Bed burial

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A bed burial is a type of burial in which the deceased person is buried in the ground, lying upon a bed. It is a burial custom that is particularly associated with high status women during the early Anglo-Saxon period (7th century), although excavated examples of bed burials are comparatively rare.

Anglo-Saxon bed burials[edit]

Replica of the "Saxon Princess" bed burial at the Street House Anglo-Saxon cemetery

A number of early Anglo-Saxon bed burials, almost all dating to the 7th century, have been found in England, predominantly in the southern counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Wiltshire, but single examples have also been found in Derbyshire and North Yorkshire. The beds used in these burials were made of wood, and although none have been fully preserved, their presence can be inferred from the presence of iron fixtures and fittings, such as nails, cleats, grommets, brackets, headboard mounts and railings, that outline the rectangular shape of the bed in the grave.[1][2][3] However, in some cases it is not clear whether the iron fixtures found in a grave come from a bed or a coffin.

The majority of the Anglo-Saxon bed burials are for young women, and many of the burials include items of jewellery and other grave goods that indicate that the dead person must have been wealthy and of high status during life. The high quality of the gold jewellery found in the bed burial at Loftus in Yorkshire suggests that the occupant of the grave may have been a princess.[4] On the other hand, some of the young women buried on their beds have pectoral crosses or other Christian emblems buried with them (Ixworth,[5] Roundway Down, Swallowcliffe Down, Trumpington), which has suggested the possibility that they may have been abbesses, who in the early Anglo-Saxon period were recruited from noble families.[6]

In addition to laying the deceased on a bed, some of the bed burials exhibit other features that mark them out as special, and relate them to ship burials, such as the bed being placed in a chamber (Coddenham, Swallowcliffe Down), or a barrow being raised above the grave (Lapwing Hill, Swallowcliffe Down).[7] In at least two sites (Loftus and Trumpington), a grubenhaus (sunken floored building) has been excavated close to the bed burial, and it is possible that the deceased was laid out in the grubenhaus before burial so that mourners could pay their respects to her.[2][8]

The complex and elaborate funeral practices that must have been associated with a bed burial have been well described by archaeologist Howard Williams:

The artefacts, body and grave would have interacted to create a complex sequences of practices and performances in the funeral. We can imagine the digging of the grave, perhaps the lining of the grave with timber shorings, and perhaps a temporary shelter over the grave in the hours or days until the body is ready for burial. We then have the lowering of a bed into the grave, followed by the clothed body together with a set of discrete deposits. Each would have required persons approaching the grave and passing them down to those in the grave itself with the body. Finally, after the funeral had approached completion, the grave would have been back-filled and the mound raised.[1]

Interring the deceased on a bed suggests that sleep was seen as a metaphor for death.[1] Furthermore, the Old English word leger (modern English lair), literally meaning a "place where one lies", was used to refer to both beds and graves in Old English literature, which emphasizes the symbolic equivalence of the bed and the grave.[9]

List of Anglo-Saxon bed burials[edit]

About a dozen Anglo-Saxon bed burials, as well as several possible bed burials, have been excavated from the 19th century onwards, as listed in the table below.

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Location County Coordinates Year of discovery Date Notes
Cherry Hinton, Cambridge Cambridgeshire 52°11′06″N 0°10′30″E / 52.185°N 0.175°E / 52.185; 0.175 (Cherry Hinton) 1949 One bed burial among a group of nine Anglo-Saxon graves.[10]
Shrublands Quarry, Smythes Corner, Coddenham Suffolk 52°08′24″N 1°06′54″E / 52.140°N 1.115°E / 52.140; 1.115 (Coddenham) 2005 7th century Bed burial of a woman, in a chambered grave, with high status grave goods, including a pendant made from a gold coin with a prominent cross motif issued by the Frankish king Dagobert I (629–634), and three amethyst beads.[11]
Collingbourne Ducis Wiltshire 51°17′10″N 1°38′53″W / 51.286°N 1.648°W / 51.286; -1.648 (Collingbourne Ducis) 2007 Second half of the 7th century Bed burial of a middle-aged woman aged about 45. The only object found in the grave was a single earthenware pot.[12]
Edix Hill, Barrington Cambridgeshire 52°07′52″N 0°00′40″E / 52.131°N 0.011°E / 52.131; 0.011 (Edix Hill) 1989–1991 7th century Two bed burials. One of a young woman with leprosy aged 17–25, who was buried with a variety of personal effects, including a weaving sword, a knife, two silver rings, a bucket, and a box holding a key, a knife, a spindle whorl, a comb, a sea urchin fossil, and some sheep anklebones.[10][13][14]
Stanton, near Ixworth Suffolk 52°19′12″N 0°52′30″E / 52.320°N 0.875°E / 52.320; 0.875 (Ixworth) 1886 Mid 7th century Bed burial with high status grave goods, including a gold and garnet pectoral cross and a gold and garnet disc brooch.[15][16]
Lapwing Hill, Brushfield Derbyshire 53°14′24″N 1°45′54″W / 53.240°N 1.765°W / 53.240; -1.765 (Lapwing Hill) 1850 7th century Bed burial, under a barrow, of a man buried with his weapons.[17]
Street House Anglo-Saxon cemetery, near Loftus North Yorkshire 54°33′46″N 0°51′29″W / 54.562869°N 0.858139°W / 54.562869; -0.858139 (Loftus) 2005–2007 Mid 7th century Bed burial of a young woman, buried with a gold scutiform pendant, two cabochon garnet pendants, glass beads, pottery, iron knives, belt buckles and various other objects.[2][4][18]
Roundway Down Wiltshire 51°22′52″N 1°59′31″W / 51.381°N 1.992°W / 51.381; -1.992 (Roundway Down) 1840 Possibly a bed burial, although the iron mounts found in the grave may be from a coffin rather than a bed. Grave goods include a gold necklace inlaid with cabochon garnets, a veil fastener with two pins and a roundel decorated with a cross, and a wood and bronze bucket.[19][20]
Shudy Camps, near Bartlow Cambridgeshire 52°03′00″N 0°21′36″E / 52.050°N 0.360°E / 52.050; 0.360 (Shudy Camps) 1933 Two, possibly three, bed burials.[10]
Swallowcliffe Down Wiltshire 51°01′30″N 2°02′13″W / 51.025°N 2.037°W / 51.025; -2.037 (Swallowcliffe Down) 1966 Second half of the 7th century Bed burial of a young woman, constructed within a chamber built into a Bronze Age barrow. In the grave were found a large number of grave goods, including a wood and leather satchel embossed with an ornately decorated bronze and gold roundel with a cruciform design, an iron spindle, an iron pan, a bronze bucket, a silver sprinkler, two glass palm-cups, a bone comb, four silver brooches, 11 pendants from a necklace, and other items of jewellery and personal items in a box with bronze mountings.[21][22]
Trumpington, Cambridge (Trumpington bed burial) Cambridgeshire 52°10′19″N 0°06′18″E / 52.172°N 0.105°E / 52.172; 0.105 (Trumpington) 2011 mid 7th century Bed burial of a young woman, aged about 16, buried with a gold pectoral cross inlaid with garnets, an iron knife, a chatelaine, and some glass beads.[8][9]
Winklebury Hill, near Shaftesbury Wiltshire 50°59′42″N 2°04′12″W / 50.995°N 2.070°W / 50.995; -2.070 (Winklebury Hill) 1881 Possible bed burial.[19]
Woodyates, near Salisbury Dorset 50°57′54″N 1°57′54″W / 50.965°N 1.965°W / 50.965; -1.965 (Woodyates) 1812 Possible bed burial, with grave goods including beads made out of gold, glass and jet.[23]

Viking bed burials[edit]

In several Viking ship burials from Norway and Sweden, including the Oseberg ship burial (dated to 834) and Gokstad ship burial (dated to the late 9th century), the deceased had been laid out on beds. However, true bed burials, in which the bed is buried directly in the ground are not known.[24][25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Williams 2006, p. 31
  2. ^ a b c Sherlock, Steve; Simmons, Mark (June 2008). "A seventh-century royal cemetery at Street House, north-east Yorkshire, England". Antiquity. 82 (316). ISSN 0003-598X.
  3. ^ Eagles, Bruce (1991). "Review of G. Speake, A Saxon bed burial on Swallowcliffe Down". Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine. 84: 163–164. ISSN 0262-6608.
  4. ^ a b "Anglo-saxon princess' treasure set to go on show". Redcar and Cleveland News. 4 May 2011. Archived from the original on 23 June 2012. Retrieved 19 March 2012.
  5. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 385467". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 2013-01-22.
  6. ^ Blair 2005, p. 230
  7. ^ Lee 2007, p. 82
  8. ^ a b "Archaeology at Cambridge 2010–2011" (PDF). Cambridge University. 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-09-25.
  9. ^ a b Dickens, Alison; Lucy, Sam (16 March 2012). "Mystery of Anglo-Saxon teen buried in bed with gold cross". Retrieved 2012-03-16.
  10. ^ a b c Geake 1997, p. 147
  11. ^ Hoggett 2010, pp. 111, 124, 312
  12. ^ "The Bed Burial". Wessex Archaeology. 11 May 2008. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
  13. ^ Lee 2007, pp. 62, 82
  14. ^ Williams 2006, pp. 100–103
  15. ^ Green 1968, p. 123
  16. ^ Webster & Backhouse 1991, p. 27
  17. ^ Welch 1993, p. 89
  18. ^ "Street House, Loftus". Tees Archaeology. Archived from the original on 2011-12-19. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
  19. ^ a b Williams 2006, p. 32
  20. ^ Semple, Sarah; Williams, Howard. "Excavation on Roundway Down, North Wiltshire". Trinity College Carmarthen. Archived from the original on August 3, 2003.
  21. ^ Williams 2006, pp. 27–32
  22. ^ York 1995, pp. 174–175
  23. ^ Geake 1997, p. 151
  24. ^ Gjerset 1969, p. 34
  25. ^ Scragg 2003, p. 40


  • Blair, John (2005), The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford University Press
  • Geake, Helen (1997), The Use of Grave-Goods in Conversion-Period England, c.600-c.850, British Archaeological Reports, ISBN 9780860549178
  • Gjerset, Knut (1969), History of the Norwegian people, AMS Press
  • Green, Charles (1968), Sutton Hoo: The Excavation of a Royal Ship-Burial, Merlin Press
  • Hoggett, Richard (2010), The Archaeology of the East Anglian Conversion, Boydell & Brewer, ISBN 9781843835950
  • Lee, Christina (2007), Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals, Boydell & Brewer, ISBN 9781843831426
  • Scragg, Donald G. (2003), Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, DS Brewer, ISBN 9780859917735
  • Webster, Leslie; Backhouse, Janet (1991), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600-900, British Museum, ISBN 9780802077219
  • Welch, Martin G. (1993), Discovering Anglo-Saxon England, Pennsylvania State University Press, ISBN 9780271008943
  • Williams, Howard (2006), Death And Memory in Early Medieval Britain, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521840194
  • Yorke, Barbara (1995), Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, Continuum International, ISBN 9780718518561

External links[edit]