Online Review: Book

Excavations at Mucking. Vol. 3, The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries

Catherine Hills

114.4

By Sue Hirst and Dido Clark. 2 parts. Pt. 1, Introduction, Catalogues and Specialist Reports. Pp. xxv + 440, figs. 230, tables 24; pt. 2, Analysis and Discussion. Pp. xiv + 396, figs. 190, tables 114, CD-ROM 1. Museum of London Archaeology, London 2009. £55. ISBN 978-1-901992-86-1 (cloth).

The excavations at Mucking by the late Margaret and Tom Jones between 1965 and 1978 were, as the introduction to these volumes says, “an epic undertaking” (1). For 10 years on this windblown gravel terrace on the north bank of the Thames estuary, near Tilbury in Essex, the Joneses excavated, in advance of quarrying, an enormous site. Revealed first through aerial photographs of crop marks showing prehistoric and Roman ditched enclosures, it also proved to contain an Anglo-Saxon settlement, Roman burials, and—the subject of the volumes under review—two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, one complete, the other partly quarried away. Everyone active in English archaeology at the time knew of, visited, and, in many cases, excavated at Mucking. The Joneses and a fluctuating team worked year round (it was rumoured a half-day was allowed off for Christmas) to produce an unrivaled body of excavated evidence. Unsurprisingly, this proved difficult to bring to publication. The Anglo-Saxon settlement was published some years ago by Hamerow (Excavations at Mucking. Vol. 2, The Anglo-Saxon Settlement [London 1993]), and a volume containing the prehistoric and Roman phases of the site is in press (S. Lucy and C. Evans, The Roman Settlement and Cemeteries at Mucking, Essex [Cambridge]).

Hirst and Clark have produced a publication worthy of the efforts put into the excavation. One of the attractive features of this work is the credit given to the excavators, who have sometimes faced criticism. Hirst’s account of their excavation methods shows that it was in fact a remarkable feat to have recovered so much in the context of the site as they found it after considerable damage by steam plowing and gravel extraction. This is a composite production, incorporating a thesis by Clark, specialist reports, and much research and analysis by Hirst, who put the final publication together. The work took place over many years, mostly in the 1990s.

The first volume contains catalogues of the burials and specialist reports; the second has discussion and analysis. For the specialist, the first volume is a valuable tool, a substantial addition to the corpus of fully published Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. It contains a detailed account of each grave, with full descriptions and illustrations of the burial and the artifacts it contained. Cemetery I was found only after it had been partly quarried away. Sixty-four inhumations were recovered, including one containing an elaborate belt fitting decorated in “Quoit brooch style,” which has been often published and discussed. Cemetery II was fully excavated; it contained 282 inhumations and 463 cremation burials, making it one of the largest completely excavated Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Both cemeteries included graves with a wide range of artifacts: jewelry, weapons, and pottery and glass vessels. Both were in use at the same time.

The second volume is more interesting to the nonspecialist. Discussions of each individual artifact type detail comprehensively how many buckles, brooches, or pots—and of what shape and size—were found, and with what associations, together with comparative discussion of similar artifacts elsewhere.

A problematic feature of the site is the poor preservation of organic material, especially bone and wood. Much of the analysis is devoted to maximizing the information recoverable from incomplete evidence, using a variety of complex arguments derived partly from analysis of other sites. Traces of wooden coffins did survive as dark stains in many graves. Hirst has successfully reconstructed and illustrated the different types of coffins in which many of the bodies were buried. She lists 133 inhumations from Cemetery II with box or tree trunk coffins or bodies laid in wooden troughs. This is a far higher proportion than has been recorded from elsewhere, and it suggests that coffin burial has heretofore been underestimated. These simple containers can be contrasted with the more elaborate beds, coffins, and chambers reviewed by Carver and Fern in connection with Sutton Hoo (“The Seventh Century Burial Rites and Their Sequences,” in M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: A Seventh-Century Princely Burial Ground and Its Context [London 2005] 283–313).

Social analysis of a burial population such as this depends on identifying the age, sex, and pathology of the buried individuals. Only limited skeletal remains survived at Mucking. However, one of the achievements of the excavation was to recognize and record body shadows, or silhouettes: two-dimensional soil stains showing part of the outline of the vanished body. (Later, in the 1980s, three-dimensional so-called sandmen were excavated at Sutton Hoo.) The silhouettes give an indication of body position and size, which in turn give an approximate idea of the age (but not the sex) of the dead person. This information was extended by proxy, through analysis of a different cemetery of the same period, at Lechlade, in the Upper Thames valley, roughly in the same cultural region as Mucking (A. Boyle et al., The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Butler’s Field, Lechlade, Gloucestershire [Oxford 1998]). Lechlade has good bone preservation, so the age and sex of burials associated with specific grave goods there could be used as a starting point for analysis of the Mucking burials. This works up to a point, especially since broader surveys of Anglo-Saxon burials produce results comparable to Lechlade. It remains difficult to age shadows; “adult,” “juvenile,” and “child” may be distinguishable in most cases, but further precision is impossible. Projecting results from other cemeteries runs the risk of circularity, but is an exercise worth doing.

A key research goal was to establish a detailed chronology, which is essential to understanding change over time and reconstructing the history of the buried population. The chronology of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries is mostly built on artifact typology. One exception is Wasperton, where it was possible to combine spatial analysis, stratigraphy, typology, and radiocarbon dating with some success (M. Carver et al., Wasperton: A Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon Community in Central England [Woodbridge 2009]). Mucking had little stratigraphy or organic material suitable for radiocarbon dating, so artifacts had to be the starting point. Computer-based seriation, used to achieve a relative sequence through analysis of artifacts found in combination with one another, was deployed to establish relative phases. Absolute dates are based on chronologies already in existence in England and on the European continent, which themselves in many cases rely on coin-dated graves. Dating systems are under constant review, and more elaborate seriations of continental finds have been developed since the research was carried out for Mucking. These may change the absolute dates of some phases, but the relative sequence seems well established.

Detailed appraisal of the results will take some time. Meanwhile, what has been established certainly is that these cemeteries were in use from the first half of the fifth to the seventh centuries C.E. The burials lay in groups that suggest families or households, and the people buried lived in the nearby settlement. The cultural affinities of the earliest material are with the Elbe-Weser region of northern Germany, which was probably where some, but not necessarily all, of the first generation of those buried originated. Especially noteworthy are the fifth-century inhumations with elaborate Late Roman military belt fittings. Later generations were part of a so-called Saxon cultural sphere that included the Thames valley and southern England, rather than the Anglian region, which lay in East Anglia and northeastern England.

Hirst, Clark, and all the other contributors are to be congratulated for so successfully bringing to fruition this project, which Margaret and Tom Jones began nearly half a century ago.

Catherine Hills
Department of Archaeology
University of Cambridge
Cambridge CB2 3DZ
United Kingdom
ch35@cam.ac.uk

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1144.Hills

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