badly suffers from its history of piecemeal excavation and patchy reporting. An effort to produce a unified report on the cemetery spearheaded by Tania Dickinson and MOLA’s Sue Hirst was announced in October 2012 but has yet to be forthcoming. The divided responsibility for the finds (and lack of a local or regional centre for displaying such material) has led to these finds, together with those from neighbouring cemeteries, remaining mostly out of public view.
Following our work to re-create the shields from Bidford-on-Avon grave 182, and less famously grave 33 (for which some detective-work was required) we embarked on a project to produce a full impression of one of the more remarkable female burials from this cemetery, once again turning to the reports of the 1920s excavations. Aside from the famous uniquely decorated shield-boss this cemetery is most well-known for a particularly fine gilt-bronze great-square-headed brooch in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection, and although overshadowed by the Alveston Manor Brooch with which it is kept (and now on display at the Ad Gefrin Centre in Wooler, Northumberland) it stands out both due to the quality of its casting, and the flawless preservation of its gilding – bearing no signs of wear or decay, and thus looking almost like it had been made yesterday. What grave did this brooch come from, and what other objects was it found with?
Reconstructing the Assemblage
Here we immediately ran up against the deficiencies in the 1920s reports which we had previously wrestled with during the Bidford-33 shield project. While the excavation itself was conducted relatively methodically by the standards of the time, with positions of graves plotted, and a great deal of skeletal data recorded, Humphreys et. al. was considerably less careful about recording burial assemblages, instead grouping finds from all of the burials by type and discussing them as a collection, with only a very limited data-table recording grave contents in the appendix.
The famous brooch in question is shown in fig.1 plate XV (Humphreys et. al. 1923) concerning the first season of excavations, from which we can infer that it belonged to grave 1 to 112, and is captioned as a ‘square headed bronze brooch’ but no such brooch appears in the grave summaries appendix. Here the only brooch types recorded are ‘saucer-shaped, cruciform, disc-shaped, applied and annular’. Considering this brooch was the joint ‘star item’ among the finds from the 1922 excavation, and accurately described in the body text, it is extremely odd that it was not obviously included in the grave contents appendix, and it seems reasonable to assume that it has been included but under the wrong label.
The Grave Contents appendix lists pairs of ‘cruciform’ brooches in various other graves, yet no true cruciform brooches were found in this phase of the excavation. Instead, the chapter on brooches describes, and shows, a series of what they term ‘primitive square-headed bronze brooches’ (what we would term, today, a type of 'small-long brooch' (Geake & Webley, 2018) ) and two more intricate small ‘square-headed bronze brooches with zoomorphic design’ (which we would today term ‘small square-headed brooches’ – a miniature version of the great square-headed brooch with its own distinct distribution). It thus appears that (as different varieties of ‘long brooch’) all pairs of small-long brooches, small square-headed brooches, and the single great-square-headed brooch in this excavation phase were glossed as ‘cruciform’ in the appendix.
The inconsistency in how brooches were labelled, between the finds chapter and grave contents appendix may have been the result of these sections being authored by different contributors to the report.
Having established that the great square headed brooch has been recorded as ‘cruciform’, this narrows the list of possible graves down to seven (Graves 27, 40, 47, 52, 75, 76, and 88). Each of these graves are recorded as containing beads (combinations of amber, glass, and ‘paste’) and some contained knives, bronze toiletry sets, and fragments of iron chatelaines – the latter more indicative of a late 6th to 7th century date thus less likely to be associated with the great brooch. One contained at least one silver spiral ring.
This would have been as far as we could go in terms of reconstructing the assemblage of grave goods which belonged with the Bidford great-brooch. Helpfully, however, the typical circumstances in which such brooches are found can help us narrow the possibilities for its grave origin.
Great-square brooches typically sat on the central chest, pinning a cloak or shawl (Walton-Rogers, 2007) and therefore are additional / supplementary to a smaller pair of brooches which sat beneath, on each shoulder, and pinned the peplos-style dress, if one was worn (Owen-Crocker, 2005). They are effectively never found as a pair, but alone or as a ‘third brooch’ – usually contrasting with the smaller pair. Of the seven graves containing so-called ‘cruciform’ brooches from the 1922 excavation, all but grave 88 contained a ‘pair’ only (Humphreys et. al. 1923).
Grave 88 is recorded as having a single ‘cruciform’ brooch, and two ‘applied’ brooches – a form of saucer brooch which (unlike the more common type) was fabricated rather than cast (Evison, 1974), with decoration in the form of a die-impressed foil (pressblech) set in the middle of the saucer and richly gilded. Because of the delicate construction and bimetallic / galvanic corrosion due to the combinations of bronze and solder, these are typically found in very poor condition compared to their cast-bronze cousins, but when new may have been even more impressive. Interestingly, reviewing other cemeteries in the wider region, it seems that this otherwise relatively uncommon type of paired brooch is very often associated with the most impressive great brooches in their respective cemeteries.
Bidford-on-Avon Grave 88
- A richly gilt Great-Square Headed brooch (most likely worn horizontally, central on the chest).
- 2x richly gilt Applied Brooches (most likely on each shoulder, pinning a peplos-style dress).
- Swag(s) of beads including amber, ‘paste’ and glass
- A knife (probably at the waist)
- A silver strip spiral finger-ring (worn on the right hand)
- A bronze girdle-buckle (waist) and another in 2 pieces
- ‘1 saucer brooch between the femora’
- A bronze-banded ‘situla’ / bucket (5-6’’ above & to the right of the skull)
(Items for which no more information exists beyond this brief description, which we have been unable to track down, match, or find photographs of, are shown above in grey.)
Among the grave-goods above, we can confidently reconstruct the brooches and ring, and their likely positions. Other items are unfortunately more challenging, owing to deficiencies in preservation, and in reporting. Unlike the one from nearby grave 79 the bucket from grave 88 was poorly preserved, and not photographed for the report. Knives, present in many of the burials, were not photographed or described. Likewise, buckles from this excavation were generally not described or photographed in any detail, and those which were do not match the limited details we have for the buckles from grave 88. The note in the comments section of the grave-contents appendix only -- of a saucer brooch 'between the femora' contradicts the accounting of brooches in the very same table -- is deeply peculiar, and something we will return to in a future article.
The biggest challenge, however, is identifying the bead swag(s). The ‘necklaces’ from the cemetery were discussed in their totality in the report but not identified grave-by-grave; a few are shown in monochrome photographs (plate XVII of the report) but have clearly been re-strung. It is unclear how valid the arrangements of these beads are, or whether those photographed together do belong from the same grave. Here the word ‘paste’ is used for polychrome or patterned glass beads, owing to a misunderstanding of the technique used to manufacture them in antiquity. In fact, these too are glass, worked into elaborate patterns by lampwork. The substantial use of amber as part of necklaces in this cemetery may appear unusual for those familiar with cemetery material from other regions but is absolutely typical of the Avon Valley, where huge swags of amber beads appear to have been common, and glass beads were used as accent pieces among them, more sparingly. Sometimes amber was worked down into small perfectly formed torus-beads, but more often it was used in a semi-rough state, preserving more of the material for a bolder, if less refined visual statement. This is not the ‘rough chip’ often worn today, but what could be described as irregular ‘tumble-stones’ including thin, flat discs, and thicker, often sub-cubical stones of equivalent roundness to traditional wooden dice.
Three of the photographed necklaces are identified as such – one of which – the set from grave 43, can be excluded. Another (plate XVII fig 1.b) is described as being formed of 37 beads – principally of amber but with two ‘paste’, one ornamented with dots and the other with twisted zoomorphic pattern – yet this description is inconsistent with the caption, lacking any mention of ‘pure’ glass beads, casting doubt on whether this can be the necklace from grave 88, or instead belong to any of four other graves recorded as having necklaces of only ‘amber and paste’ beads.
Contrary to the living historian’s convention of stringing beads as a single swag between brooches, Penelope Walton Rogers (2007) has documented a wide variety of strange bead arrangements based on positions in early Anglo-Saxon graves – the most complex of which is from nearby Wasperton g155, where multiple necklaces around the neck sat above a swag hung between brooches, from the centre of which hung a long vertical loop, dangling down toward the waist.
Whatever their arrangement, the 92-bead arrangement (Fig.3) with its large chunks of amber, elaborately patterned polychrome beads and glossy melon-beads, is certainly the most elaborate in the cemetery. Although it is tempting to assume that this most elaborate of necklaces should go with the most elaborate brooch set, and thus belong to grave 88, we have seen in other cemeteries (including nearby Wasperton) that this is not necessarily always the case.
This lengthy discussion of the chain of logic and deduction necessary to reconstruct these forgotten assemblages, and its shortcomings, demonstrates the amount of information which can be irretrievably lost due to poor excavation and/or reporting. A tendency to thoroughly clean items recovered from graves of any organic residues, in the early 20th century likewise meant no insights were gained regarding textiles, challenging attempts to reconstruct costumes. However, neighbouring cemeteries excavated more recently provide a wealth of detail regarding early Anglo-Saxon cloth and clothing in the region, in this period.
In the next chapter of this series we will depart from the tricky case of Bidford grave 88, and present just such a case study, where a particular woman's burial, nearby, yielded so much detail, both with respect to dress items and the clothing which they adorned, that it was possible to reconstruct an entire, unique costume, based solely on evidence from an individual grave.
Evison, V.I., 1978. Early Anglo-Saxon applied disc brooches. Part II: in England. The Antiquaries Journal, 58(2), pp.260-278.
Geake, H. and Webley, R. 2018. Brooches - Finds Recording Guide. Portable Antiquities Scheme. [Online] Url=https://finds.org.uk/counties/findsrecordingguides/brooches-2/ [Accessed 01/09/2023]
Humphreys, J., Ryland, J.W., Barnard, E.A.B., Wellstood, F.C. and Barnett, T.G., 1923. V.—An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire. Archaeologia, 73, pp.89-116.
Humphreys, J., Ryland, J.W., Wellstood, F.C., Barnard, E.A.B. and Barnett, T.G., 1925. XII.—An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire: Second Report on the Excavations. Archaeologia, 74, pp.271-288.
Owen-Crocker, G.R., 2004. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Boydell Press.
Richards, J.D. and Naylor, J., 2010. A 'Productive Site' at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire: Salt, Communication and Trade in Anglo-Saxon England. In A Decade of Discovery: Proceedings of the Portable Antiquities Scheme Conference 2007 (No. 520, pp. 193-200). Archaeopress.
Tompkins, A., 2017. The Avon Valley in the fifth to mid-seventh centuries: contacts and coalescence in a frontier polity? (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oxford).
Walton-Rogers, P, 2007. Cloth and clothing in early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700.