The Conington teenager: Being ‘different’ in Anglo-Saxon England

Excavations at Conington, Cambridgeshire, uncovered the remains of a young woman who, unusually, had been laid face-down in her early medieval grave. What can this burial tell us about her life and death, and how she may have been perceived by her community? Carly Hilts reports.

Five years ago, in CA 339, we ran a feature about excavations associated with the road improvement works by National Highways (formerly Highways England) on the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. Led by the MOLA Headland Infrastructure Consortium (MHI) and covering over 234ha, these investigations allowed archaeologists to explore 6,000 years of human history on a landscape scale. Between 2016 and 2018, over 40 separate excavations revealed sites ranging from the deserted medieval village of Houghton and an Anglo-Saxon settlement of over 50 buildings to an unusually regular Roman farmstead that may have controlled local distribution of food and other resources.

The remains of a 15-year-old girl who was, unusually, buried face-down near Conington in the early medieval period. Image: © MOLA Headland Infrastructure

One of the other key discoveries highlighted by the team was an early medieval defended settlement near Conington where, as the site was going out of use, a large posthole was repurposed as a grave into which the body of a young woman had been placed face-down. This positioning was unusual, and where it is seen in the archaeological record, it is sometimes interpreted as evidence of punishment or a lack of respect for the deceased. At the time of reporting, no detailed skeletal analysis of the Conington individual had been carried out, and little was known about her other than the fact that radiocarbon dating suggested she had probably died between AD 680 and 880. Now, however, her remains have been studied as part as MHI’s ongoing post-excavation analysis of finds from the A14 works, allowing some of her story to be pieced back together for the first time.

We now know that the Conington individual was a teenager, aged around 15 when she died, and while her life had been short, it had been one of ill health and hardship. Her teeth preserve evidence of childhood malnutrition, while she had also suffered from spinal joint disease made worse by carrying out hard manual labour from an early age. These clues suggest that she had been of low social status within her community; a stark contrast to the apparently elite function of the site where she was buried. In Old English, Conington (cynings ton) literally means ‘king’s town’, and considerable effort had gone into the defended settlement’s construction, encircling it with impressive ditches and securing its entrance with an imposing gatehouse.

It may also be significant that the site lies on the modern Cambridgeshire-Huntingdonshire border, a line which possibly preserves an earlier boundary between Middle Anglian territories that were later absorbed into the territories of Mercia. This kingdom rose to dominance between c.AD 600 and 900 and, at its peak, controlled lands stretching from the Humber estuary to the Thames. As well as its border location, the fortified site near Conington also occupies a commanding position on a gravel ridge rising from the otherwise flat landscape, granting it sweeping views to the east and west, and overlooking the route of a Roman road. It has been suggested that the settlement could have functioned as an administrative centre for the kings of Mercia, monitoring and managing traffic passing below.

Exploring identities

If the site was associated with Mercian royal power, it is telling that archaeological evidence indicates that all occupation there came to an end around the time that the kingdom’s star was fading, losing lands first to the Viking-controlled Danelaw, and then to the rising power of Wessex. Although a fairly broad date range has been given for the Conington teenager’s death, her life most likely also ended around this time, as the pit that she was buried in had previously contained a large timber associated with the settlement’s gatehouse, which was taken down and backfilled as the site’s use came to an end. Might her interment have marked a symbolic final closing of the settlement, or was the suddenly available large hole opportunistically appropriated following a sudden or unexpected death?

In either case, the teenager’s prone position is curious. By the 9th century, the MHI team note, much of England was Christian, but burial in a churchyard was not yet the norm and funerary customs varied widely. Even so, face-down interments are very unusual and are often interpreted as punitive in purpose – the MHI team highlight another prone burial, found 30 miles away at Higham Ferrers in Northamptonshire, where a woman had been placed face-down in a settlement’s boundary ditch. She, too, had died in the 8th or 9th century, and her liminal interment had also occurred at the time that the site’s occupation was coming to an end – though, in this case, her arms, head, neck, and fourth lumbar vertebrae were all missing and this individual has been interpreted as a possible execution burial.

The Conington teenager’s remains are much more complete, though her bones preserve no signs of injury or illness to indicate how she died. The positioning of her ankles, however, suggest that they may have been bound when she entered the ground – might this point to a judicial or other violent death, or a post-mortem practice intended to prevent the deceased girl from returning? We cannot know how the teenager was perceived by her community, but her unusual burial suggests that she may have been viewed as some kind of outsider. This could be because she looked or acted differently; because of her social identity, perhaps linked to her own status or that of her family; or because of a taboo linked to how she died, MHI suggest. Whatever the meaning or motivation behind her being placed in the posthole, however, it represented one of the final acts of a community preparing to abandon their home, and the final episode of one individual’s short, hard life. For us, it also offers the opportunity to examine a particularly rare kind of early medieval burial, and to explore what it might have meant to be seen as ‘different’ in Anglo-Saxon England.

A reconstruction of how the defended early medieval settlement may have looked; when the site was abandoned, its imposing gatehouse was taken down and the Conington teenager’s body buried in one of its postholes. Image: © Oxford Archaeology
Further information To learn more about discoveries associated with the A14 works, see and 
A 3D model of the Conington teenager’s burial is available at: