Gallery: Casket Girl - the enigmatic maiden of the Suffolk marshes who gives glimpses of Saxon secrets

Archaeological excavations under way in 2013 at Barbers Point, on Suffolk Wildlife Trusts Hazlewoo

Archaeological excavations under way in 2013 at Barbers Point, on Suffolk Wildlife Trusts Hazlewood Marshes nature reserve, near Aldeburgh. - Credit: Archant

From her fragmented bones to the strange items buried with her in a simple wooden box, Suffolk’s ‘Casket Girl’ has retained her mystery for 1,400 years.

Archaeological dig at Hazlewood Marshes, Aldeburgh. Alison Andrews

Archaeological dig at Hazlewood Marshes, Aldeburgh. Alison Andrews - Credit: Archant

John Grant reports on the latest chapter in an archaeologically intriguing story that is, even now, far from finished

The mists of time shroud the secrets of an enduring Suffolk marshland mystery.

In tantalising hints and enticing glimpses, after 1,400 years, four archaeological excavations and countless hours of research and interpretation, a Saxon girl is offering hazy insights into her life and death - and insights into the gradual, stuttering conversion of East Anglia from paganism to Christianity.

But Edwina remains a mysterious, shadowy figure - a girl of some elusive significance but at the same time an enigma of the marshes beside the winding River Alde.

First named Edwina when her grave was discovered during excavations at the remote river promontory known as Barber’s Point on Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Hazlewood Marshes nature reserve, she has also been referred to by archaeologists as “Duck-Egg Girl”, “The Girl with the Casket”, and simply “Casket Girl”.

In her grave - the founding resting place of a cemetery in which 18 other, mostly young, Saxons were buried between about 600AD and 800AD - was a simple box made of field maple wood. This casket, constructed with rudimentary carpentry and iron rings, had no lock. Inside was a collection of unusual and rare objects whose intrigue has fascinated experts.

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The beguiling mystery of “Casket Girl”, her true significance and the importance of the burial place itself, together with the clues they offer about the progression from paganism to Christianity in the region, has been one of Suffolk archaeology’s most captivating stories in recent years. It has now been encapsulated in a new booklet, Life and Death at Barber’s Point - a Saxon cemetery on the cusp of Christianity.

The publication of the booklet follows the most recent excavations at the site, which took place in 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013. The latter was a joint project involving the Touching the Tide Heritage Lottery Funded Landscape Partnership Scheme, Aldeburgh and District Local History Society and Suffolk Archaeology Community Interest Company - formerly Suffolk County Council Archaeology Service.

Written by Suffolk Archaeology project leader Jezz Meredith and Touching the Tide project manager Bill Jenman, the booklet continues the partnership and is dedicated to the memory of local archaeology enthusiast and the main driver for much of the Barber’s Point work Richard Newman, who died last year at the age of 70.

The booklet was launched at a Barber’s Point presentation evening at Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh - the level of local interest in the story of “Casket Girl” being clearly shown in an impressive turnout of about 170 people.

Mr Meredith told them that although there was poor bone preservation in the graves at the site, only three failed to yield skeletal material. Only two graves showed evidence of full adults, who had been elderly women. Three were graves of infants under six, three were of children under 12, two were of unsexed teenagers, two were teenage or young adult males and four were teenage or young adult females.

The first grave to have been created on the site - one that marked the founding of the cemetery - dated to about 600AD. It contained skeletal remains too fragmentary to sex, but the associated artefacts suggested the occupant was a female, initially named Edwina, who had been about 16 when she died.

The casket in her grave contained “intriguing” and possibly symbolic items including what was initially thought to be a duck egg but which was found to be a panther cowrie shell which originated from the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean.

Specialist archaeological consultant Ian Riddler told the audience the linear arrangement of many of the site’s graves was “very rare in an Anglo Saxon context”.

The cemetery’s use over about 200 years for only 19 graves “makes it special” and many of the 14 objects discovered in the founding grave’s casket were “enigmatic.”

“This was a young woman on the threshold of adulthood, buried with the trappings of a young adult woman,” he said.

The objects included six iron rings that would have hung around her person, a key, amber and fossil “keepsakes”, a stone spindle whorl and “the most enigmatic and interesting piece” - a short iron rod with thread twisted around it.

About 30 cowrie shells were known from early Anglo Saxon graves in the UK and would have arrived here through a series of trading exchanges, the last of which were likely to have been through Italy and Germany.

The casket had been covered in at least two textiles - “there may have been a third one underneath and that adds to the enigma,” said Mr Riddler.

“This is the burial of a young girl in a way that, in a sense, shows what was going to happen in the future. Whereas Sutton Hoo marks the end of certain burial ways, this marks the ways that were going to happen,” he added.

“Barber’s Point was obviously a rather special island.”

Archaeologist Dr Richard Hoggett said the “fantastic uniqueness” of Barber’s Point stood it apart from other sites and it was difficult to provide a context for it because “it stands alone” with little to compare it to.

Regional conversion to Christianity “started in earnest” in the “crucial decade” 630AD to 640AD under King Sigeberht, he said.

The Barber’s Point cemetery was “clearly not overtly Christian” but it was established at a time that was heralding the transition to Christianity from paganism and that made it “very unusual”, he added.

As the booklet says, with the earliest Barber’s Point burial dating to AD600 at the latest, “we might be forced to assume that the cemetery at Barber’s Point originated in the pagan period and then, unusually, continues in use during the Christian era.”

Life and Death at Barber’s Point – a Saxon cemetery on the cusp of Christianity is available from Touching the Tide, c/o Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB, Dock Lane, Melton, Woodbridge, IP12 1PE. It costs £2.50, including post and package. Cheques should be made payable to Suffolk County Council.

‘Circle of change’ closes as sea reclaims land where bodies once laid

The intrigue of Casket Girl - how she lived, what her significance to her Anglo Saxon community might have been and what the full importance of the Barber’s Point cemetery was - has been one of the most captivating elements of the Suffolk coast’s wide-ranging Touching the Tide project.

The three-year Heritage Lottery Funded Landscape Partnership Scheme, which ends in 2016, celebrates the uniqueness of the Suffolk coast and aims to increase the understanding of its varied features and the way in which it is being changed by immense forces of nature.

Project manager Bill Jenman told the audience at the Barber’s Point presentation event at Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall that the archaeological project represented a “fine example of what Touching the Tide is all about.”

It had captured the imagination of many people - not least the 140 local schoolchildren who visited the site and helped with the excavations.

Romans had used the site, perhaps only seasonally, to produce salt from the surrounding waters of the River Alde.

Rising sea levels probably made the site uninhabitable for perhaps 100 years before and after the peak levels were reached around 400AD.

Now, he said, the North Sea surge of December 2013 had meant that “after 1,600 years the circle of change is closed” - the surrounding marshes being inundated after river wall breaches.

“This is a good example of the way this very dynamic coast can change,” said Mr Jenman.

The Barber’s Point booklet says that before December 2013 Hazlewood had been the last undrained freshwater grazing marsh on the Alde.

Bought by Suffolk Wildlife Trust in 1991 it was important for nesting species such as lapwing, avocet, redshank and marsh harrier.

Following the tidal surge about one-fifth of the marshes were permanently under water, while most of the rest was covered with every tide. Rebuilding river walls was impractical – “the estuary had reclaimed the land that had been taken from it by medieval ‘improvements’.”

The booklet adds: “Since then the wildlife trust has been working to restore access and ensure that, while the future Hazlewood Marshes may be different, they will still be just as fabulous for wildlife.

“The site will be alive with breeding waders each spring, while all year birds will flock to the new mudflats and saltmarsh to feed.”