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.