Bede, Burials, and Bamburgh: Testing Anglo-Saxon Migration

The traditional story of the settlement of England by the Anglo-Saxons is based on the writing of the Venerable Bede from 731 CE. He wrote: “These new-comers were from the three most formidable races of Germany, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes… these heathen conquerors devastated the surrounding cities and countryside, extended the conflagration from the eastern to the western shores without opposition and established a stranglehold over nearly all the doomed island… Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests, and crags, ever on the alert for danger” (Venerable Bede’s History, 731). These words have strongly shaped our perspective of the history of the English people as one where a Roman identity and culture was overtaken and displaced by a new Germanic Anglo-Saxon one as elites from this latter culture took power.

Archaeology, however, has over the last few decades argued for another interpretation. There is a lack of trauma or mass graves indicative of widespread conquest or warfare. Cemeteries and domestic sites instead show evidence for mixing and hybridization between groups. There is a wide range of diverse burial practices that appear to be due to different groups migrating into the country and mixing in different ways with the native people. The identities seen throughout the country are neither Roman or Germanic, but a new type. Over time, the display of identities and associations with ethnic groups becomes stronger, and cemeteries become more homogenized, but this appears to be part of a political movement and creation of an ancestral past rather than being based on true ethnic origin (Harke 2011). It is a difficult situation to attempt to sort out identities and origins, especially when meanings of artifacts and burial types change quickly over time.

Bamburgh Castle, via AlexBrn on Flickr

Bamburgh Castle, via AlexBrn on Flickr

A new study by Groves et al. (2013) uses stable isotope analysis in a later Anglo-Saxon period cemetery (mid-6th to mid-8th CE) to determine whether they are similar in origins and if there is continued migration. The site under investigation is the Bowl Hole cemetery at Bamburgh, Northumberland. It is a large and well-preserved cemetery in North England, and is associated with an Early Medieval royal settlement from Bamburgh Castle. Excavations uncovered 91 burials, and 13 non-grave locations containing the remains of 28 individuals. This stable isotope study is part of a broader one to interpret the lives and histories of the individuals buried there (for more on stable isotopes read this post about the trend). Other studies have shown the utility of using stable isotopes to address migration, though most were for earlier periods.

The excavation was consisted of half the total cemetery over a number of field seasons. The cemetery layout was primarily in rough rows running north to south, though there was some intercutting of newer graves suggesting the cemetery was used over a long period of time. Most of the individuals were oriented with their heads to the west. There was no separation of ages or sexes, and both were well represented throughout. In total there were 28 adult females, 31 adult males, 6 adults of unknown sex, and 26 sub-adults. Of the burials, only 20% had stone grave linings and 16% had grave goods.

Skeleton from Bamburgh, via Bamburgh Research Project Blog

Skeleton from Bamburgh, via Bamburgh Research Project Blog

The stable isotope analysis was completed using a sample of 78 individuals who had well-presenced dentition. This included 27 adult males, 28 adult females, 5 of adults of unknown sex, and 18 sub-adults. Other samples were collected from faunal remains found in the graves and soil from the surrounding area. By doing this they are able to compare the results from the skeletal remains against animals and soil to determine whether the humans were migrating or moving. They examined both strontium and oxygen ratios since these are both ingested through the environment and indicative of one’s location.

Groves et al. (2013) found that only 7 humans fell within the ‘local’ range defined by the soil and animal remains. Another group of 9 individuals fell within normal ratio ranges for Northern England or Southern Scotland. 23 individuals were consistent with the local ranges of Western Scotland or Ireland. A further 28 individuals were from either Southern end of England or Northern Europe. Only 12 individuals had isotopic ranges that fell completely out of normal UK values, and are more consistent with Norway, Denmark, Germany or Sweden, though a couple were more suggestive of the Mediterranean or North Africa. There was no spatial or demographic difference between the locals and non-locals, and there was no correlation of burial type to origin. Comparison with the Heslerton cemetery shows a similar result where there are locals and non-locals of many age groups and both sexes spread throughout the cemetery.

Why was there such variation in people at the Bamburgh site? Groves et al. (2013) argue that potentially the site was connected with religious communities in Scotland and Ireland due to the presence of individuals from those regions. This would have attracted others to the community since the rise in monasteries was often also associated with power, craft production and trade. Many monastic sites are associated with trade goods from around Europe and the Mediterranean, connected through the network of Christianity. The presence of other individuals within this elite cemetery from England may be suggestive of captured or exiled nobles. When kingdoms or lordships were conquered, the related nobles would either be exiled or taken hostage in order to assure subordination of the community. They conclude that Bamburgh Castle attracted a large non-local population due to their religious and political importance, and the presence of these various individuals in their elite burial site dispels the argument that the elite were completely composed of Anglo-Saxon individuals in this period.

For more on the Bamburgh Project (which does accept volunteers!) check out their blog: Bamburgh Research Project Blog

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgGroves SE, Roberts CA, Lucy S, Pearson G, Gröcke DR, Nowell G, Macpherson CG, & Young G (2013). Mobility histories of 7th-9th century AD people buried at early medieval Bamburgh, Northumberland, England. American journal of physical anthropology PMID: 23737109

Harke, Heinrich. 2011. Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis. Medieval Archaeology, 55, 2011

21 responses to “Bede, Burials, and Bamburgh: Testing Anglo-Saxon Migration

    • Unfortunately I got a pingback on my reblog of this from a British Nationalist. Sometimes the internet makes me sad.

  1. Pingback: Bede, Burials, and Bamburgh: Testing Anglo-Saxon Migration | A Medievalist Enroute·

  2. Its good to see the results of our work at the Bowl Hole getting a wider audience. Provisional results from excavations within the fortress site at Bamburgh also seem to indicate a substantial element of continuity.

    • I really loved reading about the project- I’ve followed along the blog and it was nice to see the written up results! If you let me know when future work from the project is published I can definitely post more on my blog and share it. And good luck with the continued excavation!

      • We have just published a short article on the early medieval mortar mixer, excavated by Dr Hope-Taylor and are preparing an article on our excavations in the Inner Ward. Very glad that you re interested and will be delighted to keep you in the loop.

  3. Not particularly competent anthropologically but my observation is that present day English (Subject Verb Object) is syntactically closer to Norse than Germanic (Subject Object Verb). The 8th thru the 13th century would account for some of the development of English.

  4. Thanks for your comments on the paper, Bamburgh really is a fantastic site, with a brilliant team working there right now🙂 Glad to see that this research is reaching an audience outside of academia.

  5. most of the numerous battles recorded in the Chronicle would not necessarily have involved large numbers of warriors. One would not expect to find mass graves, because, following battles, bodies would have sometimes been left insitu for the beasts of battle, raven & wolf, or, if not too far from home, individual bodies collected from the field of battle by relatives.

  6. Reblogged this on A H Gray and commented:
    Fantastic blog on the archaeology and science behind the history of the Anglo-Saxon Migration, using the excavations at Bamburgh Castle in Northumbria as an example. Unfortunately i never studied the ‘Biological’ side of archaeology but it has always been an aspect i have been fascinated with.

  7. If you look at the bones of Danish skeletons you’ll find lots of high status people with isotopes from Britain. There has always been a great deal of contact and I suspect it goes back to pre Roman times.

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