Burial in Early Anglo-Saxon England
Burial in Early Anglo-Saxon England refers to the grave and burial customs followed by the Anglo-Saxons between the mid 5th and 7th centuries CE in Early Mediaeval England. There was "an immense range of variation" of burial practice performed by the Anglo-Saxon peoples during this period, with them making use of both cremation and inhumation. In most cases, the "two modes of burial were given to both wealthy and ordinary individuals", and in many cases were found alongside one another in the same cemetery. Both of these forms of burial were typically accompanied by grave goods, which included food, jewellery and weaponry. The actual burials themselves, whether of cremated or inhumated remains, were placed in a variety of sites, including in cemeteries, burial mounds or, more rarely, in ship burials.
Within the areas of Anglo-Saxon settlement, there was both regional and temporal variation while burial practices. The early Anglo-Saxons were followers of a pagan religion, which is reflected in their burials from this time, while they later converted to Christianity in the seventh and eighth centuries CE, which was again reflected in their burial practices, when cremation ceased to be practiced and inhumation became the sole form of burial, typically being concentrated in Christian cemeteries located adjacent to churches.
In the eighteenth century, antiquarians took an interest in these burials, and began excavating them, although more scientific excavation only began in the twentieth century with the development of archaeology. Prominent Anglo-Saxon burials that have since been discovered and excavated include the early cemetery of Spong Hill in Norfolk and the great sixth-seventh century ship burial of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.
- 1 History
- 2 Inhumations
- 3 Cremations
- 4 Burial places
- 5 Grave goods
- 6 Discovery and excavation
- 7 References
The early Anglo-Saxon period in England lasted from the fifth to the eighth centuries CE, during which time burial was the common custom for disposing of the dead. Archaeologists believe that the treatment of the deceased was important to Anglo-Saxons due to the "rich variation" in burial rites from this era, and that different forms of burial reflect differences in the status, wealth, sex and/or gender, age, and tribal affiliation of the dead. There was greater variation in burial types than at most earlier periods of British history, with early Anglo-Saxon graves differing greatly from those found in the preceding period of Roman Britain. The common Romano-British form of disposal was inhumation, although some rare cremations had taken place.
During the Anglo-Saxon migration, which began in the fifth century CE, Germanic-speaking tribes from continental northern Europe, such as the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, arrived in Britain, where their own culture—with its accompanying language and pagan religion—became dominant across much of eastern Britain. Those Romano-British peoples still residing in these areas either adopted and integrated with this incoming culture or migrated westward. The Anglo-Saxons brought with them their own heterogenous forms of burial practice, which were distinct from those of the British peoples living in western and northern Britain during the Early Medieval, having more in common with those of pagan continental Europe. However, not all of those given an Anglo-Saxon burial at this time were necessarily migrants or the descendents of migrants from continental Europe. Some may have been ethnically descended from the earlier Romano-British people, but who had adopted Anglo-Saxon culture as it became dominant across southern and eastern Britain. An example of such cohabitation can be seen at Wasperton and Stretton-on-the-Fosse in Warwickshire, where Anglo-Saxon graves were found alongside those that were Romano-British in character.
In the seventh century, foreign Christian missionaries initiated the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England, with repercussions for burial practices. Though common in the fifth and sixth centuries, cremation rapidly declined as a form of burial, with few known later examples. The Christian Church initially objected little to grave goods, although there was a decline in their popularity as they came to be understood as irrelevant. Instances of rich grave goods would however continue into the eighth century.
The most common way for Anglo-Saxon communities to deal with their dead was through inhumation, the burial of the corpse straight into the ground. This form of corpse disposal would have taken less "time and equipment" than cremation. Such inhumations remain an "invaluable resource" for understanding Early Medieval society. In many cases, alkaline soils have led to the good preservation of the skeletal remains, enabling archaeologists to excavate inhumated corpses and gain "a great deal of information" from them. Data that can be gathered or inferred from Anglo-Saxon inhumations includes the biological sex or age of the individual, as well as information about their health or lifestyle. Isotopic analysis of the skeletons can be used to detect which region the individual grew up in.
Graves for Anglo-Saxon inhumations varied widely in size, from "a shallow scoop in the ground to a large pit with regular sides over 2 m[etres] long and over 1 m[etre] deep." Although most Anglo-Saxon inhumation burials were of individuals, it is "reasonably common" to find multiple burials from the period. These multiple burials most often contain a couple, quite commonly an adult and a child. In some rarer cases there were three or more individuals buried in a single grave.
The bodies in Anglo-Saxon inhumations are found in a variety of positions. They have been found "placed on the back (supine), front (prone), or on one side. The legs can be arranged straight out, be crossed at the lower leg or ankle, be slightly bent (flexed), or even pulled right up to the chest in a foetal position (crouched or contracted)." According to archaeologist David Wilson, the "usual orientation" for pagan inhumations was with the head to the west and feet to the east, although there are many exceptions to this.
Those inhumations containing a corpse lying on their side may have been laid out such for various reasons. At Horton Kirby in Kent, it appears that the corpses were bent into such a position in order to fit into their small graves. Contrastingly, other examples show side-orientated bodies placed into graves "of ample size and sometimes of quite large dimensions." Those Anglo-Saxon corpses that have been found prone, or face down in their grave, have been interpreted by some archaeologists as having been "live burials", where the individual was thrown into the grave and buried alive. Other archaeologists have interpreted such burials in different ways, leading Sam Lucy to claim that "There is probably no single explanation for the use of prone burial" amongst the Anglo-Saxons. "In some cases it may be accidental, especially if the burial was in a coffin which had been clumsily handled. In other cases it might have specific significance attached to it".
Mutilations and decapitations
In some cases, the body was mutilated prior to burial, primarily through decapitation, and there are examples of entire cemeteries being filled with these decapitated corpses, leading archaeologists to conclude that these were sites specifically for the burial of executed individuals. There are few examples of these possible execution cemeteries from the early Anglo-Saxon period, with one exception being the barrow cemetery at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Here, several burials containing the corpses of individuals who had been hanged, beheaded or in other way mutilated were placed around Mound 5 on the eastern side of the cemetery. Using radiocarbon dating, archaeologists have determined that the earliest of these may well date from the seventh century CE, and that they continued to be deposited at the site into the ninth and tenth centuries. Later examples of probable Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries that date from the tenth or eleventh centuries have been found at Five Knolls in Dunstable and Bran Ditch in Fowlmere.
There are also examples of decapitated corpses who have been buried in ordinary Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. One unusual example has been found at Loveden Hill in Lincolnshire, where one of the corpses had their head placed on their stomach, and an urn was placed where the head would have been. At Great Addington in Northamptonshire, three decapitated skeletons had been found with stones in place of their heads, while at Chadlington in Oxfordshire two corpses had their decapitated heads placed between their legs. At Mitcham in Surrey several inhumations contained extra heads, while other graves instead had none or had them placed at the corpses' feet. In some rare cases, at sites in Bideford-on-Avon in Warwickshire and Portway in Hampshire, skulls had been buried on their own by the Anglo-Saxons, without their accompanying bodies.
Certain Anglo-Saxon burials appeared to have ritualistic elements to them, implying that a pagan religious rite was performed over them during the funeral. while there are many multiple burials, where more than one corpse was found in a single grave, that date from the Anglo-Saxon period, there is "a small group of such burials where an interpretation involving ritual practices may be possible". For instance, at Welbeck Hill in Lincolnshire, the corpse of a decapitated woman was placed in reverse on top of the body of an old man, while in a number of other similar examples, female bodies were again placed above those of men. This has led some archaeologists to suspect a form of suttee, where the female was the spouse of the male, and was killed to accompany him upon death. Other theories hold that the females were slaves who were viewed as the property of the men, and who were again killed to accompany their master. Similarly, four Anglo-Saxon burials have been excavated where it appears that the individual was buried while still alive, which could imply that this was a part of either a religious rite or as a form of punishment.
Alongside inhumation, it was common for early Anglo-Saxons to cremate their dead by burning the corpses and then burying the cremated remains within an urn. Cremation rites declined in the seventh century, but throughout that century remained a viable form of burial at sites like St Mary's Stadium in Southampton. Archaeologist Audrey Meaney suggested that cremation was performed to "release the spirit" from the body after death, while Howard Williams remarked that cremation rites presented "the public transformation of the dead body." Archaeological understandings of the Anglo-Saxon cremation processes have been largely reconstructed from an osteological analyses of the cemeteries at Spong Hill and Sancton. The pyre sites are rarely archaeologically identifiable.
The method of Anglo-Saxon cremation is still debated; based on an examination of cremated remains at Illington, Calvin Wells speculated that at that site, the bodies had been laid out on the ground, with a pyre then built on top of them before being set alight. Wells believed that this would explain why the shoulder tips of corpses at the site were not always properly cremated. This idea was criticised by Jacqueline McKinley, who argued that such a process would lack sufficient oxygen to cremate the entire body. Instead she argued that Anglo-Saxon cremation pyres were most likely a criss-cross of timbers filled with brushwood, with the corpse laid on top. The process of cremating the body would likely have been visible to onlookers, creating a connection between living and dead.
Following the cremation, the ashes and remains would have been collected and placed within an urn. It is not known how long the urn was kept before being buried; it is "very possible" that in certain cases they were stored above ground for "long periods of time". When buried, the urns were most often placed upright, although in a few rare examples they were instead inverted. At times they were buried individually, each in their own pit, although in other cases, several urns were clustered together in a burial pit.
Burial urns and grave goods
Anglo-Saxon burial urns were typically hand-made out of pottery, and often decorated with various motifs. These included bosses, stamps and linear incised marks, as well as freehand designs. The most notable of these motifs was the swastika, which was widely inscribed not only on crematory urns but also on certain pieces of weaponry, various brooches and other forms of (often female) jewellery. Archaeologist David Wilson remarked that the swastika "undoubtedly had special importance", suggesting that it was the symbol of the pagan god Thunor. He accepted that through increasing usage, it might have become a "purely decorative device with no real symbolic importance." Another symbol that appears on urns and other artefacts is the rune ᛏ; this represented the letter T and has been associated with the god Tiw.
In rare cases, such as at Baston, Lincolnshire, and Drayton, Norfolk, lids were made for these urns; the most elaborate known example – from Spong Hill, Norfolk – is decorated with a seated human figure with its head in its hands. Several examples used stones as lids. There are also a number of cases where "window urns" have been uncovered, containing pieces of glass inserted into the fabric of the pottery. Examples of this have been found at such sites as Castle Acre in Norfolk, Helpston in Nottinghamshire, and Haslington in Cambridgeshire. There are also a few rare cases, such as at Cleatham in Lincolnshire, where instead of making a new pot to bury cremated remains in, Anglo-Saxon peoples re-used older Late Romano-British period urns or pots in their funerary rites. In certain cases, pottery urns were substituted by bronze bowls, with examples being found at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, at Coombe in Kent, at Illington in Norfolk, and at Snape in Suffolk.
Like inhumations, cremated remains were sometimes deposited along with grave goods, however sites containing grave goods constitute only "about half of the known cremations". Sometimes, these items were placed on the cremation pyre along with the corpse, and were therefore damaged by the fire. They were then placed, along with the skeletal remains, within an urn for burial. At other times, these grave goods were placed inside the urn unburnt, meaning that they remained intact and undamaged. The most common grave goods placed in cremation graves were "toilet implements", among them bronze and iron tweezers, razors and blades, shears and ear-scoops; some were full-sized, but others were miniatures of no practical use. Also common were bone and antler combs, some of which had been deliberately broken prior to inclusion.
Archaeologists know of the existence of around 1,200 Anglo-Saxon cemeteries across England.
Archaeological investigation has displayed that structures or buildings were built inside a number of pagan cemeteries, and as David Wilson noted, "The evidence, then, from cemetery excavations is suggestive of small structures and features, some of which may perhaps be interpreted as shrines or sacred areas". In some cases, there is evidence of far smaller structures being built around or alongside individual graves, implying possible small shrines to the dead individual or individuals buried there. At the cemetery of Apple Down in Sussex, four-post structures were discovered, mostly situated over cremations, and the excavators Down and Welch theorised that these were the remains of small, roofed huts that contained the cremated deposits of a single family.
In the late sixth century, well over a century after the Anglo-Saxon peoples had become dominant in eastern Britain, they adopted a new burial practice for the deceased members of the wealthy social elite: their burial in tumuli, which are also known as barrows or burial mounds.
This practice had been adopted by the members of the Merovingian dynasty who ruled the Franks in Francia (modern France) during the fifth century. During the sixth century, they had gained increasing influence over the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent, eventually leading to a marriage alliance between the two. The Kentish elites subsequently adopted the practice of tumuli burial, and from here it spread north of the Thames, being adopted by the elites in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It has also been suggested that some of the Anglo-Saxons may have adopted the practice from native Britons.
Indeed, barrows had been constructed for burial in Britain during the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British periods prior to the Anglo-Saxon arrival. In many cases, Anglo-Saxons reused these earlier monuments rather than constructing their own. Barrow burials continued to be practiced by the Anglo-Saxons throughout the seventh century, but had effectively died out by the eighth.
Another form of burial was that of ship burials, which were practiced by many of the Germanic peoples across northern Europe. In many cases it seems that the corpse was placed within a ship that was then either sent out to sea or left on land, but in both cases then set alight. In Suffolk however, ships were not burned, but buried, as is the case at Sutton Hoo, which it is believed, was the resting place of the king of the East Angles, Raedwald. Both ship and tumulus burials were described in the Beowulf poem, through the funerals of Scyld Scefing and Beowulf respectively.
Both pagan and Christian Anglo-Saxons buried their dead with grave goods. Amongst the earlier Anglo-Saxons who adhered to pagan beliefs, such goods accompanied both inhumated and cremated remains.
In some cases, animal skulls, particularly oxen but also pig, were buried in human graves, a practice also found in Roman Britain.
Howard WIlliams argued that grave goods carried mnemonic significance in Early Medieval society.
Grave goods can inform archaeologists about cultural connections and trade; for instance, at Buckland cemetery near Dover, Kent, over half of the brooches buried as grave goods were imports from continental Europe, illustrating the connections between the Kingdom of Kent and the Frankish area.
Discovery and excavation
The earliest record of post-Anglo-Saxon people excavating an early Anglo-Saxon burial comes from the 12th century, when Roger of Wendover described how several monks dug up the burial mounds at Redbourne, Hertfordshire, in search of the bones of Saint Amphibalus, a Roman period priest. A later documented case occurred in the 17th century, when Sir Thomas Browne published a pamphlet entitled Hydrotaphia, Urn Buriall (1658), in which he described a number of cremation urns found in Norfolk; although they had been Anglo-Saxon in origin, he mistook them for being Romano-British. Describing these finds, Browne related that "In a Field of old Walsingham not many months past were digged up between forty and fifty urns, deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep, not far from one another... some containing two pounds of bones, distinguishable in skulls, ribs, jaws, thigh-bones, and teeth, with fresh impressions of their combustion".
Despite these earlier excavations, archaeologist Sam Lucy remarked that "the accolade of being the first excavators of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries should really go to two Kentish gentlemen clerics." The first was the antiquarian Reverend Bryan Faussett. Between 1759 and 1773 he excavated at a number of cemeteries in Kent; Gilton, Kingstone Down, Chartham Down and Sibertswold. Uncovering about 750 graves, he made detailed records in his field notebooks noting anatomical details, but like Browne before him, he mistakenly attributed them to Roman-Britain. Following his death in 1776, Faussett's notes were written up and published in 1856 as the Inventorium Sepulchrale by Charles Roach Smith, who added his own commentary to the work.
The second of these antiquarian Kentish clerics was James Douglas, who excavated at such sites as Chatham Lines and Greenwich Park from 1779 to 1793. He published his findings in a book entitled Nenia Brittanica (1793). Douglas was the first to identify burials of this type as being Anglo-Saxon rather than Romano-British, coming to this conclusion because of "Their situation near villages of [Anglo-]Saxon names" and the fact that "They are scattered all over Britain in places which the [Anglo-]Saxons occupied, and are not discovered in the parts of Wales which they had not subdued."
Although some antiquarians had made attempts to excavate and catalogue the Anglo-Saxon grave-sites, on the whole, such sites were commonly damaged and destroyed in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, with little attempt being made to properly study them. Due to the Society of Antiquaries' inability to act on the situation, in 1843 Charles Roach Smith and Thomas Wright – both keen Anglo-Saxonists – founded the British Archaeological Association (BAA), which held its first conference the following year in Canterbury. The BAA's leadership campaigned for better rights for native British archaeology, asking for it to be protected legally and to be recognised by major institutions. When the British Museum refused to purchase Faussett's collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts following his grandson's death in 1853, Roach Smith complained that "not only does the Government begin with gathering the monuments, ancient and modern, of all foreign countries, but it ends there also. Our national antiquities are not even made subservient and placed in the lowest grade; they are altogether unrecognised and ignored."
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