Anglo-Saxon Burial Techniques: Early Anglo-Saxon burials are traditionally based on cremation on a pyre, with the deposition of corpses in the ground in a pottery container. The Anglo-Saxons were experts at cremations, with their pyres being at least as efficient as today’s pyres, reaching temperatures of up to 9000 C. Cremation burials were never found with weapons – it is possible, of course, that these were a part of the cremation, but melted in the flames, but many are found with miniature weapons and miniature combs. In the fourth and fifth centuries, inhumation burials came into common use, where the unburned body is deposited in a rectangular grave.
It was probably copied from the late Roman technique, although it is suggested that it was introduced from Denmark. Inhumation burials typically were accompanied by weapons, and grave goods according to status. In the seventh century, Anglo-Saxon burials abruptly changed, as a direct result of Christianity. The most obvious indicator is the lack of pagan objects, such as weapons- a practice encouraged by the Church. Many cemeteries were abandoned that had been used in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the double cemetery also became common -that is, a cemetery was abandoned and a new one was setup beside it. There were a number of new types of burial present after the Church arrived.
The first of these is the ‘Final Phase’ burial, which is basically a transition between a pagan inhumation, with the corpse being accompanied typically by clothes, jewelry, weapons and other personal belongings, and a Christian inhumation, where the corpse is unclothed and unfurnished, except for a shroud. On the whole, these burials have very few grave goods when compared to the previous pagan period, and some have no grave goods at all. The graves are aligned east-west, after the Christian fashion, and all except a very small number are inhumation – after the sixth century, cremations become almost redundant. Another type of burial identified, is that of the ‘Princely’ burial, normally located under a mound, with a high number of quality grave goods. They contain either a cremation or an inhumation. Anglo-Saxon standards is that burial mounds usually cover inhumations, rather than cremations.
One such burial is that of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, on the River Deben. There were a number of burials here, all of them under mounds. An interesting reflection of Anglo-Saxon society was the graves surrounding – the so-called ‘sand-men’, which appear to have been human sacrifices. All that remains of them are stains in the sand, but their postures are very odd – some had their hands tied behind their backs, some were face down, and in some cases the neck was broken or the head had been cut off and placed by the hand or knee. A likely explanation for this is that the Anglo-Saxons were rebelling against Christianity, and were making a statement about their allegiance to Scandinavia and their non-acceptance of Christianity. A third type of Anglo-Saxon burial is the ‘Unfurnished’ burial, which are, due to their nature, very hard to define or date.
They are a direct result of Christianity, and are generally orientated east-west. They are usually dated by radiometric or stratigraphic methods, but neither of these is absolute. However, features within the grave are useful, such as stone, charcoal or coffins, all of which may help distinguish Anglo-Saxon burials from later burials. The final type of burial is the ‘Deviant’ burial, also known as ‘execution’ burials of ‘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, as mentioned, corpses may be found in a variety of unnatural positions, indicating ritual abuse and human sacrifice.
At the beginning of the eighth century you see the beginnings of churchyard burials.