When archaeologists set out to excavate a site, there’s no telling what might turn up. It can be difficult, grueling work that doesn’t always yield the “treasure” they want, but every once in a while, they find something extraordinary.
Some archaeologists were exploring a site in England when they stumbled upon an incredible piece of history. What they uncovered was completely unprecedented.

The most famous relic from England’s ancient history is, undoubtedly, the 5,000-year-old Stonehenge. Still, with more discoveries from the Prehistoric, Roman, and Medieval periods being made each year, there’s always a chance something could come along and dethrone it—such as this shocking find from the 7th century.

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Naturally, as with most new finds, this one was a complete accident. A local landowner had been hoping to dig out and build a fishing lake and flood defense system in the village of Great Ryburgh in England’s Norfolk County.

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The area was located near the Wensum River and needed to be surveyed first. That’s when Matthew Champion, a local archaeologist, was summoned to investigate.

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It didn’t take long for Matthew to find something unusual: this ancient piece of Saxon pottery. Excited by the possibility of a hidden archaeological site, a team of experts from the Museum of London Archaeology was brought in.

Wikimedia Commons / BabelStone

The archaeologists started digging… and uncovered human remains. They realized the site was an ancient cemetery!

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They estimated the site dated back to sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries, during the height of the Anglo-Saxon period, which stretched from 410 to 1066 AD.

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Archaeologists were surprised that the coffins were made of timber. Wood decays fairly quickly, so how did these caskets remain intact for so long?

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“The combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive,” said lead archaeologist James Fairclough.

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A whopping 81 coffins—all believed to be among the first fully intact discovered from that era—were found. Prior to that, the only evidence of ancient burials came from stains on decaying wood. Six of the graves were even lined with wooden planks—a rare find that hints at early burial practices in England.

Twitter / Matthew Champion

It was unclear why some people were buried differently than others. Initial theories posited that it related to social status, but further investigation didn’t show any significant difference in the bodies. Perhaps they had been buried in different eras?

Twitter / Matthew Champion

In addition, a wooden structure suggested that this may have been an early Christian church. The burials were also oriented east to west and there were no valuables in the coffins.

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This could’ve been one of the earliest examples of Christian burial in the UK. After all, Christianity wasn’t introduced to England until the 6th century by Saint Augustine.

Wikimedia Commons / Firebrace

Further investigation of each coffin revealed that they were made out of hollowed-out oak trees, which archaeologists estimated took about four days to build.

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Since similar methods were found at older, pre-Christian cemeteries—some as early as 2000 BCE—it’s possible the site represents the gradual assimilation of pagan beliefs into Christian ones.

Matthew Champion

“The site was in use in the heyday of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, and positioned next to a strategic river cross,” Tim Pestell, a local museum curator, pointed out. The findings were a “dramatic example of how new evidence is helping to refine our knowledge of this fascinating period when Christianity and the Church were still developing on the ground.”

Twitter / Matthew Champion

“These rare and exceptionally well-preserved graves are a significant discovery which will advance our understanding of Middle-Saxon religious beliefs and rural communities,” added Duncan Wilson, chief executive of a preservation organization called Historic England. “This site has immense potential for revealing the story of the community who once lived there.”

Twitter / Matthew Champion

The discovery may also provide more information about East Anglia, which was one of the Anglo-Saxon period’s seven kingdoms. To date, there exists no other documentation referring to East Anglia from that period.

Wikimedia Common / Amitchell125

The scientists will perform tree-ring dating to identify the age of the coffins, as well as test the DNA and isotopes of the remains.

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The archaeologists also hope that these findings will help them learn more about the origins of these people, as well as their diets and health. The most well-preserved coffins, meanwhile, will displayed at the Norwich Castle Museum, while the bodies themselves will be buried.

BBC

It’s amazing to think that these incredible finds were right under one man’s nose this entire time. Do you ever wonder what might be hidden beneath your feet at this very moment?