Burial Customs Life in the First Millennium A.D.

By Jonathon Kerr,

Belfast, Ireland



In this essay I intend to examine the variety of burial techniques employed by three races inhabiting north west Europe in the first millennium A.D. Firstly I will look at the scant evidence for Pictish burials, and comment onthe styles employed by them, using the cemetery at Garbeg as my main example. Next I shall turn to the Anglo-Saxons, south of the Picts,and study both pre- and post-Christian burial styles. My main example here will be the Sutton Hoo ship burials. Finally, I will look at Viking burial techniques, and the reaction ofthe Vikings to Christianity as expressed by their burial practices in Scandinavia, Scotland, the Isle of Man and England. I will use Birka, Colonsay, Peel and York as my main examples, respectively. Finally I will consider the evidence in the light of the title and decide if the title is a fair comment to make.


Throughout northwestern Europe in the first millennium, many cultures rose and fell - the Roman Empire, which entered the millennium as the most powerful force on the globe, left it a ruined and subdued state, with its main role being that of a religious leader rather than a conqueror, making way for the new Roman Empire - that of the Franks under Charlemagne - Charles the Great. The Pictish Kingdoms of northern Scotland rose and fell, and the Saxons came from northern Germany to rule England for a millennium, before being subdued by the Normans in 1066. The Vikings began their great explorations and migrations, venturing further afield than any before them, and having a profound effect on developing civilization over most of the known world, and even parts ofthe 'unknown' world, all the while with the great new religion Christianity racing like wildfire through the nations, wiping out their pagan beliefs.

Against this background, archaeologists have tried to understand the cultures and the histories of theses peoples, by looking at the fragments they have left behind and trying to piece all the various parts together to make a whole coherent story. One of the best legacies left for us by these peoples is their graves - a huge variety and quantity of grave material for these cultures, telling us a huge deal about how they lived and when they lived. For example, we can trace the graves of the Vikings through Scandinavia, across to Scotland, down through England and over to the Isle of Man, letting us watch the great journeys unfold before us.

I have chosen to look at the graves of only three ofthese great peoples - the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings - there are simply too many peoples in northwest Europe alone to write an exhaustive paper - such awork would require a book rather than a paper. By looking at graves, we have one great advantage over looking at towns or other occupational sites - the deposits at these sites accumulated gradually over a period of time, and the objects found represent a timespan. Not so with graves - the objects they contain pinpoint a moment in time, helping us to date more accurately the finds made. Also, cemeteries help provide data on the minimum population size of an area, although the statistics depend on a knowledge of how many burials there were originally (Clarke, Ambriosini:154).

Pictish Burial Techniques:

The graves of the Picts pose a problem for archaeologists, in that the Picts did not generally believe in having grave goods accompany their burials, meaning thatwe have relatively little material evidence in the form of swords or jewelry - certainly less than we would have if grave goods were common place. In fact, most of the Pictish people appear to have been buried informally and with very little fuss (Ritchie 1989:51). Frequently the only way of identifying a grave as a Pictish grave is by scientifically dating the bones, or by examining a symbol stone found in association with the grave. Inhumations were the norm, with the bodies placed in a supine position in a grave lined and covered with stone slabs(long cists). On the surface, the graves are marked by erecting a small stone cairn and sometimes scattering white quartz pebbles over the cairn, occasionally with a symbol stone raised upright on top, as at Dairy Park in Dunrobin, Sutherland (Ritchie 1989:51). The presence of this stone suggests that this particular burial was a member of an important family.

In the seventh century, the most common type of burial was still the inhumation burial, occasionally in a simple grave. However, the long cist is the most typical and widespread grave type, sometimes occurring in cemeteries. Recent analysis has shown that some of these are found underneath stone circular or square kerbed barrows, that have been dated from the fourth to the eighth centuries (Carver 1992:231). Platform graves, associated with both cairns and barrows, also are found in cemeteries, often found in association with circular ditches.

Garbeg is one such site where square barrows are found(see figure 1). At Garbeg, the barrows are arranged in three groups, placed in roughly linear positions, which,it has been suggested, represent kinship groups (Carver1992:231). This is an important site, because very little is known about social interactions amongst the Picts, although it is not yet known whether the people buried here were of a higher social status than those buried in cairns or in long cists.

Anglo-Saxon Burial Techniques:

Early Anglo-Saxon burials are traditionally based on cremation on a pyre, with the deposition of corpses in the ground in a pottery container. The Anglo-Saxons were experts at cremations, with their pyres being atleast as efficient as today's pyres, reaching temperatures of up to 9000C. Cremation burials were never found with weapons - it is possible, of course, that these were a part of the cremation, but melted in the flames, but many are found with miniature weapons and miniature combs. The cremation urns grew more elaborate in the fourth and fifth centuries, and since most other grave goods were distorted beyond recognition, dating is based on the decoration of the urns. Also in the fourth and fifth centuries, inhumation burials came into common use, where the unburned body is deposited in a rectangular grave. It was probably copied from the late Roman technique, although it is suggested that it was introduced from Denmark (Brandon 1978:23). Inhumation burials typically were accompanied by weapons, and grave goods according to status. There were regional variations between cremation and inhumation burials - in Sussex, inhumation was the most popular, while it was only in Anglian regions that cremation remained dominant.

In the seventh century, Anglo-Saxon burials abruptly changed, as a direct result of Christianisation, as well as a number of other cultural and ideological areas, such as churches, sculpture and manuscripts. Seventh century cemeteries reflect the changes that took place as a result of the new religious outlook, by developing, on the whole, already existing sites (see figure 2).The most obvious indicator, and in many cases the only indicator of the religion of the people who carried out the burial is the lack of pagan objects, such as weapons- a practice encouraged by the Church. Many cemeteries were abandoned that had been used in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the double cemetery also became common -that is, a cemetery was abandoned and a new one was setup beside it, which obviously served the same community,such as at Leighton Buzzard (Bedfordshire) and Winnal (Hampshire). At Ocklynge Hill, a large cemetery was uncovered, with the inhumation graves laid out in neat rows, and orientated east-west. The finds here include iron knives, iron spearheads, and a few buckles. These contrast strongly with earlier grave finds in the southern part of the cemetery, including two swords, a bronze bucket, and glass vessels (Brandon 1978:28). The change of cemetery type apparently coincided with a change of dress - with dress pins replacing brooches in women's graves, while men were rarely buried with weapons, except perhaps a knife.

There were a number of new types of burial present after the Church arrived, as categorised by M. O. H. Carver(Carver 1992:84 - 89). The first of these is the 'Final Phase' burial, which is basically a transition between a pagan inhumation, with the corpse being accompanied typically by clothes, jewelry, weapons and other personal belongings, and a Christian inhumation, where the corpse is unclothed and unfurnished, except for a shroud. On the whole, these burials have very few grave goods when compared to the previous pagan period, and some have no grave goods at all. The graves are aligned east-west, after the Christian fashion, and all except avery small number are inhumation - after the sixth century, cremations become almost redundant. The bodies are mostly supine, and slightly flexed, although there is a wide range of variety of structures around the graves, such as beds, chambers, ditches, mounds and even parts of boats.

Another type of burial identified, is that of the 'Princely' burial, normally located under a mound, with a high number of quality grave goods. They contain either a cremation or an inhumation, but unfortunately most have been disturbed before being properly excavated, making a complete understanding of these burials difficult. One such burial is that of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, on the River Deben (see figure 3). There were a number of burials here, all of them under mounds. The first grave was dug either in the late sixth or early seventh century, and a coffin containing a body was inhumed. A spear, shield, bucket, pot and cauldron were included, and food had been buried with the body. A bridle was found around the head of the coffin, which is still being excavated by the British Museum. The body was that of a young man, and beside him in a parallel grave, his horse was buried, and a mound built over both graves (Anon 1992:326).

  Mound 5 was the next burial, and was unusual by Anglo-Saxon standards in that burial mounds usually cover inhumations, rather than cremations, as is the case here. The corpse was obviously that of a high ranking person, as indicated by the grave goods, includ- ing a pair of tweezers, shears, a bone comb, and a play- ing piece (Anon 1992:326). The cremation was places in a bronze pot and covered with cloth. An interesting reflection of Anglo-Saxon society was the graves sur- rounding mound 5 - the so-called 'sand-men', which appear to have been human sacrifices - certainly this practice was not unknown amongst Germanic peoples in the early Middle Ages. All that remains of them are stains in the sand, but their postures are very odd - some had their hands tied behind their backs, some were face down, and in some cases the neck was broken or the head had been cut off and placed by the hand or knee. A likely explanation for this is that the Anglo-Saxons were rebelling against Christianity, and were making a statement about their allegiance to Scandinavia and their nonacceptance of Christianity.

Near this burial, 3 standard seventh century burials were found, all children, the best preserved being that of a child of around four, which was found with a tiny spear, and a tiny buckle, under a mound only 2 m. in diameter. The nature of the goods indicates that perhaps the child was part of a wealthy family and suggests that status could be inherited by this time (Anon 1992:327).

Most dramatic of all are the two ship burials at Sutton Hoo - a far cry from the rows of ships found at Vendel or Valsgdrde in Sweden, but nevertheless, significant for England. The chamber of the earliest of these, in Mound 2, is an underground room constructed of robust oaken planks, and had been robbed in 1860. However, the imprints of finds were left on the floor, and 140 minute fragments of gold and silver were found. The imprints were identified as a shield, a drinking horn, die, a box and a tub. Also the position of the body was established, again from imprints. It was clearly a high status burial, comparable to that of Mound 1, although the boat was slightly shorter than that of Mound 1, being only 20 m long.

Mound 1 itself was uncovered in 1939, and was notably different from that of Mound 2 (see figures 4 and 5). The ship was larger (30 m.) and the burial rite was different, the ship having been dragged and placed in position, before the burial chamber was erected in the middle of it, rather than the other way around. The chamber was full of high status grave goods, including buckles, shoulder clasps, a purse, a sword, drinking horns and a lyre. A great silver dish was found, associated with the Byzantine Empire. Symbols of royalty were stored at one end of the chamber - a shield, helmet, iron standard with a bronze stag and a symbolic whetstone (Anon 1992:330). These last two burial took place after Christianity had taken hold over much of Anglo-Saxon England, and like Mound 5 were an act of defiance against the Church, and a statement of allegiance with Scandinavia - the last significant pagan burials in Anglo-Saxon England.

A third type of Anglo-Saxon burial is the 'Unfurnished' burial, which are, due to their nature, very hard to define or date. They are a direct result of Christianity, and are generally orientated east-west. They are usually dated by radiometric or stratigraphic methods, but neither of these is absolute. However, features within the grave are useful, such as stone, charcoal or coffins, all of which may help distinguish Anglo-Saxon burials from later burials.

The final type of burial is the 'Deviant' burial, also known as 'execution' burials of 'battlefield' burials. They have little or no grave goods, and graves are poorly defined, with corpses often being buried in mass graves. The 'sand-men' burials of Sutton Hoo are examples of this, and, as mentioned, corpses may be found in a variety of unnatural positions, indicating ritual abuse and human sacrifice.

At the beginning of the eighth century we also see the beginnings of churchyard burials, which typically have no grave finds.

Viking Burial Techniques:

The Vikings left a legacy behind during their conquests and explorations of the world, ranging from the New World to China, as well as in Britain, and their own home country, Scandinavia. Of course, in these countries that legacy is shown in the form of burials, amongst other things.

Scandinavia: Here many of the dead were marked by a monument in the form of a mound or a 'setting' of stones- a practice known, appropriately enough, as 'stone-setting'. Because the Vikings were a pagan race,they buried the dead with their personal effects and clothing, allowing easier dating of their settlements. Inhumation was the predominant burial rite in Denmark at the beginning of the Viking era, but cremation was practiced in central rural Sweden and Norway until the end of the tenth century (Clarke, Ambriosini:154). Because of this, a comparison of the burial rites in settlements may indicate whether it was a rural or urban settlement.For example, the presence of inhumations at Birka suggest either that the native Scandinavians had abandoned their traditional beliefs, or that the inhumations were those of foreigners - probably either merchants or craftsmen (Clarke, Ambriosini:154).

Christianity is indicated by inhumations, but it is not true to say that all inhumations can be attributed to Christianity - many inhumation burials orientated north-south may be attributed to Islamic or pagan ethnic groups, such as Slavs or Balts (Clarke, Ambriosini:155). At Birka again, some graves were found with two bodies. The most likely explanation of this is that the upper-most body was a human sacrifice to accompany the main burial - a practice rigorously condemned by Christianity. However, many of the east-west orientated inhumations undoubtedly contained Christians.

However, another interpretation of the presence of both cremation and inhumation graves in the same town is that the grave type may be a social indicator - for example, the rich, who would be in contact with foreign merchants from whom they had acquired luxury goods would have adopted the new Christian teaching, while the poor carried on their traditional custom of cremating their dead. However, the evidence at Birka does not lend agreat deal of support to this theory - most burial mounds covering cremations are larger than those of rural settlements, and are therefore more likely to belong to the rich.

Therefore, in Birka, at any rate, it is most probable that the different burial practices represent ethnic differences - i.e. cremations of natives and inhumations of foreigners.

It seems that there was a revival of pagan burials in Scandinavia at around 900 AD as paganism began to come into conflict with Christianity (Richards 1991:102). During this revival, the dead were, again, either inhumed or cremated with their possessions, and were then either placed in coffins, or a burial chamber, or buried in a ship. Warriors frequently had their horse and weapons buried with them, although, interestingly enough, never their armour - mainly because they were already dead and could killed any number of times in Valhalla without any further harm ! Rich females were laid out with their jewelry in a wagon to take them tothe next world. Provision was often made for feasting in the afterlife, with sacrifices of food and drink being common. Much preparation was made for Viking burials, as demonstrated by a find at the grave CronkMooar (Isle of Man). As well as weapons and the usual trappings, a shaggy woolen cloak was found, containing many fly pupae, telling us that the corpse had been exposed to the air for some time before burial (Richards1991:108).

Although, the insular graves are no doubt the most abundant, there are a wealth of graves from various places around Europe. I have chosen to look mainly at those in the British Isles - Scotland, England and the Isle of Man.


In Scotland, there is a significant number of Viking burials, and their locale can be easily located, because their distribution coincides with the distribution of Scandinavian place names (Crawford 1987:116) -not an astounding fact, because the graves are generally indicative of Norse settlement. One exception to this is Colonsay - an island in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. No trace of settlement has ever been found, but in 1882 a Viking grave was uncovered in the sand dunes, in which a man and a horse were found, along with a number of finely crafted objects (Ritchie1989:79). Because of the distribution of rivets around the bodies, it seems likely that the whole grave had once been covered by an upturned boat, but due to early excavation techniques, not much is known about the exact dimensions of the boat. It is significant that a meta-tarsal on the hind right leg of the horse was partially severed by a massive blow. Perhaps this damage was inflicted in battle - the result of the classic technique of 'hamstringing' the animal to cripple it - whatever the reason, it had been a fine animal, standing 15 hands high (Ritchie 1989:80). Also found in this burial were the remains of an elaborate bronze harness - the leather having long since rotted away, and beside the man an iron sword and axehead, both in the Scandinavian style were found, and a conical iron shield-boss. Also,a spearhead, two arrowheads, a knife, a buckle and fragments of a pot were found, all made of iron. So far,this is suggestive of a Viking warrior, but also found with the body were trading tools - weights and scales for measuring silver bullion. The designs on them indicate that they were made in Scotland, Ireland or Anglo-Saxon England.

The graves found on Colonsay are all isolated burials, but there are small burials elsewhere on the western isles, indicating areas of denser, or longer lasting settlement, such as Valtos on the coast of the Isle of Lewis, where 3 Viking burials have been found, indicating that this landscape of sandy grasslands was once a focus for Viking settlements (Ritchie 1989:87). Also in the Hebrides, on Oronsay, another boat burial was found, again excavated in the 19th century, and very poorly recorded. Two burials were found, thought to be those of an old man and woman, with grave goods of low status (Ritchie 1993b:84). A layer of charcoal lay beside them, containing the remains of a boat - a strange discovery in itself, because it is unusual for the boats to be burnt in such burials.

In December of 1991 in the Orkneys, a dramatic discovery was made at Scar in Sanday. After erosion uncovered some bones, excavations began, revealing a boat grave in a stone lined pit. Half of the boat had already been washed away, and two days after the excavation was washed away, the other half was destroyed in a storm.The boat was 6.3 metres long, and contained 3 bodies, topped by a mound. Although the planks had long since rotted away, rivets were left to show the outline of the boat, revealing that it was in fact a rather modest boat- one used in domestic life rather than a warship or dragon-ship (Ritchie 1993a:44). In the boat were buried a man, woman and child, although the age gap between the man and woman suggests that this was not a nuclear family group, with the man in his thirties and the woman in her seventies. The child was around ten years old.Grave goods suggest that both adults were of equal status as opposed to master and slave, although the cause of death is not known.

The man was buried with sword and arrows (if there was a bow, it had rotted away), with the sword kept well preserved in a wooden scabbard lined with sheepskin. Heal so had a bone comb, a lead weight and a set of 22 bone and antler gaming pieces. The woman was wearing a brooch, and beside her was a finely carved whalebone plaque, an iron sickle, an iron spit and a small pair of iron shears (Ritchie 1993a:44). The whalebone plaque is the only complete Scottish example and the craftsmanship displayed in it rival even those found in. These goods enabled the grave to be dated to around the ninth century.

Also found in the Scar locale was the cemetery at Westness on the Isle of Rousay. It contained more than 30 burials, some ninth century Viking burials, and some earlier (Ritchie 1993a:50). The fact that the cemetery was used by the Vikings after the native Picts carries implications for the relationship of the two peoples,and one day it is hoped that the pre-Norse Pictish settlement will be found.

The pagan Viking graves here included both boat burials and oval stone lined pits, and the bodies were those of men, women and children from newborn up to around 50 years. The newborn baby was buried with her mother -presumably as the result of a birth gone badly wrong,and judging by the status of the grave goods, she was quite an important individual. One of the goods was a Celtic brooch pin, the finest of its type ever found, and was presumably made in Ireland about a century before, and had been acquired for the lady during a raid. It was made of silver and gold with insets of amber and red glass, animal heads and a complex filigree pattern. (Ritchie 1993a:50). Also, the woman had two Scandinavian oval brooches, a string of 40 beads and a belt with bronze strap-ends.

However, there were more rich graves in the cemetery, including two boat-graves containing warriors with weapons and tools, one with an elaborate sword, inlaid with silver. The boats had been placed upright in pits and stones were placed in the bow and stern of the boats to form a rectangular burial area for the body. The boats were of the same ilk as the scar boat, measuring 5.5 and4.5 metres in length (Ritchie 1993a:50).

One strange feature is a massive boat shaped stone-setting which appears to be unfinished, but as of yet, details of the excavation have not been published. Isle of Man: Another area abundant in Viking burials is the Isle of Man, where there are over 40 known Viking burials on an island of c.600 square kilometres (Rich-ards 1991:102). There are clear links between the burials in the Isle of Man and the southern Hebrides. For example, the horse harness found at Colonsay is very similar to those found at Balladoole and Knoc y Doonee(Ritchie 1993a, 'The Western Seaway:89). It is probable then that the Isle of man was used as a base for raids on Ireland during their conquests and in the tenth century the Irish Sea became, in the words of Barbara Crawford "a Celto-Norse lake", with the Norse-men having the upper hand. To reinforce this view is the fact that there are very few early female Scandinavian graves on the Isle of Man, and one supposes that the warrior overlords married local girls.

When the Vikings first arrived at the Isle of Man, they found lintel or cist graves orientated east-west, associated with early Christianity, and the Vikings' attitude to these is not altogether clear. In some cases the Vikings seem to have began using existing Christian cemeteries, for example in the Christian cemetery to the north of St. German's Cathedral, St. Patrick's Isle, Peel, over 300 burials have been excavated. Although mainly Christian. Viking graves have been found here, apparently quite happily slotted in amongst the Christian burials. The richest of these was that of a female who had been buried in a grave similar to Christian cist-graves apart from the absence of head and footstones. Amongst the objects accompanying her were a spit, two knives - one elaborate, one plain, a decorated comb, a work box, a small pair of shears, a mortar and pestle amulet, and a 71 bead necklace. The necklace included glass and amber from Ireland, England and the Arabic world. It is interesting that there were no Scandinavian turtle brooches, so typical of female Norse burials, and it is suggested that this woman was in fact a local Celt who married a Viking, and was not, in fact, a Viking herself. It is also the only certain female pagan burial found on the Isle of Man so far (Richards1991:103).

Another rich Viking burial from the cemetery was that of an adult buried with a ring-headed pin and a copper alloy buckle. 13 silver balls mark the position of a cloak that has long since rotted away. Similar balls were found with another body, this time the balls being around the wrists as well as the knees (Richards1991:103)

The relationship between the Vikings and native Christian Manx doesn't seem to have been relaxed all the time- for example at Chapel Hill, Balladoole a Viking ship burial appears to have been deliberately placed to destroy Christian graves. In the Iron age a number of cist graves were dug, and in the Viking age these were overlain with a boat shaped cairn. Although no wood has survived, some 300 clench nails mark the outline of an 11 metre long boat. A male was laid out on his back at the bottom of the boat, with a female nearby. Grave goods included a cloak pin, a knife, a honestone, a flint fire-starter and a silver belt buckle. There were no weapons found in this grave, and the cairn was covered with a selection of cremated bones, including horse, pig, ox, sheep and dog remains.

Before the boat was positioned, soil had been removed, which involved disturbing cist covers, and disturbing the Manx burials. There can be little doubt that the Vikings were aware that they were desecrating the site, in direct contrast to Peel we have a deliberate symbolic show of contempt for the Christian faith.


In England, however has a remarkable shortage of Viking burials, although literature records Viking burials in England. The mystery remains as to why they should remain almost invisible archaeologically. Perhaps the number of settlers was very small, or perhaps a large number of first generation settlers were converted to Christianity, adopting the native culture almost immediately. Christianity was not officially adopted in Scandinavia until the eleventh century, and may explain why later immigrants were not buried in pagan graves. A number of Viking goods have been found in Christian graveyards, including weapons, and probably if excavation went ahead on many of our churchyards, many more Viking goods would be found. However, we must be wary of assuming that this necessarily means they were Christians. In York, the capitol of the Viking kingdom in England, years of extensive excavations have revealed less than half a dozen Viking burials (Richards1991:111). Four skeletons have been found near the St.Mary Bishophill Junior church, including two young males, one with a silver arm ring, the other with a penny in his hand. The latter had a knife half way up his back, and it is suggested that it was imbedded there! Two young females were also buried there, but these had no accompanying grave goods (Richards 1991:111). Away from Christian graveyards, there are few Viking burials in England, although an area in Cumbria is the exception to this, where a number of graves in the style of the Isle of Man burials may indicate, in fact, immigrants from the Isle of Man. Outside Cumbria, Viking burials are extremely rare in England, the reason for which is still a mystery to archaeologists.


The above study has truly borne out the title. Even in the few cultures and races that I have looked at, a surprising variety of burial techniques is demonstrated. As mentioned before, this is not an exhaustive study - I have not examined many of the cultures, such as the Francs, the late Celts in Ireland or the Germanic races to name but a few. However I feel that the three cultures I have studied conclusively prove the point that death was the spice of life in the first millennium A.D.


Fig. 1 Carver MOH (ed), 1992: The Age of Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, The Boydell Press
Plan of Pictish Cemetery at Garbeg

Fig. 2 Carver MOH (ed), 1992: The Age of Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, The Boydell Press
Location map of Middle Saxon burial sites

Fig. 3 Bruce-Mitford R, 1968: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, a Handbook, London, Butler & Tanner Ltd
Map of the East Anglia region showing the location of Sutton Hoo

Fig. 4 Bruce-Mitford R, 1968: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, a Handbook, London, Butler & Tanner Ltd
Sections through Mound 1

Fig. 5 Bruce-Mitford R, 1968: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, a Handbook, London, Butler & Tanner Ltd
Diagram showing position of ship in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo

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