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Apple Down Cemetery

by Portia Tremlett and Crispin Paine

Apple Down excavation

Written by Portia Tremlett, Public Programme Engagement Officer, and Crispin Paine, Volunteer.



In 1981 two metal-detectorists, exploring a hilltop by Up Marden, discovered one of the most important of the 1,200 cemeteries known from early Anglo-Saxon England. The cemetery has given archaeologists and historians a wealth of information about Saxon life, through looking at burial practices and how they changed from the late 5th to at least the 7th centuries AD.

Early Saxon burial rites included cremation and inhumation (burial of the body) practices. Grave goods, objects that were buried with the body for use in the afterlife, were common at the beginning of the period, reducing in number towards the end of the Saxon era.

Towards the end of the Roman period there had been a decline in the use of grave goods, possibly due to emerging Christian influences. Early Saxon burial rites however saw the resurgence of grave goods, suggesting a re-emergence in the belief that the dead needed certain items for use in the next life. In addition, when burials did include grave goods, these objects helped to identify the deceased, conveying their status to the individuals who mourned them as well as to the Gods. Today these grave goods provide important evidence for life in the Saxon period, and help to illustrate regional variation in burial practices as well as changes to burial traditions over time. 

Many of the men and women buried at Apple Down had objects buried with them. In some cases these grave goods were jewellery, some were clothes-fastenings, and in the case of some of the men, weapons. Just three men's graves contained the iron shield-boss from a small shield, but sixteen contained spear-heads and five contained the remains of swords.

Perhaps the two most exciting graves were Graves 12A and Grave 14. Grave 12A contained a man aged between 35-40, who was buried not only with his sword, but also with a bucket, an impressive status symbol, of which the copper mounts and fittings survived. The next grave over, number 14, was that of a woman in her early twenties whose splendid big 'Jutlandic' square-headed brooch, dated to 500-520 AD, was probably made in southern Scandinavia - though just possibly in Kent, where Jutish influence was strong. In fact the excavators speculated that these two were husband and wife; the man a local South Saxon, but the woman possibly a Jute from Kent whose family had settled on the Isle of Wight.

Apple Down cemetery can also tell us a lot about disease in the past. One young man buried at Apple Down in the 500s has caused a major scientific stir: he seems to have had syphilis. Previously most people believed that syphilis came to Europe from the Americas in the 1500s but Apple Down appears (although it is still controversial) to show it was here much earlier.

he location of the settlement associated with the individuals buried at Apple Down remains a mystery. Extensive investigation was undertaken alongside and subsequent to the archaeological excavations that identified the cemetery sites, but to no avail. The cemetery site itself is still accessed and studied today, mostly by PhD students who are using the site to investigate new aspects of Saxon life.