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An amazing Roman/Anglo-Saxon burial (5th century AD)


In 1980 Archaeologists discovered something extraordinary in the heart of Canterbury. To this day, they have not solved the mystery . . . Can you solve it? 

A 5th century burial in Canterbury

Wingham is a winner! 

How a Year 5 class attempted to solve the mystery

Extract from the Kentish Gazette, May 1999: 

Making no bones about £100 prize

Children from Wingham Primary School dug deep into their imaginations to try to uncover an unsolved mystery. Their efforts have won them 1st prize in a competition organised by Canterbury Archaeological Trust. The pupils were some of the many who visited ‘Smelly Bits and Skeleton Pits’, an exhibition at the Royal Museum, Canterbury, during National Science Week. They had to write a convincing story around the discovery of the skeletons of a man, woman, two children and a dog made by archaeologists in Beer Cart Lane, Canterbury in 1980. Their teacher, Helen Conder, said: ‘It really was a team effort. Groups of children came up with ideas about what had happened and then these were edited by other children until finally they created a plausible story that they were happy with. The activity was organised by Suzanne Hilton, a student on teaching practice with us from Christ Church University College. She was really pleased when she heard the children had won 1st prize.’

Class 5 methodically went through the evidence, formulated ideas and finally composed a story.
Here it is:

The Unsolved Mystery

There was a noble Roman family living in Canterbury around the fifth century A.D. The family consisted of a father, Ithacus a mother, Scorpina, two daughters, Madria and Rosina and Sparticus, a son of sixteen who was away fighting for the Empire. There was also another member of the family, Canem the dog. 

Scorpina was busy cutting up the last scraps of the lamb with a knife that was on a chain around her waist. She kept her front door key on this chain as well. The children were very hungry. They went out to play whilst she cooked. 

They were playing with their marbles and Rosina was winning by IX points. Suddenly, the marbles began to roll around. The fence was smashed down and, storming in, came a herd of Anglo Saxons, armed with axes and swords. Their faces looked angry and mad, their teeth were gritted in an angry grimace. 

As the children screamed, Canem came out. One of the warriors lashed out viciously and caught the dog. He was too weak to survive the blow. The children ran up to the Anglo Saxons and started beating them with their fists. The attackers pushed them to the ground and started whipping them. Their mother heard the screams and came rushing out to them. She saw the men attacking her children and tried to defend them. 

The family, shivering with fear, were huddled in a corner in the garden when the father appeared and surprised the attackers. The father’s eyes were filled with terror and hate as he brandished his knife to defend his family but he was soon overpowered. The family had scarcely got to their feet when the Anglo Saxons lunged at them viciously with daggers, stabbing them fatally. 

That very evening, Sparticus came back to find his family butchered. Sparticus was filled with anxiety and hatred and wanted revenge. He looked around and found an Anglo Saxon sword laying on the grass near his father. Weeping bitterly, he picked up the sword and examined it, then threw it against the wall, bending it in two. 

With tears streaming from his eyes and a heavy heart, he dug a pit and gently laid his family, Canem, the dog and their possessions in it. Just as he finished this gruesome task he heard, in the distance, the voices of drunken Anglo Saxons. He knew then, that if he didn’t make his escape, he could never avenge his family’s death.

. . . . . . . . .


In 1980 archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery in the heart of Canterbury. The excavation took place within the junction of Beer Cart Lane and Castle Street in advance of redevelopment. The site lay behind the property currently occupied by Kent Social Services. What they found has not been paralleled anywhere else in the country . . .

By class Five, Wingham Primary School.

This is how the Wingham children approached the task of composing a plausible story. 

NB. For the purposes of the competition, teachers had been sent the coloured picture and a summary of the evidence for the burial. This included information about skeleton identification which, in this website version, is found in the Teachers Notes

1. Children each had a copy of the information about the burial. The teacher had underlined unfamiliar words.

2. Children individually read through the information, looking up any words they didn’t understand in a dictionary. They then read it through again.

3. They worked individually on a comprehension exercise related to the information.

Here is the comprehension exercise. In brackets are Timothy Elton’s responses. Timothy is a Year 5 pupil. 

The Text


i) Are there any words which you are uncertain of? If yes, use a dictionary to look up the definitions.
(gender and civic.)

ii) In what year was the extraordinary discovery found?
(The bones were excavated in 1980.)

iii) How many people were found in the grave?
(Four were found.)

iv) What are we able to say about these people? Take one skeleton at a time and use the text carefully.
(One adult was a male between the ages of 30 and 40. The other adult was a female between 35 and 45. She wore jewellery so she could have been wealthy. One child was about eleven, the other was about eight. They were both probably girls. They probably all died of a disease that attacked their organs and tissue but did not effect their bones.)

v) What other things did the archaeologists find in the grave?
(The archaeologists also found a dogs skeleton, 2 bronze keys, a pair of bronze cosmetic tweezers and some glass amber beads.)

vi) By looking at the skeletons how are we able to determine gender?
(To look at the skull and pelvis. The male skull has a ridge where the eyebrows were. The females pelvis is shaped for childbirth.)

vii) Briefly use the text to explain what Canterbury was like at the time that these people were buried.
(It was full of famine and disease and very insecure when Roman rule came to an end.)

viii) Why is there no physical sign of the cause of death?
(Because the bones haven’t been snapped of shattered.)

Your ideas. How can we explain the burial? 

a) Who were these people?
(They were probably a rich family because they owned jewellery.)

b) Why were they buried here?
(They were probably living in Canterbury at the time they died and it might have been their home that they were buried near. Roman rule was failing so they weren’t buried in the cemeteries outside the town.)

c) What was the cause of death?
(It was probably a disease that only damaged the tissue and organs like smallpox.)

d) What was their relationship to each other?
(The adults were probably married and the girls were their children.)

e) How did they all end up in one grave?
(There were probably so many deaths at the time they were buried together. It may have meant that they all died at the same time. The dog may have been their pet so it was buried with them.)

f) Who buried them?
(They were probably buried by friends and family because their belongings weren’t stolen.)

4. Working now in groups, they considered the evidence for each skeleton. Each group made notes on a master sheet.


Skeleton 1


Skeleton 2


Skeleton 1


Skeleton 2

5. Again in groups, they discussed their ideas about how the skeletons ended up in the pit.

Each group recorded its theories on a master sheet.

How did the skeletons end up here?

What were they doing before they died?

How did they 

Skeleton 2

6. A team of ‘editors’ collated the ideas and used them as a basis for the first draft of the story ‘An Awesome Discovery’.

7. This was then refined for the final version.

Wingham winner
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