One of the areas our class spent time considering and researching was Anglo-Saxon burial practices. Due to the prevalence of cemeteries in the archaeological record, this is easier than researching clothing for example which tends to disintegrate while in the ground, but it is not without its own issues. The main challenge in understanding burials is deciphering why certain decisions were made. Without a well-maintained written record, archaeologists must infer based on objects that did not decay, such as those made of metal, and what texts have survived such as riddles and epic poems such as Beowulf.
Our group decided to explore burial practices through making by re-creating the burial process of grave 28 at the Little Eriswell cemetery in Suffolk, England. This consisted of making the grave goods and reenacting the procession and burial process at the craft fair. We were limited, however, by our own skills and experience, as well as time and access to appropriate materials. In order to assemble an exhibit that satisfied our desire to correspond with the materials but still echo an Anglo-Saxon grave, we limited the number of artifacts and substituted some of the metal objects for ones made of wood or clay.
We procured many of our items from the costume department, including glass beads, the bases for our brooches, and a pillowcase to form a bag. We made the brooches, wrist clasps, belt buckle, and “ivory” ring from clay, and Elise made wooden replicas of the girdle hangers that well-to-do Anglo-Saxon women wore on their belts. The textile group made a peplos-style dress for our “body” (a borrowed plastic skeleton) to wear in the grave.
Brooches were worn by many Anglo-Saxon women: one on each shoulder and sometimes one in the center of the chest with beads strung between them. There were different types of brooches, some of which would have indicated higher status than others. There were also regional styles of brooches that could indicate where people were from or whether they had traveled in their lifetime. Some even display influences from cultures outside England itself, indicating contact with continental societies.
We suffered a slight complication in the display of our brooches which stemmed from a misreading of the architectural report from the Eriswell cemetery. The brooch pictured above is a square headed brooch and would usually be placed in the center of the dress. We instead placed a model of a bronze rivet in the center of the chest with a square headed brooch at each shoulder. In there Eriswell grave, two cruciform brooches would have adorned the shoulders of the dress, keeping the peplos on the body. See Gale R. Owen-Crocker’s “Dress in Anglo-Saxon England” for further readings on brooches and their ritual significance.
The girdle-hangers were metal key-shaped items discovered hanging from the belts of a few different buried Anglo-Saxon women across Early Medieval England, and likely indicated that they were of high-status. The significance of they girdle-hangers is that they either resembled keys or had keys hanging from them, and symbolized the individual as the ‘keeper of the household’ because they held the keys.
More information on girdle hangers can be found here
Wrist clasps are small rectangular pieces used to hold together the sleeves of women’s dress. They would have been symbols of status due to the specific skills required to cast them. Ours were made of clay like many of the other representations rather than their original bronze. Due to the need to make inferences about what the dress would have looked like, we are unsure if these clasps were functional parts of a long sleeved dress or merely decorative adornments to a cylindrical gown
More information on wrist clasps can be found here
The peplos garment would have been belted and the belt buckle would have held the belt together. Though they were often made of bronze, fancier belt buckles made from other materials such as silver indicated that some women were of wealthier means.
Most women wore beaded necklaces as accessories, though finer pieces were probably worn by wealthier women. They often became heirlooms, passed down for several generations from mother to daughter (or daughter-in-law), and as a result archaeologists have found necklaces in graves that were already decades old when they were buried.
In addition to girdle hangers and other items that hung from the belt, women carried bags made of cloth with a sturdy ring to shape the opening. The ring in the Eriswell grave that we copied was made of ivory, but our recreation was made of unfired clay.
A dress in the traditional style of East-Anglia, it is belted at the waist and secured at the shoulders with a pair of brooches. Because clothing rots away and does not exist in the material record, we based the dress of of contemporary dresses from the continent and the archeological remains of more durable materials such as fasteners like brooches or belt buckles.
More information on textiles can be found here
Many Anglo-Saxon graves were found with pottery, usually containing ashes. However, other “storage pottery” have been found; usually, the type of pottery found in these graves were funerary urns or food bowls/pots. It was also common for normal food pots to be repurposed into funerary urns.
The grave itself:
Though it is difficult to know exactly the significance of every single detail of Anglo-Saxon burials, archaeology can provide some information for us as we went about digging and preparing the grave in which the deceased was to be buried. The grave was designed to accommodate a supine burial. It was oriented north to south, lined at the bottom with wooden sticks and the edge surrounded with stones.
Anglo-Saxons cremated their dead by burning them with a pyre, though it is debated how it was done. One idea is that the Anglo-Saxons would stack the wood on top of the body, but there are debates against this, as some people believe there wouldn’t be enough oxygen to sufficiently burn the entire body. Another idea is that the body was instead stacked on top of the pyre that was filled with brushwood. The cremation process was most likely a public event.
There is little known about actual Anglo-Saxon ritual funeral practices beyond how bodies were prepared, because the rituals do not leave traces in the record. However, evidence can be found in primary sources such as Beowulf, and also deduced from what does remain archaeologically.
We began with the body prepared and displayed on the island where the rest of the fair took place. It was meant to symbolize the preparation and display of the body and all of its grave goods within the Anglo-Saxon village before it was to be buried.
Classmates and visitors alike helped to pick up the body and carry it over to the grave site. Everyone walked together with the body as Elise, leading the procession, read laments from The Word Exchange, including excerpts from “The Husband’s Message,” “The Riming Poem,” and “The Song of the Cosmos.” When we reached the grave, the body was placed inside and Elise then gave a eulogy for the deceased which had been planned beforehand by her and Spencer. (See video below)
The eulogy for the deceased, “Ecgwynn,” described some of her accomplishments during her life and the significance that she had based on the burial context and grave goods chosen to be buried with her.
The girdle-hangers were meant to signify that she was the keeper of the household, and the eulogy indicated this by describing how Ecgwynn advised her husband and took charge of various duties within the household, such as making clothing and overseeing the production of food. It was also significant that, under her care, none of the family was cast out, all debts were paid, and nobody starved or froze.
To indicate the generally poor health of the Anglo-Saxon people, the eulogy claimed that Ecgwynn died of the ‘black pox,’ which is an ambiguous name for any number of diseases that may have killed the deceased.
Another important detail about Ecgwynn’s life would have been her role as a mother and the contributions that her children had made to the household. It was described that her two oldest sons, ‘Aescwig and Aldwin’ were warriors who effectively defended the household’s herds from another neighboring clan.