An archaeological dig at the site of the new graduate accommodation at Croft Gardens has revealed an extensive early medieval burial ground, shedding light on life and death in Cambridge from the end of the Roman period.
The existence of an early medieval cemetery at the property on Barton Road in Newnham (West Cambridge) has been presumed since the nineteenth century. It was only when existing buildings at Croft Gardens were demolished last summer as part of the College’s project to develop the site, however, that it became possible to investigate the area archaeologically in a project carried out for King’s by a team from Albion Archaeology.
The long-suspected presence of an early medieval burial ground has been confirmed, with more than 60 graves, most of which date from the early Anglo-Saxon period (c. 400–650 CE). Evidence of Iron Age structures and Roman earthworks was also identified.
The burials were on varying alignments and many contained grave goods including bronze brooches, bead necklaces, glass flasks, weapons, and pottery. Furnished burials like these are typical of the early Anglo-Saxon period and preliminary analysis of the artefacts suggests that the cemetery was in use primarily during the 5th and 6th centuries (CE), possibly continuing into the 7th century. It is thought that the overall extent of the cemetery was much larger, extending beyond the limits of the building site on Barton Road.
A small number of graves on an east–west alignment had stone linings and contained no grave goods. This burial style is more commonly associated with the Roman period and radiocarbon dating of the remains will be needed to confirm this.
Objects recovered in this area of Cambridge over the past century have included grave goods similar to those from the Croft Gardens excavations, such as this assemblage of metal jewellery currently held by the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The significance of the new finds is their extent and preservation. Cemeteries of the early medieval period are not unknown in this part of Cambridge, but few extensive cemeteries have been scientifically excavated with modern methods. The careful excavation of these graves and the good condition of the human remains will provide detailed and rich information about dress, burial habits, and health and disease of the community. Very new methods can reveal nutritional strategies and genetic evidence, permitting analysis of migration and family relationships. Such research is at the forefront of studies of early medieval Britain and Northern Europe.
To take forward the considerable research opportunities the excavation offers, King’s is appointing a new four-year Research Fellow in Late Roman and Early Medieval Archaeology of Britain to begin later this year.
‘These finds are tremendously exciting for King’s, and I’m delighted that the Research Fellowship will enable a substantial research project,’ said Professor Michael Proctor, Provost of King’s. ‘The wonderful new accommodation being built at Croft Gardens will help generations of students in the future; and what we have found during construction will also give us a unique opportunity to learn much more about the past.’
Dr Caroline Goodson, King’s Fellow and University Senior Lecturer in Early Medieval History, said: ‘
The excavation of this cemetery provides an outstanding opportunity to explore very early medieval Britain, interactions between the island and the Continent, and changing ways of life around the ruins of Roman-period Cambridge. We are thrilled to have the chance to examine this site and integrate these finds with other early medieval archaeology along this side of the river Cam to understand better this transformative period in history.
David Ingham from Albion Archaeology said:
We always knew there was a chance of finding a cemetery, but we didn’t expect to find as many graves as we did. What really surprised us was how well they had survived beneath the 20th-century houses. Burials from this date are so often found in small numbers or with the bones barely surviving because of the soil’s acidity, but this cemetery offers a real chance to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge about the people who lived in East Anglia after the Roman period had ended.
When complete in 2022 the new accommodation at Croft Gardens will provide 24 family apartments and 60 rooms for King’s graduate students and postdocs. The buildings, which are designed to full Passivhaus standard, have been financed by a transformational gift from a King’s alumnus, with the rental income providing cornerstone funding for the King’s Student Access and Support Initiative (SASI) to improve equality of access and opportunity for disadvantaged students.