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How the Lakenheath Warrior found buried with his horse gave up his secrets after 1,500 years





They knew they were on the brink of finding something special. Its size marked it out from the other graves in the Anglo Saxon cemetery … but what lay beneath left archaeologists gazing in wonder.

As the layers of soil - and the centuries - were gently scraped away they found the bones of a man buried alongside his horse.

But what made it even more intriguing was the horse’s bridle - richly decorated and of much higher status than anything else found in the graveyard.

The warrior and horse burial found at RAF Lakenheath
The warrior and horse burial found at RAF Lakenheath

Together in death as they had been in life the Anglo Saxon warrior and his steed had lain beneath the ground for almost 1.500 years. But who was he - and what had he done to earn possession of the gilded bridle?

The discovery 27 years ago of the man now known as the Lakenheath warrior, buried under what was by then a US air force base, made national headlines. It is still one of the most spectacular Suffolk finds from the period, outside of Sutton Hoo.

For Jo Caruth, the archaeologist leading the team, it was a highpoint of a career that has now spanned almost 40 years.

Archaeologist Jo Caruth with the Lakenheath warrior and horse burial in 1997
Archaeologist Jo Caruth with the Lakenheath warrior and horse burial in 1997

The Suffolk County Council experts were investigating the site in advance of planned building work because other Anglo Saxon graves had previously been found in the area.

“In 1997 we had been digging out there for three months before we discovered the horse burial - we had found 100 graves before we discovered him,” said Jo.

“We didn’t understand what we were going to see, but could see it was going to be a bigger burial so we thought it would be something special in that grave. It was hard to believe. It really was exceptional.”

Jo Caruth with the recently published books about the Lakenheath cemeteries
Jo Caruth with the recently published books about the Lakenheath cemeteries

Jo has recently seen the completion of an ambitious 15 year project to record the excavations and objects found in four separate burial grounds in the area.

She is the co-author of a definitive book “The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries at RAF Lakenheath, Eriswell, Suffolk: Excavations 1997-2008” written alongside Professor John Hines from Cardiff University.

But scrolling back to the 1950s a keen amateur archaeologist, Lady Briscoe of Lakenheath Hall, had a key role in identifying the area as an important site.

One of the gilded sections from the ornate bridle found in the Lakenheath warrior and horse burial
One of the gilded sections from the ornate bridle found in the Lakenheath warrior and horse burial

“There have been archaeological discoveries at RAF Lakenheath throughout the 20th century” said Jo, who is now principal post-excavation manager for the Suffolk office of Cotswold Archaeology which does field work on behalf of the county council.

“Grace, Lady Briscoe, was a really important person in our understanding of the history and archaeology of RAF Lakenheath.

“In 1957 she was called in because they were building a new medical centre and saw a burial. In 1959 further burials were discovered.”

A section of the the gilded bridle found at with the warrior and horse burial at Lakenheath
A section of the the gilded bridle found at with the warrior and horse burial at Lakenheath

In 1979, a pipe trench within the airbase revealed the presence of further graves of the Early Anglo-Saxon period. Then in the late 1990s more work was planned which gave archaeologists the chance to return to check the site.

A new dormitory was to be built within 100 yards of the graves found in the ‘50s, and as satellite burials are common it was thought likely more would be discovered. “What we found was a cemetery which turned out to be significantly larger,” said Jo.

Exactly why the warrior, who lived in the late 5th century, was buried the way he was will always be partly shrouded in mystery. His bones, and those of his horse, now lie protected by a glass case in Mildenhall Museum.

A section of the the gilded bridle found at with the warrior and horse burial at Lakenheath
A section of the the gilded bridle found at with the warrior and horse burial at Lakenheath

But they didn’t die in battle. In accordance with beliefs at the time the horse would have been sacrificed at the graveside to accompany its master into the afterlife - which by 21st century standards feels like a brutal reward for possibly years of faithful service.

The warrior was around 5’ 10” tall with muscular build. “There is no evidence as to how he died. He was quite robust - a fine figure of a man, so presumably it was an illness of some description,” said Jo.

“He was buried with a sword and shield and a knife. Also in the grave were a bucket and three cuts of lamb - offerings for the journey to the next life.

Professor John Hines, co author of the book, speaking about the Lakenheath cemetery finds
Professor John Hines, co author of the book, speaking about the Lakenheath cemetery finds

“The horse was sacrificed. There was damage to the skull where it had been poleaxed, and damage to the bridle where it is bent.

“We assume it was alive at the graveside, maybe there was some kind of procession that included the horse wearing its fine harness and possible textiles, coming up to the grave.

“The killing of the horse would be an important part of the burial rite. Poleaxing would most likely have stunned it, then maybe the throat was cut once it was unconscious.

Uncovering the warrior and horse burial found at RAF Lakenheath
Uncovering the warrior and horse burial found at RAF Lakenheath

“Burials with horses are unusual rather than rare. There are a number of horse burials of that age in East Anglia. But it is not that common to have the man and horse in the same grave.

“What was exceptional about this one was partly the condition of the bones because you can see the man and horse so clearly.

“The bridle on the horse's head was gilded copper alloy in lots of different pieces which would have had leather straps between them.

“It was so rare that Angela Evans (famed for her research on the Sutton Hoo burial) who did the analysis thought it was a gift from an overlord to that man. There was nothing of really exceptional wealth in that cemetery except for this bridle.

“There were power struggles and tribal conflicts going on and people might well have been required to go and serve.

“We have done some isotope analysis of these remains and that shows he was born in the local area. He was around 25 to 30, and born around 470 AD. Minerals found in analysis of the teeth indicate where he was born.

“He is culturally entirely Anglo Saxon. There is nothing Romano British in the way he was buried.”

The book gives a detailed picture of life on the Suffolk fen-edge in the early Saxon period and includes new research into glass and metal-working technologies.

“It was quite an undertaking - a collaboration with Professor John Hines who is a total expert on the period. I had the local understanding, and he brought the academic oomph,” said Jo.

“We started doing the analysis in 2009/10. It took six to eight years to do that because many of the items needed to go through several specialists,” said Jo.

“Then we started putting the actual book together in 2019, with a hiatus for Covid. It’s a two volume set - the first is text - analysis and the story it tells us. The second is in two books, the catalogue of finds in one and the pictures in another. It’s an amazing thing to have in your hand.”

There are expert contributions from a number of other specialists. Editing and typesetting were undertaken by East Anglian Archaeology. The book is published by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service and Cotswold Archaeology, and funded by the Ministry of Defence.

Jo began working as an archaeologist in Suffolk in 1985. “Most of my career has been in and around East Anglia,” she said. “I do love my job.

“From the point in 1997 when I was running that particular excavation I became very focused on Lakenheath.

“Over the last 30 years there has been a lot of development at RAF Lakenheath but it’s also a fantastic archaeological site across the whole area.

“Now because we have done so many sites we are joining them up, from Wangford Fen to Lords Walk (estate near Eriswell) at the other end.

“We’ve found evidence of a drove road going back at least 2,000 years - it was probably for bringing animals down from high pasture to the fen edge.

“There had been a history of finding Anglo Saxon burials in the area. And they were redeveloping that part of the base in 1999 and we went back and found dozens more.

“Then in 2001 we went back to the original one from the 1950s and found another 64 Anglo Saxon burials and some Bronze Age.”

The presence of a Bronze Age burial mound would have influenced the Anglo Saxons to identify it as a special spot for them to have their cemetery.

“What was intriguing was that we had three distinct sites all within 70 metres of each other and these were all contemporary so clearly a choice was being made about which one you were buried in.

“We simply can’t know what people were thinking but they are very intriguing questions.

The main burials date from 480 to 670 AD with some from the first quarter of the 5th century.

In all so far the site has yielded 435 burials and nine cremated individuals.

“There were also three men buried with a lyre, who would have been minstrels. They all seem to have lived in different periods, which gives the impression that only one person would fulfil that role at any one time - the man on winter evenings providing the entertainment.

“Musicians and storytellers were the people holding the community together … and maybe telling the story of the man with the horse.

“A third of the graves were under 18s, so there was a high level of mortality, and also a spike in women aged 18 to 25, who would likely have died in childbirth. It would have been a hard life, a rural life. They had to do everything themselves.

“On one of the other cemetery sites we found another burial with a horse, but it had no fancy bridle and the condition of the bones was much poorer - it was slightly later, maybe a generation.

“We have some Anglo Saxon settlements about half a mile to the north and 18 structures identified in different excavations.

“One of the things that has come out of the studies is that there appears to be a dramatic decline in population in the 6th century. From 575-580 AD there were many fewer burials. “Another very small cemetery that starts around 670 AD looks like a direct successor. Many fewer people were living in the area by that time.

“In the middle of the 6th century there were very poor climatic conditions partly down to volcanic eruptions in Iceland, and that would have made life much tougher.

“It’s very low lying. Perhaps it just became a much less pleasant place to live. The last burials were contemporary with West Stow Anglo Saxon site and Sutton Hoo.”

There may be much more to discover in the area from the Bronze Age through the Romans to the Anglo Saxons.

But the archaeologists have to wait for more proposed building before they can move in to investigate as part of the planning process.

“We have to wait for someone to do some development before we can do more excavations,” Jo says.

The book is available, priced £75, online from eaareports.org.uk/publication/report182/