In 1980 archaeologists found a mysterious grave in a garden off Beer Cart Lane, just over the road from Canterbury Heritage Museum. At the bottom of a large round pit, in a thick layer of dark brown soil, were skeletons of an adult male and female, a girl of about eleven years old, a child of about eight, and a dog. Numerous pieces of jewellery and other objects were on or near the skeletons, suggesting the people were wearing clothes when buried. There was no evidence of disease or injury other than a small fracture on the skull of the youngest child.
The dark brown soil, known as ‘black soil’, is found in Canterbury at the very end of the Roman period, around the beginning of the fifth century AD. It is thought to be what is left of trees and weeds that grew around and inside abandoned buildings, which fell into ruins. It was usual during the Roman and Anglo-Saxon period to bury the dead in cemeteries outside the settlement, and in individual graves. The Beer Cart Lane group were all buried in one grave in the middle of town, so this was not an official burial. The period was one of unrest and danger in southern Britain: Anglo-Saxon tribes from Denmark, Germany and Holland were invading and some wanted to settle there; native tribes from the north were attacking people in the south; Roman troops, who had been keeping law and order in Britain, had been ordered to return as they were needed to deal with troubles nearer home; there were outbreaks of plague in Britain that killed many people.
Clues from the types jewellery found, and analysis of the mineral content in the bones of the two children, indicates that that the skeletons are not those of local people. Facial reconstruction of the adult female and youngest child skulls shows that the two had very similar characteristics, and were probably a mother and daughter. So this is possibly a family of foreigners who died suddenly, but who they were and how they died is a mystery.
The adult female, aged between 35 and 45, had jewellery and other objects on or near her skeleton: a fragment of a bronze bracelet on her right wrist, of a type common in the fourth century AD; a set of eight bronze bracelets on her left wrist, of a type not seen before; a small iron knife with thin blade and delicate bronze chain, probably a woman’s razor and dated between 350 and 450 AD; four bronze keys and a small knife; all in bronze; ten beads in dark brown or black glass, some with yellow and green decoration, and three amber beads, made by Anglo-Saxon people in what is now Germany during the fifth century AD. There was a piece of grey stone under her upper body and another of clay tile under her pelvis. Also in the grave were two lengths of dark brown wood.
The adult male was aged between 30 and 40. Near his skeleton were two fragments of a wooden base or lid with a thin layer of black tar and traces of a dairy substance. This may have been the bottom of a bucket. There was a piece of clay tile under his head. The dog lay on his chest. Its skeleton indicated that this was an old dog: teeth were very worn, there were signs of arthritis on the left hind leg, and the inner ear bone had been damaged in life so the dog was probably deaf. The right hind leg bone had been broken during life, with new bone growth around the fracture.
On or near the skeleton of the girl aged about eleven were an unusual black glass bracelet and others of bronze and ivory, a small bronze key, and fifteen small glass beads, mostly blue and green, of a Roman type used in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. The younger child - a girl aged about 8 - had two bronze bracelets and a small iron fragment, probably a nail, on or near the skeleton. Analysis of the mineral content of their bones showed traces of rock types found in France, southwest England and Ireland. The children therefore grew up in one or more of these areas, far away from Canterbury.
Displayed at Canterbury Heritage Museum are the facial reconstructions of the adult female and youngest girl, made by Dr Caroline Wilson of the University of Manchester, together with the jewellery, keys and knife found on or near the skeletons.
The information above about the burial and finds comes from reports by Canterbury Archaeological Trust and reports commissioned by Canterbury City Museums.
We hvae some great sequence photos of facial reconstruction from skull to completed head that can illustrate this.
Drawing of the Beer Cart Lane burial © Canterbury Archaeological Trust.