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Army archaeology project uncovers sixth century burial

Injured soldiers have helped uncover the remains of a sixth century Anglo-Saxon female in a project to preserve a scheduled burial site on Salisbury Plain.

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Operation Nightingale is a six-week excavation and rehabilitation programme for soldiers with an interest in archaeology at Barrow Clump.

The ancient burial mound, one of 306 scheduled monuments on MOD land within Salisbury Plain, is currently on the English Heritage ‘Heritage at Risk’ list due to extensive burrowing by badgers.

The badgers are burrowing into the site and kicking up human remains and burial relics. Operation Nightingale, with the support of Wessex Archaeology and English Heritage, plans to excavate the site to document the remains and preserve them, before rebuilding the cemetery mound:

We are very lucky to be part of this dig as soldiers. Normally we wouldn’t be able to do this as it’s a scheduled Neolithic burial with an early-Pagan Anglo-Saxon burial cut into it,” explained Rifleman Laurence Savage, 5th Battalion The Rifles, who is on his second archaeological dig with the project.

Archaeologists can’t normally do this, as archaeology, by its very nature, is destructive, so you can’t usually dig into protected scheduled monuments. It’s only because the badgers are causing so much damage that we are allowed to excavate. So, to be part of this dig, as a soldier, is a real privilege.

Digging started a week ago, and quickly uncovered what is believed to be an Anglo-Saxon brooch, as well as the grave:

We believe ‘Davina’, as she has been named by the soldiers, was in her later teens to early 20s when she died, based on the fusion of her bones. We don’t know how she died, and probably won’t unless the laboratory can find traces of disease in her bones,” said Richard Osgood, Senior Historic Advisor for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, and organiser of the dig.

We can assume that she was somebody of note though, for her to be buried here in such an important location, although she wasn’t buried with any precious stones that would signify wealth.

This is a prestigious burial site as it can be seen from all around the area, so to be buried here you would have to have had some status.

‘Davina’ was buried with her arms crossed over her pelvis, and is presumed to be Pagan as her grave is in a north west to south east position - Christian burials are east-west facing:

She would have lived, and died, long after nearby Stonehenge had been abandoned though,” said Mr Osgood.

We are hoping to find between 15 and 20 graves with various burial artefacts during the dig based on the number found by English Heritage when they explored part of the site in 2003.

There has been a long-term problem with badgers digging up human remains here - indeed ‘Davina’ is missing a number of bones, although some may have rotted away - so this is an important project that brings together a lot of disparate groups, that also aims to improve the lives and skills of soldiers through archaeology.

This is the second excavation project for Operation Nightingale, which is to be presented with an award for its work in the field of archaeology:

Operation Nightingale isn’t about just inventing jobs for injured servicemen,” explained Mr Osgood. “The MOD takes looking after the historical sites on its land very seriously. Of the 738 scheduled monuments nationwide, 306 of them are on Salisbury Plain, while there are a further ten world heritage sites on MOD land, as well as six registered battlefields and 840 listed buildings.

We don’t know yet what the award we are going to be presented with will be called as the archaeological profession has created a new award for us in acknowledgement of what the Army is doing on this project, so it is a real honour,” he concluded.

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Published 2 July 2012