Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries

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More dead than alive

Archaeological evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period is tricky. Houses and even high-status buildings such as royal 'palaces' and churches were built of wood with thatch or turf roofs. Pottery was at times non-existent and even when it was made any shards provide only broad evidence for dates. Metal is used but rarely survives on domestic sites – and is even rare when major religious establishments have been excavated. Recycling of scrap metal must have been thorough!

Enough digs have been done to show that Anglo-Saxon life varied both regionally and over time. And there were clearly variations in social status – albeit the lives of the most lowly, such as slaves, are to all intents and purposes invisible to archaeologists. So we can piece together something about Anglo-Saxon lives but rarely feel with are seeing more than a fragmentary picture.


 Anglo-Saxon cemetery

An Anglo-Saxon cemetery


But, elusive as the evidence for living Anglo-Saxons is, every one of them died. While not everyone's remains have been discovered by archaeologists it is fair to say we know far more about dead Anglo-Saxons than living ones. Large cemeteries – sometimes all inhumations, sometimes all cremations and, more rarely, a combination of both rites – have been excavated. The skeletons tell us about the age and general health at the time of death. Grave-goods – or the absence of them – tell us something about their status. Or, pedantically, the status which their still-living relatives wished them to take with them into the afterlife.

While there must, inevitably, be some correlation between a person's grave goods and the objects they used or treasured while alive, we must assume that what was buried with them was selected by their relatives. Some items – such as jewellery – are old enough to be heirlooms. Indeed they may show wear or even repairs which reveal them to be 'much loved'. Other items, such as a spear in the grave of males, denote social status and are presumably placed in the grave as part of deeply-rooted traditions. But the presence of pots – sometimes already damaged – suggests that there was an element of 'tokenism' to what was included.

There was a time – and it's not so long ago – when archaeologists assumed that cremations were non-Christian, as were inhumations with grave goods, whereas the absence of grave goods denoted post-conversion burials. A predominately east-west burial, with the head at the west, was also taken as a clue to the person being Christian. But the excavation of cemeteries which predate conversion suggest that all such 'rules of thumb' must be amputated. Similarly a smaller number of excavations of early Christian sites show that the east-west 'rule' is secondary to orientation with a focal building – presumably a small church – which may or may not be exactly east-west as these buildings often align a little north of due east.

While there are enough local variations in England which make comparisons with Ireland risky, there is documentary evidence that in late seventh and early eighth century Ireland cemeteries were family or clan based, rather than faith based. The shorter of two similar accounts of St Patrick travelling around translates as

[St Patrick] came to Findmag in the territory of the Maine and found there the sign of the cross of Christ and two new graves, and from his chariot the holy man said 'Who is it that is buried here?' and a voice answered from the grave 'I am a pagan'. The holy man replied: 'Why has the holy cross been placed beside you?' and again he answered 'because the mother of the man who is buried beside me asked that the sign of the cross be placed beside her son's grave. But a stupid and foolish man placed it beside me' and Patrick leaped from his chariot… pulled the cross from the grave and placed it over the head of the baptised man…
 
( Bieler 1979: 155–7)

So, in Ireland at least, mixed faith cemeteries were normal.

Not long after the conversion we lose sight of dead Anglo-Saxons. Instead of cemeteries near or on the boundaries of settlement areas something radically different starts. The dead are buried right in the midst of the living. That, of course, is only possible once people start living in nucleated villages rather than dispersed farmsteads. A whole new era of English history opens up by about the tenth century. And, despite all the changes over the last two hundred years, it is an era which still shapes how we live. Most of the roads in England came into existence to link together Anglo-Saxon villages. Most of those villages have a parish church and associated graveyard. The street plan may offer evidence for the relative status of the original manorial lordships.

However, because we still live where later Anglo-Saxons lived and for centuries have reused the graveyards they inaugurated, archaeologists rarely get more than a 'key hole' view of the lives or even deaths of these people who shaped much of England. And they shaped not only the landscape of villages and roads, they shaped our national religion. Furthermore, these people also set into place the language, the political administration and legal system of the country, albeit all have evolved more-or-less steadily over the centuries.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013

 


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