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(A crude sketch of one of the more peculiar aspects of Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology[1])

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.

A ‘special deposit’ is a deliberately placed assemblage of objects and/or dead things in a domestic context. They are generally found placed in the footings of buildings or in pits. A very good and recent example of this was found at Lyminge (yes you read that right – feel free to snigger) in Kent. At the bottom of a very deep pit was the articulated skeleton of a piglet. You  can see some of the bones in this picture:


(Some of the piglet bones during excavation[2])

I’ll be talking a lot about Lyminge in this blog because it is one of the most exciting early Anglo-Saxon settlement excavations of this generation, and is directly relevant to my PhD thesis. For our current investigation, though, let’s just have a little think about this piglet. It had no obvious signs of butchery, and was articulated (i.e. folks hadn’t ripped off a leg to chomp on), so it seems likely it wasn’t eaten. Why wouldn’t you eat a suckling pig? Did it die of disease? Or could it have been sacrificed as part of some ritual, perhaps to ask the gods (Anglo-Saxons believed in more than one) for a good harvest?

The issue gets more interesting when we turn to Yeavering in Northumbria. This site was the likely seat of royal power for the kingdom of Bernicia (c. AD 420-643) and is monumentally important in understanding the development of Northern England. It also offers an interesting example for our consideration of ‘special deposits’. Cut into the foundation trench of one of the sizeable timber structures (building D2) was a pit which contained large amounts of cattle skulls. So someone is making a conscious decision to place the skulls of animals into the structure of a building. At this point you might be thinking to yourself: why would anyone do this?

The short answer is that we don’t know. There is no handbook to Anglo-Saxon spiritual belief, or a manual on everyday rituals and folklore. But we can speculate, and it is not a vast leap of interpretation to see such deposits as symbolic offerings. A bag full of cattle skulls doesn’t really serve a practical function, especially when left to fester in the footings of a building, but was clearly placed there for a reason. I’d wager that such rituals either functioned to bring a building good luck and its inhabitant’s prosperity, or mark the end of a building’s life as part of a ritual closing ceremony. The fact that the peoples of the North Sea practised animal sacrifice is well attested by the German cleric Theitmar of Merseburg who wrote, around AD 1016, that human and animal sacrifice took place every 9 years at Lejre; the royal seat of the Danish Skjöldung kings and the possible setting for the events of Beowulf.

The spiritual beliefs of the people living in the ‘Germanic world’ during the first millennium AD were quite different to our own. They had amazing mythology, and they clearly had interesting ritualistic practices when it came to domestic life. It was a time where objects had names, like Thor’s hammer Mjölnir or Odin’s ring Draupnir. Even buildings had names, too, like Odin’s hall Gladsheim. If names were prescribed to objects and structures during these times, it is not out of the question that they might also have had personalities. When I go to the shop, I say thank you to the assistant for the service received. When my house starts to decay and I think I’ll rebuild it, isn’t it only just to say thank you to it and have a little ceremony to mark its death, and possibly even rebirth? Just as humans are buried with everyday objects in this period, it seems some buildings might have been ‘buried’ in a similar way. I’d argue that this is all wrapped up in something of an Anglo-Saxon ritual package. It’s now up to us to open it and sneak a peak[3].

[1] Yes, I actually drew this. At least I tried.

[2] Image courtesy of the Lyminge Archaeological Project [Accessed online at: http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/lyminge/]

[3] The astute readers might have noticed that the cover picture has a human buried under the house, but I only wrote about animals. This was due to a distinct lack of effort in regards to re-drawing the picture, but also because the subject will be dealt with in its own blog post some day..