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Archaeology and Early History



   Saxon pottery vessels
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The Saxon settlement of Kent began in the first half of the fifth century A.D. One of the earliest Saxon settlements in the area was probably at Darenth. Recent evidence suggests that many of Kent's Saxon settlers were 'boat people' forced by tribal rivalries and natural disasters to flee from their homelands. Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Franks came to Britain. The first settlers to move into Kent came from Jutland. The Jutes settled mainly in East Kent along with tribes from Frisia. West Kent was settled by Saxon tribes and Frankish people. These two groups had been close allies in the late fourth and early fifth centuries A.D. The River Medway acted as a dividing line between the Jutish Kingdom of East Kent and the Saxon Kingdom of West Kent. By the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. these tribal divisions were broken down by inter-marriage and trade, so the resident population became known collectively as 'Anglo-Saxons'.

Saxon objects have been found right in the centre of Dartford as well as in some of the outlying areas. Pottery, coins, jewellery and weapons constitute the most common finds.

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There is very little physical evidence for the existence of Saxon settlement sites near Dartford. The earliest Saxon settlement sites are often found close to former Roman villa sites. Evidence pointing to the remains of a Saxon hut site has been found close to the Franks Hall Roman Villa site at Horton Kirby. A much larger Saxon settlement site was excavated close to Darenth Roman Villa. The central building on this site was a timber-framed structure dateable to the fifth or sixth centuries A.D., comprising at least three bays, with gable ends and a ridged roof. Four small sunken grubenhaus huts were located close to the main building. A later Saxon occupation site was located during excavations at the Welcome Chemical Works in Dartford in 1955. Pottery retrieved from this site has been dated to the seventh century A.D.

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   Riseley beads
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Many of the early Saxon finds and sites in and around Dartford can be identified as 'Frankish'. In other words, the culture of these early settlers was directly influenced by the Franks who were based in the Lower Rhineland and Northern Gaul. The Frankish influence on the culture of Kent was huge in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. Direct political links were established with the marriage of Ethelbert to the Frankish princess Bertha late in the sixth century. The activities of Frankish merchants and traders generated a great demand in Kent for Frankish goods. It is known that many Frankish nobles settled in Kent.

The sheer diversity of luxury grave goods from Frankish cemetery sites throughout the county suggests that Kent in the sixth century must have had a rich and prosperous culture and economy. The Franks brought new trades and crafts with them; soon native craftspeople were copying their products. Glass beakers were made in Kent. Other glassware was imported from the Continent.

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   Darenth Bowl
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One of the most spectacular moulded and decorated Saxon glass bowls (c.450 A.D.) ever found in Britain was found by Dartford archaeologists buried in a 5th century grave in the grounds of the old Darenth Park Hospital. This Christian bowl, 'The Darenth Bowl', dedicated to St. Rufinus of Soissons, shows a high level of craftsmanship in the Frankish tradition and would have been highly prized by its owner. The bowl is currently on display at Dartford Borough Museum.

Kentish jewellery-makers, copying Frankish 'originals', reached an advanced level of skill producing silver square-headed and circular brooches in great numbers. Later in the sixth century A.D., gold became available and magnificent jewellery began to be made from it. Spectacular gold pendants were found in a grave at Horton Kirby near Dartford.

   Saxon brooches
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Once settled in the local community, the Frankish in-comers absorbed elements of native British art into their culture. By the early seventh century A.D., influences from the Jutish Kingdom of East Kent began to creep in and local Frankish Saxons soon adopted the distinctive type of jewellery favoured by the East Kent Saxons.

By the eighth century A.D. all traces of separate Jutish and Frankish cultures had disappeared. The coming of Christianity produced a uniform culture throughout Kent. All local differences in jewellery, pottery, and styles of costume melted away.

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   Saxon burial goods
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Saxon cemeteries are rich in information about the daily lives, culture, possessions and religious beliefs of successive generations of Saxons. Evidence of a small Saxon burial site has been found at Littlebrook near Temple Hill, Dartford. Pottery found in this area has been dated to the seventh century A.D. It is known that in about A.D. 945, Littlebrook was held by Eadric, grandson of Aelfstan. Littlebrook is mentioned in a charter of King Ethelred dated A.D. 995.

A burial site attributed to the Anglo-Saxons was discovered in the nineteenth century on land which formerly comprised the old Manor of Bignores. Excavations on the old National Schools site at West Hill, Dartford, in 1997-8, located a group of over twenty graves which date from the Saxon period. Iron knives were found alongside some of the skeletons.

Anglo-Saxon remains have also been found at Charton Manor Farm, Farningham, near Dartford. Seven burials were located along with associated grave goods which included an urn, iron knife, spearhead, and tall conical shield boss. The site of this small cemetery was in a typical position on the false crest of a ridge of downland overlooking the Darent Valley.


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   Riseley cemetery
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Two of the most important Saxon cemetery sites to have been found in the Dartford area are at Horton Kirby in the Darent Valley. The Horton Kirby cemetery was discovered in 1866 by workmen engaged in digging foundations for the 'Homes for Little Boys. Subsequently, between sixty and seventy graves were located, some of which contained grave goods.

The Riseley cemetery (fifth to seventh centuries A.D.) at Horton Kirby is one of the most important in Kent. The cemetery site was discovered in 1937 when Council workmen were preparing the ground for the construction of Council houses as Saxon Place.

   Saxon burial glass beaker
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An excavation by the Dartford District Antiquarian Society located five cremation and 110 inhumation burials. Over sixty of the graves contained grave-goods. Charcoal was found alongside some of the skeletons, suggesting that burning played a part in the Saxon burial ceremony. Two graves produced animal remains, possibly to provide the dead with a final meal! Large pieces of flint were also found in fifteen of the graves, suggesting that flint was of some sort of religious significance. Three double burials were found at Riseley; two were probably of man and wife, the other of a woman and a child.

The remarkable range of grave goods provides lots of information about daily life in Saxon times. Objects included, swords, spearheads, knives, shield-bosses, brooches, beads, buckles, spindle-whorls, a small wooden bucket, a glass cone beaker and a beaten copper alloy bowl.

   Riseley pendants
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The most outstanding 'find' from the Riseley cemetery site comprirsed a set of four gold pendants, a silver pendant with a decorative glass centre and four amethyst beads which would have been strung together to form a necklace. The amethyst beads would originally have come from Egypt, imported to Britain via the Rhineland where the use of amethyst in jewellery was popular. The gold pendants from Riseley are decorated with a mixture of pagan and Christian motifs; two are decorated with crosses, and one with a pagan motif of a man wrestling two snakes.

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   AngloSaxon burial, West Hill
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The discovery of a Saxon burial site by members of the Dartford District Archaeological Group in the 1990s close to the centre of Dartford has provided some information about the people who lived in Saxon Dartford. The small cemetery was discovered on the site formerly occupied by Holy Trinity School at West Hill, Dartford. A major excavation of the site was undertaken by Archaeology South East in July 1997.

Excavations at West Hill revealed twenty-five burials. The graves, cut directly into chalk, were quite evenly spaced, and aligned East-West in four north-south rows. The majority of graves were occupied by one skeleton. One grave contained the body of a woman and an infant. Archaeological evidence suggested that both shrouds and coffins were used for burial. Traces of copper alloy shroud pins were found in some graves. Dark soil stains on site showed where coffins had been positioned. For the majority of burials the arms were placed down by the sides of the body.

Fifteen of the burials were accompanied by grave-goods which included knives, iron buckles, a pair of shears, a key, an iron axe (seax) and a pin. Analysis of the bones retrieved from the site showed that Dartford's Saxon population suffered from a number of diseases including curvature of the spine, rickets and osteoarthritis. Animal bones and molluscs present in the soil provided valuable information about the local diet and domesticated animals. These included bones of cattle (31%), sheep (52%), cat (5%), horse (7%) and fish (5%). Oyster, mussel and cockle shells were also identified.

Archaeologists have concluded that the Saxon cemetery site at West Hill probably dates from the eighth century A.D. and that the burials mark a transition from pagan to Christian beliefs. The presence of grave goods suggest a pagan origin for the graves. However, the consistent East-West orientation of the graves suggests Christian beliefs. Late Pagan/Early Christian Saxon cemeteries tend to be positioned near to settlements. It is probable that Dartford's earliest Saxon 'village' was sited on the slopes of West Hill, but by later Saxon times the focus of the settlement had moved downhill closer to the River Darent, adjacent to a newly-built late-Saxon church or chapel (later occupied by Holy Trinity church).

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