In the late fifth to early sixth century, Lakenheath’s residents witnessed a grand and unusual burial as a man of considerable importance was laid to rest alongside his horse.
Although it was not unheard of for an Anglo Saxon man to be buried in this way, what was unusual was the richly ornate gilded bronze and applied silver bridle that adorned this animal.
It was in 1997 that archaeologists found what has come to be known as the Lakenheath Horse and Warrior – a discovery of national importance.
This week, the Lakenheath man and his horse were returned to the landscape they would have known and worked 1,500 years ago and put on display in Mildenhall Museum.
Leading the dig in 1997 was Jo Caruth, senior project officer for Suffolk County Council.
She and her team had been digging on the site at RAF Lakenheath for three months and found 150 Anglo Saxon burial plots before they came across the warrior.
She said: “We could see what looked like a really big grave and it looked like it had a ditch encircling it. We were excited, we thought this is going to be the best grave on the site.
“I put Jonathan Van Jennians on to it and he started digging it out in the normal way. Much higher in the grave than we expected we found this really large bone. To start with we could not think what it was. It was clearly not human because it was far too big then we saw this really nice bit of gilded bronze.”
Further excavations slowly revealed a man buried alongside his horse.
Jo said: “The horse had a bridle on its head when it was buried. That made it an absolutely exceptional find.”
The discovery attracted international attention with more than 2,000 people descending on Lakenheath in the following three weeks.
After 16 years, archaeologists are able to paint a picture of the society this Lakenheath man would have lived in.
In the Anglo Saxon period much of the infrastructure brought to East Anglia by the Romans had fallen into disuse and the day-to-day life of the settlement is likely to have been focused on working the land and looking after livestock.
Despite being known as a warrior due to his mode of burial, there is little evidence of intense fighting during the period and little trauma was seen on the bones of those unearthed at Lakenheath.
The warrior himself died of natural causes aged about 30 following which the horse, aged five or six-years-old, was sacrificed to be buried alongside him. A large man for the period, 5ft 10in tall and well built, he was not of royal birth but would have been a leader of his community.
His position raises questions about the presence of the bridle which is considered too grand an object to have come into the warrior’s possession through circumstance alone.
Jo said “It’s definitely decorated for show, to look beautiful and to say the person who has this is important.
“The bridle is quite an extraordinary find in the context of what appears to be a fairly standard Anglo Saxon settlement. The bridle is exceptional and it appears to be slightly out of keeping with everything else that’s coming out of the site.”
Jo said an explanation may be that the bridle was gifted to the man – possibly in recognition for an act or service.
Archaeologists are still completing tests and analysis on the bones and objects found at Lakenheath and information about the settlement continues to come to light. The make-up of indigenous people and invading Anglo Saxons may soon be known along with more information about their diet and marriage practises.
Jo describes discovering the warrior as a ‘once in a career’ moment and it is a coup for Mildenhall Museum to have secured its return.
Jo said: “We are absolutely delighted that it has come back to Mildenhall a lot of the work that’s been done has been done by the British Museum and they’ve given their time for free and been fantastically supportive.
“It’s so fantastic that it’s coming back and it’s not just that it will be in a provincial museum and that people in a provincial town can go and see something this spectacular, it’s that he is coming back to within a very few miles of where he lived.
“He’s coming back to where he came from and the people who live around here will be able to see someone who, you never know, may be one of their ancestors.”