A Grave Concern

Conducting research for my Master’s thesis has taken me down many rabbit holes. One of which brought me to the image shared below. I don’t know if my love of literature, especially Anglo Saxon works such as Beowulf, is the reason for my fascination with the lives of those who lived long ago, or if my interest in their stories is a result of that fascination.

From: Early Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries: Kinship, Community and Identity by Duncan Sayer, Manchester University Press, November 2020

Regardless of that chicken/egg dilemma, I find myself enthralled with the world of people who existed so long before me. This particular image is found in a book that examines the role of cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon society. Aside from the ritualistic or cultural significance of certain burial practices, the author, archaeologist Duncan Sayer, describes how cemeteries can be seen as narrative spaces. We can ”read” a burial site as a story—a narrative that reveals not only what mattered to a given group of people at one time, but also the deeply personal stories of the anonymous dead.

Consider the cemetery space itself. In my small hometown, there are several cemeteries. While all are located beyond the borders of our little town, the most prominent one is located just beyond the city limits. Still easily accessible and visible from the two-lane highway that leads into our hamlet, but nowhere near the center of action or life. This separateness has not always been the case for burial sites. In many cultures, and in the world I am drawn to, that of the Anglo-Saxons, remains were not inhumed in some out-of-the way location. Burial grounds (be it mound, cairn, or plot) had an on-going, interactive role in the existence of the living. In some instances, that role might have been symbolic, but in others, burial sites were seen as homes for the dead. For many societies of the past, death might have been seen as simply another facet of existence.

So, the cemetery or burial ground would have been placed close enough for the living to have an ongoing relationship with those housed there. Let us think of the location as the setting in our narrative of the dead. Within the narrative structure of the cemetery grounds, we can find countless short stories–or, even the arc of a greater narrative–one that details the rise and fall of a village, or even a civilization. How were the individual grave sites arranged? What relationships existed between the graves themselves? What can be inferred about this past society from the location, contents, or even proximity between individual graves?

Consider this image from the same work by Sayer.

From: Early Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries: Kinship, Community and Identity by Duncan Sayer, Manchester University Press, November 2020

I want to focus on grave 23. As Sayer’s text indicates, grave 23 presents something of a conundrum for contemporary “readers” of the site. He (the remains are that of a male) appears to be in a somewhat central location. He is positioned N/S (unlike the majority of graves), and is surrounded by other graves. Yet, unlike grave 26, which had weapons typically associated with a warrior of some importance, grave 23 contained no grave goods. Nor is he surrounded by the graves of warrior band. Instead, weapons have been found buried around 23 (referred to as weapon-set graves). Even more intriguing: the individual in site 23 is surrounded by the graves of children.

What story could we craft for the inhabitant of grave 23? I want to believe that this was someone held in great esteem not only by his contemporaries, but also by the descendants of his contemporaries. Perhaps, the weapons graves formed a wall of protection—one that would also protect the children surrounding the man buried in grave 23. Without doubt, child mortality in the Anglo-Saxon era was high. But, because children died early and frequently did not mean they were not precious members of this world.

Consider the first image I shared. Grave 78 contains the remains of a woman and child. The woman has been placed in the prone positions (face down) a rather common practice for this era. Some have hypothesized that such a position is indicative of shame or sin — in guilt, the person faces away from the world. Yet, the woman was found holding beads and a brooch in her right hand. Possessing such valuable grave goods means this woman had merit in someone’s eyes, or enough worth to be sent into the next realm with treasured items.

Of course, the most important aspect of this tableau is the eternal connection between Woman and child. Are they mother and child? That is one story. Let us believe that narrative. Did they die together from some horrid event or as a result of disease or starvation. Either narrative strand is possible. But, we are distracted by the image and possible backstory. This pair did not fall into grave 78. The preparation of the dead, and placement of the bodies into the grave would have been a far more intimate act than any with which modern mourners are familiar. Someone took the woman’s left hand and purposefully placed it on the child’s arm for what he or she believed would be eternity. As the grass grew over grave 78, and time passed, those who knew the inhabitants inhumed there would go to their own graves. Names and life stories would disappear. All that remains are their remains.

One of the last acts I was able to perform for my child before he died was to help wash his body. I had done the same for my father when he died at home. In my life, I have held two people as they died. Death and our treatment of those who die, like the cemetery space itself, seems to always exist on the periphery of our collective subconscious. I have come to believe that we need to return to the old ways. Perhaps that is simply my way of trying to find a means for accepting the deaths of those who I love.

What does any of this have to do with a seminar class in Medieval Literature? While the Anglo-Saxon practices and world may have been subsumed by first the Danish invaders, and then the Normans, I believe that vestiges of the old beliefs and struggles can be seen to influence works such as the Pearl, composed by the Gawain poet.

I hope to elaborate on how I believe these beliefs are connected in my upcoming blog posts. Fingers-crossed, I will also be sharing how all these interests will lead to MY NEXT BIG THING…


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