The audience gathers for my lunchtime lecture

This last week I gave the first of three Grosvenor Lunchtime Lectures organised by the Department of History and Archaeology. My talk was titled “Tombs in Beowulf”. I began by discussing the many material dimensions to the poem – halls, feasting and martial material culture, and burial mounds. I then introduced the challenge and problems of reading history and archaeology from the poem.

West Kennet long barrow: part of the ‘material world’ of the poem ‘Beowulf’?

I suggested that the poem did indeed shed light on an historical ‘reality’ but only in the broadest of terms. It reveals the widespread deployment of dimensions of mortuary practices of the 5th-10th centuries in Britain and Scandinavia, including furnished graves, ship-burial, cremation practices and burial mounds. I also emphasised how the poem’s fascination with imagined pasts is also revealed in the archaeological record, namely the widespread interest in inserting early medieval graves into prehistoric and Roman monuments before and alongside the widespread adoption of Christian burial traditions and mortuary geographies. Furthermore, I discussed briefly how the poem reveals a perception of landscape that chimes with the emerging Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the 7th century onwards. Rather than a direct window onto a legendary Migration Period, the poem reveals the rich power of material cultures and landscape in constructing social memories and worldviews for Christian secular elites in the later Anglo-Saxon period, in which the pagan past had a powerful role.

Snape grave 47 – a 6th-century boat-burial from East Anglia. Part of the diverse and complex material world of maritime vessels deployed in early medieval mortuary practice

I then introduced the funerals within Beowulf  and warned of the seductive desire to equate the poem with the furnished ‘princely’ graves of the 7th century exclusively (including Taplow, Sutton Hoo Mounds 1, 2 and 17, and Prittlewell). Instead, I discussed the widespread evidence of varying uses of boats and ships in mortuary practices across northern Europe that provide the background to Scyld Scefing’s funeral at the beginning of the poem.

I outlined how archaeology can not only shed light on the material world of tombs that created inspiration for the poet, but help us to understand the significance of tombs in the poem itself.

Tolkein’s Smaug takes its inspiration from the poem ‘Beowulf’, in which a dragon guards treasure in a stone barrow.

I have recently published an article presenting a fresh perspective on the significance of the dragon’s mound in Beowulf, as discussed here. I argued that the archaeological certainty of a Neolithic megalithic monument being depicted in the epic poem is something of an allusion creating by archaeologists and a desire to fix a categorical material classification to the monument in the poem. Instead, I explore how the monument had a biography in the poem itself and was a ‘counter-tomb’. It might have been regarded as a literary antithesis to the subterranean and semi-subterranean crypts containing the graves of kings and saints in middle Anglo-Saxon England more than it was a description of prehistoric tomb.

In both regards, my point was to try to query an equation between the poem and the archaeological record in terms of any single period, place or practice. The poem does not preserve traces of a pagan past, but draws on the material world to convey a variety of temporalities and materialities.

The Asthall barrow, Oxfordshire: a 7th-century cremation with imported items covered by a prominent burial mound. In broad terms, the funerary practices mirror those described in the poem ‘Beowulf’ afforded to the hero.

Sandwiched between my discussion of Scyld Scefing’s boat-funeral and the dragon’s stone barrow, I also explored the tomb of Beowulf himself in the poem. After his death fighting the dragon, Beowulf is cremated on a headland, closes to the dragon’s mound. His pyre was decked with the dragon’s treasure and the mound raised over the pyre subsequently served as a waymarker for mariners.

I suggested that this funeral needs renewed attention. I suggested that scholars perhaps need to re-engage with the importance of cremation followed by mound-building as described in the poem as a widespread practice in Early Medieval Europe. Rather than trying to pin down a single source of inspiration for the poet, we can instead profitably apply our transformed archaeological and anthropological understanding of cremation practices themselves worldwide, and in the Early Middle Ages in particular, to the poem. Rather than attempting to see archaeology as the material ‘reality’ behind the poem, archaeology and the poem in combination can demonstrate the varying and complex efficacies of cremation performances followed by mound-building in the construction of social memory and for myth making strategies among early medieval communities. Here lies the direction for some future research…