Undergrad thesis: ‘Feathered Funerals: Birds in Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Rites’ wins award

Ruth Nugent of the University of Chester has been awarded The Society for Medieval Archaeology’s John Hurst Prize for the Best Undergraduate Dissertation, 2010, for her work Feathered Funerals: Birds in Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Rites.

The prestigious annual award is made to the undergraduate dissertation that makes the most original contribution to medieval archaeology (from AD 400 to 1600) and Ruth is ‘surprised and delighted’ to have been selected from a whole range of submissions from the UK and Ireland.


The 29-year-old, from Birkenhead, Merseyside, said: “I’m extremely proud to have even been shortlisted for this award, let alone win it, and I think it shows that you don’t have to dig things up in order to reveal new ideas about the past, since my dissertation made use of information readily available in cemetery reports.

“I’m genuinely surprised and delighted to receive the John Hurst award. I was certainly up against tough competition from other universities in Britain and Ireland.”


Ruth’s work centred on the role of birds in early Anglo-Saxon burials (5th-7th centuries AD). A lot of archaeological research has been carried out on horses, dogs and farming animals found in these burials, but Ruth discovered there had been none on the different kinds of birds in burials.

She showed that even animals rarely found in Anglo-Saxon burials may be related to different perceptions of age and gender, and that birds were not used as supplementary wealth, as has been assumed, simply to ‘make up the numbers’, but are far more likely to be the only animal, and sometimes the only artefact, included in the burial.

Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxons were not simply copying earlier Roman or early medieval Scandinavian versions of bird burials, but created their own interpretation of the ritual.

She explained: “I concluded that birds in burials were home comforts for the deceased, acting as a ‘touchstone’ between the dead and the mourners.


“Domestic birds would have been used in the routines of everyday life for their eggs and feathers, while wild varieties could show how a one-to-one relationship between a human and a bird could be created, and these relationships may have continued even in death for the Anglo-Saxons.”

Ruth speaks highly of her degree programme leaders who have supported her studies and says the award is as much recognition for her as it is for the Department of History and Archaeology.

She said: “This award is simply more proof of what archaeology students here at Chester already recognise – that the department provides the knowledge, skills and opportunities to investigate archaeology in a plethora of exciting ways, alongside the talented supervision of the staff, who patiently and enthusiastically oversee these projects every step of the way.


“During my time at Chester, I’ve been very privileged to have been taught by experts in early medieval archaeology – Dr Meggen Gondek and Professor Howard Williams. Ruth is now continuing to research early Anglo-Saxon burials at post-graduate level at Chester, incorporating some of the themes and ideas from her dissertation alongside new approaches and ideas, as she investigates the way life and death was viewed during this period of England’s past.

She said: “I originally came to Chester as a mature student, with an interest in Northern European archaeology. During my undergraduate years, I was constantly impressed with the depth of teaching provided, the myriad opportunities for extra-curricular fieldwork, the wealth of knowledge of the lecturers, and most importantly, the overwhelming encouragement from the department to create original research that can contribute to the archaeological record, even as an undergraduate.

“Despite looking at several large archaeology departments across the country, Chester offers all the benefits of a smaller department, with remarkable staff and exciting opportunities for proactive students.

“It is rapidly gaining a reputation for innovative research in prehistoric and early medieval Britain, sculpture, landscape and mortuary analysis, and archaeological theory – all of which benefit both my immediate research objectives and long-term career plans.


“I’m immensely proud to have graduated amongst the first cohort of Chester-trained archaeologists under the new programme organised by Dr Meggen Gondek, Reader and Programme Leader for Archaeology, and it is a delight for me to continue my research here amongst the friendliest and most supportive staff a student could wish for.

“A fellow archaeologist described the Department as ‘boutique’, since it has such a dedicated following of staff and students from around the world, and an increasingly cutting-edge reputation for thorough, stimulating research.

“It is ideally located for investigation into overlooked areas of archaeology in the North-West, as well as further afield, and I would recommend this department to potential students in a heartbeat, thanks to its high academic standards, fascinating lecturers and incredibly friendly atmosphere.

“I’ve never met a single Chester-trained archaeologist who regrets their time here, and many say it’s the best decision they ever made, which I whole-heartedly agree with.”

Dr Keith McLay, Head of History and Archaeology, said: “This is truly excellent achievement for Ruth, the Department, the Faculty and the University. It reflects the quality of the Archaeology programme provision at Chester which over the past two years has gained a National Student Survey overall satisfaction rating in the 90s.

“The Society for Medieval Archaeology is a renowned international body for the study of medieval archaeology and for Ruth’s work to have been acknowledged by such an organisation is a remarkable achievement.”

The prize rounds off an impressive year for Ruth who was also awarded the Bluecoat Archaeology and Heritage Prize for consistently producing work of a high standard at the University’s Valedictory Awards in June. Ruth collected her prize in a ceremony at University College, London on December 6.

Source: University of Chester