Landowner trying to save Great Ryburgh from flooding stumbled upon rare Anglo-Saxon graves

Archaeologists from MOLA excavate waterlogged graves at the Wensum Park dig site

Archaeologists from MOLA excavate waterlogged graves at the Wensum Park dig site - Credit: Archant

A landowner trying to protect the nearby village of Great Ryburgh from floodwaters unearthed one of the most significant archaeological finds in Norfolk's history.

Gary Boyce and his family bought a swathe of land straddling the river at Wensum Hill near Great Ryburgh in 2003, building a home and starting a new fishing venture.

But the flood risk to the village became obvious and as custodian of his section of the river, Mr Boyce drew up a scheme of land drainage and a sluice-controlled lake, with protection for a host of native species.

On the very first day of an exploratory archaeological survey, on January 13, the first grave in a cemetery of 81 Anglo-Saxon burials dating from more than 1,000 years ago was discovered. 'On the very first day we started hitting the graves,' said Mr Boyce. 'At that point we realised what we were uncovering was nationally significant. 'We had carried out desktop assessments and got back to around 1400, but there was no documentation evidence whatsoever.'

The decision to continue with the dig has cost Mr Boyce hundreds of thousands of pounds, and delayed the flood alleviation scheme by at least a year. 'I am at the moment around £250,000 down in losses from this and my other business ventures,' he said. 'Because I am the main contractor I have to be on site for health and safety reasons.

'This will hold up the scheme - and rightly so. It has delayed the scheme around a year, but this whole project has been about doing the right thing. The double edged sword is I knew it would put the scheme way behind. 'If we were in a big city flood alleviation schemes would be put in place, and we are just trying our best to protect the village.'

The skeletons will now be analysed over the course of 2017 before being moved to Norwich Castle Museum. The discovery is expected to reveal crucial insight into how the first Christians lived, and died, in the Kingdom of the East Angles.

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Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, who helped fund the dig, said: 'This tells us about the burial rites of this particular community, which was quite a powerful element in their lives. 'Norfolk has a fantastic archaeological record stretching back through history. What is remarkable about this site is it seems to be a complete cemetery, with enough for us to learn a great deal about the individuals who were buried here.'