Archaeologists in England are calling their discovery “one of the most important” for decades. The ancient cemetery didn’t only date back to the Neolithic period, but it held the bodies of 40 men, women and children from two periods of English history, including the bodies of the first English speaking people in Britain. English origins have long been an important area of research and now we have more information based on what was found in the ancient Deal cemetery in Kent.
The cemetery is like no other ever discovered in England. It was found during building works in Deal, a town in Kent, on the east coast of England, where the English Channel becomes the North Sea. Many older grave sites than this have been discovered in England, and others have yielded more artifacts, but this one is exciting archaeologists because it contained the bodies of some of the first English speakers in Britain, the Jutes.
Jutish horse and dog burial found at the Deal cemetery in Kent, England. The recently discovered graves are significant in understanding English origins and the role of the Nordic Jutes, said to be the first English speakers. (Peter Knowles / Kent Archaeological Projects )
English Origins And The Deal Cemetery Finds
Tim Allen is the director of Whitstable-based Kent Archaeological Projects (KAP). Allen told Kent Online that the cemetery was discovered at the St Richard ’s Road building site in Deal. KAP archaeologists have now excavated and inspected the bodies of “40 men, women and children.” Allen said that after 36 years as an archaeologist, “this is the most important find I personally have ever made.”
The oldest bodies recovered from the cemetery dated back to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods, approximately 4,000 years ago. At this time, the burial site, like most others in Britain, was defined with a deep ditch (henge) . Leaping forward in time, some burials found at the same location dated to the 4th century AD. In most research scenarios the most celebrated discoveries are the oldest, but not at the Deal cemetery, for these later burials were the bodies of Jute invaders .
Map of southeast Britain circa 575 AD showing approximate areas of Jutish settlement according to the ancient history of English origins, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written by the Venerable Bede. (James Frankcom / CC BY 3.0 )
The Jutes: The First English-speaking People
The Jutes were one of many Nordic tribes who invaded and settled in Great Britain at the end of the period of Roman occupation , about 410 AD. According to the Venerable Bede (circa 672/3-735 AD), the Jutes were one of the three most powerful Germanic nations, along with the Angles and the Saxons. Furthermore, Bede writes that the Jutes “were the first English-speaking people: they spoke Old English, Anglo-Saxon.” This is why KAP archaeologist Tim Allen told Kent Online that the cemetery is “the origin of England, right here.”
An article titled “ Who were the Jutes? ” published on Mediaeval Eurasia , explains that the tribe is believed to have come from Jutland, in what is now Denmark. The Bede wrote that the Jutes arrived in England and settled in Kent, the Isle of Wight , and areas of Hampshire. They invaded and settled Kent because it was a thriving center of trade between the Franks and the Frisians in the aftermath of Roman control. Over time, the observed efficiencies in Jutish communications, which were reflected in their trading language, displaced the comparatively limited traditional Celtic language spoken by the Britons.
The Kent Archaeological Projects team proudly posing before one of the ancient Jutish graves found at the cemetery at Deal. (Peter Knowles / Kent Archaeological Projects )
The Ancient Cemetery That Keeps On Giving
Among the most notable of the Jutish discoveries at the Deal cemetery were the remains of a 12-year-old boy and a “very high status noble warrior.” According to Allen, having been unearthed with his shield covering his “crushed face,” the archaeologists suspect the high-status warrior was killed in battle and received a noble burial.
Firstly, he was interred with his highly-decorated sword, a spear, and two daggers. Furthermore, the sword hilt was detailed with a semi-precious stone. The “noble warrior” idea was rubber stamped when archaeologists found an exceptionally large grave for a horse and a wolf-sized dog nearby.
Bringing all this together we can now create a chronology of the cemetery. Around 2000 BC a ditch was cut representing the first burial ground at the site. The late Neolithic and Bronze Age graves were made with oval-shaped stone perimeters in which the deceased were laid on their side in the fetal position.
Around 410 AD, just like today’s construction workers in Deal, a group of Jutish builders excavated a plot for a new building and discovered the late Neolithic and Bronze Age burials. Having accidentally unearthed an established burial site the Jutes reused it to bury their dearly departed. Only, rather than lying on their sides in oval graves, the Jutes lay on their back surrounded by a rectangular stone perimeter.
Top image: A Jute warrior buried on his back with his sword. The Deal cemetery findings in Kent, England are some of the best evidence ever found relating to English origins. Because of the Jutes, the Britons gave up the Celtic language for the more advantageous early English spoken by the Jutes. Source: Sam Lennon / Kent Online
By Ashley Cowie