Badgers Unearth Medieval Anglo-Saxon Warrior Burial Site

A United States military veteran discovered the shallow grave of a sixth-century Saxon soldier at Salisbury Plain in England, not too far from Stonehenge. Buried with a sword, spear, and a knife, the Saxon’s remains were in danger of destruction from a very modern, and very preventable hazard–a group of badgers.  Badgers are a common threat to undiscovered burials because they will consume any remains that they unearth.

An adult female (sow) American badger.Photo: Jonathunder CC BY-SA 3.0
An adult female (sow) American badger.Photo: Jonathunder CC BY-SA 3.0

This problem has prompted archaeologists to team up with military personnel in “Operation Nightingale” to unearth ancient graves before badgers find them, according to Richard Osgood, an archeologist at the Defence Infrastructure Organization (DIO) in the United Kingdom.

Started in 2011, Operation Nightingale pairs service members who were recently wounded, usually in Afghanistan, with researchers.  Since its inception, hundreds of pairings between archaeologists and service members have been made, and several of the service members have even permanently made the switch to archaeologist, after earning their own archaeology degrees.

Excavators at work.Photo Florenceguillot CC BY-SA 4.0
Excavators at work.Photo Florenceguillot CC BY-SA 4.0

As is fairly common with archaeological digs, the excavators made their discovery near the end of the project.  One of the United States veterans discovered an unusual signal near some fallen trees during a metal-detection sweep, and further investigation of that location revealed the ancient warrior.

The soldier’s bones and possessions, which included the knife, tweezers, and a belt buckle, were well-preserved despite the fact that his grave lay under a military trackway where tanks and other military vehicles frequently maneuvered.

A U.S. Soldier with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team use a metal detector to safely move through a simulated mine field
A U.S. Soldier with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team use a metal detector to safely move through a simulated mine field

Afterward, the team contracted Wessex Archaeology and successfully unearthed the warrior’s skeletal remains, as well as the iron spear and knife.  The sword left unanswered questions, such as whether or not it was “pattern welded,” which means something made from different metals forged together.

Researchers also are curious about the type of materials that were used to construct the sword’s scabbard (sheath).  Further studies regarding the weapons’ details and quality will include analysis of the wood used to make the spear’s shaft, which they suspect is ash.

Saxon Warrior Chieftain with Spear
Saxon Warrior Chieftain with Spear

Later, they will examine the soldier’s body to determine the individual’s sex, but they highly suspect it will be male, given its size and grave artifacts. They will also determine its age and height, and analyze the skeleton for any visible injuries or obvious health conditions.

Photograph shows a cross section of the Midden, showing skeletal remains near the bottom. c.a 1908
Photograph shows a cross section of the Midden, showing skeletal remains near the bottom. c.a 1908

The location of the burial site is fifty miles (80 kilometers) north of Stonehenge at a place called Barrow Clump.  Yet, despite the distance, Osgood said that the individual they uncovered would have definitely been aware of the stone circle, even if he was not familiar with either the traditions or the rituals associated with the site.  Barrow Clump has had a long history of human activity.

Originally a Bronze Age burial mound erected on an even older Neolithic settlement, it was reused as an Anglo-Saxon cemetery.  The Saxons were known for applying their own interpretation to venerated ancient sites like Stonehenge.  This example of a sixth-century Saxon burial next to a “round barrow,” a Bronze Age grave mound, acts as a confirmation of this characteristic.

On Walbury Hill, a typical Salisbury Plain landscape.Photo: Joolz CC BY-SA 2.5
On Walbury Hill, a typical Salisbury Plain landscape.Photo: Joolz CC BY-SA 2.5

Badgers and other burrowing animals pose large threats to undiscovered burial mounds, and plenty of these ancient graves would be disturbed or lost if the furry nuisances have their way.  They enjoy digging through the soft soil of the graves, and especially those of the Bronze Age burial mound, Osgood said.  They disturb the remains and artifacts, destroying the archaeological integrity and stratigraphy, or different layers, of the site.

Inhumation at Sutton Hoo under archaeological excavation.Photo: Alan Hawkes CC BY-SA 2.0
Inhumation at Sutton Hoo under archaeological excavation.Photo: Alan Hawkes CC BY-SA 2.0

Read another story from us: Battle of Stamford Bridge – The Victory that Lost England for the Anglo-Saxons

The finds from this particular grave have since been removed by Wessex Archaeology for further study and conservation, and their final destination will be the Wiltshire Museum of Devizes.