While the occasional artist’s reconstruction inspired by archaeological evidence has been composed, specialists still struggle to fully appreciate the character and variability of middle and later Anglo-Saxon burial grounds (late 7th to early 11th centuries AD). By this I don’t simply mean the complexity of burial location, grave structures and contents, and the posture and position of cadavers. I also refer to how they would have appeared above ground in terms of the extent and forms of grave-markers (wooden, stone and potentially made of other materials), and the non-grave dimensions of burial spaces (including vegetation, crosses, paths and fence lines).
Moreover, just as most burial grounds are disturbed by later agricultural activity, or indeed later phases of graves, churches from the period don’t often survive, since most would have been wooden structures and many would have been replaced by later masonry buildings and thus obscuring their earlier phases.
Put these factors together, I do concede that it isn’t a straightforward task for set-designers to create a setting for the historical TV drama The Last Kingdom. So having previously evaluated the mortuary practices in Seasons 1 and 2, I now turn to how Season 3 gets along in showing Christian mortuary practices and funerary spaces of the later 9th century AD.
This season incorporates a couple of representations of early medieval Christian graves. The first of these is in episode 1 where we are shown a church at Alton (presumably therefore in Hampshire, so well within the kingdom of Wessex). The Danes have attacked and do gruesome things to the monks within the church, including some needless cannibalism. Given the presence of monks, I presume we are being shown a small late 9th-century monastic community.
The church is situated by a river, which is fine. The church is on the highest point: again logical. The monks’ dwellings follow the orientation of the church and are modest single-celled timber buildings: again that’s really good and based on archaeological evidence from middle Anglo-Saxon monastic sites in Mercia and Northumbria (Hartlepool comes to mind), if not Wessex.
About the church’s exterior: the steps leading up to the church entrance have a direct parallel with the rock-cut steps identified by excavation at Heysham chapel, so extra points there. It is single-celled church with a square eastern apse: again this is ok as far as I’m concerned. The church has shutters on its windows and three round-arched windows, not unlike a longer version of the chapel at Heysham, or indeed, the monastic church at Escomb. The high roof is, however, demonstrably late medieval, not early medieval in my view.
All this aside, the oddest thing is that it has a door is in the north-western corner and no other! This is confirmed when Uhtred enters the building and turns left to face the altar and those within. We see no other doorway. In short, we are definitely looking at the north, not south, side of the church. Hence, the orientation and placement of the entrance is all wrong: the door should be on the south side, and perhaps so should its graveyard.
Things go more awry as we move out from the church into the burial ground. Its graveyard is tiny, and with only some ineffectual low hurdle fencing demarcating the burial ground from the settlement space: this cannot be shown to be ‘wrong’ since ephemeral fences won’t survive in the archaeological record, but it is rather odd that graves have no solid boundary to prevent animals wandering about among them. The Danes are shown to have no respect for the burial area, and sit amidst the graves with their weapons, which I guess just goes to show they are baddies. In any case, the graves are simply a muddy patch of ground: no vegetation at all, which is a missed opportunity to show the graves as low mounds and defined by stones or hurdle fences about the individual, or groups of, graves.
Then we have the funerary monuments. There are about seven I could see. Four are comprised of well-crafted slender crosses, the cross-piece fixed without a join. We have no evidence that such grave-markers did, or did not, exist for the early medieval period. My point would be, however, that we are here being shown our expectation for a Christian grave marker. They are a generic transtemporal Christian burial marker found from X-Men movies to Deadwood. Still, they are ‘not not-wrong’ since we have no evidence these didn’t exist.
Three further funerary monuments are squat stone rectangular gravestones. The one we see closely finds no parallel in the early medieval stone sculpture corpuses that I know of. It has a ring-headed cross represented upon it with triquetras in its arms.
Rectangular gravestones are, of course, familiar from Northumbrian monastic sites, including Whitby, Hartlepool, Jarrow and Monkwearmouth. The design is, however, suitable. The cross crudely resembles Bath 3 (Somerset), dated to the 8th century, and Amesbury 1 (Wiltshire), dated to the 9th-10th centuries. So these are really ok in my view, I don’t see them as outrageous or ‘wrong’.
Farther out from the church, outside of the aforementioned pointlessly low hurdle fence with gaps in it, is a wooden cross on a stone base. It looks dark, almost burned. I’ve no idea where they got this idea from: any thoughts readers?
Weirder still, set farther away from the church in the foreground is a house-like shrine with a door at its narrow end, presumably attempting to evoke the idea of house-shaped shrine-tomb, but oddly in the middle of a farmyard… It looks crude, simple, almost megalithic in the thickness of the stone used, and takes its idea from the middle Anglo-Saxon and Irish house-like reliquaries, including the wooden tumba described by the Venerable Bede as enclosing St Chad’s relics. However, if such things existed like this outdoors in West Saxon monastic communities in the 9th century, which just possibly they did, I would have expected them within a clearly demarcated burial ground, not surrounded by straw close to the monk’s dwellings.
Now whatever we think about these individual ‘reproductions’ of graves, cross and shrine, the strangest thing about them is again their orientation. All these monuments are orientated… north, if we presume the church is orientated east-west. Now it doesn’t take an expert to recognise that this is all wrong and without historical or archaeological precedent. Like the building of the church, graves and tombs would be orientated west-east in this period, not south-north! In short, something went wrong here with the TLK compass on set!
So out of 10, how many points does The Last Kingdom get for his attempt at a late 9th-century West Saxon monastic community, including its church and and its burial ground? I’ll give them 6/10. Because, while I very much like their attempt to show key components of a modest monastic church, its burial ground and adjacent monastic buildings, orientation is all!