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Archaeological Dig at the Anglo-Saxon Burial Ground Site

Andrew Mayfield, the new Community Archaeologist describes his first project. He writes as follows: Greetings to all Friends of Greenwich Park! As I write, we are close to completing our first archaeology project, on the site of the Anglo-Saxon barrow cemetery. This project is a super example of blending biodiversity improvements and archaeological investigations at the Park. Working with Alice-Rose Hoile, Senior Landscape Architect for Greenwich Park Revealed, we have managed the removal of the old tarmac path that bisected the barrows site. We are removing the path so that we can restore the setting of the barrows and increase the extent of acid grassland, which is a key habitat for pollinators.

I have really enjoyed working with the Friends’ History Research Group and other key local contacts to draw up a chronology for this nationally important site. We know that there are around 40 mounds, dated to between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The dating evidence comes from the antiquarian exploits of the Reverend James Douglas, a former soldier, cleric and chaplain to the Prince of Wales. In January 1784 he opened over twenty of the mounds, finding weapons, beads, cloth, and wool in a series of timber lined graves. Many of his finds were donated to the Ashmolean Museum and we are in the process of seeing what, if anything, they have from Greenwich. His backfilled excavation holes are distinctive and can be seen in many of the mounds to this day. He also noted that a ‘keeper’ called Thomas Hearne had dug on the site 70 years before him. We thought at first that he meant a park keeper, but there is no record of a Greenwich Park employee called Hearne. Thanks to the Friends, we now think that this individual may have been a ‘keeper’ of the Bodleian Library - the main research library of the University of Oxford, and one of the oldest libraries in Europe. He remains an enigmatic figure…

In October 2021 we started work on the site. The first task was to enclose the project area in chestnut pale fencing that will be up till next summer. Working closely with Historic England, the location of five trenches was agreed. Two were sited west of the mounds, to look for evidence of flattened archaeology. In the 1840s the Admiralty decided that the site was the perfect spot for a new reservoir. A public outcry (and a very early public archaeology campaign) halted the work, but not before some damage to the mounds was wrought. It is unclear quite how extensive this damage was, but we hope to learn more from future geophysical survey work. Two trenches were sited on the central mound cluster and the fifth to the east, beyond the mounds.

What have we learnt? The archaeological work has answered several questions about the site but posed a wealth of new ones! We think we understand the way in which the ground was prepared, and the mounds were constructed. Layers in the mounds suggest they were built up over time and may hint at maintenance work to them, as you might pay for a grave to be tended. We have not recovered any Saxon finds to help refine the dating of the site. We are recording our trenches before we backfill the site, hopefully in a slightly more effective fashion than Douglas and his workmen! Over the winter months we will be processing finds from the excavations. If you would like to get involved or have any questions, do email me and see here for further information on the project.