We hear an awful lot about the large-scale male ‘Princely’ burial of the early seventh century. Sutton Hoo, Snape, and Prittlewell dominate the narrative on richly furnished burials. Now, don’t get me wrong, these are some incredibly archaeologically significant sites, and have important things to say about power and status. But by focusing in on them alone, we’re only getting part of the story…
Where the rich male burials group around the first quarter of the seventh century, they all but disappear by the end of the period – fading as quickly as they appear. In their place emerge their female counterparts, centering on the later part of the century and peaking in the 660s; lavish furnished female graves. This change in burial focus seems to suggest a movement in society towards a new focus on h0w power and legitimacy was conferred and re-enforced.
One of the prime examples of this later trend in richly furnished female burials is found at Westfield Farm, Ely. You can find a free online site report for this site here.
The cemetery appears to centre around Grave 1, potentially originally covered by a mound. Osteoarchaeological evidence suggests this is a female aged 10 to 12, and clearly an individual of notable social status.
The central grave 1 is accompanied by a number of notable finds. The explicitly Christian context of the grave would seem to be established by a cruciform pendant.
A set of green glass palm-cups were found associated with the body, The presence of glass vessels is usually interpreted as a sign of impressive prestige and status, as with the glass claw-beaker at Snape.
The remains of iron bindings appear to illustrate the initial presence of a lockable casket or box, and the presence of a padlock key confirms this.
Female Lavish Burials
Alongside sites like the bed burial at Swallowcliffe Down, we have quite a well-established corpus of lavish elite female burials. So, why the shift from elite male lavish burials in the first quarter of the 7thC to female equivalents in the latter half of the century?
Well, Hines had suggested that the shift to women was the result of it no longer being acceptable to bury men with weapons in a Christian context. But Hamerow disagrees with this – it would have been perfectly possible to express status in other manners with male burials. Why instead use women’s burials?
Instead, Hamerow argues that it is the symbolism of women that is being foregrounded in the new system of power and legitimacy, and women’s roles in creating dynasties and as religious specialists. It’s perhaps worth quoting Hamerow in full:
‘It is argued that these well-furnished graves reflect a new investment in the commemoration of females who came to represent their family’s interests in newly acquired estates and whose importance was enhanced by their ability to confer supernatural legitimacy onto dynastic claims.’ (Hamerow 2016, p. 426)
Hamerow, H., ‘Furnished female burial in seventh-century England: gender and sacral authority in the Conversion Period’, Early Medieval Europe 24/4 (2016)
Lucy, C., Newman, R. et al., ‘The burial of a Princess? The later 7th-century cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely’, The Antiquaries Journal 89 (2009): 81-141.
Newman, R. (2007). Westfield Farm, Ely: An archaeological excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge Archaeological Unit. https://doi.org/10.5284/1003392 (https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/library/browse/issue.xhtml?recordId=1101721&recordType=GreyLitSeries)