Death has long been referred to as a type of sleep. Death is the long sleep. Death and sleep are brothers according to Greek philosophy. Death is referred to as sleep almost 50 times in the bible. Tombstones from the Victorian period discuss the final sleep, eternal rest, and the sleep most permanent. In addition to text, the set up of graves from the 18th and 19th c. appear like beds, with a headstone and footstone to mark the boundaries of the burial. Some even have bedrails connecting the two stones, with blankets of flowers in the middle. However, this metaphor is carried out most fully in the bed burials from the Anglo-Saxon period in England. Archaeologists in Cambridge have recently excavated one of these rare burials, and it may reveal more information about this practices and the period in general.
The skeleton of a 7th-century teenager was found buried in an ornamental bed along with a gold-and-garnet cross, an iron knife and a purse full of glass beads. Only about a dozen of these bed burials have been recovered, so they are not well understood. The bed was identified by the presence of a dark organic square of soil around the body and iron brackets at the corners. The grave, dated between 650 and 680 CE, and the presence of the cross shows that it was likely an early converter. The other grave goods show a clear association with pagan rituals and funerary rites. The individual was aged around 16 years, suggesting an early death. There is no obvious cause of death at the moment. Three nearby graves contained more traditional pagan burials, with no signs of Christianity.
Anglo-Saxon burial practices are fairly variable in their traits. They include both cremation and inhumation cemeteries, generally with copious grave goods. However, with the adoption of Christianity there was a transition in practices from pagan that meant increased religious grave goods but decreased goods in general. Another bed burial was recovered from Edix Hill, located near the most recent find. This burial includes the remains of a female aged 17-25 years, who was suffering from leprosy. She was found with a high number of grave goods, the wealthiest for the cemetery. Including a necklace, silver rings, a key, two knives, a bucket, a weaving batten, a comb and a box, in which were a spindlewhorl, a copper-alloy sheet, a fossil sea urchin, a sheep astragalus, glass, a metal rod and iron fragments. A bed burial excavated in Yorkshire tells us more about the construction of the bed itself: “rectangular, approximately 1.8m by 0.80m by 0.30m with an inclined headboard attached by two stays of twisted iron on either side. Each side of the bed was made up of two horizontal planks, held together by a number of decorative iron cleats around the outside… complex ironwork decoration is also apparent at the head and at the foot of the bed. The top of each headboard stay has been attached to or flattened out to make a rectangular mount which grips the top edge of the headboard. At the foot end one similar mount survived. This example is slightly concave, suggesting that the top edge of the footboard was scalloped” (Sherlock and Simmons 2008). Sadly, no human remains were recovered so we do not know whether females continue to be honored in these types of burials.
What makes this particular bed burial so interesting is that it is the only one associated with large Christian cross grave goods. The form itself is quite rare, and it is even rarer to find Christian goods in this time period. “To be buried in this elaborate way with such a valuable artifact 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,” said Alison Dickens, who led the excavation. More detailed investigation of the bodies and beds from the over dozen bed burials found in this period is currently taking place. By doing a detailed comparison of all evidence within the regional context, archaeologists are going to be able to create more nuanced interpretations of what this practice means.
For a video and more information on the excavation, check out Past Horizon’s article: Mystery of Anglo-Saxon teen buried in bed with gold cross
BBC News 2012 Anglo-Saxon Christian grave find near Cambridge ‘extremely rare’. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-17378845
Crawford 2007. Companions, co-incidences or chattels? Children in the early Anglo-Saxon burial ritual. http://www.usu.edu/anthro/childhoodconference/Reading%20Material/New%20Reading%20Material/Crawford_A_Multiple_Burial.pdf
Sherlock and Simmons 2008. Royal cemetery at Street House, Yorkshire, England. http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/sherlock/index.html