What can we infer from the burial rites of the 5th -8th centuries in Europe?

By Sutton_Hoo_Burial_Mound.jpg: Geoff Dallimore derivative work: SilkTork (Sutton_Hoo_Burial_Mound.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsThis is an essay that I wrote on the burial practices within Europe during the early medieval period. It is only a starting point on the subject but we do need to start somewhere!

What can we infer from the burial rites of the 5th -8th centuries in Europe?

In this essay, I will first discuss the burials which were interred in flat cemeteries or in barrows. This I will start with the typical burial which covers most of the burials in this period, I will then go on to talk about multiple burials and those in this category which have a more interesting nature. I am going to centre the essay around Anglo-Saxon burial and burials in the British Isles. I believe that these burials show parts of different societies from across Europe through the means of trade and migration. For example, the burial at Sutton Hoo showed coins from Merovingian kingdoms and even grave goods from as far away as Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire.

To set a background for the essay we need to be reminded that the 4th and 5th centuries saw the fall of Rome (395-476 AD) and the migration of different peoples across Europe such as the Huns, Goths, Vandals, and Alans. With the fall of Rome, there was no state-backed religion throughout Europe which meant the invading tribes were able to continue their Pagan practices. These tribes were slowly Christianised with the majority being Christianised by the fall of Rome; however, the Celts weren’t Christianised till the 5th and 6th centuries and the Anglo-Saxons weren’t Christianised until the 7th century. North Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe were not Christianised until between the 9th and 10th centuries so there would have been outside pagan influence to much of western and northern areas throughout the essays time frame. I believe that the British Isles will give a good view of the changes as it is well situated to receive Christian views from the Merovingian Kingdoms to the south and internal Pagan beliefs of two varieties while in the later stages, after Christianisation, there were still influences from Pagan traditions in Scandinavia.

The spread of Christianity is something which needs to be kept in mind when looking at all aspects of the burial rites of Europe as there are set Christian ways of burial which may conflict with Pagan ideals. A good example of this is the resurrection of the use of barrows, and indeed reuse of barrows, when Christianity was starting to gain a foothold in Saxon kingdoms in England[1]. This can also be seen in the typical single burial in a cemetery, although this has been disputed by several archaeologists and other, more secular, theories put forward.

To start talking about single burials[2] we first need to look at where these early burials took place. Burials were inhumed at cemeteries near villages and often at sites that had been used previously. By previous use, I mean areas which were used in prehistoric times many of which had been abandoned during the Bronze Age. Such sites can be found at Bishopstone in Sussex, Holborough in Kent and Winterslow in Wiltshire. There are other sites which are also used and indeed barrows from prehistory saw reuse by the Anglo-Saxons in around the 7th century. These burials were usually on their back (supine) in an extended position with the grave head at any position but usually, the majority of burials in one cemetery will face the same direction. Typical grave goods would be a few items possibly symbolic of the position that the deceased held in the community the higher in the community the more lavish the grave goods. I shall, however, discuss this more in depth later on.

In eastern Britain, in the 5th century AD, new burial practices were taking place. Before this time, during the 4th and 5th centuries, the normal burial practice was the use of cremation. As with inhumation, the grave would be furnished with goods such as combs, tweezers, other cosmetic items and occasionally clothing and brooches. However, by the 6th century inhumation was more popular and eventually replaced cremation as the sole burial rite. This change from cremation to inhumation also took place within the Merovingian kingdoms. There are also other major changes throughout this period which are the use of barrows, change in the direction of the body and the amount of grave goods used. Most of these explanations can be explained both religiously or with a secular opinion.

I will start with the use of barrows in England. Barrows were originally used during the late Bronze ages but during the 7th century they received a period of revival. The barrows were either new ones or reused prehistoric ones; these are called primary and secondary barrows respectively. These have been explained as a defiant action by Pagans in face of Christian conversion (see footnote 1). This however can be contradicted as many barrows contained burials without grave goods which can be seen as Christian. Grave-goods or rather their presence or absence, however, has provided a lot of discussion because there are two ways to view the change. It is when after Christianisation grave goods start appearing less and less and eventually disappear. This has been explained as a direct effect of the Christianisation by several archaeologists and historians. However in my research I came across a piece in which a historian (J. Kerr) talks about Pictish burials and the way in which they used very little if any grave goods which shows a tradition of no grave goods. The link with Christianity although plausible cannot be proved or disproved as there are no written records that state Grave goods should not be used. Other historians, notably Wilson in his book Anglo-Saxon Paganism, have come to the conclusion that it was economic factors that were the cause for less grave goods and he even goes so far as to suggest that it may have become less fashionable. The economic argument would mean there is a greater need for portable wealth within the community this correlates with increasing trade. Ironically this evidence for trade is shown in the burial at Sutton Hoo by way of its grave goods. These grave goods included Merovingian coins and also other objects from Byzantium. The claim that it was a fashion can be seen by the burials in the higher echelons of Merovingian Frankish society. In a piece by B. Effros it is argued that in the late 7th and early 8th centuries grave goods and epitaphs are replaced by a service for the deceased. This is especially true in the upper parts of Merovingian Society. Also stated is that

“Burial goods were instead employed in funerary ritual to express symbolically the recognition which kin of the deceased, whether by blood, social or religious ties, sought from their fellow members of society.” (Effros 1997, Fall, http://www.camargofoundation.org/fellowdetails.asp?recno=457)

This combination leads me to conclude that grave goods were actually linked to religion but this was because Christianity had become not only the religion but also a fashion and tool. The use of Grave goods less and less while linked to increasing Christian belief would also seem to me to be using Christianity as a type of excuse for not putting in grave goods.

As mentioned in the above quote “recognition of kin” or more precisely linking people to their ancestors was taken more seriously by the Anglo-Saxons. This links to barrows as there is the possible explanation that they are trying to preserve links with ancestors who had been buried there; also the same could be said for flat cemeteries which have been placed on the same site as a previous bronze age cemetery. This however as I have already said has been disputed as in Wilson’s book on Paganism he points out the time gap between use during bronze age and early Anglo-Saxon burials means there is not actually continuation.

The direction of graves is, however, harder to dispute as being the influence of Christianity. The head facing in an easterly direction is one which is a Christian fashion and indeed the accepted method of burial. However, it is found that in Pagan cemeteries the graves can face in any direction although most graves are usually facing the same direction. A common direction for Pagan graves is north-south which means any Christian burials in the same cemetery would be fairly easily distinguished due to the different facing.

Single burials are not the only type of burial during this time. Most cemeteries included some multiple graves. Some of these are similar to those found in even modern cemeteries where one member of the family is buried lying next to the other members of the family. This links with the Anglo-Saxons who believe strongly in the links of ancestors. Other burials can be linked to this like the burial of a partner on top of an already buried person. There are however some more sinister connotations to some of these burials. It has been suggested that these burials are through a practice of ritualistic sacrifice of a human who is thrown into a grave on top of a dead person for whatever reason, possibly as in Ancient Egypt an idea of needing a slave in the afterlife would be a decent explanation. It is also mentioned that a practice called suttee could have been used in some areas. This is an idea which was put forward by Wilson after looking at the work of Talbot who had studied a tribal group called the Wends who had lived on the continent during the 8th century. I quote:

“[a race with] such a high regard for the bonds of matrimony that when the husband is dead the wife refuses to live” (Talbot 1954:123)*

Wilson points out that the Wends cremated their dead and in burials of females on top of males by Anglo-Saxons usually the female was not placed in reverently. This leads me to the conclusion that the Suttee idea was probably not practiced by the Anglo-Saxons. Other reasons why bodies may have been buried on top of others is that with unmarked graves as most Saxon ones were a burial could be superimposed by accident. This also has evidence at a grave in Camerton, Somerset where the bones of the lower burial were carefully put back. However in opposition to this a burial at a later date to go with a previous inhumation would have to have some sort of marker and there is very little evidence for grave markers in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Another feature of multiple burials is the grave goods as there is always a difference between the two burials which is often that the upper burial is devoid of goods.

Grave goods are a common feature throughout and as I have mentioned before there are several reasons for them being slowly dropped from burial rites of the Anglo-Saxons. Grave goods help to display a picture of the status of individuals who are wealthier receiving more grave goods such as the royal burial at Sutton Hoo down to slaves who not being allowed possessions in life took nothing to their graves unless they had wealthy or generous masters. Grave goods usually were stereotypical for men and women with men being buried with a spear and shield and buckles, while women were buried with hair pins brooches and jewelry. Pagan burials also often included offerings such as a joint of meat and sometimes there were other grave goods. Horses are a good example of a rare “grave good” one grave at Sutton Hoo and notably, Childeric, one of the first Merovingian kings, were buried with their horses. It was proposed by an anonymous historian that this may have been linked to a horse cult which was followed by the Alans who were a nomadic tribe in the east of Europe.

To conclude burial rites changing between the 5th and 8th centuries show how the fall of the Roman Empire meant Christianity could spread much further and establish itself as the dominant religion throughout Europe. This is supported by the archaeological evidence such as lack of grave goods and eventual burials in churchyards in the 8th century. Pagan rituals were slow to vanish and many were also kept for several centuries, again grave goods, till finally being replaced by the Christian way of burial.



*for full references to those books please see the bibliography in Davis Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Paganism.


BAHN, P. 2001 The Penguin Archaeological guide.

London: Penguin.

DARVILL, T. 2003. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Archaeology.

Oxford: Oxford University Press

GANNON, A. 2003. The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon coinage.

Oxford: Oxford University Press

GRANT, J. GORIN, S. FLEMING, N. 2002. The Archaeology Coursebook: an introduction to study skills, topics and methods.

London: Routledge.

GREENE, K. 1996. Archaeology and Introduction.

London: B.T. Batsford Ltd. Third edition.

LUCY, S. 2000. The Anglo-Saxon way of death

Stroud: Sutton Publishing

RENFREW, C. & BAHN, P. 2004. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice.

London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. Fourth Edition.

WILSON, D. 1992. Anglo-Saxon Paganism.

London: Routledge

Ed. WOOD, I. 1998. Franks and the Alamanni in the MerovingianPeriod: An Ethnographic Perspective.

Woodbridge: The Boydell Press

(Whole volume used)

Electronic sources

EFFROS, B. 1997, Fall, Camargo foundation.


(3 March 2005)

KERR, J. (date unknown) Tanwayour


(3 March 2005)

[1]This has been explained as an act of defiance by the Pagans (Carver 1986:45)*

[2]These are inhumations cremations will be discussed later.

Anglo-Saxon houses and settlements

Anglo-Saxon houses and settlements

Anglo-Saxon villageAnglo-Saxon people needed somewhere to live so what did their homes look like?

Anglo-Saxon houses were rectangular rather than the round like the houses of the British people. These houses were made from wood and were built with a series of posts although occasionally they would lay beams out and build on top of them. When building on posts, pad stones were sometimes used to make a stable platform. These houses would be topped with thatched rooves and have wooden walls.

anglo saxon house planWhile the basic construction of a wooden house with a thatched roof is common throughout most societies the shape of the house is often different. Anglo-Saxon houses had a pretty structured plan. (see left) If you drew two squares with a small rectangle between them you would have the basic plan for an Anglo-Saxon house. The door, or doors, would be in the centre portion of those shapes effectively dividing it into two. This basic plan was used on a variety of scales. Larger buildings would have aisles down the sides to make the building wider while still having the posts close enough the centre to support the larger roof.

Aisled halls can be seen at sites such as Yeavering which was a major Anglo-Saxon royal site that spanned both pagan and Christian Saxon time periods. Aisled halls look similar to the plan of modern churches. We still call the side portions of these churches aisles as well. This isn’t surprising as we have churches that date back to the Anglo-Saxon period and some that still have evidence of original Saxon doorway arches.

While we only have evidence of postholes from archaeology we are able to reconstruct what these houses looked like. West stow is a place where Anglo-Saxon houses have been rebuilt and you can visit the village that has been created. There is also an Anglo-Saxon house being built At the Weald and Downland open air museum. The Weald and Downland open air museum has multiple houses from different time periods so you can see how the Anglo-Saxon house developed through time. Medieval houses after the Norman conquest were still similar. It took several hundred years for the design to be significantly modified into one that could not be recognised.

reconstructed grubenhaus JarrowIn early Saxon settlements, there were also small sunken huts. These have variously been termed sunken feature buildings and
Grubenhause over the years. As the second name suggests there is evidence for this type of construction on the continent as well as in England. These small buildings were dug into the ground with a thatched roof held up by posts set into the sides. These buildings were thought to be simple residences but further digging has recovered artefacts that suggest these were more likely to be workshops and storage places.

Saxon settlements were small by modern standards although the trading towns such as Hamwic, near modern-day Portsmouth on the south coast of England, were larger. These groups of houses would slowly be replaced over time as the wood the posts were made from rotted. This can leave large areas of postholes with no discernible pattern without scrutiny by archaeologists. Later Saxon towns had plots of land called burgage plots. There are some nice examples of this layout. Excavation sites such as St. Mary’s school in Wantage, Oxfordshire show a small farmstead just outside the area of these plots. The dating of these sites allows us to see the growth of towns during the later Anglo-Saxon period.

Anglo-Saxon Burh mapA later Anglo-Saxon document that is of interest when looking at this subject is the Burghal Hidage. This document lists defensive towns called burhs which were used to defend against raids by Vikings and Danes from Danelaw. Today we still have evidence of such defences. Wallingford in Oxfordshire is a good example of this as the town inside the bank still closely resembles the pattern of settlement that was originally there (obviously there are many modern additions of buildings and side streets added to this area). Within these towns, there would still be areas for growing crops and the houses would follow a similar construction to those in the more modest villages in the countryside.

As we can see there are quite a few aspects to consider when talking about Anglo-Saxon houses. The evidence that we have from archaeological excavations gives us plenty of house plans to look at. Perhaps one day all of these settlements will be placed together on a map to give us an idea of how the Anglo-Saxon’s were distributed across England.

(All images apart from the plan of the Anglo-Saxon house are courtesy of creative commons)

Ethical Issues in archaeology


Ethical issues in archaeology.

The are several ethical issues involved in archaeology some obvious some not so obvious.

The most obvious issue is that of human remains.

This is a tricky issue especially in the UK due to the large quantity of graveyards and random burials that are found. Whilst many assume that human remains are found in cemeteries this is not always the case. Cemeteries have been used over the centuries and even in the bronze age they used areas as cemeteries. There are many places where there are bodies recovered not in cemeteries, for example, Roman slaves buried in ditches, the occasional murder victim from hundreds of years ago, ritual burials such as the bog bodies. These remains are often undocumented. Graveyards are also not always documented. For example, some of the most extensive Anglo-Saxon graveyards are not documented until found. The issue is about the exhumation. In commercial archaeology, we dig to record and gather information from areas that are going to be developed. If every time we found human remains we didn’t build then construction would grind to a halt in many areas. A compromise is needed and this is enshrined in law. Archaeologists have to apply for a licence to exhume remains even a single bronze age cremation in an urn. Archaeologists are trained to excavate these with care and there are procedures and techniques used to make sure all of the remains are recovered and recorded correctly as well as stored in a respectful manner. The general rule of thumb (ie. paraphrasing the law) is that human remains are to be reburied in the manner in which they were originally buried by the religious rights used at the time. It is rare to know the religious rights used in the pre-Christian era and even then unless the burial site is known consecrated ground then you aren’t 100% certain. If it is consecrated ground the remains are reburied in a cemetery if not they are stored in a climate controlled room in museum stores.

The research and display of human remains still remains a contentious issue. Egyptian mummies are a classic example of controversy. Again this is an unending ethical debate that will never be settled but treating the remains respectfully and making sure that they aren’t destroyed is the main aim.

There are other issues that are less obvious to those outside of archaeology.

One is the amount of the site that is actually excavated. In commercial archaeology, this is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of a linear feature such as a ditch or gully and 50-100% of discrete features such as pits and postholes. important features such as ring gullies and ring ditches are often excavated at 100% as well as graves but ditches are often left with 80-90 percent excavated. In Ireland, they excavate at 100% due to the paucity of artefacts and due to different regulations but this is not the case in the UK.

Why is this an ethical issue?

Well, a construction site with foundations going through it will often leave archaeology between the modern truncation or even not actually touch it as it will be covered over, this is all dependent on the methods of construction. Archaeology also takes places in quarries. Anything not excavated is left to the machines and is quarried away. Now the majority of these ditches will be empty but if you remember what I said before about human remains in ditches? There is a potential that these could exist and would be destroyed. The pottery as well could be important. Whilst any archaeologist working on such sites will know to excavate all corners and terminal ends of ditches as this is where you are most likely to find important pottery there are times when it is found across the other parts of linear features. Excavation strategies with the placing of slots, sampling and extra slots in some ditches mitigate this factor a lot but there is still the question of whether we should be excavating everything in totality if it is to be destroyed by quarrying or construction.

Another issue is artefact retention and reporting.

How many of the finds do you keep? How much analysis do you do? Where should it be displayed?

These are questions that come up on a daily basis as a finds manager (which I am). We have to remember that what is being dug up is exactly what you would throw away if you found it in your house. Broken crockery, bones from meals or butchery, broken tools or jewellery, bent nails, burnt stones (yes burnt stones, flint especially have a search for discussion of burnt mounds it’s actually quite interesting). We are digging up what others have discarded in the past. While we can use this to build up a picture of their culture and their technological advancement we can only glean so much information from this. One of the things to consider with this is our current level of technology. nowadays carbon dating is a relatively low price so can be done relatively frequently but in the past, it was prohibitively expensive. DNA analysis is similar in modern archaeology (this is an issue that as effects forensic science and current legal cases and police departments). In the future, we may have better and easier to use technology to do a more in-depth study of the artefacts but which ones and how many of them. Museums have limited space so they can only take so much. archaeologists have limited budgets and we could spend 10 years or more working on the same sites finds before deposition especially multiphase quarry sites (something which I am currently doing at work). So now not only does an archaeologist have to decide what the research and finds tell us about the past we have to predict the technologies of the future in what we retain for further study!

There is also another big issue.

Archaeology is destructive. We, albeit carefully, rip the whole lot out of the ground and have a look at it. once done no one else can do this. Have a look above where I talk about the percentage excavation of ditches. The concept here is that techniques could advance and with a 10% excavation that leaves another 9 sets of excavation to give us more knowledge on the site. This issue becomes bigger when it comes to commercial archaeology. If a housing development is unwanted by all but the developer and his chums on the council then it may well still go through. the first work is done by the archaeologists who also get flak and a lot of it. Many would rather the heritage stayed there and the developers left. The issue here is that we need to build and that just because archaeologists are there doesn’t mean we are going to find anything. frequently we find nothing or one small feature that is completely excavated and recorded. As a commercial unit, some may view the actions as enabling the destruction of our country while it is the complete opposite. There is something to be said for leaving some of the archaeology in place for future work so again a compromise needs to be reached. This is often done by the county archaeologist, developer and commercial unit. The majority of developers are completely fine to tweak their plans, eg. move a bunker on a golf course, move a couple of house and the small park or gardens, move a car park to be over the bit that needs to be kept. Some even go so far as making it a feature. a glass floor in the lobby of a corporate building showcasing an original hearth etc.

The majority of ethical issues in archaeology stem from how much do we need to do to protect the archaeology whilst allowing society and the world to keep going. A lot of time and ink is spilt over these issues but compromise is often the best way, the UK at the moment is actually doing quite a good job before it hits the museum but that is another issue.

What are others peoples thoughts on this issue?


(This was taken from an answer I wrote on Quora that can be found here: https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-ethical-issues-concerning-archaeological-work)