Research uncovers how Christianity changed Anglo-Saxon burial practices

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During the 670s and 680s there was a dramatic change in how people were buried in Anglo-Saxon England, according to a new study released by English Heritage.

The skeleton and Christian cross as they were found in Trumpington Meadows, Cambs a site which has  been confirmed as one of the UK's earliest Christian burial sites.

The skeleton and Christian cross as they were found in Trumpington Meadows, Cambs a site which has been confirmed as one of the UK’s earliest Christian burial sites.

The research project, which was done with Cardiff University and the Queen’s University Belfast, examined 572 Anglo-Saxon burials from across England and was able to give them more precise dating by using a new method to combine the radiocarbon dates on skeletons from graves with analysis of the typological sequence of their accompanying grave goods.

They reveal that around the end of the seventh century the pre-Christian tradition of of burying men and women fully clothed with weapons, dress fittings, and other equipment, had disappeared. The researchers said that the end of this practice happened earlier and more abruptly than first thought.

The end of this burial practice happened during period when Theodore of Tarsus served as Archbishop of Canterbury (AD 669 – 690). According to Bede, Theodore of Tarsus “was the first archbishop whom the whole church in England agreed to obey”. He arrived in May 669 and swiftly visited all of the then English parts of Britain and issued instructions on orthodox Christian practices. It would now appear that burial rites were a main concern, something not recorded in historical sources.

Professor John Hines from Cardiff University explained, “Over a period of at least a century starting in the second half of the 6th century, a series of radical changes in burial practice coincided with hugely important developments in social and political organisation, economic life, and institutional religion in England.

“All of these must be interrelated. However, the exact contemporaneity of the end of traditional furnished burial and Theodore’s reign as Archbishop of Canterbury is striking, and unlikely to be a mere coincidence.

“It sheds new light on how Christianity consolidated its hold over the lives and experiences of everyone in England, and how ideas and practices that have prevailed for centuries took shape in this turning point in our history.

“If our interpretation of the abrupt and comprehensive change in burial practice which saw the final demise of the older tradition is correct, Theodore effected a truly comprehensive shift which brought the lives of everybody in Anglo-Saxon England into a common framework defined by the anticipation of how their body would be treated in death, and not even the Viking invasions and conquests two centuries later would alter this.”




Dr Helen Geake of the University of Cambridge, told BBC historyextra: “This new research will make a huge difference to Anglo-Saxon studies. The findings are important because now, for the first time, we can match what’s going on in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology – the broad sweep of human life – to the precise historical dates of specific events and people.

“Until now, archaeology and history have had to be studied almost in isolation, but now potentially we can combine them to learn far more than we ever could before.”

The new way of analysis for this project, which combined radiocarbon dates of individual samples with the sequence of the burials obtained by examining their shared traits and the co-occurrence of similar types of artefacts, is also being heralded as an important breakthrough.

Dr Alex Bayliss, English Heritage dating expert, added “It is only through precise dating that historians can start to construct what happened at specific times. The who, what, and how suddenly come to life. This dating programme has considerable significance for the dating of other finds, such as those from the Staffordshire Hoard and also has far-reaching significance beyond Anglo-Saxon graves, setting the standard for understanding a wide range of newly excavated finds from different periods.”

Sources: English Heritage, BBC HistoryExtra

Sharan Newman