The burial site sits atop a hill with impressive views of the surrounding Thames Valley in Berkshire, west of London. It’s exactly the kind of place that someone might imagine would be the burial place of a magnificent warrior or perhaps even a king.
However, the ancient burial beneath this hilltop went virtually undisturbed until 2018 when a couple of metal detectorists, Sue and Mark Washington, found themselves drawn there irresistibly by a series of tantalising signals on the metal detectors during two previous visits.
“On the two earlier visits I had received a large signal from this area which appeared to be deep iron and most likely not to be of interest,” Sue Washington said. “However, the uncertainty preyed on my mind and on my next trip I just had to investigate, and this proved to be third time lucky!”
What Sue discovered were two bronze bowls, but she quickly recognised their antiquity and, along with her colleagues from the Maidenhead Search Society metal detecting club, reported the find to authorities, who in turn called in an archaeological team from nearby Reading University.
Call it luck or intuition, the result, announced just days ago by Reading University in Berkshire, was the discovery of one of Britain’s richest Dark Ages burial sites, a site with so many archaeological riches that many experts believe it will reshape our understanding of southern Britain during the enigmatic early Anglo-Saxon era.
What the archaeologists found at the site was an almost perfectly preserved burial site of a sixth-century warrior who, from the richness of his possessions, must also have been a high-status warlord who is now known as the ‘Marlow Warlord”.
In life, this warrior stood more than six feet tall at a time when most men were at least six to eight inches shorter and was buried alongside an extensive and expensive array of luxurious good and weapons, both remarkable and rare for the time.
These goods included a long sword, itself a clue to the owners’ high status, along with an ornate scabbard, several spears, bronze bowls, and glass vessels along with a dazzling array of personal items.
The burial was at a very shallow depth, making the excavation crucial to protect it from farming activity.
“We had expected to find some kind of Anglo-Saxon burial, but what we found exceeded all our expectations and provides new insights into this stretch of the Thames in the decades after the collapse of the Roman administration in Britain,” says Dr Gabor Thomas, a specialist in early medieval archaeology at the University of Reading.
“This the first burial of its kind found in the mid-Thames basin, which is often overlooked in favour of the Upper Thames and London. It suggests that the people living in this region may have been more important than historians previously suspected.
“This guy would have been tall and robust compared to other men at the time and would have been an imposing figure even today. The nature of his burial and the site with views overlooking the Thames suggest he was a respected leader of a local tribe and had probably been a formidable warrior in his own right.”
The early Anglo-Saxon period was one of great change in England with significant levels of immigration from the continent and the formation of new identities and power structures in the vacuum created by the collapse of the Roman administration around 400 AD.
Around a century later – the period in which the Marlow Warlord lived – England was occupied by local tribal groupings, some of which expanded into Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as Wessex, Mercia and Kent and, later, the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia.
The region of the mid-Thames between London and Oxford was previously thought to be a ‘borderland’ in this region, with powerful tribal groups on each side. This new discovery suggests that the area may have hosted important groups of its own. It is likely that the area was later squeezed out or absorbed into the larger neighbouring proto kingdoms of Kent, Wessex, and Mercia.
A team involving archaeologists from the University of Reading and local volunteer groups carried out a two-week excavation of the site in August 2020 with the permission of the landowner. This activity included a geophysical survey, test excavations, and full excavation of the gravesite.
The sword found buried with the Marlow Warlord was sheathed in an exceptionally well-preserved scabbard, making it one of the best-preserved sheathed swords known from the period. The scabbard is made of wood and leather with decorative bronze fittings, spears, bronze and glass vessels, dress-fittings, shears, and other implements.
These objects are being conserved by Pieta Greaves of Drakon Heritage and Conservation. Further analysis of the human remains will be carried out at the Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, to help determine the man’s age, health, diet, and geographical origins.
Michael Lewis, Head of the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, said: “This is a great example of archaeologists and metal-detectorists working together. Especially important is the fact that the finders stopped when they realised, they had discovered something significant and called in archaeological assistance. By doing so they ensure much more could be learnt about this interesting burial.”
Michael Lewis, Head of the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, says: “This is a great example of archaeologists and metal-detectorists working together. Especially important is the fact that the finders stopped when they realised, they had discovered something significant and called in archaeological assistance. By doing so they ensure much more could be learnt about this interesting burial.”
The team are now hoping to raise funds to pay for further conservation work to allow some of the finds to go on display to the public at the Buckinghamshire Museum in 2021.
To donate, visit https://reading.hubbub.net/p/marlowwarlord