Mel Giles’ new book – cover from Oxbow website

It has always struck me that Iron Age and early medieval archaeologists don’t talk to each other enough. Well, to put it more precisely, Iron Age, Roman and early medieval archaeologist don’t talk to each other enough. The traditional periodisation of British archaeology fractures debate between researchers dealing with similar themes and comparable interpretative problems only centuries apart.

This is, of course, less of a problem in Scandinavia, where the long research tradition of exploring both continuity and change during the late first millennium BC and early-mid first millennium AD is facilitated by the fact that this duration is all called the ‘Iron Age’. This serves to gel researchers into a comparable framework of research, whether it be settlement archaeology, burial archaeology, the study of hoards and deposition and so on.

I think that Iron Age and early medieval archaeologists do read each other’s stuff more than they admit, and talk to each other more than they let on, but you would be hard pushed to find each other referencing work in each other’s period despite similar themes and questions.

A rare example is perhaps my own 2011 paper in the Journal of Social Archaeology I discuss the mnemonic agency of the art upon weapons and armour within Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk in relation to Mel Giles’ ideas about the ‘glamour’ of art on Iron Age swords. Still, even here, I cite an Iron Age archaeologist only in passing, rather than exploring broader comparisions and contrasts between weapon use and deposition between the Iron Age and Early Middle Ages.

Therefore it was with great interest that I heard the latest Department of History and Archaeology Research Seminar by Dr Melanie Giles, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Manchester. Check out her latest book: A Forged Glamour: building on her doctoral research on the Iron Age societies in East Yorkshire, she explores in this book the relationships between material culture, landscape and identity before the Roman conquest.

Mel’s topic for the seminar was ‘Weapons Burials from the British Iron Age’, reviewing and updating on previous work and bringing to it fresh perspectives from material culture and mortuary theory, especially focusing on the enmeshed biographies of people and things. She aims to publish on this project, so I will only give a few points about what she said here, rather than specific details.

She outlined the rarity, regional variability and diversity of ways in which weapons were deployed in graves in the British Iron Age. They are mostly found in inhumation graves, but only in certain regions, such as SW England and East Yorkshire.

Regarding gender, she showed that while mainly a male phenomenon – very rarely females can be associated with weapons in death – but there are graves where male-gendered and female-gendered artefacts were placed in the same grave, possibly suggesting the commemoration of persons with skills and status that transcended a bipolar gendered world. These dual-gendered/transgendered graves (not sure this is the best phrase for them) might evoke associations with smithing and with far-seeing (assuming mirrors had shamanistic or prophetic significances).

More interesting than the gender association is the age-pattern: unlike early medieval weapon graves, Mel noted the near complete absence of infant, child or juvenile weapon graves. She argues this suggests that weapons at least were associated with acquired status rather than inherited roles and ranks.

Other graves contain martial artefacts that might have been as much apotropaic as military. Mel argued that weapons and armour were variously employed to negotiate the ruptures and trauma of death to create not only idealised identities, but ones that drew from complex relationships between people and their weapons. Weapons need to be understood as biographical but also as performative artefacts, key for the embodied gestures they are deployed in, as well as their use in duals and small-scale violence, as much as for killing other people in large-scale martial encounters.

It was unclear whether Mel imagines there a ‘warrior’ class in Iron Age society, nor does she discount this view. Still, community identities forged through weapons are sometimes revealed in the proximity of weapon burials, but also in the deployment of weapons by multiple actors around the grave, as in graves where many spears were thrust around the corpse, their shafts remaining visible above ground.

There are very few graves where individuals with weapons trauma, the cause of death or a key component of their living identity as wounded, scarred persons, were interred with weapons. To me, this makes the point clearly that ‘warriors’ were probably more likely to by interred without their weapons, and those with weapons, buried rather than inherited or circulated, were likely to signal other identities.

Mel drew upon the work of early medieval archaeologist Heinrich Harke, who has made many important points in his research regarding the symbolic and ideological nature of weapon burial and this was useful to see. Since while, to Mel, early medieval archaeologists are long surpassed the view that weapon burials equate with ‘warrior burials’, I still hear early medieval archaeologists presuming weapons equal warrior status. Mel’s work draws off early medieval archaeology, but we have much to learn from her and her Iron Age colleagues too.