By Jo Buckberry
Anglo-Saxon studies in archaeology and history 14: early medieval mortuary practices, eds. S. Semple and H. Williams (Oxford, 2007)
Introduction: It has been frequently assumed that, following the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Christianity and the establishment of monasteries and minster churches during the seventh and eighth centuries, cemeteries were commonly located next to churches. However, following the excavation and publication of several late Anglo-Saxon cemeteries that were not located adjacent to a church, or were adjacent to a church that went out of use during the Anglo-Saxon or medieval period, this interpretation has been recently challenged. In addition, an increasing number of late Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries, Scandinavian cemeteries and isolated Scandinavian burials have been identified away from church sites. It has also been frequently assumed that late Anglo-Saxon burial practice was relatively uniform and ‘egalitarian’ in which all social classes were united in death within a common religious belief system provided by Christianity.
However, recent research has suggested that late Anglo-Saxon period funerary practices remained an important arena for social display as they had been in the fifth, sixth and early seventh centuries, although little systematic work has been undertaken investigating and quantifying the forms and variety of late Anglo-Saxon burial rites. Even less work has been undertaken comparing these different funerary rites with the increasing quantity and quality of osteological evidence for the late Anglo-Saxon period, a methodology that has proved successful in the interpretation of early and mid Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. This paper will attempt to draw these themes together by discussing the range and variation of burial rites within late Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, and investigating the relationship between osteological and funerary evidence within a sample of cemeteries in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. It will be argued that burial practices were not egalitarian in the late Anglo-Saxon period. Instead, this study reveals that aspects of social identity influenced the choice of burial rites accorded to the deceased.
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