Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – Portway East Saxon cemetery, Andover

Portway: a general view at an early stage in the excavations

Portway: a general view at an early stage in the excavations

The 6th century Saxon cemetery discovered at Portway East (an industrial estate) lies to the west of Andover.  The site overlooks the valley of the River Anton and is close to Bronze Age burial mounds and the presumed routes of the prehistoric Harrow Way and Portway Roman Road.  The cemetery was excavated by the Andover Archaeological Society in 1973-5 and found to occupy an area of at least 60 x 45m.  Sixty-nine inhumation burials and 57 deposits of cremated bone were recovered.

Portway skeleton '2A' being revealed.

Portway skeleton ‘2A’ being revealed.

Portway - 'Cremation 58'

Portway – ‘Cremation 58’

The condition of many of the skeletons was poor, mostly because of plough damage, but the surviving evidence shows that infections were less common here than in other early Saxon cemeteries.  Additionally, there was an absence of conditions such as malignant tumours, common in many early populations.  None of the bones had been gnawed by predators, so the corpses were probably deeply buried originally and the graves looked after.  Of the individual burials identifiable by sex, females outnumbered males and 20 out of the 32 recognisable female burials contained grave goods in the form of a necklace or bracelet.

The necklace from Grave 44 (the bracelet is from Grave 50).

The necklace from Grave 44 (the bracelet is from Grave 50).

One such occurrence was Grave 44 which contained a juvenile estimated, from the development of her teeth, to have been 12 to 14 years old. She was identified as female because of the objects in the grave. These included a fine necklace made of a string of beads of amber and coloured glass. Like most of the inhumations on the site the body had been laid on its back with legs extended. The grave was rectangular with well-cut sides and the plan produced by the archaeologists gives a clear indication of the interior layout. The necklace stretched from either side of the neck across the chest, with amber and glass beads generally alternating. The distinctive decorations on the glass beads indicate a date sometime after AD 550 and, in the absence of 7th century objects from the site, a date in the second half of the 6th century seems appropriate.  The grave was one of a pair and the other contained the relatively well-preserved skeleton of a female of 25 to 35 years of age.

The quality of the necklace from Grave 44 suggests that the young girl would have been of high social status. Other items include a set of bronze toilet implements and a ‘girdle group’. The toilet implements included an ear scoop and were held on a bronze ring.  A strand of thread (possibly flax) wound around the ring, and this may have served to suspend the implements from her neck. The ‘girdle group’ was an elaborate set of items of uncertain function. This was found at waist level and included a rectangular iron loop probably used to suspend the items.

Further reading: Excavations at Portway, Andover 1973-75, Cook & Dacre (1985) OUCA Monograph 4.

Some of the Portway finds are on show at Andover Museum


Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.


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