Christianity ‘transformed how dead were buried’

Friday 30th August 2013

Theodore of Tarsus - photo Alamy

The pre-Christian tradition of burying the dead fully clothed with weapons ended abruptly in AD 670s or 680s, according to a new study.

The study, which aims to give precise dates to early Anglo-Saxon graves and grave goods, has shed light on a dramatic transformation of burial customs during the Christianisation of England.

The research, funded and undertaken by English Heritage experts in partnership with Cardiff University and the Queen’s University Belfast, appears to show that the traditional pre-Christian custom of burying men and women, fully clothed with weapons, dress fittings and other equipment, ended abruptly in AD 670s or 680s.

The team used a new method of combining the radiocarbon dates on skeletons from graves with analysis of the typological sequence of their accompanying grave goods.

Using this technique they put a sample of 572 Anglo-Saxon burials from across England into a dated sequence.

The researchers were able to estimate their dates to within a few decades, and concluded that the last such burials were all dated to the 670s and 680s.

This was an earlier and more abrupt end to the burial tradition than was previously thought.

Researchers also noted that the sudden end of furnished burials coincided almost exactly with the period when Theodore of Tarsus was Archbishop of Canterbury (AD669–690).

The Venerable Bede wrote that Theodore “was the first Archbishop whom the whole church in England agreed to obey”. Theodore visited all of the then English parts of Britain to instruct on correct orthodox Christian practices.

Professor John Hines from Cardiff University said: “Over a period of at least a century starting in the second half of the 6th century, a series of radical changes in burial practice coincided with hugely important developments in social and political organisation, economic life, and institutional religion in England.

“All of these must be interrelated. However, the exact contemporaneity of the end of traditional furnished burial and Theodore’s reign as Archbishop of Canterbury is striking, and unlikely to be a mere coincidence.

“It sheds new light on how Christianity consolidated its hold over the lives and experiences of everyone in England, and how ideas and practices that have prevailed for centuries took shape in this turning point in our history.

“If our interpretation of the abrupt and comprehensive change in burial practice which saw the final demise of the older tradition is correct, Theodore effected a truly comprehensive shift which brought the lives of everybody in Anglo-Saxon England into a common framework defined by the anticipation of how their body would be treated in death, and not even the Viking invasions and conquests two centuries later would alter this.”

Dr Helen Geake, finds adviser to the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the University of Cambridge, told historyextra: “This new research will make a huge difference to Anglo-Saxon studies.

“The findings are important because now, for the first time, we can match what’s going on in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology – the broad sweep of human life – to the precise historical dates of specific events and people.

“Until now, archaeology and history have had to be studied almost in isolation, but now potentially we can combine them to learn far more than we ever could before.”

Written by Lawrence W. Gash

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