This is the story of a small North Lincolnshire valley, four Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, two settlements/monasteries, a queen, and some odd boundaries. Despite the title of this article, the valley isn’t hidden, but unnoticed, set between the north–south escarpment of Lincoln Edge and, c.2.5 miles to the west, the parallel Liassic ridge, ending where it meets the Humber Estuary to the north. Along its length runs a stream, Winterton Beck, giving the valley its informal name: Winterton Vale. With good soil, an abundant water supply, and ironstone deposits, this favoured area has attracted settlement over many millennia. It contained the important Roman villa at Winterton, another villa at Roxby, and the Dragonby and Winteringham Roman settlements. This was a prosperous area with good communications, connecting to northern Europe through the Humber, the English Midlands via the Trent, and Yorkshire through the Ouse. It should not be surprising, then, that the valley had also proved popular during the post-Roman period. On the crest of Lincoln Edge, overlooking Winterton Vale, were two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries.
Between 1993 and 1996, these cemeteries were excavated by David Williams and me. Featured in CA 175 (August/September 2001), they were referred to as the ‘Sheffield’s Hill’ cemeteries but, due to confusion with a place in South Yorkshire, it was decided to call them the Sawcliffe, ‘Sheffield’s Hill’ cemeteries. They are actually in the parish of Roxby-cum-Risby, just north of Scunthorpe. Now, after a delay of 27 years, I have written up the excavation in full (see ‘Further information’ on p.25) and can offer a more detailed account of what was found there, how the site fits within its wider context, and what it adds to our understanding of early medieval England.
Setting the scene
Located on the crest of Lincoln Edge, overlooking Winterton Vale, the Sawcliffe site was discovered by two local metal-detectorists, Craig Allison and Glyn Nicklen. The importance of their find quickly became clear: the site contained not one, but two, Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, one dating to the 5th/6th century and the other belonging to the 7th-century ‘Conversion period’. As the site was being destroyed by ploughing, erosion, and epic rabbit activity, something had to be done – and so the North Lincolnshire Museum mounted an excavation, working with volunteers to recover the whole site over four seasons.
The local sandy soil is fiercely acidic, meaning that little human bone had survived, but some of the graves contained pseudomorphs, or ‘sand bodies’ like those known from Sutton Hoo, with areas of staining that represented the dissolved bones, showing how the dead had lain in the ground. Textiles in contact with metal objects were remarkably well preserved and the grave groups were block-lifted for laboratory excavation at the York Archaeological Trust. This preserved much valuable information but meant that the excavation team seldom saw what they had found; it is hoped that they will now be able to appreciate the fruits of their labours.
As post-excavation analysis progressed it became apparent that some of our early interpretations (described in the 2001 article) were wrong. It had been claimed that bands of clean sand around the edges of the graves showed the use of coffins. This was not the case: the rabbits, it seems, found digging easier in the grave fills and tended to stay within them, following along the sides. Fortunately, they had also found the bases of the graves hard going, their burrows leaving many of the burial deposits intact. The outlines of the ‘purse’ and the ‘wooden vessels’ mentioned in 2001 were also found to have been created by rabbits. Large numbers of plain Anglo-Saxon sherds found in the topsoil were thought to show the presence of a nearby settlement but, when the scatter was plotted, it was found to fit the pattern of children’s graves, which often contained domestic pots. The sherds came from small, ploughed-out burials.
Sawcliffe 1 contained 51 graves and two cremations. It was a typical Anglian cemetery with cruciform, small-long, and annular brooches; sleeve clasps; glass and amber beads, making up long necklaces; along with weapon graves. None of the finds were particularly early: the site appears to have been a late starter. The cemetery’s most unusual features were three burials closely set within ring-ditches, one enclosing a grave containing a large spear (an object typically associated with men) and the others being well-appointed burials of women: one within a penannular ditch, the other in the ditch’s gap (numbered 108 and 109 in box B20 on the plan shown above). These graves are outside the usual East Anglian and Kentish distribution of ditched burials. Another of the graves contained, as described in CA 175, a shield-boss bearing chilling traces of battle damage although, unfortunately, no skeletal material survived.
Changing fashions, Sawcliffe 2
Sawcliffe 1 was abandoned in the late 6th/7th century and burials moved only 20m to the south – but everything changed. Sawcliffe 2 contained 73 graves and one cremation. It was a ‘Final phase’ or ‘Conversion period’ cemetery, perhaps reflecting the increasing influence of Christianity at this time. The cemetery layout became more regular, with the graves laid in rough rows. Cruciform and small-long brooches were no longer worn; annular brooches survived, but were now small and light. Sleeve clasps were gone and the long necklaces seen at Sawcliffe 1 were replaced by short strands of plain beads, albeit with an occasional large multicoloured bead. Amber, so common in the 6th century, became rare, and some new objects came on to the scene, including gold pendants and silver bullae, as well as penannular brooches which appeared (or reappeared) at this time.
This was more than a new fashion in dress fittings: it marked a drastic change in feminine dress, with women abandoning the elaborate costumes of their Germanic forebears and moving to a simpler style. This may have been the influence of Christianity bringing Continental fashions, or it might represent a resurgence of Romano-British dress – there is good evidence for a British survival in Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire and penannular brooches had been a Romano-British type. Either way, this change in how women were expressing themselves through their clothing had important cultural implications. Dress formed an important part of a woman’s identity, marking her as an ‘Angle’ (as seen in Sawcliffe 1) or a ‘Saxon’ (as found in southern England). The Conversion period brought an end to this, and throughout the country we see a much more uniform style. We can only wonder how ‘converted’ the people at Sawcliffe 2 were, and how firmly they adhered to these new beliefs. True, their graves were now more strictly aligned west–east, and some of the pendants recovered from them are decorated with crosses – but this is a ubiquitous motif that fits neatly on to a circular object.
There was some use of garnet inlay, and one grave contained 24 small, unmounted garnet pebbles and five garnet crystals, along with glass sherds. Most of the pendants contained glass gems, including some made from Iron Age beads. Two graves contained what had been fine, pattern-welded swords, the details of which were only revealed by X-rays. A surprise was Grave 113: a hole containing burnt human bone which was found on the edge of the 7th-century cemetery (D2 on the plan). Only during post-excavation study was its significance recognised, as a rare un-urned 7th-century cremation. I must have thought it important during the excavation, as I had expended five slides on it!
A changed society
In many respects, Sawcliffe 2 is a typical ‘Final phase/Conversion period’ cemetery. The term ‘Final phase’ first appeared in E T Leeds’ 1936 publication Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology, as the title of his final chapter. In this, he rejected the idea that Christianity had brought a sudden and final end to accompanied burial – ‘pagan practices’, he wrote, ‘died slowly’. Since then, the concept has developed with excavation and research (see CA 285 for further exploration of the impact of Christianity on early medieval grave goods).
In Sawcliffe 2, the pattern of finds broadly follows the accepted pattern for Conversion period cemeteries: the layout, with the graves in rows and more strictly orientated, is typical. The use of grave goods with feminine dress becoming simpler is also what we would expect. Buckles are small, and some new types appear, with gold pendants, silver bullae, and wound-wire beads being found in some of the graves. It was certainly the case that ‘a neighbouring cemetery has been found to go out of use at some point in the 7th century’. What is particularly interesting, however, are the ways in which Sawcliffe 2 differs from the accepted model. One of the expected criteria is that a high proportion of graves contain no accompanying objects, or only a knife and perhaps a buckle. Sawcliffe 2 is remarkably rich: some 84% of the burials contained grave goods, most containing three or more types of object. Weapons are supposed to be rare in Conversion period graves: elsewhere they are found in around 6% of the graves, but at Sawcliffe 13.5% of the burials (10 out of 74) included weapons. This surpasses Sawcliffe 1, where 11.3% of the burials (6 out of 53) were armed. A final difference is the presence of the 7th-century cremation – unusual, but not unique.
Paired 6th- and 7th-century cemeteries are a well-known phenomenon, but it is unusual for them to be so close together and yet so clearly separate: there were two potentially 7th-century graves in Sawcliffe 1, but otherwise segregation was complete. Dating on the basis of finds was remarkably clear-cut. It is also important that both cemeteries were fully excavated. In the final season, we stopped top-soiling by hand and borrowed a mini-excavator to ensure that we had found the limits of the cemeteries (I’m cruel, but not merciless). Full excavation allows direct comparisons between the 6th- and 7th-century graves. The change in grave goods and cemetery layout has already been described, but there are other differences, particularly the striking disparity in the depth of the graves. The average burial in the 6th-century cemetery was cut 0.64m into the subsoil, compared to 0.13m in Sawcliffe 2, with the richest graves being the most shallow. They were, perhaps, originally beneath small mounds that would have helped provide decent cover.
There was some continuity of burial practices. In both cemeteries, puzzling marks were found overlying some of the body-stains; these proved to be traces of tree branches, in some cases charred. They may have been placed in the fill of the graves to protect the corpse from scavengers or as ritual practice; elsewhere, salvaged Roman masonry has been found laid over bodies in Anglo-Saxon graves. A further odd feature of both cemeteries was the inclusion of iron slag and worked flints into the grave fills. Only two pieces of slag were found during the removal of the topsoil at Sawcliffe, but slag occurred in the fill of six graves, three from each cemetery, sometimes with multiple fragments. Worked flints were found in seven of the graves across the two cemeteries. ‘Sheffield’s Hill’ (to use Sawcliffe’s other name) is an important Mesolithic site and, unsurprisingly, 353 worked flints were recovered from the topsoil. Most was ‘debitage’ (flint-working waste), but the flints from the graves were cores and a microlith. The Anglo-Saxons seemed better at recognising worked flint than are many archaeologists!
Looking further afield
Context is everything in archaeology, so I looked into what other early medieval finds have been made in and around the Vale. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded 29 artefacts from this area, including 12 brooches – these mostly come from the east of Sawcliffe, but are scattered and unlikely to have come from cemeteries. Few detector finds have been recorded to the west of Sawcliffe – an area lost to ironstone mining and industrial development – but field-walking during the inter-war years had produced evidence of settlements.
During my research, some known sites took on a new significance. Stories abound of archaeological sites that have failed to survive, leaving only tantalising hints, a case in point being the Bagmoor Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. This lay at the foot of Lincoln Edge near Winterton Beck, just over a mile north of Sawcliffe. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it was a large cemetery, destroyed by ironstone mining in the 1920s with only two urns surviving. Its location, however, is telling. Large Lincolnshire cremation cemeteries usually lie on parish boundaries: Bagmoor is on the boundary between Burton upon Stather and Roxby-cum-Risby. They are also often near places that went on to become Domesday manorial centres: in this case, West Halton (of which, more below). Interestingly, the Sawcliffe cemeteries were on a parish boundary too (between Roxby-cum-Risby and Flixborough), though its line is rather odd – all of the parishes to the north are separated by Winterton Beck, but at Flixborough the boundary leaves the stream and shifts 400m to the east to abut the Sawcliffe cemeteries, before returning to the Beck. There is no obvious reason for this change of line, other than to perhaps retain a contact with the old burial place.
Ideas of continuity in the landscape might also explain the late start of Sawcliffe 1: perhaps the early burials had been at Bagmoor. These three cemeteries might not have been the end of the story. Two miles to the west lies the Conesby, Flixborough, cemetery which, in 1988, was excavated (actually salvaged in a sandpit) by Irene McGrath and me. Eleven graves were found (although there were clearly more: a lucky householder in Winterton received a free Anglo-Saxon with a load of sand). The excavation produced iron hinges and hasp fittings representing four chests used as coffins, an 8th-century practice. It is impossible to prove a direct link between Sawcliffe 2 and the later Conesby graves, but they represented the same high-status level of society. Moreover, it was the discovery of these burials that led to the excavation of the Flixborough Anglo-Saxon site (CA 126), the cemeteries perhaps forming the prequel to this important middle Anglo-Saxon settlement.
Aristocrats, nuns, and a queen?
The Flixborough excavation has been published in four volumes edited by Chris Loveluck, but questions about its role remain. Was this a high-status settlement, a monastery, or both? Its substantial buildings were associated with refuse dumps containing huge quantities of occupation debris: 5 tonnes of animal bones, 62kg of pottery, and many small metal objects (562 pins, 36 brooches, three of which were early Anglo-Saxon, showing – along with some of the pottery – earlier activity on the site). There were 77 post-Roman coins in a sequence beginning c.AD 700, of these 29 were silver sceattas, over half of which (16) came from Frisia. There was also a significant number (29) of coins from the Kingdom of Northumbria, although Northumbria had, in AD 679, lost control of Lindsey, the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in which Winterton Vale lay.
Most important among the finds were 22 styli (15 iron, six copper-alloy, and one silver), which point to literacy on the site. There was considerable evidence for textile-manufacture, testifying to a female presence – and, while the obvious interpretation of women + literacy = nuns is possible, the extravagant amount of animal bone suggests that Flixborough’s inhabitants weren’t observing the austere demands of the Benedictine Rule. In his letter of AD 734 to Archbishop Egbert of York, Bede complains of aristocrats avoiding their responsibilities by claiming their homes to be monasteries and themselves monks and nuns while living secular lives. Flixborough may reflect such activities, but the picture is complex: the early medieval clergy and aristocracy were closely linked, and the function of the settlement could have changed over the 300 years of its existence.
The Conesby graves were not the only burials associated with Flixborough: within and around Building 1 were graves containing the remains of a woman in her 20s, four children, and a new-born infant. The obvious interpretation of this building as a church is countered by the presence of a well-used hearth in the middle of its floor. Adjacent to the settlement is the medieval graveyard that once belonged to All Saints, Conesby, a church demolished in the late 18th century. A document of AD 1455 refers to two further chapels at Conesby: St John the Baptist and Holy Cross, served by the parson of West Halton (the document concerned his failure to officiate at Conesby). While All Saints might be a post-Reformation renaming of one of these, we potentially have three places of worship in this small area. Multiple chapels are a feature of early medieval monastic sites which had several foci, each with an oratory.
A further ecclesiastical link comes from Northumbria where, c.AD 672, Queen (later Saint) Ætheldreda left her husband, King Ecgfrith, and headed south to found a monastery at Ely. Crossing the Humber at Winteringham, she stayed at a place called ‘Alftham’ where, the 12th-century Liber Eliensis tells us, she founded a monastery. West Halton’s parish church is dedicated to St Ætheldreda, and nearby excavations have revealed an Anglo-Saxon settlement contemporary with Flixborough. St Ætheldreda may have been a nun, but as the daughter of a king and the wife of another king it is unlikely that she would have stayed in a place where her level of society was not represented.
In summary, we have a 5th-century cremation cemetery at Bagmoor that appears to have been substantial. The focus then shifted to Sawcliffe 1 on the top of Lincoln Edge. This follows a pattern seen elsewhere with large cremation cemeteries being replaced or supplemented by numerous small inhumation cemeteries. There was then the move 20m south to Sawcliffe 2, the Conversion period cemetery. We cannot assume that these were Christian burials, but for people to abandon their ancestors is a significant act. The Conesby chest burials probably represent a move away from the old field cemetery to a burial place near to the settlement, a phenomenon known elsewhere. The purposeful diversion of the Flixborough parish boundary to abut Sawcliffe suggests a continued interest in the earlier burial grounds. There are the ecclesiastic links between Flixborough and West Halton, about 4.5 miles to the north, too. We seem, in this small area, to have the full sequence of early Anglo-Saxon burial. This all seems very neat, and in archaeology ‘neat’ explanations should be viewed with some circumspection; things are seldom simple. Even without direct links, however, we are left with the sites’ proximity to each other and sequential dating. The Hidden Valley does seem to have been a special place.
• Full data on the Sawcliffe ‘Sheffield’s Hill’ cemeteries is available on the Archaeological Data Service website at https://doi.org/10.5284/1112993.
• K A Leahy (2007) The Anglo-Kingdom of Lindsey (Cheltenham: The History Press).
• K A Leahy (2023) The Hidden Valley, finding the Anglo-Saxons (Ipswich: Greenlight Publishing). This book reports on the archaeology but also tries to tell the story of the excavations: we, too, are part of the site’s story.
• There will be an exhibition of finds from the ‘Hidden Valley’ at the North Lincolnshire Museum, Scunthorpe, starting in November 2024; see http://www.northlincolnshiremuseum.co.uk for details.
Dr Kevin Leahy is a National Finds Adviser for the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, specialising in Early Medieval Metalwork. He has dug a lot of holes in Lincolnshire.