Happy Holidays: Gifts for the Deceased in Anglo-Saxon England

Skeleton Santa, via Flickr user Beverly Goodwin

Skeleton Santa, via Flickr user Beverly Goodwin

The holiday season is upon us, and that means that many of us are thinking about gifts. As I’ve been wrapping the presents I’ve bought for my family, I’ve been thinking about gifts in a very different way- about gifts for the dead. I have a very vivid memory of my parent’s first cat dying. When Isabelle went off to kitty heaven, she was buried in a handmade coffin with a gift- a stuffed cat that I had owned that was going to keep her company in the afterlife. As archaeologists, we often interpret items found with the deceased as part of their social identity or persona. We make the assumption that they owned these items and we can use them to interpret who they were. But if we think about my parent’s cat- obviously the stuffed toy wasn’t her belonging, it was mine, and as a family we gave it to the cat as a gift. This assumption that grave goods = personal item has been increasingly challenged over the last couple decades, and we reconsider whether these grave goods actually represent gifts from their family and community.

In Early Anglo-Saxon England (450-600 CE), it was very common to bury the deceased with a wide diversity of grave goods. Some burials included a full suite of weaponry, pots filled with foodstuffs, jewelry and amuletic items, while others had nothing at all. There have been many different interpretations for what these varying degrees of grave goods could mean. From an economic or political perspective, they may indicate that the individuals with more items were wealthier or were important political figures in the community. However, from a social perspective, more items may mean that the death was more of a loss of the community, or the family used the items to display the social status and identity of their deceased relative. From an agency perspective, perhaps these were the items that the deceased requested be buried within them. On the other hand, there may be superstitions and ritual purpose behind the disposal of these items- perhaps they were associated with the death and could no longer be used by the living.

Anglo-Saxon burial found with tankard and spear, via the History Blog

Anglo-Saxon burial found with tankard and spear, via the History Blog

King (2004) suggests that grave goods were placed with the deceased as a gift from the mourners, rather than representing possessions that they had in life. From this perspective, the grave goods found with the dead signify relationships that they had with the living. King (2004) argues that gifts create and represent relationships between the living and the dead. Basically, by giving the dead a gift, you demonstrate that you had a relationship of some sort with them and reaffirm your position among the living. Think about modern funerals and wakes- by showing up at a funeral, maybe depositing a flower at the grave site or coffin, you reaffirm among the living that you were part of the deceased’s life and will remain part of their living network.

Of course, not all the items with the dead are necessarily gifts- just as we can’t assume all items belong to the dead, we can’t assume that all items are gifts. Therefore, we need a method to determine what is a gift and what is a personal belonging. King (2004) argues that there are six different ways to identify gifts:

  1. The item found with the individual is incongruous to their identity (ex. a woman who was a weaver is buried with spindle whorls and weaving battens, but her husband deposits a spear with her to show his connection)
  2. Duplications of artifacts (ex. same woman is wearing a brooch to hold her clothing, but her daughter deposits a second brooch that doesn’t have a functional use but shows personal affection)
  3. Items are outside the coffin (ex. before the coffin is covered with soil, a number of neighbors leave minor gifts such as amulets and beads)
  4. Unburnt goods found in cremation burial urns (ex. the woman was cremated in her clothing and with her personal items, but before she is buried, the family adds a small comb to her urn as a sign of their care for her)
  5. Finds in the grave fill (ex. as the grave is being filled with soil, one of her relatives adds a pot filled with food to the grave as a gift)
  6. Unusual positioning of an item (ex. brooches are usually found holding up clothing or used as decoration, a brooch found at the top of the head or by the feet may be a gift rather than practical personal item)

King (2004) examines Early Anglo-Saxon burials from across England, and determines that gift giving is present within this society because grave goods are found in all six situations as listed above. Examining grave goods as gifts rather than personal items is an important perspective for challenging our interpretations in this period. The burial of an individual with high numbers of grave goods may indicate that they were a member of a network of traders who had access to more gifts, rather than meaning they themselves were wealthy. It could also mean that children buried with weapons were a tragic loss and therefore buried with gifts of weapons, rather than being soldiers themselves or the child of a wealthy individual. By seeing these items as potentially being gifts, we may be able to better interpret what these grave goods mean in this period. Of course, this is just an alternative viewpoint and it may not be correct- however, it provides an important counter to the traditional interpretation of grave goods and challenges are preconceptions.

Gift giving to the dead isn’t just a thing of the past- there are modern cultures that continue to give gifts to their deceased relatives on specific days of the year (for a full post on modern examples of gifts for the dead click here). And in some cases, Western cultures do leave gifts for the deceased- such as placing flowers on the grave marker or providing some small items in the casket- such as their cell phone or a handheld gaming device. Yes, a cell phone may have belonged to the person, but it is also somewhat of a gift since it isn’t a normal ritual to include items in modern Western burials. Personally, I like the idea of including something personal in the burials of my loved ones and fully intend on gift giving to the deceased.

Happy Holidays!

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgKing, J. (2004). Grave-Goods as Gifts in Early Saxon Burials (ca. AD 450-600) Journal of Social Archaeology, 4 (2), 214-238 DOI: 10.1177/1469605304041076

6 responses to “Happy Holidays: Gifts for the Deceased in Anglo-Saxon England

  1. I really like the idea of children being given gifts that they were not yet old enough to use. A father might bury a son with a training weapon that he intended for the boy to use, or a familial weapon they intended to pass on to the child, especially if its an only child. Likewise with jewelry or women’s tools for young girls. I also like the idea of a well used item of the parent being buried with the child as a sign of their continued presence with the child.

  2. The custom of leaving gifts in the burial site, or even inside the casket, has been identified in most cases as tokens of good will from the remaining family members and friends. I like the idea of offering something to the deceased in special days and festivals, as in El Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico, which I think is one of the most sacred days in Mexican holidays.

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