Anyone with a keen interest in archaeology is likely to have heard already about the extraordinary medieval punishment cemetery that CA Andover excavated in 2016 on the north-western outskirts of Andover. It has been the subject of numerous illustrated talks given by CA Andover staff, and there are plenty of related articles on the CA website too, including the cemetery as one of our 30 years anniversary highlights in 2019 and as one of our Science Week stories in 2021. It also featured in both British Archaeology and Current Archaeology in 2018, was nominated for Current Archaeology’s Rescue Project of the Year in 2019, and was the subject on an episode of Channel 4’s The Bone Detectives in January 2020.
On site, our skilled project leader Jeremy Clutterbuck, with his knowledge of human osteology, understood a lot about what we were uncovering long before the excavation finished. The mass of jumbled graves and specific attributes of the human remains quickly told us we were dealing with a rare and rather grim site-type known as a punishment (or ‘execution’) cemetery. Everything we knew about these sites suggested that they were an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon and, although there were very few artefacts, the only closely dateable one was found in a grave and was a silver penny from the reign of a Saxon king – Aethelred II.
So, was that it? Job done? Story complete? No. Now a different stage of the project began. Post-excavation work: cleaning, documenting and studying the recovered remains, including the application of modern scientific techniques that were not available, for example, to the 20th-century excavators of two other punishment cemeteries located a few miles away near Stockbridge. Our osteologist, Sharon Clough, was able to tell us a great deal about the people who had been buried at Weyhill Road, and how they died, and stable isotope analysis showed us where some of them were likely to have come from.
Crucially, we were able to submit two batches of samples (20 in all), for radiocarbon dating. When the results came back, we had to first question and then change our assumption (a reasonable one, based on comparative evidence) about the length of time that the cemetery had been in use for. The radiocarbon dates proved that, despite new laws introduced following the Norman Conquest, and despite the development of complex English medieval legal systems and of religious customs and institutions, at this particular site – and probably at others yet to be proven – treatment of people perceived as criminals went on apparently unchanged from Anglo-Saxon times well into the medieval period.
This was a truly significant site and both a challenge and a privilege to be involved with. A full account of the excavations, and the history and significance of the punishment cemetery, was published as a CA monograph in 2020, and is available online from Oxbow books.