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“Interrupting the Pots”: The Excavation of Cleatham Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, North Lincolnshire

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

“Interrupting the Pots”: The Excavation of Cleatham Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, North Lincolnshire

By Kevin Leahy. Pp. xviii + 278, b&w figs. 117, color pls. 39. Council for British Archaeology, York 2007. $60. ISBN 978-1-902771-717 (paper).

Reviewed by

Anglo-Saxon cemetery reports are frequently not the most exciting reading material. Unless one is a hard-core cemetery junkie, the mass of data, exhaustively described, makes them all too often the kind of book that sits on a shelf waiting to be used as a reference, rather than something to be read from cover to cover. The emphasis since the 1980s has been to publish the data in response to what were then growing backlogs and leave the analysis for some undefined future stage—which, in many cases, has yet to arrive. Indeed, some might argue that the purpose of a cemetery excavation report is to simply describe the data recovered; the data have a lifespan far beyond that of any analysis, which may be quickly outdated by theoretical and technical developments. Consequently, interpretations and hypotheses should somehow be kept separate from the empirical descriptions that characterize the majority of reports over the last 30 years. Happily, Leahy does not subscribe to this view, for Interrupting the Pots is an engaging volume that successfully blends data with degrees of interpretation in a manner that illuminates rather than muddies the empiricist tenor of the classic cemetery catalogue.

The volume outlines the excavation of what was to become the third-largest cemetery of its kind in England, with more than 1,200 cremations and 62 inhumations dating from the mid fifth century to the later seventh century C.E. Originally discovered in 1856 when a further 50–60 urns were destroyed by laborers, the excavations described relate to five three-week seasons of work carried out between 1984 and 1989 as a result of changes in agricultural practice, leading to deep plowing of the site. The work was undertaken without external funding and largely by volunteers, and while their care and professionalism are evident throughout, the financial situation has clearly had an impact in certain areas. For instance, it was not considered to be time effective to record the fill of the urns in any detail (23), which, given the quality of the excavated evidence, seems a missed opportunity. However, the most significant shortcoming is clearly the lack of a bone report. This means it can only be assumed that some of the urns would have contained several individuals (32), but each has to be considered as a single burial. Burial practices could not be considered in terms of age or sex, and the population discussion is therefore limited, although a master’s dissertation was undertaken on the human remains from the inhumations (60). Attempts to connect the artifacts to social structure is accordingly not possible. The reason for the absence of a bone report is made explicit—although funding was applied for, none was forthcoming (60). Leahy is blunt: “As Cleatham is the only phased, large Anglo-Saxon cemetery in England, if not Europe, the failure of the funding bodies to support this ... can only be described as scandalous” (264).

While the absence of a bone report is a major issue, the volume contains a host of important data and discussion. If at times it betrays its origins as a Ph.D. thesis in occasional discursive debates and might have benefited from a firmer editorial hand, it would be churlish to be overly critical. What makes the volume successful is the way it reflects upon previous studies and analyses in making its context and approach explicit. Key are the relationships identified between the urns. Although there was no horizontal stratigraphy (unlike, e.g., Spong Hill), it proved possible to construct a significant degree of vertical stratigraphy with contemporaneous groupings of up to five urns and sequences of up to seven intercutting vessels, giving a total of 775 links between urns. The resulting matrix has gone through several iterations and incorporates the decorative style of the urns, allowing more than 600 to be phased. In the process, it provides the basis for a chronology of a range of material culture within and beyond Cleatham—grave goods in urns from other sites have proven to conform to the sequence established for Cleatham.

Little statistical analysis is undertaken, and Leahy is refreshingly honest about these limitations. Analysis of finds deposition essentially consists of a few distribution plots; as Leahy admits, a more systematic analysis would likely produce new insights (30). As it is, artifacts are considered as individual standard categories and little attention is paid to potential interrelationships between them or to a search for specific groupings of material in the form of grave kits, other artifact associations, and links with non-artifactual data. A tantalizing hint of relationships between urn groups and grave goods is raised but not pursued. Considerable potential therefore remains untapped in this regard. But in recognition of this, Leahy has archived the data, which are freely available from the Archaeology Data Service ( The digital archive consists of an online interface to the database and, more usefully, a range of downloadable data tables and a boundary shapefile, making GIS-based analysis easily within grasp.

There is a strong sense that more needs to be done—in terms of both dealing with the archived bone collection and also a more extensive computerized analysis of the urns and grave goods. Indeed, Leahy anticipates the criticism in his conclusions, which, in true thesis manner, include a set of proposals for further work (264). Such absences do not detract from the essential success of the volume as it stands. It is eminently approachable and a model of clarity, especially in the way that the underlying assumptions and methodologies are made explicit. The inclusion of discussions about the style, decoration, and analysis of the urns means that the report provides a good introduction to the general field, as well as to the Cleatham cemetery itself. What is now needed is someone to take up the challenge of the work that remains on this important site.

Jeremy Huggett
Department of Archaeology
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ
United Kingdom

Book Review of “Interrupting the Pots”: The Excavation of Cleatham Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, North Lincolnshire, by Kevin Leahy

Reviewed by Jeremy Huggett

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Huggett

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