‘Some months’ before June 1913, workmen digging between Breachwood Green and Darley Hall in Kings Walden found a collection of objects six feet (about 2 m) below the surface. The depth suggests that this was not simple foundations work or a drainage ditch but something more substantial. We don’t know exactly where the workmen were digging, or what they were excavating. As we will see, historic maps give us a clue about where it might have been.

What was discovered? According to the original account, published in The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries in 1913, there were four brooches (two identical), a girdle-hanger, a pair of bronze tweezers, fragments from the bronze rim of an organic vessel, and a fragment of pottery. The brooches consist of three small-long brooches and a fragmentary applied saucer brooch. These are all typical early-medieval types, unusual in Hertfordshire. The name ‘small-long brooch’ refers to the main division of early medieval brooches between long and circular forms. Long brooches are also known as bow brooches and developed ultimately from Iron Age La Tène styles.

Early sixth-century brooches, found by workmen digging near Breachwood Green.

The paired small-long brooches in the find were 69 mm long, with a square panel on the head and three rudimentary knob-like projections; that on the top has a moulded collar, while the others are plain. The bow is small and flattish (an indication of a relatively late date), with a projecting square projection at its high point, while the foot has a catchplate at the top, immediately below the bow, and a flaring foot with a flat end. Both brooches had traces of rust from the missing iron pins, and one had impressions of cloth at the back of the foot. These paired brooches are typical of female burials, not male.

The third small-long brooch was 70 mm long and of a different design. The head does not have a separate central panel, and it has trefoil lobe projections, with two corners of what would be the head forming spikes between the lobes. Around the edge of each lobe runs a double line of punch ring decoration, with just one line running past the base of each spike. Centrally, at the bottom of the head, is an incised counter-clockwise fylfot (swastika), a symbol well-known in various Eurasian cultures, perhaps first as a solar symbol and more recently for general good luck, before its unfortunate adoption by the Nazis in the 1930s.

The girdle-hanger, one of what would originally have been a pair or sometimes three, attached by a loop to the belt. It is 137 mm long and decorated with a stamped S pattern. The shape is similar to a latch-lifter, a type of key. Although they were not really keys, they likely symbolised a woman’s control of the home. An Old English riddle, number 61 in the Exeter Book of Riddles, includes the following: oft mec fæste bileac freolicu meowle, ides on earce (‘often a free maid, a woman, securely locks me in a chest’). Although the answer to the riddle is not clear – it might refer to a piece of man’s clothing or his helmet as she gives him the speaking object – it shows how women could oversee security in and around the home.

As an aside, it is amusing to see how Victorian translators could not understand how a woman might be in control of a home. An nineteenth-century translation of the Laws of Æthelbert (King of Kent about 590-616) refers to ‘a freeborn woman with long hair’. The Old English original friwif locbore actually means ‘a free-woman lock-keeper’, but as married women could not be homeowners in their own right before the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, early translators were confused. A male locbore would be described as a home-owner, but they could not grasp the idea of a female locbore and assumed, wrongly, that they were being defined by long hair! Women’s status had changed after the Norman Conquest of 1066, when the concept of couverture merged the legal status of a feme sole (‘single woman’) with that of her husband when she married, and she effectively disappeared as a legal entity.

The published paper does not give dimensions or an adequate description of the tweezers, although it describes them as ‘broader than usual’. This may mean that they are a typical early medieval type, which flares towards a broad terminal. Although the publication suggests that they ‘might have served to extract thorns’, they are now thought to be used in personal grooming, for pulling out short hairs (locks again!), craft activities such as sewing, and medical uses, including removing splinters or ticks. Tweezers have a long history in Britain, being first found in the Late Iron Age; early medieval types occur both in female and male medieval graves, mostly with adults.

The publication describes the curved bronze as being 7.5 mm wide, identifying it as the ‘lip of a drinking cup of wood’. Without evidence for the survival of wood, it is also possible that they were mounts for a drinking-horn. If they really are the rim of a drinking vessel of any sort, this raises the question of the sex of the grave’s occupant. All the objects discussed so far are associated with women or with both women and men. Bronze- (or silver-) rimmed vessels seem to accompany male burials; where wooden cups or bowls occur in definitely female burials, any bronze is part of a repair patch. Perhaps this grave is the exception that proves the rule.

The final object recorded is a potsherd. Described as ‘an urn fragment of a coarse brown ware, shewing three bosses on the shoulder pressed out from within and separated by incised vertical lines’, it was clearly an early-medieval buckelurn. These were vessels often used as containers for cremated human bone and were introduced to Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers, the earliest being found in East Anglia, where they are dated about 420-430. Radiocarbon dating suggest that they became less popular after the middle of the sixth century.

The date of the potsherd (about 420-550) agrees with the likely dates of the brooches. There is so far no standard typology for small-long brooches, and none can be dated more closely than within a broad range matching the potsherd, although those with flatter bows, like all three bow brooches from the site, are thought to belong later rather than earlier in the range. The fragmented applied saucer brooch is of identical date. The earliest girdle-hangers are from the later fifth century, and they continued being used into the early seventh. Overall, this suggests a date in the first half of the fifth century for the grave. The date (c 670) given in the Hertfordshire Historic Environment Record, based on a notice in the Transactions of the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, is more than a century too late.

We can thus be certain that the burial was of a woman who died in the first half of the sixth century AD. But where was it? When an oil pipeline from Humberside to Buncefield was proposed in 1990, it ran just to the east Darley Hall. As a result, the developer, Petrofina, commissioned a geophysical survey, carried out by Geophysical Surveys Ltd (Bradford), which failed to reveal anything resembling a cemetery. Further south, close to Winch Hill Farm, the investigation of a group of anomalies revealed a previously unknown Romano-British site with dating evidence from the second to fourth centuries, too early to be associated with the burial.

One possible clue to the location is that there is a group of hollows northwest of Breachwood Green and east of Darley Hall, marked ‘Old Clay Pits’ on the 1898 25-inch Ordnance Survey map surveyed in 1897, and they have been joined by a new pit to the south by 1937, when a new 2½ map was surveyed. This is where St Mary’s Rise was later built (perhaps in the late 1950s). By 1959, there were three more pits, further to the south, showing that extraction continued here throughout the early twentieth century.

The fact that they were clay pits offers an explanation for why the workers failed to spot a skeleton. Calculating a pH value measures the relative acidity of a soil, where 7 is neutral and the lower the number below that, the more acidic: clay ranges between about 5 and 7.5, and most local clays tend to the acidic side. In such circumstances, bone preservation is poor and can degrade to the point where non-specialists will not even recognise it.

What was notable at the time of discovery – and remains so to this day – is the rarity of burials of this character in Hertfordshire. Usually seen as the graves of incoming settlers from northern Europe, often inaccurately referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxons’, recent studies of DNA and stable isotopes in teeth have shown that many female burials of this type are of local women, descendants of the Romano-British population. The quality of the finds shows that she was a member of a wealthy family and that whatever ethnic identity we want to push onto her, this was not an issue for her contemporaries.

She may have considered herself a Briton or an Angle: we will never know. In many ways, this is an unimportant distinction. In looking for the origins of England, it is now clear that the early medieval English were a mixture of people of different ancestries, some whose families had been in Britain for centuries, even millennia, some who had made the perilous journey across the North Sea, some who had come from further west and some who had come the Mediterranean region.

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

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