Plan of the Walkington Wold burials.
The Walkington Wold burials
in the East Riding of Yorkshire
skeletal remains of 13 individuals from the Anglo-Saxon
period, discovered in the late
1960s. Subsequent examinations have concluded that
they were decapitated Anglo-Saxon criminals, the only such burial
discovered in Northumbria.
Archaeologists Rod Mackey and John Bartlett
discovered the burials while excavating the Bronze Age barrow at
Walkington Wold, about 2 km west of the Yorkshire village of
Walkington, from 1967 to 1969.
Walkington Wold skeletal
The site was known in local folklore as
Hell’s Gate. Twelve skeletons were unearthed, ten without heads, as
well as eleven crania
. All were buried
randomly, the crania well away from the bodies. Some of the crania
were found at the centre of the barrow mound, while the bodies were
all located at its skirt. Theories of their identity included
victims of a late
masacre, Anglo-Saxon executions, or even a Celtic
skeletons were re-examined by archaeologists Jo Buckberry from
University and Dawn Hadley from Sheffield University (Buckberry &
It was revealed that 13 individuals were
unearthed in the late 1960s, all males between 18 and 45. According
to radiocarbon dating
range from as early as the mid-seventh to as late as the early
eleventh centuries. Examination of the skeletons revealed that
their owners were subjected to judicial execution by decapitation,
one of which required several blows. Furthermore, the heads were
probably displayed on poles as warnings to others. This was a known
practice in Anglo-Saxon England. The burial site is ideally
situated for public display on a rise by a road. The absence of
jawbones from most of the skulls suggests that they fell off as the
heads decomposed on the poles.
The crimes of the men are unknown, owing to the lack of any
associated documentation. The burial site is between the defunct
village of Hunsley
and Walkington, at the
boundary of the hundreds
of Welton and
Cave. The use of an ancient barrow site situated on the boundaries
between communities indicates that the executed were excluded from
the community, even in death. The name Hell’s Gate may be a memory
in local folklore of the site of the executions and head poles
Wold is unique as the only known dedicated execution burial from
the Anglo-Saxon period north of the Humber.
Walkington Wold excavation site.
is one of the few such sites excavated recently, using modern
methods of reporting and preservation. The site contributes to
evidence that such execution cemeteries were in use over a long
time, being established long before their first documentation in
the tenth century (Hadley & Buckberry, 2005: 130), as well as
that men, rather than women, tended to be executed for crimes in
late Anglo-Saxon England. It also shows a continuity over a period
which includes the upheavals of Danish invasion and settlement.
- Buckberry, J.L. & Hadley, D.M. 2007 “An Anglo-Saxon
Execution Cemetery at Walkington Wold, Yorkshire” Oxford
Journal of Archaeology 26(3), 309–329. 
- Hadley, D.M. & Buckberry, J.L. 2005 “Caring for the Dead in
Late Anglo-Saxon England”, in Tinti, F. (ed) Pastoral Care in
Late Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: Boydell),
- Mackey, R.W. 2006 "Walkingon Executions Re-dated" East
Riding Archaeological Society Newsletter 2 November.
- Wood, Alexandra. 2007 “Grisly discovery of headless bodies
gives insight into justice Saxon style” Yorkshire Post 31
- Bailey, G.B. 1985 "Late Roman Inland Signal Station, or Temple?
Functional Interpretation at Walkington Wold." Yorkshire
Archaeological Journal 57, 11-14.
- Bartlett, J.E. & Mackey, R.W. 1973 "Excavations at
Walkington Wold, 1967-1969." East Riding Archaeologist
- Buckberry, J. L. 2008. "Off with their heads: The Anglo-Saxon
execution cemetery at Walkington Wold, East Yorkshire". In E.
Murphy (ed.) Deviant burial in the archaeological record.
(Oxford: Oxbow), 148-168
- Reynolds, A. 1997 "The Definition and Ideology of Anglo-Saxon
Execution Sites and Cemeteries" in De Boe, G. & Verhaege, F.
(eds) Death & Burial in Medieval Europe (Zellick:
Instituut voor het Archeologisch Patrimonium), 33-41.