Redating Early England

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Explaining the end of Early Anglo-Saxon funerary traditions

Dressed for the next world: a 6th-century woman, buried at Oakington, Cambridgeshire, wearing Anglo-Saxon finery including a brooch and a necklace.


While rewriting the Neolithic in Gathering Time (CA 259), Alex Bayliss was also working with John Hines and a team of experts on a longer-term project to discover what new scientific techniques could reveal about Early Anglo-Saxon burials. The results shed fascinating light on an England where kings and the Church were seeking to tighten their grip on power, as Matthew Symonds found out.

Theodore of Tarsus was no ordinary visitor. Born in the Byzantine Empire, he arrived in England on 27 May AD 669. Theodore’s trip was motivated by business rather than pleasure. The 67-year-old had travelled from Rome after being ordained the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian. The England Theodore entered was, nominally at least, a mostly God-fearing land aligned to the Roman church. All of the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had already renounced paganism, a process that started with St Augustine’s famous conversion of King Aethelbert of Kent in 597. But the new Archbishop’s appointment was no sinecure.

Building the church
With territorial turf wars raging between bishops, and unresolved questions about episcopal power structures, the fledgling church in England was in dire need of formal reorganisation. There was also a very real danger that the supposedly successful Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was no more than a veneer. While kings and their consorts tilted their heads to Rome, just how far down the social ladder had the new religion stepped? Despite the Church’s popularity among the elite, influential people over large areas of England clung to the old ways. Many were still being buried with ostentatious grave goods in an identical style to their heathen forebears.

Man on a mission: this stone relief depicting Theodore of Tarsus decorates the wall of a Catholic church dedicated to him in Crawley, West Sussex.

Theodore’s brief was to don the twin mantles of enforcer and organiser, allowing the church to consolidate its grip on England and make Christianity a reality for all the population. It was a task that the new archbishop pursued vigorously. Embarking on a grand tour of the English parts of Britain, Theodore held a synod at Hertford in 673 that tackled the thorny issues of territory and structure head-on. By the time of his death in September AD 690, the archbishop’s reforming zeal had paid dividends. Given a glowing write-up in the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, Theodore is lauded as ‘the first archbishop whom the whole church in England agreed to obey’.

While Theodore’s success as a church executive is undoubted, his impact on the practice of furnished burial has been less clear. The historical records are almost silent on this point, leading generations of scholars to conclude that what went on below ground was of little concern to an archbishop dedicated to forging a church structure that would endure for centuries.

Such apparent indifference could easily be explained as canny Realpolitik that acknowledged it was more pressing to bend the living than the dead to the strictures of the Church. Yet for a religion based on death, judgement, and resurrection, the omission is a curious one. Now, new research indicates that the echoing silence about funerary practice in the written record may have promoted an entirely misleading impression of its contemporary importance.

Excavations under way at the celebrated Mound 1 ship burial at Sutton Hoo, while dig patron Mrs  Pretty (and friends) look on. Between 1938 and 1939, the site yielded a wealth of spectacular grave goods, including this gold belt buckle (below), now on display at the British Museum.

Where, O Death, is your victory?
Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are among the more dramatic sites encountered by archaeologists in Britain. They are dreaded by developers because of the price tag that accompanies any excavation, and the word ‘bling’ is rarely far from popular accounts of the artefacts frequently found adorning the deceased. While our view of both Anglo-Saxon grave goods and the period in general is coloured by the regal riches unearthed at Sutton Hoo, individuals of far more modest means could also receive a furnished burial.

Men were typically interred with rudely functional militaria, ranging from a spear to knives, shields, and occasionally swords. Women, however, could enter the earth wearing dazzling jewellery. Fashionable female accessories can include brooches, necklaces, pendants, bracelets, buckles, belt fittings, and even in one case at Oakington a cow (CA 270). Such ostentation was anathema to the Church, which was Sutton-Hoo-1contemptuous of worldly values and sought equality in death. Although the uniformity of early Christian rites is easily exaggerated — it took a while for the norm of burial in a shroud within an orientated grave dug in a churchyard to coalesce — there is a long pedigree of early writers, including Tertullian (c.AD 160-225), pondering best practice.

When Theodore of Tarsus landed in AD 669, it appears very likely that a style of burial practice whose origins lay firmly in the pagan period was still entrenched in large tracts of England. Far less certain is when and why this distinctive rite was finally extinguished. Like most subjects of academic debate, attempts to explain the disappearance of pre-Christian traditions from Anglo-Saxon burial practices have seen various competing theories fall in and out of fashion. Discussion of this topic has been particularly heated over the last 40 years or so.

His and hers grave goods: many pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon burials contain artefacts that are broadly specific to a particular sex. At Oakington, Cambridgeshire, this 6th-century woman has been laid to rest with her jewellery (and also a cow), while a shield boss can be seen in the male burial below.

Up to the 1970s the Church was seen as the prime driver of change, with the gradual conversion of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms triggering a slow but relentless purging of an innately heathen tradition. By the 1980s and 1990s radiocarbon dates were revealing that churchyards as we understand them today were not really established until the 10th century, leaving a yawning gap between the last ‘pagan’ burials and their Christian successors. Equally, historians were increasingly worried about the lack of any concrete evidence for direct church involvement, such as issuing decrees, in the key regions where change was afoot.

Eventually these factors prompted a move away from the conversion hypothesis and the emergence of a new consensus, which held that the church adopted a laissez-faire approach to burial, with the clergy content to sit back and allow the old ways to die of natural causes. Common to both models is what could be called a long chronology. The disappearance of furnished burial was seen as a drawn-out process, starting in the AD 590s and only petering out as late as 740, half a century after Theodore’s death.

IMG_6720-MSIn truth, all attempts to understand the processes creating the change visible in the archaeological record were hamstrung by the absence of a robust chronology for the burials. Dating was dependent on the objects placed in the graves, and in particular combinations of different artefacts, a technique known as seriation. At its simplest, the presence of items A and B would be indicative of one date, while the combination of B and C would imply a later burial. Such cross-dating has been refined by centuries of careful scholarship, but could easily carry a margin of error of half a century or so.

Despite advances in the sequencing of grave-assemblages, thorough analysis of Europe-wide relationships, and associations with datable coins and dendrochronologically datable wood, that was how the situation stood in the 1990s, when Alex Bayliss, then Scientific Dating Co-ordinator at English Heritage and now Head of Scientific Dating, began searching in earnest a project to test whether advances in scientific dating techniques could make a real difference to the understanding of this period.

Ongoing conservation work on the boss has revealed rare traces of wood and textile.

Bring up the bodies
While the advent of radiocarbon dating in the 1950s had revolutionised knowledge of the timescales involved in prehistory, the technique had proved less fruitful for the post-Roman era. With a level of precision that might return a date range of AD 410-650, if you were lucky, the method seemed to hold little promise for advancing Anglo-Saxon studies. By the early 1990s, though, increasingly sophisticated statistical techniques were producing jaw-droppingly tight dates for prehistoric monuments. Long barrows constructed around 6,000 years ago, for example, were being dated to within 30-year limits. If such precision could be replicated in the Early Medieval period, it would be a major step forward.

Much of the new precision in radiocarbon dates was achieved using a form of mathematical analysis known as Bayesian modelling. Discussed in detail in CA 259, this approach allowed the raw scientific data provided by analysis of an organic sample to be refined by independently datable artefacts present within the archaeological sequence. As furnished Anglo-Saxon graves offered a wealth of broadly datable artefacts and lay at the heart of a long-running academic dispute, they offered a tempting target.

‘Really we were a technique in search of an application,’ Alex explains. ‘The reason we picked the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period was simply because of the shape of the radiocarbon calibration curve, which makes it easier to get tight dates in some periods than others. At the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period the curve is fairly flat, so close dating is difficult. In the later part the curve is very steep, which promised much greater precision. Even so, no one had ever attempted to get dates to within a few decades in any part of the Anglo-Saxon period. We wanted to find out whether you could get the necessary level of precision and accuracy. There was no point trying to get dates within a century, because we could already get that information from the finds.’

This graph shows probability distributions for the end date of furnished burials in England for men (blue/purple lines), women (red line), and overall (orange/green lines), according to the final, preferred, chronological model.
The northernmost site analysed by the researchers was Norton in County Durham, where Cleveland County Council Archaeology Section (now Tees Archaeology) uncovered a 6th- to 7th-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery in 1984-1985. The shield boss and spearhead visible in this grave testify to the weapons that accompanied its occupant to the next life.

Commencing in 1998, the project relied on two strands of enquiry. The first involved generating a gazetteer of all known burials with grave goods interred during the relevant period, and then generating what looked like a chronological sequence using correspondence analysis of the artefacts. The second required new radiocarbon dates to be secured from around 120 burials out of the 572 sequenced in that way. Both tasks proved to be monumental labours.

The beauty of Anglo-Saxon grave goods piqued the interest of early antiquarians, inspiring them to commission sumptuous and detailed drawings of the objects. As there was no complicated stratigraphy to trip up these pioneering investigators, the project was able to make use of records dating back as far as the 1750s by Brian Fawcett, an antiquary active in Kent. Bringing this wealth of information together allowed Karen Høilund Nielsen to test existing typologies and develop some important new ones.

One problem that the project quickly ran into was that the same level of care and attention had not been lavished on the skeletons accompanied by the grave goods. ‘We needed articulated human bodies that were unquestionably buried with specific artefacts,’ Alex remembers. ‘One difficulty was that a lot of the old excavations held on to the artefacts but not the skeletons. Equally, a lot of recent excavations kept the objects, but were legally obliged to rebury the bodies. Most of the sampled skeletons were dug up between now and the First World War, but even then there are gaps.’

Traces of remains: soil conditions do not always favour the preservation of human bone. When the soil is particularly acidic, bones can disintegrate, leaving only a faint stain — as with
this classic ‘sand body’ from Sutton Hoo.

‘In some parts of the country, particularly East Anglia, bones have been dissolved by acidic soils. So somewhere like Mucking, which is a major Anglo-Saxon cemetery dug in the 1960s, we could not get our hands on any samples at all because the bodies had simply disintegrated in the earth. Despite these obstacles we secured samples from a wide range of cemeteries, stretching from Norton in County Durham to as far west as Derbyshire and the eastern fringes of Somerset. So basically we managed to span Anglo-Saxon England, because everything to the west and north of that was still in British hands at the time. All of this demonstrates how important it is that our museum collections are curated properly. We could not have undertaken this study without people keeping these materials for the last 70 years.’

Radiocarbon dating large numbers of high-precision samples takes time. Each sample spent 6-8 months in the radiometric counters at the Queen’s University, Belfast, a time-lag that there is no way to speed up. When the final results of the dating programme were drawn together in 2008, they revealed some major surprises. Chief among these was that rather than a gradual decline over 150 years, the practice of furnished burials came to an abrupt end in the AD 670s-680s. The disappearance of these rites coincided exactly with Theodore of Tarsus’s period as primate. Dates alone cannot, of course, prove a direct link between the elimination of furnished burial and the reforming zeal of this hero of the early Church. Even so, it seems overwhelmingly likely that one of Theodore’s unsung achievements was to effect a far more radical shift in burial practice among the general population than previously considered possible.

John Hines, Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University, emphasises the significance of the new dates. ‘We can now argue with real conviction that this final break with tradition is a product of the Church consolidating its position,’ he states.

The 7th-century ‘princely’ burial at Prittlewell, near Southend, Essex, was excavated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (now MOLA) in 2003.

‘While Theodore of Tarsus is a key figure, we can also see a degree of opportunism, as this is really the first time that the Church in England was in a position to enforce a norm of burial more in keeping with its preferences.’ ‘While Church leaders of the late 7th century, such as St Cuthbert, could be dug up and reburied with objects including his pectoral cross and portable altar, other levels of society had to find new ways to mark their status. Over time this was done by being buried close to the church or even within a church. The Church’s success in taking control of this aspect of people’s material life and experience can be measured by its endurance for many centuries, surviving even the shockwaves of Viking invasions.’

Anglo-Saxon armaments control
The programme of Bayesian dating has also helped to clarify shifting fashions in treatment of the dead prior to the final disappearance of furnished burial in the AD 670s or 680s. One particularly eye-catching development can now be confidently assigned to a century earlier in the 570s, when there is a sudden and marked decline in male and female burials with grave goods. Once tentatively linked to the initial arrival of Christian missionaries in 597, the new dates make it clear that this shift in practice begins too early for it to be explicable through church interference. Equally interesting is that while female burials with grave goods reappear for a spectacular final flourish from the 620s or 630s through to the 670s or 680s, male weapon burials maintain a low profile right up to the final cessation of furnished burials.

Sword fittings (not to scale) from the Staffordshire Hoard, a stunning collection of largely military material. It is hoped that findings from Hines and Bayliss’s survey of funerary customs may help to shed light on assemblages such as this.

Attempts to interpret these changes are still in their earliest stages, but John Hines feels that these developments might reflect broader social changes. ‘The old style of production and marketing was decentralised and in the hands of itinerant craftsmen,’ he points out, ‘so that anyone with the means could get hold of whatever commodities they desired. This situation changed when communities began to coalesce as political units around powerful central figures who would ultimately emerge as kings. Chris Scull and I are wondering whether these central figures are taking control of the flow of resources, the distribution of metals, and the work of the craftsmen capable of fashioning these objects. That is precisely the sort of shift that might, just might, trigger the change in the material record that we see.’

‘There is also another phenomenon that is particularly conspicuous within the period from the 570s through to the 620s. This is the time of the great princely burials: of Taplow, the Prittlewell chamber grave (CA 190), Broomfield, and Sutton Hoo mounds 17 and 1. These exceptionally lavish burials show us a new social elite that is beginning to look royal. Once female furnished burials reappear in the 620s or 630s there is definitely an overall increase in the number of furnished graves, and also in the quantity of material that was being produced and circulated. But we are really only seeing that increase through a massive increase in female graves. The quantity of male burial goods remains remarkably stable.’

‘There is one big contemporary deposition of weapon material that might provide a clue to what is going on, which is the Staffordshire Hoard. This proves that there were large collections of weaponry around; but there were very, very limited occasions on which people were allowed to inter these implements within graves. The implication seems to be that weapons are being much more tightly controlled than the women’s jewellery. Why? I think that we might be seeing Anglo- Saxon armaments control. The new political elite appear to be very concerned about controlling who has got weaponry, who can carry it, and what happens to it. I must stress that all of this is a working hypothesis that needs to be explored in much greater depth. But this is the direction Chris Scull and I are looking in at the moment.’

Timing is everything
While the ramifications of this new chronology for Anglo-Saxon burials will doubtless be debated for years to come, Alex Bayliss believes that one key outcome of this project is a profound shift in the status of archaeology within the study of this period. ‘As a geek, what is exciting is that radiocarbon dating is enabling archaeology to negotiate on equal terms with the historians.’ Alex says. ‘Remember that just 20 years ago radiocarbon dates were floundering around in a few centuries — now we are floundering around in a few decades.’

‘This project is really about redefining the boundaries between archaeology and history. Peter Sawyer infamously accused historical archaeology of being “an expensive way of telling us what we already know”. In contrast, this project has achieved a real step forward in our understanding comparatively cheaply, by using samples that have been carefully saved in museum archives. So this is an affordable way of telling us something that no one even suspected.’

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