Stowical Saxons Reveal Their Secrets

By Kelsey, Jim | History Today, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Stowical Saxons Reveal Their Secrets


Kelsey, Jim, History Today


GOLD PINS, METAL BROOCHES and rivet-decorated combs made from antlers are on show for the first time in a ground floor museum at the new West Stow Centre at the Anglo-Saxon village of that name near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. The unique collection of everyday artefacts that includes cremation pottery, age-blackened swords, beaded necklaces, a lead plumb level and a small `girdle hanger' -- a symbol of the keeper of the keys -- date from the fifth to the seventh Centuries. All were excavated between 1849 and 1998 on the West St0w site or at the other Anglo-Saxon settlements which populated the Lark Valley between Bury and Mildenhall from AD 420 to 650.

West Stow is the life's work of archaeologist Dr Stanley West, a Cambridge graduate who first went there to excavate Roman pottery kilns in 1940. His enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon history began when he was a child: his work at West Stow has made him a world authority on our Teutonic ancestors who came from Denmark, the Rhineland and Schleswig-Holstein.

`Because of its closeness to the River Stow, East Anglia attracted a number of invaders from Europe and has a great concentration of prehistoric sites. The light Breckland soil was easy to plough but it also acted as a protective blanket for the historic remains of these early civilisations', says Dr West.

When he began his digs, Stow (which means `special place') was being used as the borough's sewage works and rubbish dump. Dr West discovered that the Anglo-Saxons were not the first settlers on the five-acre site. The remains of circular huts with ditched enclosures showed occupation by Iron Age farmers; Mesolithic warriors had hunted there with flint tools; Neolithic settlers had cleared the woodland, cultivated the soil and buried their dead in mounds. The region was once the home of Queen Boudicca who rallied her Iceni tribe to fight the Romans.

`All our information on the first settlers comes from archaeology; there were no written records. From what we knew I decided to try and rebuild the Anglo-Saxon houses on their original sites using the same tools, techniques and materials which were then available. We know it was an agricultural community with extended families -- about ten to every house. They kept chickens, rabbits, sheep, pigs and horses and they had slaves, some of whom were cremated, their ashes interred in pot containers accompanied by objects for life in the next world. …

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