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Great Ryburgh Cemetery

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An Historic England Excavation carried out in advance of the construction of a lake and flood defence system at Great Ryburgh has revealed a Middle Saxon cemetery containing 81 wooden coffins made from split tree-trunks and six extremely rare plank-lined graves which are believed to be " the earliest known examples in Britain".

Evidence for the Christian nature of the burials included the east-west alignment of the graves, the lack of grave-goods, and the presence of wooden grave-markers. The excavations also revealed a timber structure that may be a church, or chapel.

Pending dendrochronological dating from the coffins, dating relies on finds from the area around the cemetery which indicate a middle Saxon date.

The water-logged conditions have resulted in very good preservation of both the skeletons and the wooden coffins. The tree-trunk coffins were made of oak trees split in two length-ways and hollowed out. The body was placed in the lower part and the upper part placed on top as a lid. There are late 19th century records of such coffins being found in Britain, but these are the first to have been excavated under modern conditions.

This type of coffin first appeared in Europe in the Early Bronze Age and then disappears, only to return in the Early Medieval Period. A coffin of this type were found in grave 772 in the pagan cemetery at Mucking, Essex.

The six plank-lined graves are very rare in Britain, and it is possible that these are the earliest examples yet found in the country. The graves were cut into the ground and then lined with hewed timber planks. The body was then placed in the grave and planks placed on top to for a lid. As yet, the relationship between the two types of coffin is not understood.

 Next page: Video: Great Ryburgh dig finds 81 'rare' Anglo-Saxon coffins