Memories of migration? The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ burial costume of the fifth century AD

Memories of migration? The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ burial costume of the fifth century AD

Memories of migration? The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ burial costume of the fifth century AD

By James M. Harland

Antiquity, Vol. 93:370 (2019)

Abstract: It is often claimed that the mortuary traditions that appeared in lowland Britain in the fifth century AD are an expression of new forms of ethnic identity, based on the putative memorialisation of a ‘Germanic’ heritage. This article considers the empirical basis for this assertion and evaluates it in the light of previously proposed ethnic constructivist approaches. No sound basis for such claims is identified, and the article calls for the development of new interpretative approaches for the study of early medieval mortuary archaeology in Britain.

Introduction: Ethnic identity is a situational construct that fashions communities through real and fictive stories and memories. Studies of early Anglo-Saxon burial archaeology have long recognised this, and scepticism regarding the putatively ‘Germanic’ culture of some graves in England can be found as early as Hills. Such early doubts, however, depended largely upon the absence of evidence for ‘Germanic’ material culture, rather than a questioning of the ethnic categories proposed.

The arguments for the interpretation of this material culture derive largely from studies of ‘Germanic’ material on the European continent—to which British scholarship sometimes makes unquestioning reference, and most works published before 2000 simply adopted a constructivist approach to culture-historical interpretation. These works introduced the notion that ethnic identity is a situational construct, rather than a static essentialist entity; but the assumption that the particular identities that were studied were largely direct imports from the continent remained unchanged. The important criticisms of Lucy, in particular, warn against this simplistic culture–historical approach to the interpretation of the material culture of fifth-century AD Britain.

Top Image: The Funen bracteate, found in Funen, Denmark. Photo by Bloodofox / Wikimedia Commons

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