Anglo-Saxon Oakington

Photo: Geoffrey Butlin

Hoc’s Farm

Oakington is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 under the name of Hochinton, with a population of 55 households. The meaning is said to be “estate of a man called Hoc”, literally a homestead (tun) of Hoc (a personal name) and his people (inge). The names of other villages in the area were constructed in the same way, for example Impington, Barrington, Arrington and Ickleton.

It is likely that Hoc was an Anglo-Saxon man who arrived with his family sometime in the 5th century AD. The Anglo-Saxons were people from the North Sea coast of Europe (modern day Netherlands, southern Denmark and northwest Germany) who migrated to the British Isles between about 400 and 650 AD (the Early Anglo-Saxon period), and it has been estimated that the modern population of Eastern England derives almost 40% of its ancestry from these people. We can imagine Hoc rowing up the River Ouse and through the fens, with his family and all their worldly possessions in their boat, looking for a good place to land. He may have landed at what is now Westwick Bridge, near the meeting of the Beck Brook and Oakington Brook. At that time this site would have been on the edge of the fenland, providing eels, fish and waterfowl for food, pasture for grazing cattle, and waterways for transport. No remains of their original houses have been found, but Hoc and his family would probably have built small pit houses (Grubenhaüser) like the ones they would have known from their original homeland.

Archaeological excavations

Much of what we know about Oakington in the Anglo-Saxon period comes from excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground that was located where the recreation ground is today. The first graves were discovered in 1926, when four early Anglo-Saxon burials (including one with a spear, knife and shield) were uncovered in the field that had just been bought by Alan Bloom for his nursery garden. A further 25 burials, and a single cremation, were discovered in 1994 during construction of the children’s playground and were excavated by Cambridgeshire Archaeological Field Unit.

Further work was carried out by Oxford Archaeology East in 2006–2007 in preparation for the building of Oakington Pavilion and multi-use games area (MUGA). Test pits were dug in within the footprint of the new pavilion (Area A) and the (MUGA) (Area B), which lead to the recovery of about 600 sherds of pottery, over half of it Early to Middle Saxon, along with animal bone, metalwork and Neolithic flint. A full excavation was then carried out on Area A, while Area B was left to be preserved ‘in situ’. The excavations of Area A revealed seventeen burials from the early Anglo-Saxon period (all dated to the latter half of the sixth century), including both sexes and all age groups. Eight of the burials contained multiple grave goods, including pairs of round brooches, strings of amber beads, bone combs, wrist clasps, and square-headed brooches. Four of the burials contained a single item, either a knife or a single brooch, while five contained either no grave goods or a single large pot sherd.

Subsequently researchers from Oxford Archaeology East together the students from the University of Central Lancashire and Manchester Metropolitan University carried out a series of excavations between 2010 and 2014. This resulted in the discovery of many more graves, bringing the total number of graves uncovered to more than 200 and establishing Oakington as a substantial 6th century (early Anglo-Saxon) cemetery.

Burial site plan. See text for details of the individuals buried in the numbered graves

The excavations were carried out with a community element, rather than being behind closed screens. Thus, local residents were able to enter the site and watch the work being done. Test pits were also dug at over 60 other sites around the village, including in residents’ gardens, with students from Hills Road Sixth Form College and the Perse School, University of Central Lancashire undergraduates, and members of Oakington and Westwick Historical Society all taking part under the direction of Oxford Archaeology East. The artefacts found provide clues regarding the pattern of Early, Middle and Late Saxon and early Medieval activity.

A multicultural society

How well did the newly arrived Hoc and his family get on with the locals? Relatively well, it seems. In 2015, DNA samples taken from four of the individuals found in the burial ground at Oakington were analysed by genome sequencing. All four were women, and were dated to between about 400 and 550 AD. Two (those from graves 82 and 95) showed a genetic profile similar to modern-day Dutch, consistent with these women being Anglo-Saxon immigrants. One (from grave 1) showed a profile similar to native British iron-age samples, indicating that she was “British”, while the fourth individual (grave 96) had a mixed genetic profile consistent with being of recently mixed British and Anglo-Saxon origin. Despite this, all four had been buried in a very similar way with similar grave furnishings. It seems that, at least at Oakington, the immigrants integrated with the native people, intermarrying and forming a community of a shared culture, rather than remaining segregated. In contrast, DNA samples from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in nearby Hinxton, dating from a slightly later period (about 650–900 AD) showed much less mixing, showing a profile consistently similar to modern Dutch. It may be different groups of immigrants integrated with the local population in different ways and to different extents.

Interestingly, the wealthiest grave of the four analysed at Oakington belonged to the native British woman (grave 1), who was buried with a large cruciform brooch and two annular brooches as well as a beads, buckle, knife and a pot. Meanwhile, one of the two ‘foreign’ women (grave 95) was buried with no grave goods at all. It may be that recent immigrants tended to be poorer; this has also been suggested by studies at other sites.

Careful examination of the grave goods and furnishings found in the 2011 and earlier excavations provides further clues about the nature of the society at Oakington. While all the graves showed remarkable similarity, there were subtle differences in different parts of the cemetery. All of the graves found to contain complete pots were in the western half of the cemetery, with none in the eastern half. The graves of women in the south-eastern area contained round brooches and bone combs, while those from western and central areas contained small long brooches instead, and no combs. Graves in the northern area section were more likely to contain a mixture of styles. The archaeologists concluded that Early Anglo-Saxon Oakington was a hamlet-sized community of two or three family groups, each burying their dead in similar but subtly different ways according to family traditions in particular parts of the cemetery. The range of brooch styles (round, long, cruciform and square headed) found in the cemetery is also interesting. Elsewhere in the UK, round brooches are common in the midlands (mainly settled by Saxons) and long brooches in the east (mainly settled by Angles). The presence of both in Oakington, and at nearby sites such as Barrington, may reflect the location of the fens as a boundary area between Suffolk and the Midlands, crossed by many roads linking the two. As is also reflected in the genetic diversity, the fens appear to have been a melting pot of different peoples and cultures.

Clues from the graves

What was life and death like in Early Anglo-Saxon Oakington? All too often the answer appears to have been difficult and short for the people whose graves were uncovered during the excavation of the cemetery. About half of the burials were children aged about 12 or less, with about 30% being infants under six. This is much higher than at other Anglo-Saxon burial sites, where infant burials have only rarely been found. Nevertheless, a 30% infant mortality is consistent with that estimated for the Roman period and the Middle Ages, and the rarity of infant burials from the Anglo-Saxon period has been attributed to the fact that the infant graves were usually shallow which left them vulnerable to being destroyed by later ploughing. At Oakington, however, part of the village corresponding to the location of the cemetery was only briefly ploughed, resulting in a much more representative preservation of burials.

Interestingly, many of the child burials included small pots as grave goods, or contained a single large pot sherd placed on the hip of the individual. A few of the adult graves also contained pots, but these were larger vessels, as opposed to the cup-sized pots found in the infant graves. The latter were evidently considered ‘child-sized’.

The bones of even the wealthier individuals (with the most valuable grave goods) showed evidence that the people were used to very heavy work, and examination of the teeth of individuals throughout the cemetery revealed low or absent levels of enamel – a condition most likely arising in childhood from severe food shortages and infectious diseases. Because this affected all individuals examined, it is likely that it was not caused by a single famine, but rather by a continuous risk of food shortage affecting all members of the community.

As well as the overall picture, each grave tells its own story of the person who was buried there. There is the ‘Lady with Leprosy’ from grave 18, who had apparently had a relatively healthy and well-fed childhood until being infected and disfigured by leprosy. She was subsequently buried with an impressive collection of a pair of brooches, a belt set, an ivory bag ring, a set of keys, and a necklace of 56 amber beads. Then there is skeleton 57, nicknamed ‘Queeny’ by the students who uncovered her in the 2011 excavations, a mid-6th century woman who appears to have been pregnant and possibly in childbirth when she died. The tiny bones found across her pelvic area suggest that her baby was lodged sideways and so unable to pass through the birth canal. Today, a caesarean section would be used to deliver the baby in such cases, but in Anglo-Saxon times this situation would have proved fatal for both the mother and the baby. ‘Queeny’ was lacking teeth and was clearly used to hard work, but was nevertheless laid to rest in a full dress with a large cruciform brooch and two small broaches, as well as beads, wrist clasp, iron purse ring and knife. The triple brooch burial makes hers one of the three wealthiest graves discovered on the site. But, unusually for a wealthy individual, she was buried on the edge of the cemetery, and her body was aligned in an East–West direction rather than North–South as was the case in most of the other graves of the site. It may be that her death as a mother-to-be was treated with superstition, leading to her being buried on the margins of the cemetery.

Also discovered in 2011 was the ‘Veteran Warrior’ from grave 64, a 45-year old man who was buried with a spear and a knife. He had clearly lived a violent life. One of his forearms showed healed fractures of both radius and ulna bones, an injury that may have been caused by a particularly heavy blow delivered in combat. His spine had also suffered trauma at some point in his life, and had developed a form of arthritis involving a bony growth and a fusing of the lower spine. This would have severely hindered his movements as he got older, as well as causing considerable pain.

Finally, there is the ‘Cow Lady’ from grave 81, discovered in 2012, who was buried in about 500 AD together with a small cow. She was also wearing several necklaces of beads, as well as a belt hanger with a bunch of keys. While Anglo-Saxon men were sometimes buried with horses (over 30 such burials have been found in the UK, including two in the Oakington cemetery), this burial of an Anglo-Saxon woman with a cow was the first of its kind discovered in Europe. It was therefore very significant, as illustrated by it being reported in the Daily Mail and Huffington Post as well as archaeology journals. The cow appeared to have been sacrificed, and its burial would have represented a substantial cost to the community in terms of the amount of milk and meat it could have provided and the resources that would have been used in raising it. It therefore seems likely that the lady was a person of significant standing in the community and perhaps also in the wider area.

One interesting observation about many of the graves was that many of them seemed to be a poor fit for the person placed in them, often being too short. In some cases this resulted in the head of the person being pushed up against the end of the grave, forcing the jaw down onto the chest. Given the quantity of grave goods present, this does not seem to have been due to a lack of respect for the deceased. Rather, it may be that neither the body nor the grave were measured prior to burial. The body may have been prepared in away from the cemetery, perhaps in a living area or a hall building, with the grave diggers being left to estimate or try to remember the height of the person. When everything was ready, the deceased person may have been carried to the cemetery, accompanied by mourners, and placed in their grave as best as could be done.

Beyond the cemetery

The cemetery dates from the Early Anglo Saxon period (c. 420–660), and test pits dug at other sites around the village confirm the presence of a settlement contemporary with the cemetery. Handmade Anglo-Saxon pottery was found over an area of some ten hectares, with Early Anglo-Saxon artefacts being concentrated in the area around where St Andrew’s Church stands today. (The oldest parts of today’s church date from the Norman period, 1066–1150, several centuries later, and it is unlikely that there would have been a church on this site in Hoc’s time as the Anglo-Saxons were not Christians when they came to Britain and conversion to Christianity only took place from the 7th century). One particularly interesting find was the site of an Early Anglo-Saxon posthouse, which was discovered in 2011 as two parallel lines of postholes (many containing pottery) in the garden of Oakington resident Nick Harrison. This building would have dated from the 6th or 7th century and was thus contemporary with the cemetery.

Oakington in the Middle Anglo-Saxon period (660–899)

There is evidence that the settlement continued beyond the lifespan of the cemetery. Several large Middle Saxon ditches have been found in the village containing 8th and 9th century pottery, and in 2007 a lozenge brooch from the 7th or 8th century was found where the multi-use games area (MUGA) is today. This brooch would have been a valuable object, and its presence in Oakington suggests a wealthy and/or well-connected settlement. Further hints of this come from the finding of a single sherd of imported Middle Saxon pottery. Imported pottery dating from this period has only been found at a small number of other sites across Cambridgeshire, all of high ecclesiastical status. Archaeologists have suggested that Oakington may have transitioned from an Early Anglo-Saxon hamlet of two or three families to an enclosed 8th century settlement centred around a manor and with its own church at some point in the Middle Anglo-Saxon period.

The curve of Oakington High Street, which continues as a footpath running east from St Andrew’s church, hints at a curved boundary of an enclosed settlement. Could Oakington have been a defended settlement in the 8th and 9th centuries? Interestingly, the 1834 enclosure map marks two fields to the north-west of Oakington as High Bury and Low Bury (a name also reflected in the street name of Lowbury Crescent). In the time of King Alfred the Great (871–899) a burgh was a defended town such as Winchester or Wallingford that formed part of Alfred’s defence against attacks by the Vikings. However, there are known examples of defended Middle Saxon manorial settlements in Cambridgeshire, such as Cherry Hinton and Grantchester, and it is possible that Oakington may have been such a settlement for a brief period in the 8th and 9th centuries, earning it the title of a burgh.

Oakington at the time of the Norman conquest

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, Oakington (still recorded under the name of Hochinton) consisted of 59 households, representing around 300 people and putting it in the largest 20% of settlements recorded. The largest landowner was Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire, which owned about 600 hectares of farming land including the manor. The other landowners listed were the Picot of Cambridge (about 170 hectares), Countess Judith (about 70 hectares), Boselin of Dives’ wife (about 70 hectares) and the Abbey of Ely (about 5 hectares belonging to the local vicar).

Interestingly, St Guthlac (in whose memory Crowland Abbey was founded in the early 8th century by King Ethelbald of Mercia) was, according to legend, a descendant of the Iclingas – kings of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia in what is now the Midlands. The Iclingas were said to have been descended from Icel, supposed founder of the village of Ickleton (about 20 km south of Oakington) who may have been an Anglo-Saxon immigrant arriving in the area at a similar time to Hoc. The more fanciful legends give Icel as the great grandson of Offa of Angel, a semi-legendary figure said to have been descended from Woden (Odin), a prominent god of Germanic and Norse mythology. Certainly, it is true that Guthlac (674-714) was a Mercian noble of Anglo-Saxon origin, and that he fought in the army of King Ethelred of Mercia before becoming a monk.

It is interesting to note that the village of Longstanton is not listed in the Domesday Book, perhaps because the settlement was deserted at that point in time with the land being worked by the people of Oakington. On the other hand, Westwick is listed as a settlement with 3 households, belonging to the Picot of Cambridge.

Most of the inhabitants of Oakington would have been peasants, renting land from one of the landowners. The Domesday Book records 30 villagers in Oakington (small-scale landholders holding an average of around 12 hectares each as well as two oxen for ploughing), six smallholders and 10 cottagers (each holding around two hectares) and three slaves, who would have worked on the manor. Almost half of these households are listed under the land of Crowland Abbey.


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