Christchurch got its name because of the important Priory, built in the late 11th century. One hundred years before, a small settlement named Twynham (for the two rivers) had grown up on the site and was one of King Alfred’s fortified burhs. About 100m to the north of these defences is an area known as Bargates; here in 1977 trial excavation revealed a Bronze Age ring ditch and seven Saxon inhumations. The following year the main dig uncovered a pagan Saxon cemetery of at least 30 burials and four cremations. The grave goods indicated a date of late 6th to 7th century. Subsequent excavations in the town failed to find evidence of 5th to 9th century date, so it is not possible to suggest how the cemetery might relate to any early ecclesiastical foundation preceding the priory.
The Bargates site was located on fertile river gravels in an area of lowly-populated heath. Because of the acidic soil conditions bone did not survive, but teeth and ‘body stains’ could sometimes be traced. Three of these were complete outlines and seven partial. Metalwork did survive, however, and eleven of the 30 graves were most probably armed males, which is an unusually high proportion. Other graves contained knives and buckles, which do not help to determine sex. Female ornaments were rare: there were no brooches and only one bead was found on the site. The four cremations were probably of adults, one of whom was probably a young female.
The grave goods which indicated male burials were shields (usually associated only with adult males) and spears (not necessarily indicative of an adult). Grave 5 had evidence of a shield showing that it had contained an adult male. The shield boss was cone-shaped, like others on the site. Some of the graves contained evidence of organic material preserved in corrosion products in the form of negative casts. Corrosion-preserved wood present in Grave 5 was identified as alder, a species used for shields. An iron spearhead with a leaf-shaped blade was also found, its haft made of hazel, again identified from corrosion products. Traces of textile survived on one face of the spearhead. As spearheads were usually placed away from garments, this suggests that the weapon had been placed on woven cloth or that cloth was draped over both the weapons and the body. Grave 5 was one of the richer graves in the cemetery, and like 22 of the other graves it contained a knife.
From the graves with reasonably complete skeletal stains it was possible to determine several different modes of burial and the position of the grave offerings also revealed some patterns. The spearhead in Grave 5, for example, pointed south: this suggests that the head looked south. The wider context of the Saxon cemetery suggests a settled community with established burial procedures, but the location of the settlement site remains unknown.
Further reading: Excavations in Christchurch 1969-1980, Jarvis (1983) Monograph 5, Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society.
Some of the Bargates finds are displayed in the Red House Museum.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.