The Anglo-Saxon ‘Pioneer’ burial: Who was the ‘Wollaston warrior’?

Started by gash, April 05, 2019, 11:46:33 am

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In 1997 we uncovered a remarkable 7th century 'warrior' burial featuring the best preserved Anglo-Saxon helmet ever found in a burial context - its boar crest remains only the second ever seen. The helmet was discovered while working on behalf of Hanson UK in Wollaston Quarry, Northamptonshire and the results from the excavation have just been published in a new book: The Pioneer Burial.

In this blog we look at what research has revealed about who the 'warrior' may have been, and what their burial in a prominent location can tell us about how Anglo-Saxon elites controlled the landscape of mid to late 7th century Mercia.

The Wollaston 'Pioneer' burial might easily never have been found. It was uncovered a hundred metres away from the area Hanson UK (then Pioneer Aggregates UK - hence 'Pioneer' burial) had planned to excavate for gravel extraction. It was only when we metal detected the full development area as part of our archaeological works that strong signals were recorded, and the top of copper alloy hanging bowl was exposed.

The grave goods mark the 'princely' burial as special; each is significant for its rarity and status or the quality of its workmanship. The helmet is only the fourth ever found in an Anglo-Saxon burial from England, and only the second known decorated with a boar crest. It is by far the best preserved example, with a complete profile of one side remaining intact. The boar crest evokes scenes recorded in Saxon poems such as Beowulf where boar-adorned helmets are mentioned six times, including the description of a funeral pyre "heaped with boar-shaped helmets forged in gold". Other impressive burial goods included a pattern welded sword and a hanging bowl.

At the time of interment, the region was undergoing gradual reconversion to Christianity. In 656, Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede wrote that a single bishop - Diuma - had to be appointed to serve both Mercia and Middle Anglia, owing to a shortage of priests. Whether the person buried at Wollaston was pagan or Christian - or a mix of both - is uncertain, but the burial method had more similarities with pagan practices.

We also know that in the sixth or early to middle seventh centuries, the Middle Angles (a group of small, independent territories) were incorporated into the kingdom of Mercia, and by the mid seventh century, Peada, son of Penda of Mercia had been installed as sub-king of the Middle Angles. Though it is not known who controlled the Wollaston area, it may be that this burial was of a ruler of formerly independent tribe in the Middle Angle area incorporated into Mercia, or a member of their family.

In light of this context, it may well be that the burial's location was chosen for its prominence: it is at a strategically significant position next to the River Nene, adjacent to a Roman road and at a possible important land division. Circumstantial archaeological evidence also suggests that the burial was once covered by a mound, which would have been visible from some distance away. Whoever was buried here, it seems that they were interred in a way that was intended to be seen, as a mechanism to influence the population during a period of change.

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