Golden designs and royal graves

January 20, 2010

The story of Street House is curious, so unexpected, a tale of unimagined quality and associated with events which took place over fourteen hundred years ago. Forest of Galtres Society members gathered in surprisingly large number (given the piles of snow still heaped up at the roadsides) for the January 2010 AGM and to hear the subsequent lecture. At the AGM members were told how the new Awards for All funded equipment is being used and they were again able to experience for themselves the greatly improved sound quality, and the beautiful digitally projected images.

The finds we saw on screen, and which Steve’s team uncovered over several years of digging, are of such quality. Steve shared with us the fantastic thrill of scraping away the soil and there, before one’s eyes, the yellow shining glint of gold appearing. Steve had had an idea there had been some round Iron Age huts on the bleak hillside. Aerial photography confirmed there was something worth investigating. The growing crops could be hiding some round house ditches. For those of you who remember the archaeological dig which took place before the Easingwold bypass was built, the YAT archaeologists found various roundhouse ditches and channels and hearths. But Steve had much greater luck at Street House.

When Iron Age folk were creating their building footprints for us to find now as cropmarks, they were making an enclosure surrounding round houses. Anglo-Saxon folk later took it over and now, on top of the Iron Age site, there are many graves, with grave goods, and centrally something very special for the burial of two very wealthy people. There are no bones at all, they have disappeared in the acidic conditions. The graves have a very regular ‘footprint’, only visible when the topsoil has been removed. In the centre of the approximately rectangular area of graves there are two differently placed grave hollows and signs of some different rectangular buildings too. The two special graves held goods which are definitely associated with female burials of persons of great wealth and status. Who would be buried with their best jewellery on a barren hillside unless the place has special meaning and special resonance in the local community? Glass beads of great variety and detailed colour and spiralling zigzag designs, carefully crafted goldwork of the finest intricacy and delicacy of design and making these graves to be most certainly out of the ordinary run of things.

Did you know Anglo-Saxons had wooden beds? We learnt that, for Steve showed us the metal cleats which held together the side planking and the struts for each side of the bedhead. Bedhead? Yes, this princess had a wooden bed with twisted metal straps to each side to hold the bedhead vertical. Her beads were draped across her long-gone shoulders, her gold was where the archaeologists expected a female body to wear a gold pendant, and now these pieces have been brought once more into the light.

The cleats and the struts on the long-gone wooden bed had had a previous use – a resourceful metalworker had divided up and pieced together bits of a metal bucket to make them and the sharp-eyed archaeologist could interpret this ancient re-use. What things a trained eye can spot, which you and I would miss entirely!

Steve Sherlock contends that St Hilda of Whitby very possibly knew the royal persons buried in the cemetery he has been uncovering, and that for once, archaeology from so far back can be closely associated with certain specific individuals. The royal Northumbrian family would travel by boat down the coast, their A1, to Whitby to meet with St Hilda. Dying at the age of about 28 for women and about 32 for men, there would regularly be new dead to bury and their status to be marked by appropriate grave goods. Stephen Sherlock came and enthused about a totally unexpected site, and we were lucky enough to be treated to a story of generous farmers and helpful local people. It was a right royal treat for us, on a snowy evening, to hear all about it.

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