Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Grave Problems

Grave Problems

We argue that forming a reasonably accurate and satisfying view of history necessitates an interdisciplinary approach, integrating evidence from archaeology, written texts, pictoral evidence, landscape evidence, reconstruction and experimentation, all with a liberal application of common-sense. However, it is crucial that it always be appreciated that all types of evidence are subject to limitations. In the case of written texts, limitations (such as biasses and selective content) are relatively obvious, but as the wealth of evidence from archaeology, particularly from excavation of cemeteries grows, there is a danger that interpreters lose sight of the particular and often extremely problematic limitations of grave evidence, or draw erroneous conclusions based on dodgy assumptions that are not often-enough challenged.  Here we discuss some observations on the difficulty of projecting conclusions about real life from Anglo-Saxon cemetery excavation findings.

It would seem that archaeologists often assume that what they dig up is a true reflection of the living person who went into the soil as a corpse. While good quality data can be got from the remains of the body; from its anatomy, its osteo-pathology, its chemical composition, DNA and carbon-dating, the same cannot be said for grave-goods, particularly martial ones. Facts can be learned from individual items, perhaps, but even good statistical data concerning, for example, the prevalence of sword burial in different parts of the country, are fraught with significant errors in interpretation. Put simply; why grave-goods are buried with a body is unknown. There is no written evidence to come to the rescue and, without knowing why, all conclusions drawn pertainting to the prevalence of certain items in society, their distributions and value are thrown into doubt.

The reason for Grave Goods

The religious reason for the deposition of grave goods in the pagan period is generally understood to be equipping the person for the afterlife. It was presumed that a warrior would remain one after death and so need his sword, shield and spear in Wælheall. Similarly, a smith would be buried with a selection of his hammers and tongs and an ale-lover with his favourite drinking-cup. This remains the simplest explanation but, in recent times, archaeologists have begun to doubt it. It has been proposed that the Anglo-Saxons might well leave graves open for a few days to allow viewing and that the deceased would lie in their relatively shallow grave surrounded y the items which identified him or her in life. Their ultimate covering-over by soil would thus be almost incidental.

Thegns' simulated c6th warrior inhumation with idealised grave-goods set.

In the case of rich and important families, particularly royalty, this display would take on another important function related to politics; wealth-display. Consigning costly weapons, gold, jewellery etc. beyond human use might be described as conspicuous consumption: ‘See how rich and powerful we are,’ it would say, ‘that we can afford to put this treasure into the grave!’.
It is interesting that during the transitional period of the 7-8th Century C.E., that folk clearly buried with Christian rites were still being buried with grave-goods including weapons. Later on, Christian burials would have few or no grave goods; the message ‘you can’t take it with you’ having finally got through.

In modern times, with the decline of organised Christianity, there seems to have been a resurgence of burials with grave goods. The obvious example of this is a dead child being buried with a favourite toy, such as a teddy-bear. If this gives comfort to a grief-stricken parent, who can fault it? and perhaps here one begins to get close to the deep-seated psychological need expressed by sending the deceased person into the long dark in the company of familiar objects. Adults are often buried with their spectacles – either so they can find their way about in the afterlife or because they had become part of their identity. Similarly, confirmed smokers often have a pack of cigarettes or their pipe put into the coffin with them or drinkers, a bottle of whiskey.

In the Anglo-Saxon and later Viking periods; grave-goods might not merely be objects but sacrificed animals such as dogs, horses or a cow in one example. There is even evidence from rare graves of a type of suttee where a favoured wife or slave-girl might willingly or unwillingly accompany her master. 

Weapon Burials

Concerning weapon burial; the interpretation can be fraught with difficulties. It is often assumed that the weapons found in a grave are the complete personal weaponry of the deceased person with whom they have been interred. From their quality and number, the archaeologist then infers the social status, wealth and even the legal status of the dead person - free or unfree - for a slave might not possess a weapon.

Idealised c6th grave mock-up with full weapon-set beside a warrior, showing what does and does not (at best) survive in the earth. Most real sets of grave-goods are, however, far less complete when interred.
Germanic weapon burials have been used to reconstruct ‘standard weapon sets’ - for example; spear and shield, sword, shield and spear etc. From these supposed weapon-sets, actual modes of combat have been projected! This is far too simplistic, particularly where there are glaringly obvious exceptions. Particularly in the early 5-6th centuries, small children were often buried with full-size adult weapons that they never could have used in life. It is far more reasonable to conclude that their families expected them to grow to adulthood in the afterlife, and so be able to use the spear buried with them or that placing a spear-head in a child’s grave marked them out as belonging to the thegnly class.

In his definitive work on Anglo-Saxon shields, Härke classified shield sizes into three categories, large, medium and small. Of these; the ‘large’ were those with a shield-board diameter of between 70-92 cm. (2¼-3 feet), the ‘medium’ were those with diameters between 45-66 cm. (1½-2 feet) and the ‘small’ which had a diameter varying between 34-42 cm (1-1½ feet). He noted that there appeared to be some correlation between the skeletal age of the individual buried with a shield and the shield size with the bigger boards being more common in the graves of mature adults. However some adults were buries with shields of not more than a foot across. Even though this type of shield tends to have a slightly smaller boss, this is not an effective size for a shield even for a twelve-year old boy just starting his warrior training and would be of no use whatsoever in a shield-wall. There exists a word in Old English for such a small shield: a plegscyld - glossed as ‘play-shield’. This derives from plega - meaning ‘quick motion, exercise or sport’. It has generally been supposed that these light shields were used like the Late Medieval ‘buckler’ to deflect sword blows, as being small and light; they could be moved about swiftly. Such a small shield would, however, be almost useless in anything other than individual combat and would have given no protection from spears or missiles. As they are a fairly common finding in early Anglo-Saxon period cemeteries, they must have had a function; too small even as practice-shields for children, the small boards may have been made specifically to go into the grave or cut down from an existing, perhaps favourite war-shield. Perhaps they were made so small as to fit into the grave?

Now, Anglo-Saxon graves vary a great deal - from shallow scoops in the earth to large pits two metres long, a metre deep and wide enough for the shoulders of the corpse; about 60 cm. Assuming an approximately rectangular grave-cut; this gives a volume of soil to be removed of 1,200,000 cm³. Assuming the density of soil to be 1.5 g/cm³, this gives a weight of soil to be dug of 1000kg or about 1¾ tons! If the grave was more shallow or narrowed towards the feet, the effort of digging it would be considerably reduced but makes fitting a large shield into the grave more problematic. Small diameter shields with normal size bosses thus make sense as specially made grave goods.

Other possible misconceptions concern swords. Quite often excavated swords have a relatively short tang, so that when reconstructed, the grip is so short as to be unusable. Some very impractical grip-techniques have been proposed to remedy this situation, which often leave the little finger curved unceremoniously around the pommel. This is clearly nonsense. What is clear, particularly since the discovery of 86 ornate pommel-caps in the Staffordshire Hoard, is that the Anglo-Saxons would re-hilt their swords on a regular basis. Even well-made hilt-fittings become loose in time and with the shock of action and the composite metal and organic hilts of early swords would have been prone to damage. Re-hilting may also have been done to bring a treasured blade back into use with the most fashionable hilt decoration. However every time a sword is re-hilted, there is loss of a small amount at the end of the tang where it has been peened over the upper guard to secure the hilt assembly. Eventually the hilt becomes so short as to preclude a safe grip-length and its only logical use is as grave-goods. Similarly, a sax with a broken tang could not be repaired strongly enough to be of use in battle but might be welded together sufficient for it to appear intact enough to go into the grave.
Given the prevalence of no-longer useful weapons among weapon-burials, it must be concluded that they took place only when it was consistent with local and current practice, could be afforded, or if a weapon was available that was no longer serviceable. This is entirely contrary to the notion that those that had swords in the pagan period would have been buried with them, and shows inferences about sword prevalence on the basis of sword-burial prevalence to be a nonesense. It is not surprising, then, that the quantity of ornate sword fittings in the Staffordshire Hoard has shown such estimates to be out by at least an order of magnitude.

Another misconception, which may vanish with the discovery of the host of hilt-fittings in the Staffordshire Hoard, is the presumption that, if a grave contained a sword with a naked tang and no hilt-fittings (such as the extremely intricate blade of the Pioneer warrior) that the sword had been buried intact but that the hilt-fittings had been entirely organic and had thus rotted away. It now seems much more likely that the precious gold and gem-encrusted fittings had been stripped from the sword prior to burial for ‘recycling’. It had never seemed appropriate that a top-of-the-range ‘pattern-welded’ blade, in life, would be finished with a only a wooden or horn hilt.

Another classic case highlighting the problems with drawing conclusions from grave goods; brooches are common in female inhumations but almost always absent from male ones. It has always been somewhat of a mystery why brooches are found in male graves so rarely. In fact, it is perfectly possible that this is the case because male costume only required a brooch (probably usually a simple annular design) to secure a cloak and that burial actually wearing a cloak was not practised; much like modern burials rarely involve the deceased wearing an overcoat. Female indoor costume was essentially held together by an array of brooches and so female-style brooches are ubiquitous. It might be inferred that men did not wear elaborate brooches (consistent with the notion that jewels belong on a man's sword, not on his person) but the selective nature of grave goods means drawing such conclusions is risky.The argument here is not that those wanting to recreate the dress of a 5th-7th century male should include elaborate brooches for which there is no satisfactory archaeological evidence, but that there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why they might have been used but not included in burials, and thus sweeping statements such as "men did not wear brooches" cannot be made with any certainty. Again, property in graves is not, and cannot be considered truly and fully representative of property in life. 

Only limited information can be gleaned from cremations. As such, only around 50% of cremation urns contain any grave-goods at all. Of these some only contain remnants of items which burned with the body on the pyre. Others were placed into the urn with the ashes. Often these goods are toilette-sets, some so small as to be functionally useless and combs, which are found to have been broken in antiquity - perhaps ‘ritually killed’: rendered useless to the living, prior to deposition.
It might seem obvious that cremation burials represent lower status and wealth than inhumation with grave-goods, but there is no reason to assume that our ancestors saw it this way. It is still not clear why certain contemporaneous people of the 5th-7th centuries, -even in the same communities- in England chose inhumation over cremation, or vice versa. However, an early Anglo-Saxon funeral pyre was laborious and expensive to construct and may have been a status symbol itself, while the ceremony would have been, for its duration, more spectacular than all but the wealthiest inhumations. Certainly, Beowulf provides ample evidence of high-status individuals being cremated. Further, the associated goods are a poor indicator, having been selected four times; by what could be afforded to be 'sacrificed', by size (to fit in the urn), by fire and then finally by time in the earth (as with grave-goods). It is particularly the case with cremations that it cannot be inferred that the absence of an object indicates an individual did not own it. There may have, for example, been many sword-bearing warriors cremated and interred with no blade. This goes further to make a nonsense of any attempt to infer the abundance or value of certain objects within communities in the period on the basis of their occurrence of grave-goods in cemeteries.

It thus must be concluded that while individual finds may be very interesting in themselves, they must be interpreted with caution in a wider context. Finds such as the Sutton-Hoo, Benty-Grange and Wolaston helms have helped clarify the meaning of mysterious phrases from Beowulf but, in interpreting grave-goods, particularly weapons and shields, one must not exclude deductive common-sense and the place of good reconstructive archaeology.

The richness of some graves compared to others in different areas may well not reflect the prevailing religious funeral rite or the wealth of an area but rather the ‘canniness’ of the folk in that area. This might well explain why helmet burial is so rare (- it is 5 lbs of valuable iron!) and mail-coat deposition (35 lbs of iron!) restricted to the one example: the über-rich burial at Mound One of Sutton-Hoo.

Swords, unless functionally useless, are better passed on to son or sister-son, than lie rusting in the sod. Everyone, though, needs a small utility knife; useful for a hundred and one tasks and maybe this and their relative cheapness, explains their being commonplace in early Anglo-Saxon graves. The deposited knife might not have a good steel cutting edge but just like the plastic flowers which garishly decorate modern graves in cemeteries across the land, it does its symbolic task; the spirit of the knife passes with the deceased into Neorxnawang. Do we leave offerings of flowers to propitiate the ghosts of our deceased relatives that they do not trouble us? Did our ancestors deck out their dead for that reason? Who can tell? - They left us no written records but that does not stop us having fun trying to work it out!


Richard Denning said...

Good article. Regarding swords I saw an interesting video about "killing swords" when burying them. As you saw it seems more appropriate to pass on swords to descendants but sometimes a sword might be of such significance that it was buried with the dead man - but ritually 'killed' by hammering it and bending it. There is one example of a such a sword in Northumbria thought to be possibly that of one of the early almost mythical Bernician kings - maybe the sword he used to carve out a kingdom. Too much associated with him to pass on and yet too powerful maybe to risk grave robbery.

Dr Andrew Thompson said...

Dear Richard,

Thanks very much for your comment! re. ‘Ritually killed’ swords.
The deliberate bending, breaking or grossly deforming the blade of a sword before burial or deposition as a votive offering is seen in ‘Celtic’ Iron-Age (La Têne) contexts but is also seen in Germanic Iron Age sites such as Illerup Ådal and Nydam Mose (http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-gXOwUHKUaEY/UfBUwDtBoWI/AAAAAAAAB9E/ganklrgTUQo/s1600/IMG_2760.JPG).
It is occasionally reported in later an Anglo-Saxon / Viking context but these examples are rare and some are disputed. My understanding is that in order to bend a well-made Migration-Age sword to a degree of rendering it ‘ritually killed’, one would need to heat the blade to a very high temperature, almost to welding-heat. Organic and non-ferrous elements would have needed to be either removed prior to this or deemed worthless.
Reported cases seem to more commonly be river depositions, perhaps analogous to the much earlier lake sacrifices of the Iron-Age, yet Anglo-Saxon (and Viking) swords seem to have been deposited in the grave with considerable care; very often in their sheaths and some even further wrapped up to protect them - almost as if they expected the sword to be recovered at some point.
‘Killing’ a weapon might certainly deter grave-robbers, such as Skoggi who broke into Hrólf Kraki’s mound to recover the sword Skofnung but as there is some literary evidence that folk considered the dead, in some sense, to be alive inside the mound; hence the stories of draugar, buried swords were probably fairly well-protected by awe.
I am personally unaware of a convincing example of a ritually-killed Anglo-Saxon sword but will keep an eye out for the case you cite. I do think that the ‘Pioneer Helm’ was probably rendered unwearable prior to burial by having its nasal bent inwards. I note, though, that the sword was intact.

It is a truly fascinating topic.

Raging Dragon said...
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Dennis said...
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