Anglo-Saxon Burial

Anglo-Saxon Burial Techniques

Early Anglo-Saxons normally cremated their dead on a pyre, the efficiency of those fires equal to our cremation today. Due to the artwork on the urns that carried the remains, how it changed over the centuries, and the fact that the graves are normally too distorted for identification, we usually date the graves by the artwork on the urns.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, inhumation burials (or burials of a whole and complete body) came into wide use, most likely influenced by a similar Roman technique. Depending on one's station in life and wealth, these graves hold things like weapons and grave goods (Kerr).
In the seventh century burials abruptly changed in response to Christian influence. These are normally positioned East-West for religious reasons, and do not boast the same rich finds that the earlier graves do. In these, it is rare to find the body with anything but a shroud to cover it and perhaps a knife for the males.
After Christianity became the overall religion, there were many different sorts of burials. Here are four examples:
"Final Phase" Burials- This was the conversion of pagan inhumation to Christian. There are fewer grave goods than in earlier Anglo-Saxon graves, the bodies are positioned in an east-west fashion, and the majority are inhumation graves.
"Princely" Burials- usually located under mounds and can contain either cremation or inhumation. Most of these burial sites are likely an attempt to defy Christianity. Sutton Hoo is a perfect example of a Princely burial. 'Unfurnished' burials- these are a direct result of Christian influence, they normally face east-west, and are very hard to date.
'Deviant' burial- these are also known as 'execution' burials or 'battlefield' burials They have little or no grave goods, and graves are poorly defined, with corpses often being buried in mass graves. The 'sand-men' burials of Sutton Hoo are examples of this, and the corpses may be found in a variety of unnatural positions, indicating ritual abuse and human sacrifice (Kerr).
Anglo-Saxons: Life After Death


Pagan Anglo-Saxon burials tended to be very highly based on displaying wealth and power. When the Christians came in and began to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, this changed. Cremation was no longer accepted, and most of the corpses were buried without any of their earthly belongings including their clothes. Normally, only a shroud and perhaps a knife (in the graves of males) are found. The pagan Anglo-Saxons did not release their traditions quietly, however.
The most famous Anglo-Saxon burial ground is probably Sutton Hoo. Here, there are 19 burial mounds in all, including two ship mounds. This burial place may have been one of the last attempts of the Anglo-Saxons to defy the Christian religion and bring their own pagan ways back. This failed, of course, but it has given us a good look into the so-called "life-after-death" of the people.


Mound 1, the most famous ship-mound, was found to be untouched and has revealed many treasures from the Anglo-Saxon age. It was the burial place of a King (Anon Sutton Hoo), and the burial chamber was full of high status grave goods, including buckles, shoulder clasps, a purse, a sword, drinking horns and a lyre. A great silver dish was found, associated with the Byzantine Empire. Symbols of royalty were stored at one end of the chamber - a shield, helmet, iron standard with a bronze stag and a symbolic whetstone (Anon 1992:330).
Mound 2 (the second ship-mound), had been robbed of most of its treasure before it was found. Archeologists were able to find the imprints of many artifacts the thieves took, thereby identifying what was in the grave. The position and place of the body were found, as well as the imprints of a shield, a drinking horn, die, a box and a tub (Kerr).


A few of the other mounds, however, are not so innocent. For example, take Mound 5. The inhabitant of this grave was cremated (an anti-Christian idea at the time) and most likely of noble birth. But there have been many graves excavated from around Mound 5 where the bodies, or the stains in the sand that showed where the bodies had once been, were not. However, this is not overly comforting nor an acceptance of Christianity. Instead of cremation, these poor Anglo-Saxons (known as the "Sand Men") were probably human sacrifices and their bodies were left to blatantly display the violence of their deaths.