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Chest burial: a middle Anglo-Saxon funerary rite from northern England

Chest burial: a middle Anglo-Saxon funerary rite from northern England

By Elizabeth Craig-Atkins

Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Vol.31:3 (2012)

anglo saxon skeleton - photo UK Ministry of Defence / Flickr

Abstract: Chest burials, in which the body is interred in a wooden chest with a hinged lid, are one of the most characteristic funerary practices of the middle Anglo-Saxon period in northern England. The majority are dated to between the seventh and ninth centuries, and are found at 19 different sites located within the contemporary early medieval kingdom of Northumbria. The collation of a corpus of chest burials, and examination of their form, context and the identities of the individuals they were afforded to, have revealed that these interments seem to have been made in reused pieces of domestic furniture and provided to both sexes, but rarely afforded to infants or young children. The individuals buried in chests also shared an extremely physically active lifestyle and in some cases met a violent death, further distinguishing them from their contemporaries.

Introduction: The use of burial containers is a key feature of funerary practices in early medieval England. Containers for the body were used throughout the entire period from the 5th to 11th centuries, but they appear more frequently in interments from the mid-7th century, at the point when the early Anglo-Saxon furnished funerary rite declines. The variety of containers for the body also increases during this period to incorporate a wider range of container forms; stone containers and grave linings, wooden coffins jointed with iron nails or wooden dowels and wooden chests with a variety of metal fittings have all been encountered in cemeteries dating from the 7th to 10th century.

This paper deals exclusively with one of these forms of burial container – wooden chests – focusing on characterising their form, their context within contemporary Anglo-Saxon funerary practices and the identities of the individuals buried in them. Where chest burials have been discussed previously in print, focus has rested primarily on the metal fittings, and to a lesser extent the methods of construction of the chests rather than the individuals afforded burial in them or their wider role in funerary rites. Thus, this paper seeks to provide a broader, contextualised consideration of the chest burial rite.

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