University of Kent

Lyminge Archaeological Project: Anglo-Saxons in Kent

Aerial view of part of the monastic phase at Lyminge (8th/9th centuries AD)

Aerial view of part of the monastic phase at Lyminge (8th/9th centuries AD)

Hello and welcome to the contribution direct from the field in Lyminge, Kent! I’m sitting in our ex-Korean War mess tent on the edge of the excavation watching the archaeology unfold in front of me.

We are an AHRC funded research project run from the University of Reading and we are undertaking open area excavation in a picturesque village in the south-east of England. Lyminge has an extensive Anglo-Saxon history and we have been working in the area since 2007.

We began open area excavation in 2008-2009 and uncovered the precinct of the monastery that existed in Lyminge in the 7th-9th centuries AD. In 2010 we moved to a new area and discovered part of the pre-existing, pre-Christian royal vill at Lyminge, dating to around the 5th-7th centuries AD. Lyminge appears to have been a highly significant settlement over several centuries, and we have been uncovering some very high-status Anglo-Saxon evidence. Last year we revealed the full plan of a 21×8.5m feasting hall that dates to c.600 AD, together with datable finds in the wall trenches of the building, like the beautiful horse harness mount that dates from AD 525-575.

The Lyminge excavations in 2012.

The Lyminge excavations in 2012. The feasting hall is clearly vsible across almost the whole trench!

I’m Dr Alexandra Knox and I’m the assistant director. The project is led by Dr Gabor Thomas, and we have a small full-time team thoughout the year, with Simon Maslin (Data Manager and Environmental Supervisor) and Zoe Knapp (Zooarchaeology of Lyminge PhD and Site Supervisor).

A view from the spoilheap of this year's trench

A view from the spoilheap of this year’s trench – it looks like it’s empty but all the features have baked to the same colour as the natural clay!

Dr Alexandra Knox


It’s in the summer that we get out for six weeks and our team expands! University students and local volunteers sign up to learn field skills and join in for the season, with training provided by Rosie Cummings, our excavation manager. Roo Mitcheson (Egypt Exploration Society), Keith Parfitt (Canterbury Archaeological Trust) and Andy Macintosh (also CAT) and Ben Parker (University of Kent) complete the supervisory team and Helen Harrington runs Finds with Emily Harwood (University of Kent), her assistant. Finally, Bethany Wood (University of Reading) looks after our visitors!

Lots more information about our digs over the years can be found at and throughout the dig I write a blog to record our discoveries.

Today we are almost a full week in to the dig, which means that cleaning back our 30x30m trench is almost

Gabor uses the total station to finish laying out the grid today

Gabor uses the total station to finish laying out the grid today

complete. So far we haven’t begun full excavation into the features, as we open a new area each year and have to hand clean the trench after the machine has removed the topsoil to reveal the archaeology. Students and volunteers have been deployed on those areas that need extra attention and we’re starting to make sense of the series of dark shapes in the natural orange clay. The extremely hot weather has been difficult to deal with, both for those digging and for the geology – the clay bakes very hard and we have to keep watering the site. Finally the weather has turned in our favour and we are finding it much easier to dig with a few clouds and a light breeze!

Rosie waters down the site so we can clean it much more easily!

Rosie waters down the site so we can clean it much more easily!

Today, Gabor and Roo are finishing laying out the internal grid on the site while the volunteers finish up cleaning. We can then do a full pre-excavation plan of the site today, something that isn’t absolutely necessary in terms of records, but we always like to do – it can be so helpful to go back to the pre-ex plan to compare what things looked like before you started to dig them, and to locate lost post holes! We will also begin labelling our features with context numbers so we have everything ready to begin digging into the features. As I wrote in my blog post yesterday on our own project blog, we know we already have several sunken-featured buildings and a possible timber hall, so things are looking very good for the next five weeks in terms of Anglo-Saxon archaeology.

Simon arrived today and is busy digging a nice hole in the spoil heap so that he can set up his flotation

Charlotte digs out the spoilheap so the flotation tank has somewhere to drain.

Charlotte digs out the spoilheap so the flotation tank has somewhere to drain.

tank and have somewhere for the water to soak away. He’s also getting the generator going for his pump, and we will be able to process our environmental samples on site. It’s great to be able to process samples on site as we get immediate feedback about the features and can adapt our strategy accordingly.

Simon, Ben and Warren get the generator for the flotation tank pump sorted out

Simon, Ben and Warren get the generator for the flotation tank pump sorted o

We also have a very busy Finds tent, with lots of local volunteers coming back each day to help with finds processing. We’ve had a core team of local ladies that come back year after year. Being week 1, of course, there isn’t so much to wash yet! What we do have lots of are mesolithic and neolithic flints, with a spread of these flints all over the field that we dig on, Tayne Field. While we don’t have prehistoric archaeological features, we are certainly able to interpret the site as a place frequented by mesolithic peoples who were sourcing flints and perhaps beginning to knap tools before taking them away for further use. The spring located at the head of the valley would have been an excellent source of fresh water for settlement and stopping over for many thousands of years. The Finds team are also hard at work recording the first small finds and other items coming up in the cleaning of the trench.

Emily (left), Rebecca and Ben sorting out finds

Emily (left), Rebecca and Ben sorting out finds

We’ve got lots going on today – even filming! Steve is a local camerman and producer and has generously agreed to help us document the excavation on film. This will be part of the sit archive but could also potentially be used in any future television documentaries. Steve grabs us when we’re not expecting it and gets us to explain what we’re doing to the camera!

Steve films Helen with a find

Steve films Helen with a find

I usually get a bit nervous in front of a camera but it’s all good fun and before you know it you’ve chatted away about an exciting find without worrying about the lens in front of you!

It’s currently the afternoon break and everyone is off site for a well deserved cup of tea. Some great features are coming up and you can see one of the sunken-featured buildings in the photo below, which has been nicely wetted down so you can see the edges. We’re really looking forward to starting to excavated these features as they’re often full of datable finds – certainly those that we’ve found in previous seasons have had fantastic artefacts within them (you can see a few of them at

The rest of the day will be spent finishing the cleaning back, planning, labelling and photographing, to say nothing of the blogging!

Andy cleans back next to one of our SFBs

Andy cleans back next to one of our SFBs, the rectangular dark shape in the foreground

Dis Manibus Sacrum…

Lloyd Bosworth: Archaeology Technician, Classical and Archaeological Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.

My day started like any other day for me. Wake up at 7:30am (ish), make a coffee, put the Today programme on the radio and shamble about the house until the caffeine kicks in. The morning is also when I catch up with the US archaeology blogs that I follow.

Arrival at Work

First order of business is to turn on my workstation and, while that wakes up, make another cup of coffee.

I check my emails.

I’m waiting for a reply from English Heritage to my request for a license to carry out a geophysical survey at Bigbury Camp Iron Age hillfort, near Canterbury. It seems like I’ve been waiting ages for a reply, but it’s really only been two weeks.

This being Friday, my whole day is set aside for working on Professor Ray Laurence and Dr. Francesco Trifilò’s Leverhulme Trust funded research project on age across the Roman Empire.

A Little Background for the Uninitiated

Because Roman law forbade burial within settlements, the roads leading to and from Roman cities were lined with tombs and cemeteries. What may strike us as unusual, or at least unusual to our understanding of modern burial practices, is that the deceased’s age at death was not always recorded on their memorial. This is not to say that this practice was rare, just far from standard across the Empire.

What Ray and Francesco are doing is looking at the ages recorded on memorials and picking up patterns in the overall distribution of the range of chronological age at specific archaeological sites.

My Part In This

This research has produced a unique database containing around 24,000 entries. That’s 24,000 individual burials from across the Roman Empire; each entry recording many different pieces of information about the deceased, including their name, age, memorial inscription, and, in many cases, their social status, too. But this is not the only information recorded, as there is often the same detailed information about the person who erected the memorial.

My part in this is to prepare the database for analysis within GIS (Geographic Information System) software, which can be used to plot density and distribution patterns in the data and display this visually over a map of the Roman Empire.

The database as it stands isn’t suitable for using within GIS, because each entry represents an individual. To be able to plot density based on ages, I’ve been combining entries that share the same age and sex. For example, if there are ten entries from Carthage for females aged 9, it will become one entry for females aged 9 from Carthage, with a total count of ten.

Once the database has been prepared, it’ll be time to start querying the data and plotting density maps to see what the data says about chronological age across the Roman Empire.

While I’ve been working on the database, I’ve also created a website that will host the GIS and tabular data. The GIS server will be able to draw maps based on a user’s query, so that anyone can view the patterns in the data for themselves.

What Does the Data Show

Well, there’s not much I can say about the findings of the study, because, one, it isn’t finished yet, and two, I can’t just spill the beans about it. What I can say, however, is that age data from memorials is not a credible demographic tool. The declaration of age on the memorials appears to conform to the set of key ages which were considered of crucial importance to Roman society. A contemporary example could be the age of retirement as an indicator of the beginning of old age, or the age of 21 as a common indicator of a person’s entry into the world of adulthood.

Children are also poorly represented in the data. But, within this under-representation, there are greater and smaller numbers which may mean something. Roman Law explicitly stated that a child under three years was not permitted a proper funeral, (although simply having a tombstone didn’t necessarily mean that you had had a proper funeral, either). This may sound harsh to us, but, as infant mortality was much higher than it is today, they would have been more used to child death, and so there would be a certain desensitisation over an event that today would be horrific to experience. However, before we condemn Roman parents as monsters, there is a peak in the data for the age of three, which could be showing instances in which the parents lied about the child’s age in order to provide a proper funeral

Final Thoughts

So, working my way through data on 24,000 burials may be quite repetitive and a little morbid, but this kind of information is the bread and butter of archaeology. The repetition does allow time for an inevitable reflection upon life and death, though. I doubt there is an archaeologist who isn’t moved to these same reflections when dealing with data derived from burials. When data like this are analysed, what gets thrown out the other end are impersonal numbers; the reduction of 24,000 lives to a single statistic can’t really get much more impersonal!

But I think it’s impossible to forget that these were real people, as I think this one, randomly selected inscription shows:

[quote style=”boxed”]To the spirits of the dead. Lucius Annius Festus [set this up] for the most saintly Cominia Tyche, his most chaste and loving wife, who lived 27 years, 11 months, and 28 days, and also for himself and for his descendants.[/quote]

Is this really any different to what you’d find on a gravestone today? Lucius was obviously devoted to his wife, and he must have grieved at her passing. You or I would feel no different.

There’s still much work to be done, so I’ll finish this here. Thanks for reading!

A note on the title of this entry:

The phrase ‘Dis Manibus Sacrum’, (often shortened to D.M.S.), is found on many Roman graves. The Manes, to which it refers, were the spirits of the dead, so it can be translated as “Sacred to the Spirit-Gods” or, more loosely, “To The Memory Of…”.

Stock check

I should probably start by introducing myself – I’m Joe Williams, and I’m a PhD student.  I started my research about three months ago, at the University of Kent. My PhD is part of a larger project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, run by Drs Luke Lavan and Ellen Swift. This project is The Visualisation of the Late Antique City, and my contribution will be study of everyday urban artefact assemblages. If this project interests you, keep an eye on its website – at the moment all you’ll see is an “under construction” notice, but I’m gradually putting pages together in breaks from research so there should be more on there in the coming weeks.

Unfortunately for anyone who chooses to read this, the Day of Archaeology happens to correspond with my own “Day of Filing”, so there won’t be any news of fascinating ritual deposits, or any nice pictures (unless anyone really wants to look at a photo of a messy desk, in which case I’ll take one and send it to them). Earlier in the week I was helping out with organising and putting together an inventory of all the equipment stored in university buildings that belongs to the Late Antique Ostia field project, now in its fourth season; today I’m working at home doing a similar thing with the journal articles and other resources that I have on my computer (and as paper copies in folders, laptop bag, rucksacks, left in the printer and anywhere else you care to look). The main task of these first few months has been the literature review, so the hulking mass of things to read constantly threatens to overwhelm me! I’ve built up an extensive bibliography, organised thematically, but now I need to split most of it into two in order to keep works that present data and those that analyse data in separate parts of the essay – which will involve hundreds of quick checks, hence the filing.

The Institute of Classical Studies Library and the internet have been invaluable resources. So far it’s been a case of reading hundreds of abstracts, skim-reading tens of articles, and reading a select few articles in full, in order to have an overview of the relevant scholarship available. A lot of this has already been covered in the bibliographic essays included in Late Antique Archaeology volumes 3.2 and 5, so most of the work I’ve been looking at has been published since 2007. It’s incredible how much of this there is -if I could give one piece of advice to anyone about to start a research degree in September, it would be to pick a logical filing system as early as possible and stick to it! Endnote helps, but it has a few quirks so I find it helpful to arrange everything in such a way that I can find it without having to think up search terms that may or may not lead me to the right thing. Ideally this would be something I do on a daily basis, but of course it isn’t, so I need days like this once in a while to recover articles from the hiding places that seemed perfectly logical when I put them there. Speaking of which, I must get back to doing that.