The archaeological evidence for equestrianism in early Anglo-Saxon England, c.450-700

The archaeological evidence for equestrianism in early Anglo-Saxon England, c.450-700

By Chris Fern

New Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations in the Historical Past, edited by Alexsander Pluskowski (Bar International Series, No.1410, 2006)

Introduction: Studies of the phenomenon of horse burial and of horse equipment, for the early medieval period on the Continent and in Scandinavia, have demonstrated that equestrianism was an important attribute of martial elites in these regions. This is evidenced by the widespread practice of sacrificing valuable riding horses to accompany male burials equipped with weaponry, horse harness and prestige goods, and by the related tradition of richly decorating equestrian equipment. By comparison, the evidence for a parallel custom in early Anglo-Saxon England has been regarded as negligible and peripheral to the main central European distribution, and thus reflective of the relative unimportance of equitation, and by extension the use of horses for warfare, in England in the period. This study seeks to reassess the archaeological data for early Anglo-Saxon England and to demonstrate in opposition to this view that, while small, the archaeological corpus provides definite evidence for an equestrian culture at the top level of society. This is suggested by a tradition of horse harness, which, while related to Continental fashions, also demonstrates distinctly idiosyncratic traits. Furthermore, in line with European trends, on rare occasions such equipment and/or a riding horse was included in the funerary assemblages of Anglo-Saxon elites, in combination with weaponry and luxury goods. The restriction of such rites to this class is interpreted here as a deliberate act intended to signal and at the same time guard equestrian privileges.

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