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Girton Research Fellow, Dr Emma Brownlee, looks beneath our feet!

Emma Brownlee in front of the new exhibition at Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

An exciting new exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge will feature objects from Girton College, and fascinating research by Ottilie Hancock Research Fellow in Archaeology, Dr Emma Brownlee.

‘Beneath our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region’ focuses on specific finds from across Cambridgeshire and the methods archaeologists use to study them. 

The exhibition will feature objects from the Lawrence Room collection, Girton’s very own museum, including a lavish Roman cremation accompanied by pottery and glass vessels, and a carved stone lion head. These objects were excavated in the grounds of Girton in the 1880s from a cemetery containing both Roman and early medieval graves.

L-R: Hexagonal glass cinerary urn, AD 250-350. - Catalogue Number: LR.1027 and Cylindrical glass beaker, AD 101-150 - Catalogue Number: LR.1025.

Now radiocarbon dating undertaken by Dr Brownlee has revealed that the Roman cremation grave is at least a century later than originally thought. This demonstrates continual use of the site for burial from the third century to sixth, across the crucial period when Roman Britain transformed into early medieval Britain.

L-R: Glass dish or bowl, AD 101-150 - Catalogue Number: LR.1026 and Carved head of a lion, c. AD 150 - Catalogue Number: LR.1029

The stone lion head was found at the bottom of a pit also containing human remains and layers of broken pottery and animal remains. Originally interpreted as a rubbish pit which had been reused as a grave, Dr Brownlee’s research suggests it was instead a ritual closure deposit – a way of marking the deliberate decision to abandon the building on the site as the end of the Roman Empire made its upkeep impossible. 

The combination of the redated grave and the reinterpretation of this pit feature shed light on the transitional period between the end of the Roman world and the beginning of the medieval world. They reveal how people managed in a world which was fundamentally changing, but not completely collapsing.

A further aspect of the exhibition focuses on the grave of a young woman buried in a bed in Trumpington in the seventh century. A combination of Dr Brownlee’s research into the bed burial tradition and isotopic work undertaken by Dr Sam Leggett (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Alice Rose (University of Durham) revealed that this woman was an immigrant to Britain, most likely from southern Germany. View Dr Brownlee’s open access research paper on 'Bed Burial in Early Medieval Europe' here.

The exhibition runs from 21 June 2023 to 14 April 2024 and is free entry!

poster for exhibition