Nydamboat from Gottorp Castle c. AD 310 - 20. The construction of this boat is similar to that which was used at Sutton Hoo. © Gottorp Castle

Hoch and his family in Oakington

On the edge of the Fenlands an Anglo-Saxon man named Hoch built a farm sometime in the 5th century. We know a lot about his family and descendants because their burial ground in Oakington has been carefully excavated.

Hoch? Grave of a man with broken arm and wounds from fighting © Bones without Barriers
Hoch? Skeleton of a man with broken arm and wounds from fighting © Bones without Barriers

Some time in the 5th century an Anglo-Saxon man called Hoc rowed slowly up the Great Ouse before continuing down the river Cam to the area just North of Cambridge. Perhaps he would have been standing tall in the backstern gazing around for a good landing spot; Hoch in Old High German means ‘high’. In his boat would be his sons, their wives and children plus all their worldly goods.

Probably, Hoch may not the first. Along the Great Ouse and further into the area around Cambridge, a number of place-names still tell the story about Hoc and his friends: Arn, Icl, and all the others who settled here in the 5th and 6th centuries.

We know this, because the name Oakington is a compound of the personal name ‘hoc’ and the two suffixes ‘-inge’ and ‘-tun’ literally meaning the homestead of Hoc and his people (inge); as is nearby Arrington and Icleton. Perhaps nearby Conington should even be understood as the seat of the Anglo-Saxon ‘kuning’ that is the king and his seat. Later, though, the local kings were said to descend from Icls (founder of Icleton). It might be, though, that the man from Conington was just called Koni, meaning fierce and mean. Other names of nearby sites were construed in the same way: Barrington, Impington and partly Longstanton.

At that time Hoch’s tun would be located right at the ridge of the Fenlands. This would have provided access to prime grazing in the fens as well as transport along the waterways. Most important for him would be to have his boat nearby; whether a rowing boat or a stolen Roman vessel carrying sails, it would be his singular most valuable treasure. To be guarded and cherished. It is probable that he would have built a nearby landing-place at Westwick Bridge, where the Oakington and Back Brooks would converge, and where he might anchor it up. Today the main street is called Church Street, while the lower street is simply called ‘Water Lane’. At first, the family probably lived off eels, other fish and fowls, but later they would acquire cattle and set up a proper farm.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Names constructed of name plus -inge plus -tun

The Dead from Oakington

We don’t know much about how the people in Hoc’s place lived. Remains of their houses have not been found. Presumably, though, they built the usual small ‘grubenhäuser’, which they had known from home. Another option was of course they started out by expelling the locals in order to take over the place. However, this is perhaps – in view of the evidence – not very likely.

Already in 1920, archaeologists discovered the first graves in the burial ground in Oakington. Since then, excavations have continued to yield information about the early medieval lives of the people, who lived there. All-in-all, more than 200 graves have until now been excavated (many still unreported).

Some of these individuals have become quite famous.

Grave 81 in Oakington. Cow with a Lady. © Bones without Barriers
Grave 81 in Oakington. Cow with a Lady. © Bones without Barriers

Here is for instance the woman from grave 18, who lived a healthy and well-fed childhood until leprosy left her face an infected and discharging horror. After her death she was laid to rest with a particularly impressive collection of treasures: a pair of small brooches, a belt set, an ivory bag-ring, a set of keys and a necklace consisting of 54 amber-beads.

Or to name a second: the woman (skeleton 57) who died while giving birth and whose foetus was found lying transverse across her abdomen. Lacking teeth and obviously used to very heavy work, she was nevertheless laid to rest in a full dress held together with a cruciform brooch and two small brooches. The archaeologists estimate her ensemble of grave-goods to be among the three most wealthy in Oakington. Yet, she was buried at the periphery of the burial ground. Probably this signifies her status as liminal – a mother to be, and yet dead.

A third individual was a 45-year old man buried in grave 64 together with a spear and a knife. He had obviously lived a violent life. At some point his spine had suffered a trauma, which had resulted in bony growth in the lower part. This older would would have caused him considerable pain and would have made him slightly immobilised. His most recent wounds belonged to his forearm, which was fractured a both at the radius and the ulna. This is a classic site for defensive wounds and the archaeologists have concluded than when he grew old, he was no longer able to wield his weapons in combat.

Finally, in 2012 the so-called “Cow-Lady” was found. Her costume was fastened by two small silvered brooches, and she also wore several necklaces of beads and a belt hanger set from which a bunch of keys were dangling. Judging form the assemblage she was estimated to have been buried around AD 500. Quite enigmatically and uniquely for Europe, she was also buried together with a small cow. Two more graves with buried animals have been found, but these are with horses.

Ancient DNA

Recently, four of the individuals from the burial ground in Oakington had their Ancient DNA studied. This showed that the people were genetically mixed. Two individuals (5th century) had genetic profiles, which were consistent with a recent immigrant profile close to modern Dutch, while the third was an admixed person and the fourth was genetically similar to the Iron Age samples (and thus ‘British’).

Despite this, their graves were conspicuously similar. All four persons were reported as having been buried in a flexed position and with similar grave-furnishings. Interestingly enough the wealthiest grave belonged to the woman of British descent sporting a large cruciform brooch together with a smaller long brooch, an iron buckle, a knife and an amber-bead; the individual who had been laid to rest without any grave-goods was one of the ‘foreigners’. Once again, detailed analysis of the individuals found in burial grounds from the migration period show that the adoption of the new artistic forms, which settlers are believed to have brought along from northwestern Germany/southern Denmark provided the old inhabitants with the possibility of trying out something new. The study, unfortunately, does not tell us whether the famous “cow-lady” was included in the analysis; (In fact, we are not told who the four individuals were).

However, while the four individuals from Oakington were of mixed heritage, this was not the case with three individuals from nearby Hinxton from AD 666 – 881, who showed a more consistent “immigrant” profile with yet again, Dutch affiliation. But these might simply be later immigrants.

The conclusion is that while a mapping of place-names in the Fens might show a slight clustering of Anglo-Saxon names, these places were not turned into ‘gated communities’. The Anglo-Saxon immigrants mixed both blood and culture with the ancient British people. It seems, that the Fenlands were for a long time a humming beehive of mixed things, tongues and people.

In fact, based on this material, the scientist, who carried out the sequencing of the genomes and the comparison with modern individuals, found that on average the modern East English population derives 38% of their ancestry from Anglo-Saxon immigrants. Which means that the adoption of the newcomer’s language and culture were perhaps initially just a reflection of the fact that the British people were used to accommodate strangers.At this point the archaeologists believe that the cemetery hosted the dead from a small hamlet with between two or three families.

Hardened Cultural Stance

Later, when more powerful polities were in the crucible and with the help of the budding Christian church, a particularly hegemonic culture – the Anglo-Saxon flourished. From this period we have a unique source – the Vita of St. Guthlac  – written c. 740. Guthlac was of royal Anglo-Saxon heritage; in fact he is claimed as a descendant of the royal stirps of Iclingass, whom we first met as hypothetical founder of Ickleton, ten km south form Oakington.

According to the fancyful royal genealogies written down in the 8th century, the Iclingas were a dynasty of kings of Mercia named from Icel, who was said to be great-grandson of Offa of Angel, a semi-legenday figure, who was in turn said to be considered a dscendant of Woden. Wahtever the truth behind this wonderful spin, it is a fact that Guthlac in his performance as saint fought three battles with vile and violent British-speaking demons, which he was only able to master by performing by quoting biblical psalms in Latin.

It is at exactly at this point in time the archaeologists believe that Oakington changed shape and turned into an enclosed “manorial” settlement complete with its first church; although never excavated, we are allowed to believe the first early Anglo-Saxon church was build at some point during this period.

Oakington in the time of the Doomsday Book (1086) was still recorded under the name Hockinton. However, At this time there were 30 villagers working 12 ploughlands. To this should be added 4 ploughlands belonging to the manor, who also had access to meadows worth 2 ploughs. Compared to this, the local vicar had access to 0.1 ploughland. Each peasant worked between 0.5 and 0.75 ploughlands, but the village also included six small-holders and 10 cottages. To this should be added three slaves, who obviously worked on the manor. The main landholder was Crowland Abbey.

Interestingly, enough Longstanton was not listed in 1086. Presumably this settlement in the silted fen had at this point been deserted and its land was worked by Oakington.


Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon genomes from East England reveal British migration history
By Stephan Schiffels, Wolfgang Haak, Pirita Paajanen, Bastien Llamas, Elizabeth Popescu, Louise Loe, Rachel Clarke, Alice Lyons, Richard Mortimer, Duncan Sayer, Chris Tyler-Smith, Alan Cooper & Richard Durbin
In: Nature Communications (2016) Vol 7

Anglo-Saxon Oakington: cemetery, settlement and life adjoining the East Anglian Fens.
By D. Mortimer, R. Sayer and , F. Simpson
In Current Archaeology (2011) vol 260.

Bones without Barriers – the Oakington Excavation

Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400–1070
by Robin Fleming
Allan Lane 2010


DNA secrets from Anglo-Saxon burial site
Interview with Dr Richard Durbin, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute & Richard Mortimer, Oxford Archaeology East.


Crowland Abbey © Rex SlyeMedieval Fenlands

Culture and Identity in the Early medieval Fenlands

Saint Guthlac and Crowland Abbey


Nydam-boat from Gottorp Castle c. AD 310 – 20. The construction of this boat is similar to that which was used at Sutton Hoo. © Gottorp Castle













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