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- Author: Duncan Sayer x
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Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are well-known because of their rich grave goods, but this wealth can obscure their importance as local phenomena and the product of pluralistic multi-generational communities. This book explores over one hundred early Anglo-Saxon and some Merovingian cemeteries and aims to understand them using a multi-dimensional methodology. The performance of mortuary drama was a physical communication and so needed syntax and semantics. This local knowledge was used to negotiate the arrangement of cemetery spaces and to construct the stories that were told within them. For some families the emphasis of a mortuary ritual was on reinforcing and reproducing family narratives, but this was only one technique used to arrange cemetery space. This book offers an alternative way to explore the horizontal organisation of cemeteries from a holistic perspective. Each chapter builds on the last, using visual aesthetics, leitmotifs, spatial statistics, grave orientation, density of burial, mortuary ritual, grave goods, grave robbing, barrows, integral structures, skeletal trauma, stature, gender and age to build a detailed picture of complex mortuary spaces. This approach places community at the forefront of interpretation because people used and reused cemetery spaces and these people chose to emphasise different characteristics of the deceased because of their own attitudes, lifeways and lived experiences. This book will appeal to scholars of Anglo-Saxon studies and will also be of value to archaeologists interested in mortuary spaces, communities and social differentiation because it proposes a way to move beyond grave goods in the discussion of complex social identities.
Chapter 1, ‘Negotiating early Anglo-Saxon cemetery space’, provides an introduction to the subject by describing how archaeologists have approached early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. It uses this historiography as a foundation upon which to describe several cemetery sites, starting with a double burial from Oakington and then focusing on the description of two complete cemeteries at Orpington, Kent and Apple Down, West Sussex. This chapter illustrates the problem with traditional monothematic approaches and describes how spatial layout, material culture and skeletal characteristics can be used together to explore the social arena. It also defines the philosophy that underpins the book. Based on interdisciplinary perspectives, Chapter 1 explores the causal agency embedded in relationships, material expressions of identity, transformative objects and aesthetic selection. Artefacts exist within the social world, and so the sociology of shoes and modern-day gravegoods are useful examples which are analogous to how more ancient objects interfaced with people. Society is pluralistic, but its physical remains are created from an amalgam of factors, including the manifestation of identities and aesthetics derived from shared semiotic knowledge.
‘The syntax of cemetery space’ (Chapter 2) describes cemetery organisation thematically. This chapter introduces the structural language of the cemetery and is the foundation of subsequent chapters. It starts by describing pre-existing topography and introduces the use of spatial statistics to identify distinct grave plots. The relative density of graves, rows of graves, the orientation of graves and the rituals used within the cemetery are alternative ways used to identify group affiliation(s). This chapter also investigates patterns in the material included within graves, and compares those patterns to the multiple methods used to organise funerary space.
Chapter 3, ‘Mortuary metre’, considers the chronological construction of sites, the development of cemeteries and the chronological transformation of funerary display. Building on the new chronologies proposed by John Hines and Alex Bayliss, and Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy, this chapter looks at Spong Hill, Sewerby, Apple Down, Wakerley, Oakington, Deal and Orpington. It also presents an in-depth investigation of the chronology at Dover Buckland because this site has been central to previous discussions of early Anglo-Saxon chronology. This chapter highlights discordant chronologies within sites, highlighting the use of different rituals by different identity groups within the same community.
Chapter 4, ‘The grammar of graves’, explores leitmotifs, cultural themes in funerary display. These include social hierarchy, core burials, sex, gender and age. Plots or groups of graves were often structured using the location of significant burials within them. This focus may have been on the core groups of graves, which sometimes encircled specific individuals. Interestingly, graves with mounds on them were targeted by contemporary grave robbers, but some types of grave were deliberately avoided. Elaborate burials with exposed markers were a tool used by a community to create key ancestors who formed powerful parts of the communal identity.
Chapter 5, ‘Intonation on the individual’, builds on the previous three chapters to locate the lived experience. It uses skeletal archaeology to explore the distributions of skeletal trauma, diet and height. This focus on the body developed in order to explore in more detail the differences in social attitudes expressed within the mortuary environment. Diet and trauma may provide insights into differential lifeways, whereas height and teeth metrics may reveal a degree of relative biological connection across the cemeteries investigated.
To conclude, Chapter 6, ‘Kinship and community’, places the cemeteries back into their cultural context by discussing the legal and textual evidence. Like Chapter 1, this chapter explores whole cemeteries. Each preceding chapter built on the last to introduce thematic elements; this chapter explores cemeteries as complete, and as social phenomena. It establishes cemetery space as a unique and local creation. Each cemetery used different methods which could differentiate between groups of graves and identify distinguished individuals from different generations. However, the creation of these burials was not solely to reconstruct the personhood of the deceased; it also recreated community narrative with a ‘scopic regime’. This localised way of seeing used gender and life course as well as situational, political and regional identities within a conglomerate, multi-layered mesh of characteristics. It is this dispositional difference between graves, and between sites and across regions that can be used to discuss the nature of Anglo-Saxon society.