Anglo-Saxon Fen Dwellers

Anglo-Saxon Fen Dwellers | Northern Europe | England | 300-1,000 CE (Early Medieval Period)

While men have stolen the limelight with the spectacular discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial and the heroic exploits of Beowulf, it is a little known fact that Anglo-Saxon women were near equal companions to the males in their lives. There was more equality between the sexes in Anglo-Saxon England than in any other time or place before the modern era. After Christianization beginning in the seventh century, England was the first country to elevate women to sainthood. In addition to traditional roles in cooking, clothing, household management, animal husbandry and agriculture, Anglo-Saxon women excelled at the professions of jester, cupbearer, peace-weaver (diplomat), memory keeper, scribe, painter, jeweler, religious leader (priestess, abbess), healer and herbalist.

The Anglo-Saxons invaded the east coasts and estuaries of England starting in the fifth century. They came, roughly speaking, from Schleswig in northern Germany, on the border with present-day Denmark. They were highly mixed, with many foreign elements, and it did not take them long to blend with the British people, heirs of the former Roman colony. The females from the Fens and, to a lesser extent, the two males in this test demonstrate this diversity and admixture.

A few kilometers from Cambridge, in the east of England, lies the village of Oakington. While evidence of ancient burials in Oakington was first uncovered in 1926, it wasn’t until 1994 that archeological excavation of the site began. By 2014, over 120 individuals had been unearthed: Anglo-Saxon men, women, and a large number of children.

We have ancient DNA samples from four women buried at Oakington near Yorkshire who would have lived in the 5th or 6th century CE. One woman was in her mid 40s; standing around 5’3” she had native British ancestry – probably a descendant of Iron Age Britons. The grave goods that surrounded her suggest that she was wealthy. The other three show mixed or non-British heritage: their clear genetic affinity with Dutch and Danish populations suggest that they, or some of their recent ancestors, were Anglo-Saxon immigrants. When all of these ancient DNA samples are compared to contemporary populations another striking pattern is revealed: the current population of England derives between 25 and 40 percent of its ancestry from Anglo-Saxon migrations. The mtDNA haplogroups of the four samples were U5, H1, and T2a. All three are found throughout Europe today, although T is the least frequent.

At a second site, Hinxton, three female skeletons and two male skeletons were excavated and their remains carbon-dated to between 1215 and 2067 CE, considered Middle Anglo-Saxon. Their mtDNA were H2a2, H1a1, K1a1, and K1a4. The Y-DNA of both males was R1b1a2a1a2. R1b is the most common male haplogroup today in the British Isles.

Code: AFD-6, 7

Ancient DNA Hub Reference: Oakington, Hinxton

Story ID: 10181, 10195

Contributing ancient genomes: 9 (Cyneweard, Ealdgyd, Edelpryd, Elffgifu, Elfflaed, Leofflaed, Mildgyd, Sigeweard, Wassa)

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