Archaeologists excavating an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Cambridgeshire say the discovery of a woman buried with a cow is a “genuinely bizarre” find.
The grave was uncovered in Oakington by students from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. At first it was thought the animal skeleton was a horse.
Student Jake Nuttall said: “Male warriors might be buried with horses, but a woman and a cow is new to us. We were excited when we thought we had a horse, but realising it was a cow made it even more bizarre.”
Co-director of the excavation, Dr Duncan Sayer, from the University of Central Lancashire, said: “Animal burials are extremely rare, anyway. There are only 31 horse burials in Britain and they are all with men. This is the first animal to be discovered with a woman from this period – the late 5th Century – and it’s really interesting that it’s a cow, a symbol of economic and domestic wealth and power.
“It’s also incredibly early to find any grave of a woman buried with such obvious wealth.”
The skeleton was found with grave goods including brooches and hundreds of amber and decorated glass beads.
“She also had a complete chatelaine [keychain] set, which is an iron girdle and a symbol of her high status,” Dr Sayer said. “It indicates she had access to the community’s wealth.
She is almost certainly a regional elite – a matriarchal figure buried with the objects that describe her identity to the people who attended her funeral.”
Joint director Dr Faye Simpson, from Manchester Metropolitan, said: “A cow is a big thing to give up. It’s a source of food and something that would have been very expensive to keep, so to sacrifice it would be a big decision.
“They would have wanted to give her something really important to show respect and they wouldn’t have done that for just anybody. That’s why we don’t find cows with burials,”
Dr Sayer added: “The cow burial is unique in Europe which makes this an incredibly exciting and important find. I don’t think I’ll find anything as significant as this again in my lifetime.”