Book Review: Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods, John Hines and Alex Bayliss (eds)

Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework

By: Alex Bayliss, John Hines, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac and Christopher Scull

Edited by: John Hines and Alex Bayliss

The Society for Medieval Archaeology, London 2013

ISBN: 978-1-909662-06-03

SMA Monograph 33

Rating: 4.5/5 – because let’s be honest its enormous and very impressive (its hard not to be impressed by anything associated with Bayliss and Hines).

Reviewer: Samantha Leggett

Summary: This volume seeks to address the large deficiencies in dating and chronological frameworks for graves of the early Anglo-Saxon period. A wide range of techniques, types of evidence and sites were used from the 6th and 7th centuries (the later part of the early Anglo-Saxon period) to revise and and review previous artefact typologies and seriation*. This was primarily done with precise dating techniques – C14 dating of bone and Bayesian modelling. The result is their new chronological frameworks for both male and female graves, treated separately in the text, which theoretically allows for cross-site calendrical dating rather than the traditionally flawed site-specific chronologies.

image from oxbow books

Now down to the real stuff:

I was directed to this work by Dr Gareth Perry at the University of Sheffield when seeking advice for my research into the conversion period cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England. It came out at the end of last year and is the culmination of a large and multidisciplinary project funded by English Heritage and spearheaded by Queen’s Belfast and Cardiff University. First off this volume is MASSIVE, it weighs about 3kgs (“How do you know this? I hear you ask – well I had to work out how much it weighed to bring it back with me from the UK) and whilst I would usually agree with the old adage that quantity does not always equal quality, in this case it does. This is a monograph of real substance and thoroughness. Whilst the technicalities of the Bayesian modelling and statistics are a little beyond my grasp, the interpretations, integrations and implications in the last few chapters are extremely useful for anyone studying the burials of the 6th and 7th centuries. The authors have truly thought about the implications of these adjusted dates for not only burial practices but also for wider Anglo-Saxon society.

This volume is clearly aimed at an academic audience, more specifically Anglo-Saxon archaeologists, particularly those working in the funerary sphere. These chronologies are tied very firmly to the carbon dating of the deceased persons in these cemeteries, however they show promise for expansion into settlement archaeology as well. One of the key points this volume argues is that furnished burial essentially ceases in the later decades of the 7th century AD. As the project was meant to but did not extend into the 8th century or beyond, I have issues with this proposed cessation from my own work. Whilst these adjusted chronologies do appear to be accurate, some sites I have included in my own thesis still have furnished burials into the 8th century, and there is some suggestion for this continuing into the 9th as well (admittedly these 9th century sites are in Viking settled areas in the North of England). I think this conclusion is premature, and would I would like to see an extension of this very important project into the later Saxon periods as well.

The separate male and female sequences will I think, cause some issues. They are of course based partly on sexing of the skeletons but still rely on the traditional male-female artefact typologies, which can be extremely unreliable. There are for instance males buried with female assemblages and vice versa. Not to mention the mysterious “third gender” assemblages that have been postulated in these early cemeteries. Likewise it is my understanding that, as in most of the original cemetery reports, this study appears to take the sex of the grave from the grave goods when the sex is not apparent from the skeleton itself. This is dubious, a long-standing practice, but still dubious and it may perhaps impact upon the chronologies. I’m not entirely sure how to account for this in the Bayesian modelling, and perhaps they have, but I just couldn’t see this accounted for in any significant way.

However, this project was ambitious, and from my early-career point of view, successful. Many of us have bemoaned the extremely “dodgy” dates of these cemeteries and the individual graves within them. As any archaeologist knows stratigraphic and typological dating is rife with issues. The research presented in this monograph begins to rectify the dating inadequacies of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, and therefore has wide-ranging implications on the interpretation of these sites,  the artefacts and the make up of Early Anglo-Saxon society. The implications for economic activity, settlement archaeology and burial practices are significant for anyone interested in this period. The sheer scope and magnitude of the sample used is amazing and makes the results appear, to me, sound and well founded.

This is a mathematics and looooong paragraphs heavy (quite literally) monograph, which should draw the attention of most Anglo-Saxonists archaeologist, historian and literature buff alike.

 


*Footnotes:

Seriation – the arrangement of items, in this case archaeological artefacts in a sequence according to criteria, usually stylistic in nature. Often used for pottery or in the case of Anglo-Saxon artefacts brooches.

 

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