Study reveals when burial practices changed in early medieval England

It was around the year 600 that burials changed in England. A new study reveals that it was during this time that people altered where and how they buried their dead.

The study by Emma Brownlee is published in the journal Radiocarbon. By examining nearly 1,100 graves that have been dated with radiocarbon methods, the researcher explored the changes in burial practices between the fourth and ninth centuries AD in England. It sheds new light on the chronology of changes in grave good use, the transition from Roman to medieval practices, and the varying use of cemetery space. The analysis reveals a previously unrecognized peak in grave goods around 600 AD.

Male furnishing patterns: (a) KDE of male furnished burials and burials weighted by number of grave goods; (b) KDE of male unfurnished burials. Image courtesy Radiocarbon / CC BY 4.0 DEED

Brownlee notes that people being buried with grave goods, which included weapons, jewelry, and dress accessories, began to rise in England during the fifth century, reaching a high point in the early seventh century. After that, it became more and more likely that the dead were buried without anything. While some scholars might believe this shift was caused by the arrival of Christianity in England at this time, Brownlee disagrees. She writes:

Although these radiocarbon models suggest that the decline in furnished burial began after the historically documented conversion to Christianity, this does not make Christianisation any more likely an explanation for funerary change. We have enough evidence from continental furnished burials within churches, and burials with Christian symbolism in their graves, to demonstrate that there is no clear association between Christianisation and unfurnished burial.


Instead, she points to another change that took place around the start of the seventh century. Before the year 600, people were usually buried either in large cemeteries or isolated burials (Brownlee notes how “isolated barrow burials were often located on territorial boundaries as a means of staking a dynastic claim to land and would be located in clearly visible positions along routeways.” These would have been typically richly furnished). After the year 600, we see a shift to people being buried in cemeteries that were for small groups, less than five individuals.

Brownlee, a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, sees a connection to where burials were taking place and whether or not they were furnished with grave goods. She writes:

A common interpretation of the furnished burial rite is that the creation of a tableau using both the body and the objects associated with it is key in memorializing the deceased. This requires an audience to view the body. Cemeteries are also places where community identity is created; using furnished burials as a statement of identity and of community belonging only works if there is a community to gather to view the burial. Part of the role of the funerary ritual is to transform an individual’s place in society the community of the living to the community of the dead; furnishing and community cemeteries thus go hand in hand. This ties into ideas that furnishing burials is related to a continued sense of personhood attached to the corpse. This sense of personhood extends to the need to create communities in death, by grouping burials together. It is therefore not surprising that the high point of furnishing coincides with the low point for small groups of burials, nor that as one declines, the other rises. After furnished burial was abandoned, so too were the majority of the sites in which furnished burial had been used.

Overall, the study provides a comprehensive overview of the changing burial practices in early medieval England and offers valuable insights into the significance of radiocarbon dating in understanding funerary changes over time. The findings contribute to a better understanding of the complexities of burial practices, regional variability, and the connections between material investment in graves and community identity. The research also highlights the need for further sampling and analysis to refine the understanding of burial practices and to address biases in the selection of radiocarbon-dated graves.

Cemetery types: (a) KDE of isolated burials; (b) KDE of small groups of burials; (c) KDE of large cemeteries. Image courtesy Radiocarbon / CC BY 4.0 DEED

Emma Brownlee’s article, “A Radiocarbon-based model of Changing Burial Rites in Early Medieval England, appears in Radiocarbon. Click here to read it.

Top Image: Golden belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1 in Suffolk. Photo by Michel wal / Wikimedia Commons