You are here

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

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

Edited by John Hines and Alex Bayliss (Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33). Pp. xx + 595, figs. 480, tables 129, online figs. 24. The Society for Medieval Archaeology, London 2013. $90. ISBN 978-1-909662-06-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The subject of this volume is an interdisciplinary project to build a chronology of furnished burials of the early Anglo-Saxon period in England, with the intent to propose calendrical dates rather than relative chronologies. While the researchers originally intended to focus on graves and grave goods from 570 through 720 C.E., the time span was reevaluated when they were faced with data suggesting the end of furnished burial decades earlier, perhaps in the 670s or 680s. Not satisfied with merely presenting the results of their analyses, the specialists who contributed to this work include nearly “blow-by-blow” accounts of their decision making and the process of interpreting their analyses of data from a sample of 90 burials from 17 sites, including new evidence through the year 2005. The data sets, grave assemblages, and “e-Figures” of seriated matrices generated by correspondence analysis of male and female burials are available digitally with the Archaeological Data Service ( A consequence of the transparency of the project methods is that the research presented here may be traced in more or less detail according to the needs of the reader, and the foreword to the volume explains which sections of the book will be most useful to those seeking certain kinds of information. Chapter 1 reviews scholarly approaches to the early Anglo-Saxon period, including the history of typological and chronological frameworks. Chapter 2 presents the scientific and statistical methods used in this study, while the research agenda of the project is summarized in chapter 3. The next sections turn to archaeological data, with chapter 4 examining the human skeleton and chapter 5 presenting the classification of artifact types pertinent to this study. In chapters 6 and 7, grave assemblages of male and female burials, respectively, are sequenced. Chapter 8 coordinates the male and female sequences and compares the results with continental and Scandinavian chronologies. Chapter 9 examines the incompatibility of the numismatic chronology with the chronological models produced by this study. Finally, chapter 10 appraises the results of the project for the interpretation of political, social, economic, and religious issues in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology.

In chapter 1, Hines reviews the history of research on Anglo-Saxon burials and objects from the time of early antiquarians through the heyday of local archaeological societies to numerous attempts to understand relative chronologies via artifact typologies—often via comparisons with Scandinavian material. The “state of research” section culminates in questions raised about the periodization of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, and the plethora of prevailing incompatible dating schemes validates the need for the comprehensive chronological framework sought by this project.

Dating techniques as well as the methods of data analysis and modeling are discussed in chapter 2 by Bayliss, McCormac, Thompson, and Hines. For this study, results from artifact typologies, seriation by correspondence analysis of artifact types and grave assemblages, and high-precision radiocarbon dating were analyzed by applying a series of Bayesian statistical models. Stated simply, this formal, quantitative probability theory—which goes back to Bayes’ theorem of 1783—recognizes that we interpret new data (“posterior beliefs”) in the context of earlier knowledge (“prior beliefs”), in an iterative cycle in which existing knowledge is replaced by new. The mathematical and natural-scientific methods that are used—including atmospheric physics and bone chemistry, which are fundamental to radiocarbon dating—are explained, but this chapter is dense and perhaps overwhelming for anyone without sufficient statistical, mathematical, and scientific background.

Chapter 3 is essentially a “white paper” by Scull on the evolution of the project, explaining the research agenda and the practical aspects of its implementation. Some choices made when the project was formulated in 1997–1998 were altered in accordance with subsequent developments in scientific methodologies. The author candidly discusses lessons learned and also raises issues yet to be successfully addressed, including differing survival of bone in various regions of England and ethical issues of reburial vs. curation that affect the availability of bone for radiocarbon dating. The observations on effective communication are recommended reading for directors of interdisciplinary and international projects.

In chapter 4, specialists Beavan and Mays present osteological and biomolecular studies of 96 individuals from 90 burials at a total of 17 sites. They chose burials that included diagnostic artifact types. This chapter also analyzes stature for men and women and considers the role of nutrition. Men buried with weapons are found to be taller than average for Anglo-Saxon populations, whether due to good nutrition or to purposeful selection of marked stature for warriors, whereas women were of average height. It is concluded from analysis of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes that the early Anglo-Saxon diet was largely terrestrial, with riverine and coastal populations showing only slight variance. However, it is important to note that only two males from riverine sites were analyzed; thus, the results must be considered premature. The authors acknowledge that analysis of non-elite individuals without grave goods must also be studied before making inferences about diet. Interestingly, they do not mention strontium isotope analysis, most likely because of the 1997 origins of the project.

The typological classifications of the major artifact types found in male and female Anglo-Saxon burials that Høilund Nielsen has devised are presented in chapter 5, and the spreadsheets on which the typologies are based can be downloaded as “e-Figures.” The objects are well illustrated by Ian Dennis, and references are provided. New type definitions were constructed for some artifact types, while existing schemes were adapted for others. The Anglo-Saxon material is compared with some Scandinavian types, but more often to continental typologies that are linked to datable coins and dendrochronological dates. Of the artifact types, buckles are found in both male and female Anglo-Saxon burials, but they are more important chronological indicators in male graves than in female ones. Exclusively male objects include shield bosses, for which a new classification was constructed, and spearheads, which lack chronological value. Continental typologies are adapted for sword pommels, seaxes, and sheath fittings from male burials. Of artifacts in female graves, glass beads are the most ubiquitous and the most informative chronologically, occurring in all regions of England. With a few additions, Høilund Nielsen accepts Brugmann’s (Glass Beads from Early Anglo-Saxon Graves [Oxford 2004]) typology of beads. Female burials also include pendants, wire rings (not finger rings), brooches, dress pins, accessories, tools, personal equipment, and vessels. Previous classificatory schemes for specific and often regional brooch types are applied here.

In chapters 6 and 7, Bayless, Hines, and Høilund Nielsen present the analysis of male and female graves, respectively. Here the reader discovers in painstaking detail how the final preferred models were arrived at through an iterative process of construction and testing of proposed sequences. Bayesian statistical modeling is used on the correspondence analysis for the seriation of the grave assemblages and radiocarbon dating results to produce estimates for the chronology of graves. The researchers focus on finding the chronologically diagnostic artifact traits, especially “leading types” (after German Leittyp)—that is, unambiguous artifact types that appear at a particular point in time, and not earlier. Therefore, the introduction of these types is used to form phase boundaries. Conversely, long-lived types are not useful for building a chronology and usually are excluded. Male and female burials are treated separately because very few artifact types—mostly buckles—are common to both genders. Shield bosses are the mainstay for the chronology of male burials, while beads are most important for female graves. Even though bead types are long-lived, new types were successively introduced and thus chronologically sensitive. For males, buckles and belt fittings are linked chronologically with the continent, while beads provide that connection for females. A seriation of grave assemblages as well as a seriation of artifact types is produced by the correspondence analyses.

The final stage of analysis for male burials included 272 grave assemblages, 78 artifact types, and 28 radiocarbon-dated graves. Two crucial continental benchmarks are provided by a dendrochronological date of 511 C.E. for oak planks from a burial in Cologne Cathedral and silver coins from Grave 10 at Hérouvillette, Normandy, dated to ca. 540 C.E. For females, the correspondence analysis was based on 300 grave assemblages, 81 artifact types, and 35 radiocarbon-dated graves. Whereas there was little regional diversity for male burials, regional or cultural distinctions—Anglian, Saxon, and Kentish—are apparent for females. Although the rate of male burials is nearly constant throughout the period under review, a distinct dip in the numbers of furnished female inhumations occurs in the decades around 600 C.E. The authors discuss whether this diminution can be explained by a marine component in the diet that could cause anomalously old dates, but they conclude that a fully terrestrial diet is validated. Another irregularity to be reckoned with is the overrepresentation of sites from Saxon England and underrepresentation of Kent.

In chapter 8, Bayliss, Hines, and Høilund Nielsen present the preferred models for the partitioning of chronological phases according to leading artifact types and grave assemblages for both male and female burials. The phase boundaries for male and female sequences are dissimilar, with the phases for leading types indicated alphabetically as “B” through “F” for male burials (thus MB–MF) and “B” through “E” for females (thus FB–FE). A previous “Phase A” is reserved to accommodate future studies of the early through mid fifth century, outside the scope of this study. Five phases from the mid sixth century through the late seventh century are identified for male burials, and four phases for the same period for females. Although unforeseen at the inception of the project, the authors now propose that the end of furnished burial probably occurred by the 670s. Finally, the male and female sequences are coordinated, and connections to continental and Scandinavian chronologies are described.

In chapter 9, Archibald targets an unresolved inconsistency between accepted numismatic chronology and the dating proposed by this project. Numismatists date pale-gold and silver sceatta coins of the late seventh century about 20 years later than is modeled here for the graves that contain these coins. Once again, the issue of a marine diet affecting radiocarbon dates comes to the fore and may account for part of the variance in dating. The seriousness with which this disagreement is regarded by Hines and Scull is typical of the transparency of argumentation throughout the entire volume.

Chapter 10 presents the broader implications for the chronological modeling. Hines, Scull, and Bayliss examine an array of archaeological, historical, social, economic, political, religious, and methodological issues. Among the topics are the near cessation of cremation by the seventh century and shifts in artifact types from swords to seaxes for males and from primarily dress accessories to the inclusion of practical, domestic grave goods with females. Also, the benefit of the chronological modeling of artifact types for settlement archaeology and dating of surface finds is noted. The project emphasis on well-furnished—even “princely”—graves throws light on political stratification and the development of emporia. An increase in gender differentiation and regionality is observed through grave goods; by the seventh century, males are less likely to be buried with weaponry, which apparently remained in circulation, whereas female wealth—mostly dress accessories—more likely entered graves. Finally, evidence of conversion to Christianity is examined, with a reminder that this religion is “profoundly concerned with death” (552).

Did this study meet its stated goals? Undoubtedly, yes. The project successfully built on and pushed beyond prior knowledge using Bayesian modeling to analyze complex and disparate threads of information. The greatest contribution of the venture may be the proposed phases of the early Anglo-Saxon period that are significantly more discriminating than former schemes. Whereas dating this material to within a half century has been considered the norm, now artifacts and grave assemblages can be placed more firmly to within a decade or two. The self-criticism in the last section of the book clearly lays out directions for future research to address topics already broached in this work, namely, the need to address questions of regional variation, cremation burials, unfurnished graves and graves of children, age at death, skeletal pathologies, and the influence of marine vs. terrestrial diets. Desiderata for future research include increasing the sample size—limited here by regional variations in skeletal preservation and by curatorial decisions—and adding studies of stable oxygen and strontium isotopes in skeletal remains as well as DNA sequencing of samples. Undoubtedly, scientific advancements will bring new methods and areas of study to the fore.

The chronological framework of objects and graves that has been constructed should serve as a standard reference for quite some time, replacing the idiosyncratic, object-by-object studies that precede this. The artifact-type descriptions with drawings and their classificatory schemes will be valuable for every Anglo-Saxon archaeologist and perhaps could be marketed as a standalone reference. One could question whether the tedious detail on statistical methods and the wealth of the modeling iterations—while important to fully understand the project—requires inclusion in the printed book or could be obtainable online for those who want to understand the methods or replicate the study. For such a lengthy and complex volume, there are very few editorial mistakes. On page 15, an apparently precocious Bertil Almgren (1918–2011) is substituted for his father Oscar Almgren (1869–1945) as coauthor of a work in 1923, and a section on page 37 is repeated on the next page; otherwise, only a few minuscule errors were found.

This study is a pioneering methodological work, although it is not the first to use Bayesian statistical methods in archaeology. However, the specific combination of furnished graves, radiocarbon and dendrochronological dates, and datable coins allows this project to serve as a model for future investigations with diverse data, extending well beyond Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Indeed, the full and transparent exposition of the sophisticated combination of traditional and innovative methods allows this work to have wider implications for archaeologists who study the rest of the world.

Nancy L. Wicker
The University of Mississippi

Book Review of Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, edited by John Hines and Alex Bayliss

Reviewed by Nancy L. Wicker

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Wicker

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.