Dr. Duncan Sayer
Dr Duncan Sayer (from UCLan website)

The Department of History and Archaeology Research  Seminar was presented on Wednesday 20th Nov. by a double act of two researchers from the UCLan: PhD research student Sam Dickinson and Lecturer in Archaeology, Dr Duncan Sayer.

Sam had presented at Chester earlier this year on her research focus on infant death in early Anglo-Saxon England at the EMASS conference. Duncan is a well-known archaeologist who has worked on the ethics of burial archaeology and the mortuary archaeology of the early Anglo-Saxon period and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This double-act was something new to us and it was an effective way of showing the dynamic interaction between students and staff in developing original research taking place through fieldwork at the Oakington, Cambridgeshire early Anglo-Saxon cemetery. This is a project co-directed by Duncan Sayer and Lecturer in Archaeology and Public History at Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr Faye Sayer (née Simpson). This large early Anglo-Saxon cemetery was discovered in the inter-war years and excavated on a small scale in the 1990s. However, over recent field seasons, Sayer and Sayer’s team have revealed a fascinating large cemetery with a high proportion of infant graves. The site is also well-known for its unique discovery of an adult female inhumation buried in the same grave as the skinned body of a cow.

Duncan and Sam presented us with 3 papers for the price of one about the Oakington Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

Anglo-Saxon grave of woman and cow
The famous cow and adult female inhumation from the Oakington early Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Image from the BBC news website.

Emotive Force

In 2007, following a session at the International Medieval Congress sponsored by the Society for Medieval Archaeology, I published a short paper in the Archaeological Review from Cambridge on the emotive force involved in the performances connected with early Anglo-Saxon furnished inhumation graves. This paper has been recently cited in Erica Hill’s review of approaches to emotion and mortuary archaeology in the Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, but seems to have provoked limited response among early medieval archaeologists.

I was delighted to see Duncan picking up on the theme of emotive display as a key component of early Anglo-Saxon furnished burial. Using the evidence from Oakington, Duncan opened the talk by discussing the possible emotive relationships comprised by the careful positioning of bodies in double graves, as well as the careful positioning of bodies and artefacts in many of the other Oakington graves. Duncan will be presenting his ideas at the Bournemouth TAG on Sea conference next month.

Obstetric Death

The second part of the talk was presented by Sam Dickinson, outlining evidence for death in childbirth from a striking grave from the Oakington cemetery. Sam was able to dismiss some recent ideas about paired infant/adult graves as evidence of infant sacrifice, showing that from across Anglo-Saxon England, these are likely instead to reflect infant mortality rates. The positioning of adult and infant can sometimes show care and attention in the funerary rite rather than casual disposal of these pairs. More on this topic can be found in Duncan and Sam’s recent World Archaeology paper (Sayer and Dickinson 2013).

Cemeteries as Central Places

The third and final part of the talk relates to a forthcoming paper in the journal Medieval Archaeology authored by Duncan, attempting to put into context the strikingly high number of infant graves recovered at Oakington. In this forthcoming paper, Duncan will argue that larger early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries have a large proportion of infant graves and perhaps relate to patrilocal kinship patterns and the power of the graves of ancestors – male and female – within these burial places. He suggests that perhaps pregnant women went back to their paternal settlement to give birth, or else perhaps the bodies of infants were preferentially transported to the cemeteries of maternal kin. While the argument that large cremation cemeteries were mortuary and cultic central places in fifth- and sixth-century England has been made elsewhere, Duncan’s approach and suggestions for larger inhumation cemeteries is original and interesting.

Questions, burgers and beer

Following detailed and extensive Q&A the discussion continued at Telfords Warehouse for burgers and beer. Three papers in one is a tough act to follow andSam and Duncan did a fantastic job of bringing their research to our attention. They have identified important new avenues for further research into the material culture, bodies, spatial organisation and landscape locations of early  Anglo-Saxon cemeteries.


Williams, H. 2007. The emotive force of early medieval mortuary practices, Archaeological Review from Cambridge. 22(1): 107-23.

Sayer, Duncan and Dickinson, Sam D. 2013. Reconsidering obstetric death and female fertility in Anglo-Saxon England, World Archaeology 45(2), 285-97