Anglo-Saxon Burial Techniques
Early Anglo-Saxon burials are traditionally based on cremation on a pyre, with the deposition of
corpses in the ground in a pottery container. The Anglo-Saxons were experts at cremations, with their
pyres being atleast as efficient as today's pyres, reaching temperatures of up to 9000C. Cremation burials
were never found with weapons - it is possible, of course, that these were a part of the cremation, but
melted in the flames, but many are found with miniature weapons and miniature combs. The cremation
urns grew more elaborate in the fourth and fifth centuries, and since most other grave goods were
distorted beyond recognition, dating is based on the decoration of the urns. Also in the fourth and fifth
centuries, inhumation burials came into common use, where the unburned body is deposited in a
rectangular grave. It was probably copied from the late Roman technique, although it is suggested that it
was introduced from Denmark (Brandon 1978:23). Inhumation burials typically were accompanied by
weapons, and grave goods according to status. There were regional variations between cremation and
inhumation burials - in Sussex, inhumation was the most popular, while it was only in Anglian regions
that cremation remained dominant.
In the seventh century, Anglo-Saxon burials abruptly changed, as a direct result of
Christianization, as well as a number of other cultural and ideological areas, such as churches, sculpture
and manuscripts. Seventh century cemeteries reflect the changes that took place as a result of the new
religious outlook, by developing, on the whole, already existing sites (see figure 2).The most obvious
indicator, and in many cases the only indicator of the religion of the people who carried out the burial is
the lack of pagan objects, such as weapons- a practice encouraged by the Church. Many cemeteries were
abandoned that had been used in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the double cemetery also became
common -that is, a cemetery was abandoned and a new one was setup beside it, which obviously served
the same community, such as at Leighton Buzzard (Bedfordshire) and Winnal (Hampshire). At Ocklynge
Hill, a large cemetery was uncovered, with the inhumation graves laid out in neat rows, and orientated
east-west. The finds here include iron knives, iron spearheads, and a few buckles. These contrast strongly
with earlier grave finds in the southern part of the cemetery, including two swords, a bronze bucket, and
glass vessels (Brandon 1978:28). The change of cemetery type apparently coincided with a change of
dress - with dress pins replacing brooches in women's graves, while men were rarely buried with
weapons, except perhaps a knife.
There were a number of new types of burial present after the Church arrived, as categorized by
M. O. H. Carver (Carver 1992:84 - 89). The first of these is the 'Final Phase' burial, which is basically a
transition between a pagan inhumation, with the corpse being accompanied typically by clothes, jewelry,
weapons and other personal belongings, and a Christian inhumation, where the corpse is unclothed and
unfurnished, except for a shroud. On the whole, these burials have very few grave goods when compared
to the previous pagan period, and some have no grave goods at all. The graves are aligned east-west, after
the Christian fashion, and all except a very small number are inhumation - after the sixth century,
cremations become almost redundant. The bodies are mostly supine, and slightly flexed, although there is
a wide range of variety of structures around the graves, such as beds, chambers, ditches, mounds and even
parts of boats.
Another type of burial identified, is that of the 'Princely' burial, normally located under a mound,
with a high number of quality grave goods. They contain either a cremation or an inhumation, but
unfortunately most have been disturbed before being properly excavated, making a complete
understanding of these burials difficult. One such burial is that of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, on the River
Deben (see figure 3). There were a number of burials here, all of them under mounds. The first grave was
dug either in the late sixth or early seventh century, and a coffin containing a body was inhumed. A spear,
shield, bucket, pot and cauldron were included, and food had been buried with the body. A bridle was
found around the head of the coffin, which is still being excavated by the British Museum. The body was
that of a young man, and beside him in a parallel grave, his horse was buried, and a mound built over both
graves (Anon 1992:326).
Mound 5 was the next burial, and was unusual by Anglo-Saxon standards in that burial mounds
usually cover inhumations, rather than cremations, as is the case here. The corpse was obviously that of a
high ranking person, as indicated by the grave goods, includ- ing a pair of tweezers, shears, a bone comb,
and a play- ing piece (Anon 1992:326). The cremation was places in a bronze pot and covered with cloth.
An interesting reflection of Anglo-Saxon society was the graves sur- rounding mound 5 - the so-called
'sand-men', which appear to have been human sacrifices - certainly this practice was not unknown
amongst Germanic peoples in the early Middle Ages. All that remains of them are stains in the sand, but
their postures are very odd - some had their hands tied behind their backs, some were face down, and in
some cases the neck was broken or the head had been cut off and placed by the hand or knee. A likely
explanation for this is that the Anglo-Saxons were rebelling against Christianity, and were making a
statement about their allegiance to Scandinavia and their nonacceptance of Christianity.
Near this burial, 3 standard seventh century burials were found, all children, the best preserved
being that of a child of around four, which was found with a tiny spear, and a tiny buckle, under a mound
only 2 m. in diameter. The nature of the goods indicates that perhaps the child was part of a wealthy
family and suggests that status could be inherited by this time (Anon 1992:327).
Most dramatic of all are the two ship burials at Sutton Hoo - a far cry from the rows of ships
found at Vendel or Valsgdrde in Sweden, but nevertheless, significant for England. The chamber of the
earliest of these, in Mound 2, is an underground room constructed of robust oaken planks, and had been
robbed in 1860. However, the imprints of finds were left on the floor, and 140 minute fragments of gold
and silver were found. The imprints were identified as a shield, a drinking horn, die, a box and a tub. Also
the position of the body was established, again from imprints. It was clearly a high status burial,
comparable to that of Mound 1, although the boat was slightly shorter than that of Mound 1, being only
20 m long.
Mound 1 itself was uncovered in 1939, and was notably different from that of Mound 2 (see
figures 4 and 5). The ship was larger (30 m.) and the burial rite was different, the ship having been
dragged and placed in position, before the burial chamber was erected in the middle of it, rather than the
other way around. The chamber was full of high status grave goods, including buckles, shoulder clasps, a
purse, a sword, drinking horns and a lyre. A great silver dish was found, associated with the Byzantine
Empire. Symbols of royalty were stored at one end of the chamber - a shield, helmet, iron standard with a
bronze stag and a symbolic whetstone (Anon 1992:330). These last two burial took place after
Christianity had taken hold over much of Anglo-Saxon England, and like Mound 5 were an act of
defiance against the Church, and a statement of allegiance with Scandinavia - the last significant pagan
burials in Anglo-Saxon England.
A third type of Anglo-Saxon burial is the 'Unfurnished' burial, which are, due to their nature, very
hard to define or date. They are a direct result of Christianity, and are generally orientated east-west. They
are usually dated by radiometric or stratigraphic methods, but neither of these is absolute. However,
features within the grave are useful, such as stone, charcoal or coffins, all of which may help distinguish
Anglo-Saxon burials from later burials.
The final type of burial is the 'Deviant' burial, also known as 'execution' burials of 'battlefield'
burials. They have little or no grave goods, and graves are poorly defined, with corpses often being buried
in mass graves. The 'sand-men' burials of Sutton Hoo are examples of this, and, as mentioned, corpses
may be found in a variety of unnatural positions, indicating ritual abuse and human sacrifice.
At the beginning of the eighth century we also see the beginnings of churchyard burials, which
typically have no grave finds.
1. What are the typical characteristics of an Anglo Saxon burial?
2. How did Anglo Saxon burials change over time? What accounts for this?