‘Sons of athelings given to the earth’: Infant Mortality within Anglo-Saxon Mortuary Geography

anglo saxon england map‘Sons of athelings given to the earth’: Infant Mortality within Anglo-Saxon Mortuary Geography

By Duncan Sayer

Medieval Archaeology, Volume 58, Issue 1 (November 2014)

Abstract: For 20 or more years early Anglo-Saxon archaeologists have believed children are under-represented in the cemetery evidence. They conclude that excavation misses small bones, that previous attitudes to reporting overlook the very young, or that infants and children were buried elsewhere. This is all well and good, but we must be careful of oversimplifying compound social and cultural responses to childhood and infant mortality. Previous approaches have offered methodological quandaries in the face of this under-representation. However, proportionally more infants were placed in large cemeteries and sometimes in specific zones. This trend is statistically significant and is therefore unlikely to result entirely from preservation or excavation problems. Early medieval cemeteries were part of regional mortuary geographies and provided places to stage events that promoted social cohesion across kinship systems extending over tribal territories. This paper argues that patterns in early Anglo-Saxon infant burial were the result of female mobility. Many women probably travelled locally to marry in a union which reinforced existing social networks. For an expectant mother, however, the safest place to give birth was with experienced women in her maternal home. Infant identities were affected by personal and legal association with their mother’s parental kindred, so when an infant died in childbirth or months and years later, it was their mother’s identity which dictated burial location. As a result, cemeteries central to tribal identities became places to bury the sons and daughters of a regional tribal aristocracy.

Introduction: Children and infants are under-represented in archaeological discovery, and it would be unwise to believe otherwise. However, if we do not look beyond this situation we are in danger of oversimplifying a complex social, personal and cultural response to childhood mortality. For the last 20 years children have been considered important subjects for investigation and childhood has been recognised as a socially constructed and historically contingent step in an individual’s life course. However, infants and children do not exist in isolation; they are part of community networks and kinship groups which extend beyond the boundaries of one cemetery and one community. Kinship networks are route­d in landscapes because people travel to maintain them. Marriage, birth and funerals, then, are important rites of passage and their celebration helped to create and reinforce key social relationships within and beyond the immediate community. As a result, it is important to consider graves within their regional context.


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