The Black Death, Plague, and Mass Mortality

Andree Beauchamp
University of Manitoba
black-death-mass-graves1Abstract: Cultural funerary practices typically entail a set of common rituals, ceremonies, and treatments that are common to the cultural group. These practices are adhered to unless there is a significant culture change or the community experiences a catastrophe such as war, natural disaster, or epidemic. When such periods of disaster spread over a large territory and are experienced for a long period of time, such as during the epidemic of Black Death in Europe during the Middle Ages, it could be argued that the mass burials become a funerary practice in itself. There is value in identifying these catastrophic samples. By identifying the pattern of these mass burials researchers can identify such catastrophic examples with greater ease and place this distinct funerary situation within the larger context of funerary practices. The goal of this research is to distinguish the burial practices employed in Europe during the epidemic of Black Death from standard funerary practices at that time period and define the shift in burial practice as a funerary practice in itself. The pattern of mass burial observed during the Black Death epidemic will then be compared to other instances of mass burial to determine whether different causes for mass death and burial can be distinguished in the funerary practice.

004_The Black Death, Plague, and Mass Mortality




The Early Christian Landscape of East Anglia

The Early Christian Landscape of East Anglia

1, Ely Cathedral and its towers rise above the surrounding landscape, so that it has long been known as the “Ship of the Fens”
Ely Cathedral


This paper explores aspects of the historical and archaeological evidence for the coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon East Anglia with a particular focus on the wide-scale restructuring of the landscape that the conversion precipitated. In order to establish the historical framework within which these events sit, it begins with an examination of the evidence presented by Bede in the Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede draws our attention to some of the ecclesiastical sites established by the early churchmen; a broader consideration of the conversion-period landscape reveals many important sites that are not mentioned in the surviving historical sources. In particular, disused Roman enclosures and topographically distinct locations can be demonstrated to have been of particular significance to the conversion process. The coming of Christianity also caused a great upheaval in the sites chosen for cemeteries, argued to be a direct result of a changing attitude towards the dead, which resulted in the integration of cemeteries and settlements during the Middle Saxon period.
Finally, this paper offers some suggestions about how we might take the study of the conversion-period landscape further.

2009-Largest ever hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold found in Staffordshire


Largest ever hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold found in Staffordshire

Source: the discovery told by

Article from the Guardian
“First pieces of gold were found in a farm field by an amateur metal detector who lives alone on disability benefit

A harvest of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver so beautiful it brought tears to the eyes of one expert, has poured out of a Staffordshire field – the largest hoard of gold from the period ever found.

The weapons and helmet decorations, coins and Christian crosses amount to more than 1500 pieces, with hundreds still embedded in blocks of soil. It adds up to 5kg of gold – three times the amount found in the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939 – and 2.5kg of silver, and may be the swag from a spectacularly successful raiding party of warlike Mercians, some time around AD700.

The first scraps of gold were found in July in a farm field by Terry Herbert, an amateur metal detector who lives alone in a council flat on disability benefit, who had never before found anything more valuable than a nice rare piece of Roman horse harness. The last pieces were removed from the earth by a small army of archaeologists a fortnight ago.

Herbert could be sharing a reward of at least £1m, possibly many times that, with the landowner, as local museums campaign to raise funds to keep the treasure in the county where it was found.

Leslie Webster, former keeper of the department of prehistory at the British Museum, who led the team of experts and has spent months poring over metalwork, described the hoard as “absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells”.

“This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries,” she predicted.

The gold includes spectacular gem studded pieces decorated with tiny interlaced beasts, which were originally the ornamentation for Anglo-Saxon swords of princely quality: the experts would judge one a spectacular discovery, but the field has yielded 84 pommel caps and 71 hilt collars, a find without precedent.

The hoard has just officially been declared treasure by a coroner’s inquest, allowing the find which has occupied every waking hour of a small army of experts to be made public at Birmingham City Museum, where all the pieces have been brought for safe keeping and study.

The find site is not being revealed, in case the ground still holds more surprises, even though archaeologists have now pored over every inch of it without finding any trace of a grave, a building or a hiding place.

The field is now under grass, but had been ploughed deeper than usual last year by the farmer, which the experts assume brought the pieces closer to the surface. Herbert reported it as he has many previous small discoveries to Duncan Slarke, the local officer for the portable antiquities scheme, which encourages metal detectorists to report all their archaeological finds. Slarke recalled: “Nothing could have prepared me for that. I saw boxes full of gold, items exhibiting the very finest Anglo-Saxon workmanship. It was breathtaking.”

As archaeologists poured into the field, along with experts including a crack metal detecting scheme from the Home Office who normally work on crime scene forensics, Herbert brought one friend sworn to secrecy to watch, but otherwise managed not to breath a word to anyone – even the fellow members of his metal detecting society when they boasted of their own latest finds.

None of the experts, including a flying squad from the British Museum shuttling between London and Birmingham, has seen anything like it in their lives: not just the quantity, but the dazzling quality of the pieces have left them groping for superlatives.

They are still arguing about the date some of the pieces were made, the date they went into the ground, and the significance of most seemingly wrenched off objects they originally decorated. There are three Christian crosses, but they were folded up as casually as shirt collars. A strip of gold with a biblical inscription was also folded in half: it reads, in occasionally misspelled Latin, “Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate the be driven from thy face.”

Kevin Leahy, an expert on Anglo-Saxon metal who originally trained as a foundry engineer, and who comes from Burton-on-Trent, has been cataloguing the find and describes the craftsmanship as “consummate”, but the make up of the hoard as unbalanced.

“There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants. These are the gold objects most commonly found from the Anglo-Saxon ere. The vast majority of items in the hoard are martial – war gear, especially sword fittings.”

If the date of between AD650 and AD750 is correct, it is too early to blame the Vikings, and just too early for the most famous local leader, Offa of Offa’s Dyke fame.

Leahy said he was not surprised at the find being in Staffordshire, the heartland of the “militarily aggressive and expansionist” 7th century kings of Mercia including Penda, Wulfhere and Æthelred. “This material could have been collected by any of these during their wars with Northumbria and East Anglia, or by someone whose name is lost to history. Here we are seeing history confirmed before our eyes.”

Deb Klemperer, head of local history collections at the Potteries museum, and an expert on Saxon Staffordshire pottery, said: “My first view of the hoard brought tears to my eyes – the Dark Ages in Staffordshire have never looked so bright nor so beautiful.”

The most important pieces will be on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from tomorrow until Tuesday October 13, and will then go to the British Museum for valuation – a process which will involve another marathon collaboration between experts. Their best guess today is “millions”.

Leahy, who still has hundreds of items to add to his catalogue, has in the past excavated several Anglo-Saxon sites including a large cemetery of clay pots full of cremated bone. He said: “After all those urns I think I deserve the Staffordshire find.”

Mysteries of Mercia

It is no longer politically correct to refer to the period as the dark ages – but Anglo-Saxon England remains a shadowy place, with contradictory and confusing sources and archaeology. Yet out of it came much that is familiar in modern Britain, including its laws, its parish boundaries, a language that came to dominate the world, as well as metalwork and manuscript illumination of dazzling intricacy and beauty.

Mercia was one of Britain’s largest and most aggressive kingdoms, stretching from the Humber to London, its kings and chieftains mounting short but ferocious wars against all their neighbours, and against one another: primogeniture had to wait for the Normans, so it was rare for a king to reign unchallenged and die in his bed.

They were nominally Christian by the date of the Staffordshire hoard, but sources including the Venerable Bede suggest that their faith was based more on opportune alliances than fervour.

In south Staffordshire, at the heart of the kingdom, Tamworth was becoming the administrative capital and Lichfield the religious centre as the cult grew around the shrine of Saint Chad. There were few other towns, and most villages were still small settlements of a few dozen thatched buildings. Travel, if essential, would have been easier by boat: archaeology suggests that much of the Roman road network was decaying, and in many places scrub and forest was taking back land which had been farmed for centuries.

The metalwork in the hoards came from a world very remote from the lives of most people, in mud and wattle huts under thatched roofs, living by farming, hunting, fishing, almost self-sufficient with their own weavers, potters and leather workers, needing to produce only enough surplus to pay dues to the land owner. A failing harvest would have been a far greater disaster than a battle lost or the death of one king and the rise of another.

The world of their nobles is vividly evoked in poems like Beowulf, probably transcribed long after they became familiar as fireside recitations, of summer warfare and winter feasting in the beer hall, where generous gift giving was as important as wealth.

Rich and poor lived in the incomprehensible shadow of a vanished civilisation, the broken cement and stone teeth of Roman ruins studding the countryside, often regarded with dread and explained as the work of giants or sorcerers. One poem in Old English evokes the eerie ruins of a bathing place, possibly Bath itself: “death took all the brave men away, their places of war became deserted places, the city decayed.”

See also:

2012 – Mystery of Anglo-Saxon teen buried in bed with gold cross

Press Review – Source:

Mar 16, 2012

– Images:


“Extraordinary 7th century discovery on outskirts of Cambridge offers unique insights into the origins of English Christianity”.

Article in CAM:

“One of the earliest Anglo-Saxon Christian burial sites in Britain has been discovered in a village outside Cambridge. The grave of a teenage girl from the mid 7th century AD has an extraordinary combination of two extremely rare finds: a ‘bed burial’ and an early Christian artefact in the form of a stunning gold and garnet cross.

The girl, aged around 16, was buried on an ornamental bed – a very limited Anglo-Saxon practice of the mid to later 7th century – with a pectoral Christian cross on her chest, that had probably been sewn onto her clothing. Fashioned from gold and intricately set with cut garnets, only the fifth of its kind ever to be found, the artefact dates this grave to the very early years of the English Church, probably between 650 and 680 AD.

In 597 AD, the pope dispatched St Augustine to England on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings; a process that was not completed for many decades. Using the latest scientific techniques to analyse this exceptional find could result in a greater understanding of this pivotal period in British history, and the spread of Christianity in eastern England in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Was this teenage girl an early Christian convert, a standard-bearer for the new God? “Christian conversion began at the top and percolated down,” says Dr Sam Lucy, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon burial from Newnham College, Cambridge.

“To be buried in this elaborate way with such a valuable artefact tells us that this girl was undoubtedly high status, probably nobility or even royalty. This cross is the kind of material culture that was in circulation at the highest level of society. The best known example of the pectoral cross was that found in the coffin of St Cuthbert now in Durham Cathedral.”

“That this is a bed burial is remarkable in itself – the fifteenth ever uncovered in the UK, and only the fourth in the last twenty years – add to that a beautifully made Christian cross and you have a truly astonishing discovery,” says Alison Dickens, who led the excavation for the University’s Archaeological Unit.

“We think there’s only been one other bed burial combined with a Christian pectoral cross ever found – at Ixworth nearby in Suffolk in the 19th century; the records of this find are unclear, however. The fact that we will be able to apply modern techniques to thoroughly investigate the site is a thrilling prospect.”

The bed consisted of a wooden frame held together by metal brackets, with further pieces of looped metal fixing the cross-slats to create a suspended bed base, similar to modern beds, but with a straw mattress. The body was then placed on the bed, probably when it was already in the grave.

Dr Richard Dance, an expert on Old English at the University, has pointed out that the Anglo-Saxon word ‘leger’ can mean either ‘bed’ or ‘grave’. “Etymologically, the word means ‘place where one lies’, but there are examples of this meaning both bed and grave in literature of the time,” says Dr Dance. A clue to the possible symbolism of bed burials perhaps? But why only a chosen few were buried in their beds remains a mystery.

“Bed burials were never widespread, but there is a little cluster around the Cambridge area and another in Wessex, with a solitary very high status example in Teeside” says Dr Lucy. “Where we do find them they seem to be predominantly burials of females, and date to the mid to later 7th century; most have indications of high status such as fine jewellery or burial under a barrow.

The gold and garnet construction of the Trumpington cross also tends to be used for female associated items, although the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard, as well as the slightly earlier famous ship burial at Sutton Hoo, show that such material was also used in high status weapon fittings throughout the 7th century. It is interesting that the same decorative techniques are seen both in overtly pagan and overtly Christian settings.”

The cross itself – 3 and a half centimetres in diameter – is only the fifth pectoral cross to be discovered in the UK. As well as the examples from Ixworth and Durham, one example was picked up as a stray find in Holderness, East Yorkshire, and another was a 19th-century find from Wilton in Norfolk. These other crosses are pendants designed to hang suspended on a necklace, whereas the Trumpington cross has a loop on the reverse of each arm, so that it could be stitched directly onto clothing.

“You can tell from the shiny look of three of these loops, where they have rubbed against fabric, that this item was worn in daily life, most likely as a symbol of social status as well as religious affiliation,” says Dickens.

The excavations at Trumpington Meadows on the southern city limits of Cambridge, funded by the property developers Grosvenor, have unearthed significant findings from the Neolithic and Iron Ages, as well as material from a contemporary Anglo-Saxon settlement. The Christian girl was in one of a very small group of four graves, along with an unsexed individual in his or her twenties and two other slightly younger women.

The graves are thought to be broadly contemporary with each other, although the team are only at the very beginning of the investigative process. This will include radiocarbon dating of each of the bodies (to establish their date of burial) and isotopic analysis of their bones and teeth, to help determine both their diet and hopefully to establish where they had lived in childhood.

Detailed study of their skeletons will be able to tell, in addition to their sex and age, their stature, health and any visible medical conditions. Analysis of the gold and garnets in the cross will also reveal further details about its place of manufacture; garnets in this period were probably imported from the Black Sea or even further afield, from Asia.

The teenager’s grave also contained other items. An iron knife and a chatelaine (a chain that would have hung from the waist) were found in the girl’s grave, along with some glass beads which seemed to have been kept in a purse on the end of the chain. Preserved textile on the iron knife and chain offers the possibility of reconstructing her burial costume.

“The custom of grave goods was long-established in the pagan period, but it doesn’t mean that the burials at Trumpington weren’t Christian” states Dr Lucy. “The church never issued any edicts against the use of grave goods, but it’s something that does seem to fade away by the 8th century, just at the point where Christianity was becoming the dominant religion. There is, though, a time through the second half of the 7th century, where clearly Christian people were still making use of a limited range of goods within their burials, and these often carried explicitly Christian symbolism, such as the cross here.

“The Trumpington bed burial does seem to belong at that transition between the two religions. Did she have a formal role in the church? The site is just behind the village church, which is first documented over 400 years later. Perhaps there was a monastery – even a nunnery – there before that we don’t know about. This is certainly something worth looking into.”

A small number of structures associated with the burials seem to represent part of a settlement that was in use at the same time. Analysis of the finds from these will help to determine the nature and function of that settlement; initial assessment of the pottery has suggested the presence of some high status imports, of a type usually only associated with high status ecclesiastical centres.

There may even be a possible link to the founding of the first monastery in Ely at around the same time. St Æthelthryth (or Etheldreda), daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, established the female-headed house at Ely in 673 AD. A cemetery found in Ely by the CAU in 2006 also contained a later 7th-century burial of a 10-12 year-old with a delicate gold cross pendant, who was thought to have been associated with the monastery. The parallels between this site and Trumpington are intriguing, and suggest a more interesting origin for the village than has previously been thought”.