Studying the history of archaeology helps us to understand the origins and development of the discipline’s ideas, theories, methods and practices, and their broader socio-political contexts and public intersections. In exploring our history of digging up the dead, we reveal the way archaeologists have explored, studied, displayed and discussed skeletons, cinerary urns, grave-goods, burial mounds and cemeteries, to reveal past societies. We can trawl through the many attempts to infer afterlife beliefs, shared cultural practices, portrayed identities and created pasts, in the archaeological record, from the earlier discoveries up to and through the advent of modern scientific archaeological research.
The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology
For mortuary archaeology, my work has been a series of commentaries and critiques of the origins of early Anglo-Saxon archaeology. I’ve been looking at the agendas and characters who dug barrows and cemeteries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and interpreted the remains in terms of contemporary attitudes and understandings to faith and race.
Looking at the origins and character of the way antiquaries and early archaeologists interpreted furnished graves of the 5th-7th centuries AD from southern and eastern Britain needs to be set within a European context. At the same time, archaeologists were digging ‘Frankish’ graves on the Continent, and seeing them also as evidence of the ‘early Germans’ that conquered the Roman Empire. In the mid-19th century, digging up the dead was a public performance and a key part of contemporary debates on the identity of England, Britain and the British Empire. While the Crimean War was being fought, ‘Teutonic’ graves were explored at home, regarded for the first time as material evidence for the earliest English and England’s shared Germanic heritage.
As well as broader discussions of the origins and development of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, including an article co-authored with my then-doctoral student Sue Content, my work has focused on 4 of these early Anglo-Saxon archaeologists of the early Victorian era: John Yonge Akerman, John Mitchell Kemble, Richard Cornwallis Neville, and William Wylie. In different fashions, their site reports and broader syntheses created an enduring legacy regarding the interpretation of early medieval grave-finds as ‘pagan’ and ‘Saxon’, picked up subsequently by early 20th-century archaeologists, notably E.T. Leeds and J.N.L. Myres.
The Past in the Present
This isn’t simply about the history of archaeology.
Much of the debates raging in the early Victorian era regarding the origins of England and the English are still being trotted out today. Indeed, much of this discourse is still with us today and the battle lines remain drawn around archaeological finds. Whether supressed or peddled by museums, denied or exaggerated by popular narratives, who were the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ remains central to discussions of multi-cultural early 21st-century Britain. Our attitudes to migration, revaluated and reformulated in the experience of the present-day migrations and the just-dispersed Calais Jungle, wriggle their way into the way we think about the Anglo-Saxon migrations and the archaeological evidence we imagine we have for it. Likewise, our narratives about the Anglo-Saxons trickle into popular understandings and misunderstandings of the Early Middle Ages and who we are today.
This is therefore, one of the key areas where archaeology has been used and abused in Britain to write narratives of migrations and settlement, conversion and kingdom formation, based on the trinkets placed with the dead… Like it or not, archaeology is deeply implicated in these narratives, still often framed by faith and race.
Williams, H. 2013. Saxon obsequies: the early medieval archaeology of Richard Cornwallis Neville, Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 23(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/bha.2312. http://hdl.handle.net/10034/336331
Content, S. & Williams, H. 2010. Creating the Pagan English, in M. Carver, A. Sanmark & S. Semple (eds) Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited, Oxford: Oxbow, pp. 181-200.
Williams, H. 2009. On display: envisioning the early Anglo-Saxon dead, in D. Sayer. & H. Williams (eds) Mortuary Practices & Social Identities in the Middle Ages: Essays in Burial Archaeology in Honour of Heinrich Härke. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, pp. 170-206.
Effros, B. & Williams, H. 2008. Introduction: early medieval Europe special themed edition: early medieval material culture in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century imagination, Early Medieval Europe 16(1): 1-2.
Williams, H. 2008. Anglo-Saxonism and Victorian archaeology: William Wylie’s Fairford Graves, Early Medieval Europe 16(1): 49-88.
Williams, H. 2007. “Burnt Germans”, Alemannic graves and the origins of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, in S. Burmeister, H. Derks and J. von Richthofen (eds), Zweiundvierzig. Festschrift für Michael Gebühr zum 65. Geburtstag, Internationale Archäologie – Studia honoraria 25 Rahden: Westf, pp. 229-238.
Williams, H. 2007. Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon archaeology, in N. Higham (ed.) Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Woodbridge: Boydell, pp. 27-41. https://boydellandbrewer.com/britons-in-anglo-saxon-england-hb.html
Williams, H. 2007. Introduction: themes in the archaeology of early medieval death and burial, in S. Semple & H. Williams (eds) Early Medieval Mortuary Practices: Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology & History 14: 1-11.
Williams, H. 2006. Digging Saxon graves in Victorian Britain, in R. Pearson (ed.) The Victorians and the Ancient World: Archaeology and Classicism in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, pp. 61-80.
Williams, H. 2006. Heathen graves and Victorian Anglo-Saxonism: assessing the archaeology of John Mitchell Kemble, in S. Semple (ed.) Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology & History 13: 1-18.
Williams, H. 2002. “The Remains of Pagan Saxondom”? studying Anglo-Saxon cremation practices, in S. Lucy & A. Reynolds (eds) Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales. Leeds: Maney, Society of Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series 17, pp. 47-71.