Reconsidering obstetric death and female fertility in Anglo-Saxon England
Duncan Sayer and Sam D. Dickinson
World Archaeology: 45:2 (2013)
Little has been written about female fertility and maternal mortality from an archaeological perspective. Typically debates focus on the physical aspects of childbirth, ignoring an obvious truth: the biggest single cause of death for women was childbirth. Whether death took place as a result of mechanical malpresentation, infection or blood loss, the root cause was undeniable. In this article we argue that post-mortem extrusion is improbable and that young infants and women found buried together are likely to have died together. However, most deaths would not have been simultaneous and so we build on demographic data to conclude that the early Anglo-Saxons engaged institutions which controlled female sexuality. Late marriage, cultural and legal taboos and an emphasis on mature fertility acted to limit the probability of death; however, the risk to the individual was real and each funerary party was the agent that constructed death ways to manage loss.
Our understanding of Anglo-Saxon burial practices has been revolutionized in the last decades, developing from an examination of artefact typologies and ethnicities into an established exploration of the social experience. In part this has grown out of an interest in mortuary archaeology, memory and deviant burial. In parallel, archaeological interpretation has developed sophisticated gender archaeologies investigating infant agency, life courses and the human experience. It is within this context that the discovery of a pregnant woman buried with a rich array of grave goods on the margins of a large early Anglo-Saxon cemetery provided new insights into female fertility, pregnancy and the life course.
Oakington is the site of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Cambridgeshire (AD 450–700). Excavated in June 2011, grave 57 contained a woman with a descended foetus across her pelvic cavity, a position unlikely to result from post-mortem extrusion. She was aged between 25 and 30, had congenitally absent teeth and occupational wear on her hands and feet. She was buried supine in full dress with a cruciform brooch and two small long brooches. The foetus lay low and transverse across her pelvis, which was probably the cause of this double fatality (. Even today transverse lie pregnancy is a dangerous malpresentation for both mother and foetus, almost always resulting in Caesarean section. There are other examples of women with in situ foetuses from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. However, in archaeology the dominant interpretation for extruded and partially extruded foetuses is currently a phenomenon known as coffin birth: the post-mortem extrusion of a foetus into the grave. The recognition that this taphonomic process is in fact improbable under burial conditions and that death from childbirth was a major cause of female mortality allows not only an appropriate interpretation of the mortuary context, but also an exploration of female fertility as a significant and embedded phase in the adult life course.