Spong Hill

views updated


Spong Hill lies on the southern edge of the parish of North Elmham in central Norfolk, East Anglia, England. It is the site of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery, known since finds from the site were first recorded in 1711. Following small-scale investigations in the 1950s and in 1969, complete excavation of the cemetery site was carried out between 1972 and 1981 by the Norfolk Archaeological Unit, funded by English Heritage and its predecessors. The project was directed by Peter Wade-Martins, Robert Carr, and (from 1975) by Catherine Hills, with support from many people, including especially Kenneth Penn and Robert Rickett. A team from Warsaw University participated in the early seasons. The site is published in the series East Anglian Archaeology Reports, and the finds are the property of the Norfolk Museums Service.

In addition to the Anglo-Saxon burials, features of prehistoric, Roman, and medieval date were also excavated. Several contemporary buildings lay within the cemetery, and part of a settlement immediately to the west was excavated by Andrew Rogerson in 1984. It is likely that other scattered settlements in the region used this cemetery as their central focus. A prehistoric barrow in the same field may have influenced the choice of site.

The significance of the cemetery lies in its size and near-complete investigation. At the end of the twentieth century it was the largest such site in England to have been fully excavated and published. Although many burials were damaged or incomplete, the overall size, extent, and internal organization of the cemetery can be reconstructed. A minimum of 2,400 cremations, from an estimated original total of more than 3,000, and 57 inhumations were excavated. The original population has been calculated as between 446 and 768 individuals at any one time. The cemetery was in use from the later fifth century and probably throughout the sixth century a.d. There was some chronological zoning, with some early groups of burials in the middle of the site surrounded by later burials in a partly radial development. For a limited period some of the dead, possibly an elite group, were distinguished by being inhumed, buried together on the northeastern edge of the cemetery.

The inhumations survived in the acid sand largely as dark stains with occasional bone fragments but with preserved grave goods, mostly weapons and jewelry. Two large ring ditches, probably originally around barrows, surrounded respectively a pair of inhumations and a single large burial within a timber and turf chamber containing a sword, shield, spear, and bucket. Several apparently female burials were set into the ring ditch.

The cremations were contained in handmade decorated pots, apart from a few deposited in boxes or bags or placed directly in a pit. Analysis of the bones by Jacqueline McKinley showed that many could be aged and sexed. McKinley also reconstructed the cremation and burial ritual. Women's bodies had been laid out for cremation as for inhumation, dressed and wearing jewelry. Men, however, were cremated without the weapons found in a proportion of inhumations. In some cases whole animals, often horses, had also been cremated; in other cases only parts of animals were included, perhaps as food offerings. A selection of the cremated bones had been collected from the pyre, together with the partly melted remains of jewelry and dress fastenings, bags, spindle whorls (large beads, made most often of bone or fired clay, put on the ends of spindles), and glass or metal vessels. Miniature razors, tweezers, and knives, mostly unburned, as well as combs and playing pieces were also included, often but not exclusively with male burials. Through careful sieving many identifiable fragments of objects were retrieved. These finds at Spong Hill, where grave goods were found in about 70 percent of burials, transformed ideas as to the prevalence of grave goods in cremations. Previous distribution maps of early Anglo-Saxon finds were biased against East Anglia, where cremation was common.

Some cremations were buried singly, but many were in pairs or groups. Some pairs contained the shared remains of one individual, whereas in others more than one person, often an adult and a child, had been put into one pot. Some paired burials contained human bones in one pot and mainly animal bones in the second pot.

A majority of the pots were decorated with linear and plastic designs. These included distinctive stamped patterns; some stamps were in the form of animals or runic letters. Many of the stamped pots can be grouped into series related by identical stamp impressions and so identified as contemporary products of individuals or workshops. Some Spong Hill pots can be linked to pots from Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, confirming broad regional connections among East Anglia, the areas around the Wash, and Northumbria.

Analysis of the finds shows clear connections with the regions of northern Germany that the Venerable Bede, the Anglo-Saxon scholar, described as the homelands of the Anglo-Saxons, although the connections are not exclusively with the Angeln region (approximately modern Schleswig-Holstein) that is claimed as the home of the Angles, who are said to have migrated to East Anglia during the fifth century. Many of the brooch types do find their closest parallels in Angeln, but stamped decoration on pots, common at Spong Hill, is very rare north of the Elbe, whereas it does occur in Lower Saxony. Exact parallels for material from Spong Hill can be found around the whole of the North Sea zone, from the Netherlands to Denmark and beyond, from the fifth and sixth centuries a.d. Ivory at the site came ultimately from Africa, via the Mediterranean and probably southern Germany. These connections lasted for generations, suggesting ongoing contact rather than a simple transfer at any one point in time.

Relationships between material culture and ethnicity are complex and not easily unraveled. Peoples and pottery styles cannot be neatly defined and equated. Long-term trading and cultural contacts across the North Sea and the spread of religious beliefs and practices were more important as mechanisms for change than replacement of one population by another. Successful immigrant leaders would have brought their immediate followers from home and would have encouraged others to join them, but they may then have imposed their culture on a population that was still substantially native—and most likely they adopted aspects of native culture themselves. It is probable that some, maybe many, of those buried at Spong Hill had Continental ancestors, whether "Angle," "Saxon," or "Jute," but others—however "Anglo-Saxon" their jewelry seems—may in fact be descendants of Romano-Britons.

See alsoAngles, Saxons, and Jutes (vol. 2, part 7).


Hills, Catherine M. Origins of the English. London: Duckworth, 2003.

——. "From Isidore to Isotopes: Ivory Rings in Early Medieval Graves." In Image and Power in the Archaeology of Early Medieval Britain: Essays in Honour of Rosemary Cramp. Edited by Helena Hamerow and Arthur MacGregor, pp. 131–146. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2001.

——. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill, NorthElmham, Norfolk, Part I. East Anglian Archaeology, report no. 6. Norfolk, U.K.: Gressenhall, 1977.

Hills, Catherine M., and Kenneth J. Penn. The Anglo-SaxonCemetery at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk, Part II. East Anglian Archaeology, report no. 11. Norfolk, U.K.: Gressenhall, 1981.

Hills, Catherine M., Kenneth J. Penn, and Robert J. Rickett. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk, Part V. East Anglian Archaeology, report no. 67. Norfolk, U.K.: Gressenhall, 1994.

——. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill, NorthElmham, Norfolk, Part IV. East Anglian Archaeology, report no. 34. Norfolk, U.K.: Gressenhall, 1987.

——. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill, NorthElmham, Norfolk, Part III. East Anglian Archaeology, report no. 21. Norfolk, U.K.: Gressenhall, 1984.

Lucy, Sam. The Anglo-Saxon Way of Death: Burial Rites inEarly England. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 2000.

McKinley, Jacqueline. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at SpongHill, North Elmham, Norfolk, Part VIII. East Anglian Archaeology, report no. 69. Norfolk, U.K.: Gressenhall, 1994.

Rickett, Robert. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill,North Elmham, Norfolk, Part VII: The Iron Age, Roman, and Early Saxon Settlement. East Anglian Archaeology, report no. 73. Norfolk, U.K.: Gressenhall, 1995.

Catherine Hills