In this post, I want to specifically point out the multiple ways in which one can not only learn about life in the human past through this long-term and rich visitor centre of West Stow, but also about human mortality. In other words, I aim to consider how this heritage site operates as a venue for exploring and critiquing the public archaeology of death.
This summer I got the chance to revisit West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village & Country Park after over a decade and for the first time since I started blogging in 2013! Situated near Bury St Edmunds, reconstructed near the site of excavations directed by Stanley West, there is the ‘Anglo-Saxon village’ which is simultaneously a tourist attraction, an educational resource for local communities, and a focus of experimental archaeology.
That’s not all, however. Also, there is a well-established museum (with cafe above) containing the Anglo-Saxon collections from both the late 20th-century excavations of the 5th-7th-century settlement, and finds from the 19th-century investigation of an inhumation cemetery of the later 5th and 6th centuries. This is a key site to for local school children and local/regional/national and international visitors to learn about life in early Anglo-Saxon England.
There’s more still, for there is also a gallery in the adjacent visitor centre displaying a truly staggering array of nationally important prehistoric and Roman archaeological finds from NW Suffolk.
A final component is worth introducing: in the adjacent country park alongside the Lark Valley, there is a new Beowulf and Grendel trail which is deserving of credit and consideration in its own right given its fascinating installations.
The early and middle Anglo-Saxon period mortuary archaeologies
First, we must acknowledge than many of the details of the fittings and furnishings of the reconstructed settlement are directly inspired by mortuary archaeological finds. A good example is the reconstructed bed in one of the halls.
Next, the main museum contains a host of displays that discuss life in early Anglo-Saxon times, and mannequins wearing reconstructed costumes bear information from mortuary contexts.
Then, we have the direct consideration of mortuary practices, using the data from the early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of the area, including Westgarth Gardens. Human remains are an element of these displays to tell to the story, notably the skeleton of a child. There is also an interactive activity where you can place grave-goods associated with the early Anglo-Saxon dead. I was pleased to see cremation, as well as inhumation, introduced.
A further notable aspect is the archaeology of the settlement, for here a late pair of inhumation graves were uncovered. A facial reconstruction was commissioned for the male individual, bringing this young person to life and dating from a time when the settlement was being abandoned or already abandoned. A further element is the competition to name the individual – ‘The Man of West Stow’.
The final display of early Anglo-Saxon mortuary archaeology is in the closing sections of the galleries in the visitor centre. There are no visible human remains here.
Roman period mortuary archaeologies
This is not all, however, since both in the main museum there is a Roman stone coffin, seemingly reused in the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery.
Further important Roman-period cremation burials are on display in the visitor centre. Some still contain cremated human material, ranging from elaborate high-status burials (Rougham) down to more modest cinerary urns.
Directly and indirectly, a large fraction of the archaeological collections and the reconstructions of costume, furniture and fittings and buildings at West Stow rely upon mortuary data as well as the settlement excavations. Moreover, as well as being a rich resource for learning about life in the early and middle Anglo-Saxon periods, West Stow has considerable potential for education and engagement regarding past death ways. As we have seen, this is true for the both Roman and early medieval periods. Considering West Stow from the perspective of the public archaeology of death is a useful venture, since it focuses our attention on how archaeological collections shed light on both life and death in past times, but also regarding present conversations and anxieties regarding mortality, including dying, death, burial and commemoration.