When amateur metal detector enthusiast Charles Wood picked up a faint signal in a muddy field, the 44-year -old had no idea he had just stumbled onto one of the most significant Saxon graves discovered in recent years.
Mr Wood and other members of the Muddy Boots Metal Detector Club had been permitted onto private land near the Rollright Stones, an ancient formation of Stone and Bronze Age megaliths near the village of Long Compton.
(Above is a Youtube video which gives a brief history of the Rollright Stones. See 2:40 for a brief history of the King’s Stone.)
The land is farmed and each year hosts the Rollright Fayre. So at first Mr Wood thought he had discovered just another bottle cap or a broken farm implement.
Instead, close to the King’s Stone on March 28, the London-based IT professional found a well preserved skeleton, believed to be a Saxon woman dating back to about 600 AD.
“I wasn’t that enthusiastic about digging for the signal,” said Mr Wood. “The ground had been polluted by festivals and it was very deep.”
“But when we dug we exposed what appeared to be the rim of a metal bowl . We thought it was a tractor piston at first but we soon realised we had found something more.”
The group contacted finds liaison officer Anni Byard at Oxfordshire County Council and the next day experts from Oxfordshire, Surrey and Buckinghamshire made a site visit. Then began a painstaking three-day excavation.
They found a skeleton between 4’11 and 5 feet tall, buried in a north/south orientation. Affectionately known as ‘Rita of Rollright’ by some of the discoverers, the remains were buried with grave goods including silver, copper alloy pins, a metal chain, an amber bead and a rock crystal amulet attached to an iron chain.
A small quantity of silver was also found.
It was a once in a lifetime find. I could detect for the next 14 years and not find anything like it.Charles Wood, metal detector enthusiast
A decorated antler disk was found under the woman’s back, which could have been a hair or dress accessory, as well as metal hinges and a lock plate which could have formed part of a wooden box. This may have contained the bronze ladle that sparked the find.
Mr Wood added:“It was a once in a lifetime find. I could detect for the next 14 years and not find anything like it.”
The skeleton and grave goods have been taken to the British Museum in London for analysis. An inquest into the discovery will be held by a coroner in Warwickshire to determine the value of the artefacts.
Anni Byard, West Berkshire & Oxfordshire finds liaison officer under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, said: “This is one of the most significant single Saxon graves discovered in several years. We are all very excited to see what the analysis shows us.”
Who was ‘Rita of Rollright’?
Expert analysis will reveal much about ‘Rita’ but discoverer Charles Wood said the condition on the grave and the grave goods give valuable some clues.
He said: “The skeleton is well preserved (movingly so, the bones of her left hand reflected careful placement across her waist), and the Portable Antiquities Scheme team hope tests will reveal much about the woman and her life.
“We do already know she was a young adult of around 5 feet in height, and that she probably died in the middle years of the 7th Century.
We also know that she was loved and respected; the accompanying grave goods were prized. The well preserved long handled pan is a Saxon copy of a Roman patera,
“Also contained in the grave were a large amber bead, an amethyst set silver mount, and a large crystal ball or spindle whorl. All of these items denote respect and status, but their amulet-like nature also hints the lady may have been a healer or wise-woman.
“The position of the grave in close association with the King’s Stone is also suggestive of spiritual status. Whilst some of these elements are found in other Saxon burials their combination here is both rare and fascinating.”
Anni Byard, finds Oxfordshire and West Berkshire finds liaison officer under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, agreed. She said: “The location of the grave is of significance, and the items found with her were possibly religious in nature.
“She was definitely somebody of importance at that time, but this will take further investigation.
“We are currently trying to raise grants to examine the soil of the grave, this might be able to tell us something more.”
Ongoing research into the grave site is currently being undertaken by Anni Byard and Helena Hamerow, a professor at Oxford University’s School of Archeology with assistance from Historic England, the British Museum and members of the Rollright Trust.