Experts believe eight 1,400-year-old skeletons found in a Northamptonshire burial ground could be German mercenaries hired by wealthy land owners to protect their property. Samples of bones unearthed at the ancient site at Whitehall Farm, in Nether Heyford, have been carbon dated by experts in New Zealand, who said they originated from the fifth and sixth centuries.
Volunteers and archaeologists, who have been studying the area for more than 10 years, hope this discovery could lead to a better understanding of who lived in the area after previous excavations in the village uncovered Roman bath houses and artefacts.
Nick Adams, who owns the farm, said: “It’s very interesting that we have some bodies that are fifth century and we’ve got to try to establish who they might have been.
“It’s a little bit after the traditional end of the Roman period and we need to try to find out what the connection is.
“They could be Roman Britons or they may have been Germans who were brought in as mercenaries as protection for the bigger estates.”
Mr Adams added the researchers believed the Saxon cemetery may have been a private family burial ground where people were buried with “grave goods” such as daggers, brooches and rings.
He said the findings might also lead the archaeologists to Roman cemeteries, which were typically difficult to find, to reveal more of the site’s history.
The next stage of the research, which has been led by site director Stephen Young, from The University of Northampton, could include DNA testing to produce more clues about the origins of the bodies.
Mercenaries brought in to defend estate
Early settlers in Nether Heyford inhabited the village for at least 500 years, the archaeology team believe.
The estate, which may have eventually been protected by German mercenaries, included two roundhouses, villas and bathhouses, as well as private cemeteries for the family that lived there in the fifth and sixth centuries.
Stephen Young, site director, said: “Right at the end of this Roman period, during the breakdown of Roman rule, we’ve got people being bought on to the estate who may have been of Anglo-Saxon origin to defend the villas and estates.
“It’s like having your own home-grown bouncers.
“The estate may have been converted right into the early fifth century from what has been a Roman farm into a more Germanic settlement, and these people would have had their keep and needs.”
The burials of the family, believed to have included a woman, two men, an adolescent and a baby, indicate they were early Christians who would have also farmed the land.
The belongings left in their graves also point to their status within the family and future DNA test results are expected to confirm their origins.