Both pagans and Christians coexisted for some centuries, each of them with different practices related to the veneration of their deities and the rituals this implicated. Like in many other cultures, just like nowadays, death was another step in life. However, death involved the reunion of the deceased with his ancestors and even with the Gods, therefore it is understandable that burials and other practices related with death represent religious connotations of these individuals.
Starting with a classic the account of Ibn Fadlan on Viking burials on the other hand provides details of the actual Scandinavian rites of death; from the moment in which the corpse was temporarily buried to the burning of the funerary ship. If you have seen The 13th Warrior , you probably get the idea: human sacrifice, chanting, party, the Angel of Death and her spooky predicaments…Nonetheless, there is a major problem in relying on this type of sources — Fadlan I mean, not the movie — religious bias, judgement and exaggeration.
The situation is slightly different once the archaeological records are approached. Even though they provide us with key information about the practice of burials the disposal of the bodies, the grave-goods they used, etc. It is usually assumed that if the orientation of the grave is east-west and has no grave-goods then the burial is Christian, while if it is flexed and presents irregularities it is most likely to be pagan, but it does not always work like that.
In addition, it has to be considered that throughout time graves have been re-used or even robbed , leaving both archaeologists and historians without their original context — and as you know I am a fan of context, because contact is crucial. One could easily assume that interments within a churchyard with no grave-goods are most likely Christian burials, as the members of the Church would not let a non-Christian disturb their eternal place of rest.
Moreover, we have the reassurance that certain type of graves and markers are most certainly Christian, due to a prolonged and consistent use of these. For example, head box graves at least from the 7 th century onwards seem to have a clear Christian connotation.
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In addition, it seems likely that the Ogam stones of Cork and Kerry with the ANM inscription are related to Christian individuals as well, as the language used in them is Latin, or Latin influenced, and usually contain the depiction of the cross. The same could be said about the stones marked in their wider face with Maltese crosses, which have been dated from sometime between the 6 th and the 8 th century from Ireland to the Hebrides and that have clear parallels in the continent.
In the same way, certain practices could be considered, and have been considered pagan per se. Cremations have been regarded as pure pagan practice and have not been questioned by historians for a long time. In addition, the burials with grave-goods, especially horses, or horse related artefact, are usually considered a pagan practice which was particularly prominent in the Germanic speaking areas.
In Frisia unlike anywhere else both cremation and horse burial practice carried on as late as the 9 th century. There are other odd burials that are commonly regarded as non-Christian: human sacrifices. This seems quite prominent in Scandinavian and Germanic lands — remember Ibn Fadlan and the 13th Warrior?
We even references to human sacrifice in the Carolingian capillary regarding Saxony. Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader , p. Praising the presentation of the evidence and the "particularly elegant" illustrations, she believed that he would have benefitted from including information on the Prittlewell Prince burial, Franks Casket , and a wider array of contemporary literary sources. More critically, she noted the existence of several typos in the text, believing that it could have benefited from a "firmer editorial hand", and believed that its "textbook style" made the work difficult to read at points.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Book by Howard Williams. Nash, George Time and Mind. Webster, Leslie Williams, Howard Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain. Moreover, the unpredictability of the funeral in dealing with the sensory and corporeality of the dead can be as significant as any expected formulaic ritual procedures in evoking emotions among the survivors.
This is because each cadaver can respond in unexpected ways to the mortuary process to which it is subject Williams Furthermore, all manner of practical and social factors can create complications to the planned transition of the deceased from dangerous ghost to benign ancestor see Connor For archaeologists, it may not be possible to reconstruct the myriad of emotional responses to bereavement and their varied cultural manifestations. However, the emotional force of these sensory interactions is something that may be possible for us to begin to theorise.
While reluctant to impose modern Western emotional dispositions towards death onto her archaeological data, she argues that the emotional engagements with the dead focused on the abjection of the corpse, and were mediated by technologies and material culture. Such arguments have received limited attention for early medieval archaeology, although the potential is considerable. Examples might include, a more detailed consideration of the deliberate state-evocation of fear in the grisly public execution and burial of criminals Reynolds , the emotive forces influencing the differential treatment of different age and gender groups in death Stoodley , or acts of fragmentation or violence done to corpses in attempts to disperse the pollution of death Artelius The widespread placing of drinking vessels in Merovingian and early Anglo- Saxon graves might, in part, represent the importance of mourners expressing bereavement through the consumption of food and drink Effros Among these many potential lines of enquiry, this paper considers the emotive forces generated in the early Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite.
Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages
Burial rites at West Heslerton, North Yorkshire Excavations near West Heslerton in North Yorkshire uncovered part of an early medieval cemetery that focused upon a prehistoric monumental complex Haughton and Powlesland a: 9— Despite the truncated graves containing poorly preserved human remains see Haughton and Powlesland a: 14—22 , the quality of the excavations, and the excavation report have made the cemetery influential in recent discussions of migration, ethnicity and social organisation in later fifth and sixth- century eastern England Budd et.
At West Heslerton, there is a considerable variability in terms of the grave size, shape, orientation although most were oriented with heads to the west , burial posture including supine, flexed, crouched interments, as well as prone and bound individuals and the provision of grave structures coffins and other organic stains were recognised in some graves. Many graves produced evidence of dress accessories and grave goods, although organic remains did not usually survive see Haughton and Powlesland a: 87— These practices appear to have varied between funerals, in part in relation to the age and sex of the deceased, as discussed by Lucy , The cemetery seems to have had multiple foci, possibly developing in familial or household burial plots, in discrete clusters around the prehistoric monuments Haughton and Powlesland a: 93—96, Lucy This theme can be best identified in the weapon burial rites at West Heslerton.
As in other cemeteries, most individuals upon osteological examination were adults, and most were confirmed as adult males, although the possibility remains that some females were afforded the rite. Figure 1. Grave 73 from West Heslerton contained an elderly adult and evidence of a coffin. The positions of the spearhead and ferrule suggest that the weapon was broken prior to deposition Re-drawn by Brynmor Morris, after Haughton and Powlesland b: The weapon burials were mostly clothed and postured for burial in a flexed or supine position in graves just large enough to contain the body.
Thus, the graves afforded a context of brief display, but also intimate engagements and the successive enclosure of the cadaver. Fragmentation The frequency of small graves with flexed burials at West Heslerton might be taken as evidence of lazy grave-diggers, but it might be argued that we are looking here at a conscious choice of the survivors to place the dead in a confined space and wrapped in place. Indeed, the wealthiest burials were contained in graves so short that an extended posture was not feasible.
A further outcome of these small graves was the role and treatment of the weapons in relation to the cadaver.
Certainly we can imagine that the artefacts were used in mortuary displays prior to burial, perhaps only a portion of a wider assemblage, many of which were subsequently circulated among the mourners. Against this background it is notable that some of the deposited weapons appear to have been broken, seemingly deliberately for burial. Shields and swords may have been decommissioned in this manner, but it is the spearheads that provide the clear-cut evidence. In both instances where spearheads were found by the heads of the skeletons e.
However, other graves from West Heslerton provide even more conclusive evidence of weapon-fragmentation. In weapon grave 73 the spearhead and ferrule were in correct alignment, but found too close to each other to suggest that they represent a whole and unbroken weapon Haughton and Powlesland b: See Fig. An iron ferrule of a spear, wrapped in a fleece with a horn-handled iron knife adjacent to the two spearheads, were also found close to the skull. Again, this suggests that either the spear-shaft was completely detached and placed in the grave, or destroyed elsewhere Haughton and Powlesland b: — The act of breaking the spears could be regarded as a purely prosaic and practical act to facilitate their interment.
Yet both the fragmenting of the weapons and the act of their placing in the grave, can be regarded as emotive gestures by the survivors, and as important as the tableau created with the cadaver itself.
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Figure 2. Grave from West Heslerton containing an adult with two spearheads, a ferrule and a knife by the head, suggesting from their position that they were broken before being placed in the grave Re-drawn by Brynmor Morris, after Haughton and Powlesland b: This argument, in turn, provides a new perspective on those burials at West Heslerton, purported by Lucy to be osteologically-sexed females with weapons.
This occasional phenomenon can be viewed in a number of ways: as evidence of female-warriors, ritualised roles taken on by selective adult females, evidence of a third-gender in early Anglo-Saxon society, more prosaically as evidence for the re-use of a weapon as a female- gendered artefact, or simply a misattribution of osteological sexing.
Yet in the light of the evidence above, graves such as Fig.
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Figure 3. Grave from West Heslerton containing an adult with a spearhead that from its position must have been broken when placed in the grave. Evidence of mineralised plant material adhering to the spearhead suggested to the excavator that the grave was covered with straw.
Burial of the Christian Dead in the Later Middle Ages - Oxford Handbooks
The osteological report suggested this was a female skeleton Re-drawn by Brynmor Morris, after Haughton and Powlesland b: Closure The location of shields in the grave cannot be used to prove that these objects were deliberately broken, but they equally cast doubt upon their role in simply creating a tableau.
The shields are likely to have been striking artefacts, adorned with iridescent and brightly decorated surfaces. This is evident, for example, in the position of the shield boss adjacent to the head of the flexed adult male, aged between 25 and 30 years, interred in grave 72, also with two spearheads and a knife Haughton and Powlesland b: When we consider the possibility that spears, shields and swords were themselves sheathed or wrapped, and therefore not fully on display in the burial tableau, we move further away from a consideration of grave goods as concerning primarily visual display.
Figure 4. Plan of the central area of the West Heslerton Anglo-Saxon cemetery focusing upon a prehistoric monumental complex. The distribution of weapon burials and the combinations of swords, spears and shields found in each grave are denoted Re-drawn by Brynmor Morris, after Haughton and Powlesland a: Howard Williams Clusters of weapon burials The clustering of weapon burials in one area of the site raises the possibility that each interment was a response to the memory of earlier graves, probably still visible by their mounds or grave-markers.
While a precise sequence of graves is difficult to determine due to limited inter-cutting itself evidence of the recognition of existing grave-locations , it can be argued that the image produced temporarily in each weapon burial encouraged attempts at innovative replication in subsequent funerals see Williams 42— No two burials are identical, with each burial involving different combinations of weapons and body-postures.
However, the commonalities they share suggest that they represent successive permutations upon the same theme. In particular, burials G72, G73 and G74 were placed in a line, with the bodies in comparable flexed postures despite different weapon combinations two on the right side, one on the left side: Haughton and Powlesland b: — Both the display and transformation of the cadavers during each discrete funerary event rendered them memorable, and encouraged subsequent graves to respond to them through measures of similarity and difference in burial procedure see Chapman At West Heslerton, this applies to a series of skeletons in prone or bound postures.
Whether these represent sacrifices, criminals, witches, or simply individuals who died in unusual or distinctive circumstances and were denied the burial procedures of other community members, it is likely that their burial is not explicable as simply disrespect. Instead, it is argued that the placing of large stone blocks over the grave of a female child in grave Haughton and Powlesland b: , or the placing of the body of a sub-adult, aged between 15 and 20, in a prone position with the legs seemingly tied behind her back in grave Haughton and Powlesland b: Artelius Figure 5.
Grave from West Heslerton containing a sub-adult in a prone position. The body had been dressed for death with female-gendered artefacts, including brooches, beads and pendants. A purse by the pelvis contained latchlifters and a walnut amulet. A wooden?
Early Medieval Memories
This argument is not incompatible with regarding their deaths as caused by judicial execution or sacrificial killing, but it does not depend on this assumption. Here, a clothed adult female was found sprawled prone in a shallow grave-cut overlying an earlier supine extended and wealthily furnished female burial in grave Perhaps when the orchestrated transformation of the dead failed, the cadaver required distinctive, perhaps sometimes improvised, mortuary provisions to deal with the situation. Discussion If this paper were to broaden out the discussion to other early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, it would be possible to discuss the emotive force of both image production and closure in contrasting ways, through the posturing and adornment of the body, the interment of artefacts, and the different uses of inhumation and cremation technologies Williams For the purposes of this short article, we have seen how the graves at West Heslerton illustrate that furnishing graves was an emotive performance.
Placing the emphasis on mnemonic transformation rather than symbolic display makes a great deal of sense when addressing the different types of early medieval grave encountered in the early medieval archaeological record. The early Anglo-Saxon cremation process certainly involved the composition of a tableau upon the pyre of the dressed and adorned body, but this was rapidly followed by the cremation, collection of the ashes, and consignment of the ashes within an urn in a communal cemetery Williams The argument is equally appropriate for early medieval furnished inhumations, including those from Snape in Suffolk, where the excellent preservation of organic remains and detailed and careful excavation techniques show the complex sequence of ritual acts involved in composing and closing burials Filmer-Sankey and Pestell , Williams — This is because the wealthy chamber-graves at Prittlewell and mound 1 at Sutton Hoo involved the covering and consignment of objects and structures in an elaborate sequence, rather than simply a single- stage extravagant display Carver , Williams — However, archaeologists are still seduced into regarding complex mortuary procedures as static mortuary displays.
The funerals were undoubtedly public events aimed at an audience beyond the immediate family, but they also involved intimate engagements with the cadaver and artefacts involving gestures and technologies that created emotive force by transforming the dead, facilitating the selective remembering, and forgetting of the dead person by the community through the ritual process.
Archaeologists cannot dig up early medieval emotions, but the emotive force of practical actions in the West Heslerton weapon burials can be regarded as an importance mechanism by which early medieval social memories were produced and reproduced. The author would like to thank the organiser for her invitation and to the Leeds audience for their helpful questions and observations. Thanks are also due to Alice Stevenson and Natalie White for discussions and invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
Many thanks to Brynmor Morris for preparing the illustrations. References Artelius, T.