I’m very pleased to announce that Abigail C. Górkiewicz Downer has passed her viva voce examination for our PhD and will be working on revisions as is standard in the UK system. Well done, Abbie!

Supervised by Dr Amy Gray Jones and myself, the thesis is a distinctive and original investigation of the late sixth-/seventh-century AD burial archaeology of three regions of early medieval Europe – East Anglia, Kent and Alsace – and focusing on the compact-contained assemblages of items deposited with the dead. This distinctive definition of ‘compact-contained assemblages’ or ‘CCAs’ is different from others, and involves a critique of traditional and extant uses of the catch-all term ‘amulet’ as well as ‘talismans’ and ‘charms’ to describe a host of assorted items buried with the early medieval dead.

Instead of defaulting to the vague and loaded term ‘amulets’, Abbie focuses on the inter-related associations of a host of items, their spatial positions within the grave often found in close association within the bodies of the dead. They are especially found around the necks and in bags near the hip of female-gendered burial assemblages.

As well as looking at a host of artefact types and materials, she pursued the occurrence and deployment of amber artefacts as a specific case study. Abbie thus presents a range of new arguments for the associated significance of items hitherto called ‘amulets’, rather than their individual ‘magical’ or apotropaic connotations. In particular, the thesis foregrounds the potential of these items to take on local and personalised meanings and associations with identities in life and death, rather than relating to fixed notions of function and value.

Photo of HRH034AHR (left image) depicting the position of neck-CCA circled in red; close-up of HRH034AHR.1 (right image), from the cemetery at Hégenheim, Alsace.

Once Abbie completes her revisions, she’ll be looking into publication options.

Here’s Abbie’s abstract:

Amulet-interpretation remains a long-standing practice in early medieval mortuary archaeology that removes mortuary objects from their funerary contexts and cloaks diverse object-meanings under misleading terminology. This thesis presents an original methodology inspired by recent hoard studies and previous studies on the spatial-positioning of objects in graves. The thesis aims to explore the multifactorial significance of objects through their spatial-positioning and clustered dispositions (compact contained assemblages, CCAs) with late sixth-, early and/or broadly seventh-century inhumed females from three regions in early medieval Europe: Alsace, Kent, and East Anglia. Specifically, it will explore with whom and how many objects often categorised as ‘amulets’ are deposited.

The methodology is devised and deployed in two ways to test its efficacy at understanding mortuary-object meaning. First, the approach is utilised to explore and compare the composition and spatial-placement of CCAs sharing at least one object-type in common with contemporaneous and regionally coherent individuals. Second, the approach explores and compares the spatial-positioning and method of containment of a single object-type/material. The material selected for this second application was amber given the amuletic role its often prescribed by archaeologists in early medieval mortuary contexts.
Both approaches of this methodology produced overlapping results. Overall, CCAs were very common across all studied samples suggesting that object containment was a regular feature of late sixth-, broadly and early seventh-century inhumation-burial. Possible explanations for this trend include object-protection, post-mortem transportation, and post-mortem storage. Additionally, the spatial-positioning of CCAs in graves often reflected regionally specific grave-cut dimensions and regional tastes in funerary structures.

The two applications also revealed some regular features of CCA-composition. First, similarly positioned, contemporaneous, and regionally congruent female-CCAs often contained similar object-types, indicating that these clusters were deliberate and planned compositions that prescribed to larger contemporaneous and localised inhumation-grave layouts. In these similarly positioned and contemporaneous female-CCAs with similar object-types, the similar objects often exhibited unique decoration, possessed divergent forms, and/or were accompanied by a different object-types and object-quantities. This suggested that CCA-composition were a result of personalisation. The thesis ends with outlining future avenues of research and the utility of this approach in mortuary studies.