Bronze Age barrow and Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered at Rothley, Leicestershire

ULAS project investigates how different generations have re-used ancient sacred places.

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester have recently excavated a Bronze Age barrow and Anglo-Saxon cemetery under former allotments at Rothley in Leicestershire.

The project has offered a rare opportunity to investigate how different generations have re-used ancient sacred places, with Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon people possibly making connections with Bronze Age barrow builders in order to create their own sense of place in the landscape.

A team of archaeologists, led by Dr Gavin Speed from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) has spent the winter investigating the site and uncovering exciting new evidence for Rothley’s ancient past dating back some 6,000 years. The project was funded by Persimmons Homes in advance of a new housing development off Loughborough Road, Rothley.

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A Neolithic stone axe (left) and a sherd of Neolithic ‘Peterborough Ware’ pottery (right)

The earliest activity dates to the Neolithic period (4000-2000 BC) – a stone axe found redeposited in the backfill of the barrow ditch and a near-complete Middle Neolithic ‘Peterborough Ware’ pottery vessel located in a pit close by. Important Neolithc settlement sites (excavated by ULAS in 2005 and 2010) are known nearby and these new glimpses of activity will add further to our understanding of the bigger picture of occupation in the region.

One of the main focuses of the excavation was a Bronze Age barrow measuring over 30 metres in diameter. The earth mound had not survived subsequent generations of ploughing but the surrounding near-circular ditch was still present with cremation burials close to the ditch edge. The monument broadly dates to 2000-700 BC and more precise dating will be possible following future detailed finds analysis and scientific dating.

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The site during excavation. Archaeologists stand around the line of the backfilled Bronze Age barrow ditch. The Cossington Barrows would have once been positioned in the middle background.

The barrow is positioned close to the confluence of the Rivers Soar and Wreake, on high ground with a prominent outlook over the intersection of the Soar valley and the Rothley brook. To the east, a little over a mile away, around the village of Cossington, are other barrows forming part of a small barrow cemetery excavated by ULAS between 1999 and 2001.

Results of the project show that the Rothley barrow has been used repeatedly, creating a long history of activity in the vicinity which shows that it must have acted as an important landmark in the local area.

Dr Gavin Speed, Senior Supervisor at ULAS said: “By the Iron Age the barrow had partly eroded and its ditches had silted up but much of the mound was likely still upstanding, making it a visible landmark in the local landscape even if its original purpose and meaning had changed.”

During this period (700 BC – AD 43), a large rectangular enclosure ditch was dug partly along the alignment of the barrow ditch, avoiding the central area of the mound. Iron Age farmers appear to have utilised the area as enclosed fields with an entrance on the eastern side of the enclosure on top of the mound and a busy area of pits dug ‘behind’ the mound to the west. The Iron Age inhabitants may not have had any knowledge of the barrow’s original use and meaning but their respect of the surviving earthwork may show that they understood that the area held some significance.

Much later, in the early Anglo-Saxon period (AD 410-700), the barrow became the focus for a small inhumation cemetery. This area of Leicestershire, the Soar valley and its tributaries, has a high density of Anglo-Saxon settlements and cemeteries and an Anglo-Saxon building has been found in an adjacent field in 2010 by ULAS (now under the aptly named Saxon Drive).

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An Anglo-Saxon grave is recorded by one of the archaeological team. The skeleton does not survive but it contains a complete pot (visible at the far end) and various metal artefacts, such as a knife and spear.

Re-use of round barrows during the Anglo-Saxon period is a fairly common occurrence in England. However, there are very few known instances in Leicestershire and the recent discovery at Rothley, with at least twelve burials, is only the second and largest confirmed example to be excavated. Within the barrow mound were six burials, a seventh burial was dug into the backfilled ditch, whilst a further five burials were found in the immediate surrounding area. Unfortunately, the acidic soils have destroyed virtually all evidence of the skeletons, apart from some teeth and tiny bone fragments, but accompanying some of the bodies were metal objects – spears, knives, a ‘spike’, an annular brooch and the boss and studs from a shield. A complete pottery vessel was also found in one grave. These had all been placed with the bodies at burial as grave goods.

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An Anglo-Saxon annular brooch found in one of the graves.

The act of Anglo-Saxon people burying their dead close to Bronze Age barrows is seen in numerous examples throughout England. This could simply be due to convenience; however, recent studies have shown that it may be evidence of emergent elites displaying their power by connecting to ancestors of the past through monument re-use. They and their followers would understand the meaning, thus securing control of the landscape.

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An Anglo-Saxon burial on the edge of a barrow mound. Artwork: Debbie Miles-Williams.

ULAS would like to thank Persimmons Homes for funding the project and for their help and co-operation during the excavation; and the Natural and Built Environment team at Charnwood Borough Council for their advice and support.

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