A recent BBC report concluded that almost half of England’s cemeteries could run out of burial space within 20 years, and that a quarter would be full within 5-10 years. The decision to cremate, then, is a pressing one, and it is no surprise that the majority of people choose to do it. Such pressures would not have been felt by the Anglo-Saxon migrants of the 5th and 6th centuries, though, as they arrived at a largely unsettled land, at least by modern standards.
I read a very interesting paper this week about child burial in medieval Poland. Now, I’ll be the first one to hold my hand up to the fact that my knowledge of Poland is very limited, both in the modern and medieval worlds. Despite this, I was fascinated by the paper, and the archaeological evidence it discussed – so much so that I decided to write about it.
There are very few documentary sources in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In fact, Gildas’s De Excidio Britonum (‘The Ruin of Britain’) is literally our only substantial insular account of immediate post-Roman Britain. That makes it both incredibly interesting, but also very difficult to fully understand. Accordingly, scholarly debate rages widely over who Gildas actually was, as well as when, where and why he was writing. One thing is for certain, though, he wasn’t very happy with the current state of Britain.
In Britain, the 5th and 6th centuries AD are where things really kick off. The Roman province of Britannia, which encompassed the landmass of modern day England, Wales and parts of Southern Scotland, fell apart in the early 5th century. We go from Romano-Christian civilisation to an age of uncertainty. The central administration collapsed which meant that nothing could be produced, soldiers didn’t get paid and Britain’s defences were wide-open.
If there is one thing I have learnt over the course of my time studying the past, it is that people in the past were just as strange as we are today. In fact, they sometimes seem even stranger because we don’t fully understand the context they were living in (although arguably we don’t even understand our own times). One of the best examples of this can be found in the ‘special deposits’ of Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology.