As part of the work on our Ancient Worlds displays I have recently been looking at the Museum’s collection of human remains. Unfortunately much of it is poorly documented but after some detective work I discovered an important group of skeletons that originally were excavated at Heronbridge near Chester in 1930-1. There is good reason to believe that the dead were casualties of the Battle of Chester (c.AD 616) and that they were buried on or close to the battlefield.
When archaeologists excavated the same site in 2005 they recovered two male skeletons. The radiocarbon dates put them in the early 7th century AD. The evidence of wounds that they suffered, especially noticeble on the men’s skulls, shows that they died under violent circumstances. They are likely to come from the Battle of Chester which is described by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (II, 2). The Manchester Museum’s skeletons were also recovered from burial pits at Heronbridge and all things considered they must relate to the same historical event.
King Aethelfrith of Northumbria made a pre-emptive strike on the Britons of North Wales who were allies of a rival claimant to the Northumbrian throne. During the Battle of Chester (c.AD 616) Bede writes that Aethelfrith ordered his soldiers to kill monks who were praying for the success of the Britons. The monks were slaughtered.
Aethelfrith died some time later when he in his turn was attacked by King Raedwald of East Anglia. Raedwald is believed to be the king honoured by the rich grave goods at Sutton Hoo. Edwin, the rival claimant, became king of Northumbria.
These discoveries throw light on a fascinating but dimly understood period in early Medieval English history, the time of the so-called Dark Ages. Incredibly rich discoveries such as those excavated at Sutton Hoo in the 1930s, or the material found in the Staffordshire hoard, show that the metal-workers of this time produced objects of great beauty for important people in their society.
The Lindisfarne Gospels show the mixture of different artistic and cultural influences from the various peoples – Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks, Picts, Irish and Britons who were then living in Britain. Perhaps it was not so very different to the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society we live in today?
The Heronbridge skeletons are a timely discovery for consideration as part of the Ancient Worlds displays. They were also the subject of a longer talk at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in Leeds in November 2013.