John Nowell Linton Myres – pioneer in the study of early Anglo-Saxon pottery
Early Anglo-Saxon urns from Little Wilbraham, Cambridgeshire, published in 1852 by Richard Cornwallis Neville

Why decorate Early Anglo-Saxon pots? This is a difficult question. The striking decoration of early Anglo-Saxon urns has attracted interest since the mid-nineteenth century when they were first identified as early medieval and evidence of the customs of northern German and southern Scandinavian groups settling on these shores.

Previous Work

Since the seminal work of J. N. L. Myres, archaeologists have been interested in this pottery for what it reveals about the date and distribution of the earliest Germanic settlers in Britain during and after the collapse of Roman rule in these islands. Myres also explored what their distribution of particular urn-types revealed about trade and exchange in these centuries. He also discussed the rare instances where urns have magico-religious symbols and runes upon them and whether they reveal evidence for Anglo-Saxon pagan belief.

They are excessively varied and interesting and have been found in their thousands. Many fragments of cooking and storage vessels have been found from Early Anglo-Saxon settlement sites, and occasionally urns are found placed within furnished inhumation graves. Yet they were also widely used, especially in eastern England, to contain the cremated remains of humans. These urns are more likely to be found intact, and many hundreds have complete, or near-complete decoration upon them. This has led to some scholars advocating that these urns were ‘made for the funeral’ and perhaps using designs that told us something about the dead persons.

Professor Julian Richards
Professor Julian Richards – pioneer in the examination of the messages in Early Anglo-Saxon urn decoration
A rare rune-inscribed pot from Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire

Research in the 1980s by Julian D. Richards, now Professor of Archaeology at the University of York, suggested that the choice of urn form and decoration was not random; his analysis focused less on chronology and cultural affinities of the urns and those using them. Instead, inspired by both British processual archaeology’s desire for systematic quantification and statistical analysis, combined with early post-processual archaeologists’ interests in decoding symbolic grammar of vessels from prehistory and early history, Richards took a fresh perspective. Using a range of cemeteries from across southern and eastern England, Richards demonstrated that the size, shape and combinations of incised, plastic and stamped decoration found on cinerary urns, sometimes related to the social identity of the deceased, as revealed in the age and sex data of the human remains and the combinations of artefacts and animal remains placed in the urns.

Not all his patterns were strong, but there were instances were male and female-gendered grave assemblages tended to have particular urn decoration, and likewise, particular age-groups were more likely to possess urns with certain motifs.

Spong Hill final volume, front cover

Subsequently, Richards discussed the symbolism of the urns and potential parallels, when seen from above, with the decoration found upon contemporary annular brooches. Catherine Hills, through her work on the pots from Spong Hill, Norfolk, has discussed the mixed Continental affinities of the urns from this cemetery and has also suggested an ideological significance for some urns, citing parallels with the decoration found around the edges of southern Scandinavian gold bracteates.

Cleatham – excavated and studied by Dr Kevin Leahy

Since then, research has been enhanced by the detailed study of the Cleatham Anglo-Saxon cemetery. The work on the chronology and analysis of the Spong Hill cemetery is eagerly awaited at the time this blog is being written.

Recent Ideas

Now, in my doctoral thesis of 2000, I was not convinced that decorative motifs were the key issue. I couldn’t find many of the patterns in the decoration having any clear correlation with the occupant’s identity. Still, I did find, following Richards, that vessel-size did relate to the age of the deceased in broad terms, something which recent work by Dr Kirsty Squires is revealing further evidence for in a paper to be published in the Archaeological Journal vol. 170.

Urn from Cleatham, Lincolnshire

Recently work by Dr Gareth Perry, University of Sheffield, has argued based on internal evidence for the use of many of the urns found in two Lincolnshire burial sites where most graves contained cremation burials – Elsham and Cleatham – that perhaps beer and butter were among the substances made and stored in the urns. Their use in graves was a secondary use, not their principal purpose. The implications of this are that, whatever the symbolism is, it may not be in the creation of the pots per se, but in the selection process for the funeral from a range of possible vessels. Now my contribution to these debates has been threefold.

Combs and other artefacts from graves at Little Wilbraham, Cambridgeshire

1) Body Building

First of all, I suggested that the repeated choice of an urn at all – regardless of its precise decoration – was a significant ritual act. I proposed that the urn provided a new corporeality for the deceased; a new ‘skin’ and ‘surface’ that countermanded the fiery destruction of the cremation pyre. I also suggested that the selective inclusion of toilet implements and combs with the cremated dead was connected to the idea that the post-cremation treatment of the ‘cremains’ – involving location, choice of pot and artefact deposition – was about body-building. The cremated dead were revitalised, regenerated and incorporated into an ancestral community through the act of burial in a vessel. In short, the regular choice of an urn at all, was as important as the subtle variations in size, shape and decoration upon vessels.

Front cover of the excavation report of the cremation graves from Caistor-by-Norwich depicting two of the motifs afforded by Myres a pagan religious significance

2) Animals and Ancestors

Second, I have explored the relationship between animals placed within, and forming part of the decoration upon, cinerary urns. Animals are rarely depicted in a naturalistic fashion on urns, but I suggested that urns were given animal attributes of movement and adornment through their decoration; part of a wider theme of human-animal comingling in the treatment of the cremated dead. I suggested that urn decoration gave an animated, vibrant, memorable surface when held and experienced, linked in many ways to the animals killed and whose cremains were co-mingled with the deceased in the urns.

3) Eyes and Ancestors

Recently, I have returned to this topic once more in a co-authored paper with my PhD student, Ruth Nugent. Ruth and I have both been thinking about issues of corporeality in early Anglo-Saxon mortuary practices and we suggested five strands of an argument that show that cinerary urns were selected to create an animated, sensing identity for the deceased. The paper is entitled ‘Sighted Surfaces: Ocular Agency in Early Anglo-Saxon Cremation Burials’. It is available free to read online but the abstract of this paper reads as follows:

The art of early Anglo-Saxon cremation urns is rich, diverse and rarely explored beyond its presumed status as reflecting the earliest Germanic settlers in fifth-century eastern and southern England (Williams 2005a). We consider why and how decorated cinerary urns operated in funerals through their haptic and visual qualities. In particular, recurring overt and abstract depictions of eyes, as well as apertures in the urn body, suggest the cremated dead were perceived as being inherently sensing and ‘sighted’ even after their fiery transformation.

Howard Williams (left) and Ruth Nugent (right), co-authors of a recent reinterpretation of the urns selected to contain the cremated dead in Early Anglo-Saxon England.

There are five strands to the argument.

1) Urn decoration created sightways that facilitated how they were handled and remembered

2) The appearance of animals and monsters on selected urns, and more abstract ocular forms on many more pots, created an ‘ocular corona’ around the urns, watching presences that guarded their contents

3) The ocular decoration on urns was part of a network of citation with other contemporary artefacts

4) Holes and plugs – whether created by practical use or ritual acts, serves as further apertures by which the urns were sighted

5) Lids on some pots furthered the ocular theme, including the watching presence of birds (the now-lost Newark pot) and persons (the Spong Hill chairperson).

This paper builds on my earlier work on the ‘agency’ of cinerary urns, but also my 2011 paper looking at the ocularity of the art associated with the rich Mound One burial from Sutton Hoo. Ruth is now taking the fifth argument further, pursuing a detailed exploration of the significance of the Spong Hill chairperson, following a detailed examination of the unique artefact and placing it in relation to parallels across northern Europe and Scandinavia. In future work I aim to explore further dimensions to the sensory qualities of Early Anglo-Saxon art.