British Collection Highlights:

Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Sancton, Yorkshire

One of the highlights of the British Collections is the Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery site at Sancton in East Yorkshire. The Ashmolean holds a large collection of artefacts from this site including pottery and metal work.

The sixth century pagan cemetery at Sancton was discovered sometime before 1854 at Grange Farm, near the village of Sancton, East Yorkshire. The discovery of 69 pottery urns was recorded on an Ordnance Survey map of 1854.

The site lies on the Yorkshire Wolds, near two Roman roads, one from the south through Brough to Malton, the other one on the same line but veering off to the east of Sancton towards York.

Matthew Foster of Sancton communicated with George Rolleston, Reader in Anatomy at Oxford, informing him of local discoveries of 'antiquities' and that he had found inhumations in his own garden. Rolleston visited Foster, looked at these discoveries (urns and fragments of human bones) and conducted an excavation himself. Rolleston was mainly interested in the skeletal remains.

Large numbers of urns were also found on Charles Langdale's land at Houghton Hall. Most of these urns and their contents were given to the Ashmolean Museum, and form the collection as we know it today. Rolleston discovered that more urns previously discovered in the area had been distributed among the local people - Rolleston himself distributed pottery and bones amongst his friends and colleagues, at home and abroad as far as Germany and New Zealand. From documentary records we learn that "a Cardinal from London had an urn from Sancton and a canon from Durham had acquired about 20". In 1874 Rolleston sent two urns to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington - one of them is still there.

The original locations of these nineteenth century finds can no longer be established with accuracy. In 1907 J. Hall reported many urns found by him and others between 1891 and 1894 at the Grange Farm site, near Sancton church and in the same area as the Rolleston and Foster discoveries. An account in 1909 of the cemetery by T. Sheppard, includes 19 urns collected by J. Wilson.

The cemetery was then left further undisturbed until 1953 when the first large-scale excavation took place. At this time the size of the cemetery became clear and its importance realised.

The 1953-1957 excavations covered an area 24 yards by 36 yards (approx. 22 meters by 33 meters) and recorded much more carefully and accurately the urns and contents. Around 200 hundred cremations were recorded. As well as the cremated bone, the urns contained fused glass beads, objects of copper alloy, bone combs, miniature shears and spindlewhorls. Excavation of the nearby dew pond was carried out to determine its relation to the cemetery. During this time, Lady Fitzwilliam of Houghton Hall, gave to Hull Museum three urns that had been discovered in 1892, the conclusion being that they were probably found when the dew pond was dug.

A selections of objects from the site are on display in the ‘England 400-1600’ gallery on the second floor.

Decorated Biconical Bowl

Decorated Biconical Bowl found in a grave with a wrist clasp, bone comb fragments, beads and other metal objects (AN1886.1301)

Biconical Urn

Biconical Urn from Sanction (AN1886.1310)

Shears

Copper alloy shears used as a grave 'token' (AN1886.1345h(i))

The excavations recorded 240 plain and decorated urns and their contents; a few were complete, but many were in pieces. The human bones were sifted and the teeth separated for future research. One human skeleton was found under the dew pond bank and was left undisturbed. The full extent of the cemetery was not discovered as the eastern and northern boundaries were not reached because of time and later disturbances, such as large hedges and Second World War army trench restrictions.

The Ashmolean only holds nineteenth century finds, and apart from the urns scattered in the late nineteenth century, the remaining finds from the Sancton site are held in Hull and East Riding Museum.

Objects from Sancton are on display in the ‘England 400-1600’ gallery on the second floor.

Further Information

Meaney, A., Gazetteer of Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Sites, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1962)

Myres, J. and Southern, W., The Anglo-Saxon Cremation Cemetery at Sancton, (Hull Museum Publication No. 218, 1973)

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Eleanor Standley
19 December 2012