Mortuary Practices and Social Identities

In 2009, I co-edited a book with Duncan Sayer (UCLan) entitled Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. The book was originally published with University of Exeter Press but from this year it is available in paperback for a reasonable sum with Liverpool University Press. The book was a collection of essays in honour of the great, and far from late, Dr Heinrich Härke.

Victorian depiction of an early Anglo-Saxon furnished grave from Sarre, Kent. Image: Maidstone Museum

Envisioning the Dead

My contribution, chapter 10, was entitled On Display: Envisioning the Early Anglo-Saxon Dead. In this chapter, I considered how images of early Anglo-Saxon furnished inhumation graves, and the funerals associated with them, both reflect and direct our thinking about the significance of mortuary practice between the fifth and seventh centuries AD in southern and eastern England. I started off by briefly exploring the history of illustrating artefacts from early Anglo-Saxon inhumation graves but also how early on antiquaries and early archaeologists were keen to depict grave assemblages, usually in plan, with the skeleton and artefacts surrounding them. Despite increasingly sophisticated excavation and recording techniques, the presentation of the furnished inhumation grave as a single tableau is a convention that has been retained ever since and spilled over into the museum display of articulated, unburned bodies with artefacts placed upon them, either ‘as found’ or reconstructed with new clothes and facial reconstructions to appear ‘as buried’. Another permutation is ‘as living’ – re-erecting the horizontal dead into an upright living stance like shop-dummies.

Examples of Envisioning

A fabulous interpretive version of this was produced for the Channel Four Time Team series by the superb artist, Victor Ambrus. This great guy kindly gave us permission to reproduce the image for my chapter and on the front cover. What a star! This example was perfect, because it shows a double-burial from Breamore, Hampshire, excavated by Time Team. An adult male and adult female are depicted, the artefact positions shown and those elements found in the excavations coloured in to allow the viewer to discern between actual discoveries and artistic license (although sadly the version reproduced in the book had to be black-and-white). I also discussed my own attempts to visualise early Anglo-Saxon graves through a collaboration with my friend and archaeological artist, Dr Aaron Watson.

Interpreting Display

I then explored how early medieval archaeologist and historians have begun to problematise and recast our interpretations of furnished graves, requiring us to think again about how we envision these deposits and how new visualisations are required that explore mortuary process, the multi-sensory, somatic  and emotive aspects of funerals, and mortuary variability. Without this, we get stuck with single, exceptional graves standing for entire burial populations, usually either very wealthy weapon-graves, or high-status bejewelled female interments.

I also discussed how these displays operate in museum spaces, providing the living with icon ancestors that stand-for entire epochs and communities and provide foci for the construction of local identities linking past and present. As a form of mortuary art, the recreation of these furnished graves in museums make them just as much multi-vocal symbols in the present as they were in early medieval societies, as Heinrich Härke‘s research on weapon burial conclusively demonstrated in the early 1990s.

Finally, I postulated the need for further research into how we envision the dead in books, articles and museum displays to reveal further details about how they reflect and direct our interpretations of the human past and relate to agendas in contemporary politics and discourses on the body and identity.

RAF Lakenheath Anglo-Saxon warrior and horse
RAF Lakenheath Anglo-Saxon warrior and horse. Source: BBC News website

Mildenhall Museum ready for Anglo-Saxon warrior & horse

A friend alerted me via Facebook today to a BBC news story about the horse and weapon burial from the excavations at the Eriswell/RAF Lakenheath Anglo-Saxon cemeteries excavated by Suffolk County Council’s Archaeological Service. This horse and ‘warrior’ burial is soon to become part of a new display at Mildenhall Museum. Meanwhile, the cemeteries in which it was found are soon to be written up as part of an amazing and unique circumstances where multiple and broadly contemporary early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries have received close to complete excavation under modern, controlled conditions.

A Grave with a Biography

This grave has already acquired a prominent ‘cultural biography’. It appeared in Series One of the BBC television series Meet the Ancestors. It is an exceptional find. The photographs of the grave in situ has been widely disseminated and used in popular accounts.

Yet my friend and early Anglo-Saxon horse burial expert – Chris Fern – would confirm that this is one of only a handful of comparable finds from sixth-century England. Rather than typical, it is this exceptional grave that is to receive place of honour in the newly enlarged museum to display the finds from the excavations. Indeed, given the tradition of displaying furnished inhumation graves of the early Anglo-Saxon period, and given its prominence in the literature way ahead of publication, it is impossible to imagine how the museum curators could have avoided displaying this grave centre-stage in their new exhibition.

Hence, thinking back to some of the issues I raised in my 2009 paper, I am intrigued by what Mildenhall Museum have decided to do.  Will Mildenhall Museum be able to engage with these challenges, especially given the inevitable pressures of budget, available space, and the many popular, political and academic voices influencing what and how they should display the early Anglo-Saxon dead? Will the full variability of the cemeteries be visualised? Will the tableau be presented, unquestioned? How will they deal with the fact that these might not be simply ‘warriors’ at all? Given the close spatial connection with the very different but high-quality exhibits at Sutton Hoo and West Stow, the bar is set very high…