A huge program of archaeology along the HS2 rail route, covering over 100 archaeological sites between London and Birmingham, has repeatedly furnished astonishing insights into Britain’s history. On 16 June 2022, archaeologists revealed one of the venture’s most significant finds: an extraordinary set of 141 rare burials from the early medieval period at a dig site in Wendover, Buckinghamshire.
The discovery at Wendover revealed remains dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, alongside jewellery, swords, shields, spears and tweezers. It is one of the most important early medieval discoveries in living memory, shedding light on the period following the withdrawal of Roman authority from Britain and before the emergence of the seven major kingdoms, for which there is very little documentary evidence.
The rare discoveries are featured on Dan Snow’s History Hit. “This stunning set of discoveries on the HS2 route can tell us more about how our predecessors lived, fought and ultimately died,” said Snow. “It is one of the best and most revealing post-Roman sites in the country.”
The excavation, which was undertaken in 2021 by 30 field archaeologists, revealed 138 graves, with 141 inhumation burials and 5 cremation burials. Although evidence of Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman activity was found at the site, its early medieval remains are the most significant.
51 knives and 15 spearheads were found among the remains, along with over 2,000 beads and 40 buckles. That many of the burials featured two brooches on their collarbone indicates they would have held up garments such as a cloak or the shoulder-fastened peplos worn by women. The brooches, which number 89, range from gilt disk brooches to silver coin brooches and a pair of small square-headed brooches.
Some of the artefacts, such as amber beads, metals and raw materials, may have originated from elsewhere in Europe. Two intact glass cone beakers were comparable to vessels made in Northern France and had been used to drink wine. Meanwhile, an ornate glass bowl which may be a Roman heirloom accompanied one burial, a female of likely high status.
Grooming items including ear wax removers and toothpicks were recovered, while the skeleton of one male, aged between 17 and 24, was found with a sharp iron object embedded in the spine. Specialist osteologists believe the weapon was delivered from the front.
Dr Rachel Wood, Lead Archaeologist for Fusion JV, HS2’s Enabling Works Contractor, described the site as “huge” in significance. “The proximity of the date of this cemetery to the end of the Roman period is particularly exciting, especially as it is a period we know comparatively little about,” said Wood.
Senior Project Manager Louis Stafford told History Hit’s Matt Lewis that the discovery “has the potential to give us so much insight into this local population, who it was, where they came from, or whether they were there and adopted new ideals that had poured over [from elsewhere].”
Discoveries from HS2
The discovery at Wendover is one of over 100 sites that have been discovered along the HS2 rail network since 2018. HS2 is a controversial rail project to provide high-speed links between London and the Midlands. As part of its works, archaeology has taken place all along the route.
HS2 wooden figure
In June 2021, archaeologists recovered a rare carved wooden figure from a water-logged Roman ditch in a field in Twyford, Buckinghamshire. The team of archaeologists began their excavation at Three Bridge Mill along the path of the HS2 rail network, where they came across what they originally thought was a degraded piece of wood.
Instead, a 67cm-tall, humanlike or anthropomorphic figure emerged. Initial assessment, which took account of the style of carving and the tunic-like clothing, dated the figure to the early Roman period in Britain. A comparable wooden carving from Northampton is thought to be a Roman votive offering.
HS2 Roman cemetery
In Fleet Marston, near Aylesbury, archaeologists excavated a Roman town for over a year, where they managed to uncover parts of the settlement that sat beside a major Roman road. In addition to domestic structures and the discovery of over 1,200 coins, a late Roman cemetery containing around 425 burials was excavated.
The archaeology suggested the existence of a bustling Roman town. The number of burials suggested a population influx in the mid to late Roman period, which may be linked to increased agricultural production.