It was one of the few places in north London to make it into the Domesday Book. Now Hendon's Saxon past is returning to be pored over by university academics. JULIAN HILLS reports.

They lay undiscovered in the London clay for more than a millennium.

Now signs of a gibbet possibly used in public hangings and the thousand-year-old remains of a man with a severed hand have caught the attention of academics from Birkbeck College more than a thousand years later.

Saxon remains dating from between the sixth and ninth century were all uncovered by the Hendon and District Archaeological Society (HADAS) in the 1970s.

The dig site was the graveyard of St Mary's Church which stands at the highest point of the parish and possibly acted as a focus for public executions in the area.

In fact, the church is believed to be the centre of Saxon Hendon which, along with Hampstead, is one of the few places in north London to be mentioned by the Normans when they surveyed their newly-conquered land in the 11th century Domesday Book.

HADAS member Dorothy Newbury, of Sunningfields Road, Hendon, was one of those involved in the 1974 dig co-ordinated by Ted Sammes.

Mrs Newbury said: "We found post-holes, and we think there could have been a gibbet which they used for hangings."

As well as the skeletal remains found buried in the traditional manner in the church graveyard, the excavators discovered some remains of the less respectable members of society.

"There were some burials outside the churchyard," Mrs Newbury said. "Church burials used to face east to west, but there was one that was not. His hand was cut off and found a few yards from the rest of the arm. He was possibly a sheep thief, but we just don't know."

One expert even offered his help to try to find the cause of death and age of the man, using remains of the skull and teeth, although no firm evidence was found.

The excavators faced regular flooding during the dig,coming in from Church End which bordered the excavation site, which threatened to ruin many of the artefacts.The job was not made any easier by vandals who broke onto the site to destroy the remains of our 'sheep thief' making any further investigation impossible.

HADAS member Stephen Aleck also suggested in 1998 that St Mary's Church was at the centre of an area frequented by Roman sun worshippers, with the name of the hill where the church stands, Sunny Hill and nearby Sunningfields Road giving clues as to the area's origins.

HADAS, along with Birkbeck College, is now looking for students to examine Mr Sammes' findings taken in and around Church Terrace in Hendon in 1974, with a view to discovering more about the area's Saxon past.

The Church Terrace dig has been described by HADAS as one of their most successful, uncovering Roman and Saxon pottery, a valuable Saxon bronze pin and plenty of interesting medieval and post-medieval material.

Mr Sammes wrote an account of his findings in a booklet Pinning Down The Past, focusing on findings dating from the 6th to the 18th centuries, but was never able to publish a full technical report of the excavations.

Three archaeological experts, Roberta Tomber, Louise Rayner and Kim Sadler, will be leading the 15 students on the Birkbeck College course, going through all the material, and preparing it for publication and eventual archiving.

The 28-week course, will run at Avenue House, East End Road, Finchley, taking a much more practical emphasis than most archaeological courses. Mrs Newbury said it was important to record the technical findings of the digs for posterity.

"It will be useful because we have not got anybody technical enough to write up the records," she said.

"Ted Sammes lived in the borough and he was very keen. There was always a dig going on. He thought every minor dig should be written up."

HADAS was set up by Themistocles Constantinides in 1961 with the simple aim of finding and proving the Saxon origins of Hendon.

The society has since expanded its excavations, taking in Edgware, Friern Barnet, Finchley, Chipping Barnet and Hadley, and currently has more than 300 members.

For more information about the Birkbeck College course, go to or write to Zoe Tomlinson, Executive Officer for Archaeology, Faculty of Continuing Education, 26 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DQ.