Kent Archaeological Review 1967 – The Saxon Cemetery at Polhill, Emergency Excavations by Brian Philp

The emergency excavation sponsored by the KARGC was completed as scheduled early in April (KAR Number 7, page 3). In all another 66 Anglo-Saxon graves were located and examined in detail. The excavation lasted for 21 days during which time a total of 83 archaeologists, drawn from Kent, Surrey and London assisted with the work. The hardcore was supplemented by members from Fawkham, Lower Medway, Reculver, Sittingbourne, Tonbridge and London Field Study groups. Particular thanks are due to all diggers for some very hard work and for the successful outcome of the expedition. The Army authorities, under Major B A Lipscombe, RE, kindly cleared the site and also back-filled on completion of the work. Thanks are also due to Mr A G Laver for permission to excavate without restriction and for his interest in the work.

The site, situated close to the Pilgrim’s Way some three miles north of Sevenoaks, was first discovered in about 1839. Then several skeletons and a number of weapons were uncovered when a road was being cut into the hillside. Another 13 graves were noted in 1956 when the road was widened and 16 more were excavated in 1964 (KAR Number 1, page 2) when the Sevenoaks By-pass scheme began. Other graves have been disturbed at various times. The area to the west of the earlier discoveries is to become part of yet another roadscheme and the emergency excavations were carried out in the hopes that more graves might be saved. The project had the backing of the Ministry of Public Building and Works. After the removal of the top soil from about 2 acres of the site the area was cleaned by hand down to solid chalk into which the graves had been dug. Each grave was then carefully excavated and the skeletons and grave-goods exposed so that a complete photographic record could be made. The contents of each grave were then drawn on the one-inch scale, fully recorded and then removed.

All of the graves were aligned roughly east-west as previously noted. Most of the skeletons lay on their backs with their arms and legs straight and all the heads were at the western ends. The graves had been dug some 3 to 30 inches into the chalk and many formed perfect rectangles with neatly-cut corners though several others were almost ovoid in shape. The spacing of the graves varied between 1 foot and 20 feet. Of the 66 graves located 51 had contained a single skeleton, 14 contained two skeletons and one contained 3. Single burials were the normal practice in Saxon times though occasionally doubles are found, but triples are rare.

Saxon Cemetery at Polhill-grave 95 containing skeletons of adult and child.

Of the doubles 8 contained the skeletons of an adult and a child, but the others all contained the skeletons of two adults. In four of the double graves one of the skeletons was superimposed across the other and must have been inserted at a later date. It seems that all the double graves must represent family burials and from this it seems clear that each grave was marked in some individual way. The triple grave appears to have contained the adult skeletons of a male and two females. Its irregular outline and the arrangement of the bones suggests a hurried burial.

Of the 82 skeletons found 26 appear to be those of children. A study of some of the skeletal remains from the graves found previously on the site showed some interesting statistics. About half of the people represented had died by the age of 30 and the rest mostly between the ages of 40 and 45 with the oldest person being somewhere about the age of 55.

Saxon Cemetery at Polhill-work in progress at the south-west corner of the site.

At the north-west end of the cemetery was a line of five barrows. Four contained single graves and the fifth contained a child’s grave and a large double containing an adult and a child. These graves were encompassed within shallow ditches generally about 12-15ft. in diameter. A narrow causeway had been left on the east sides and doubtless the soil from the ditches had been heaped over the graves to form a low mound. Most of the graves contained grave-goods though none was rich. In the men’s graves were sometimes small iron knives, iron spearheads and sometimes buckles. Only three had contained swords, but no shield-boss was found on the site. The women’s graves often contained iron knives, small beads and bronze rings. One was found to contain a bone comb in a very fragmentary state. Some of the children had also been buried with iron knives. The finds from the cemetery have been tentatively dated to AD 550-650.

It is also clear that several of the graves had originally contained coffins. Slight traces of these were found and in some graves the chalk rubble which had been packed against the coffins remained in place although the coffin had decayed. No iron nails were found and it seems that the wooden coffins must have been secured with wooden pegs.

The cemetery probably served a nearby village, such as Otford, or it may have been used by several scattered communities. Its site on a prominence is typically pagan and the depositing of grave-goods was largely discontinued in Christian times. The community concerned may have been converted to Christianity sometime during the 7th century and subsequent burials may have been made close to the habitation site as in later times. Very seldom have pagan domestic sites been located and it may be that these lie buried beneath existing villages.

The number of graves recorded at Polhill is now 102 and clearly many more have been destroyed. It seems probable that the total number must have been in the region of 150-200 graves. Certainly the cemetery is the largest so far located in West Kent and it compares with some of the very large ones in East Kent. It must have covered some three acres of ground and it is possible that the limits of the site have not yet been found.