The “missing” Early Anglo-Saxon-period burials of historic north-east Surrey: bodies in the Thames?

(I’ve only gone and done another really long post! This is of course a good thing, as there’s plenty of what I consider to be great stuff in what follows, so please make some time to give it a go. Still, I promise my next offering will be much shorter.)

Midway through my previous post, I stated there was an issue on which wanted to fly a kite, one that needed its own stage to do it justice (a vast stage as it turns out). It boils down to the fact that, though we have several excavated settlements, buildings and features suggestive of nearby permanent or temporary habitation in the north-east of the historic county of Surrey which have been dated to the fifth and sixth centuries and look “Anglo-Saxon” in style, there are no inhumation or cremation burials contemporary with them known from the same area. (By historic north-east Surrey, I mean the current London boroughs of Southwark, Lambeth, Wandsworth, and that part of Richmond south/east of the Thames.) The settlements were obviously built and inhabited by people, who were mortal and therefore had to die and leave bodies behind that needed to be disposed of somehow. So what’s going on?

We are probably safe to understand the fifth- and sixth-century inhabitants of the settlements along the north-east Surrey section of the Thames Valley disposed of their deceased in ways that were not completely at odds with their contemporaries in other parts of “Anglo-Saxon” lowland Britain. What is harder to understand is where and how they did so. I have an idea that may provide at least a partial explanation – then again, it may be barking up the wrong tree! In short, I’m invoking the concept of water-burial, or rather “watery-burial”, for my inkling is that the “missing” dead of the Early Anglo-Saxon-period settlements of north-east Surrey were deposited at the edge of and/or in the River Thames.

While feeling very much out of my comfort zone in setting out to investigate whether this is indeed a credible explanation, I can at least cite in support of the basic premise no less an authority than Prof. Howard Williams, who, in his brilliant Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain, offered the following observation:

‘We must bear in mind that a range of disposal methods [in addition to inhumation and cremation] would not necessarily leave behind a clear and coherent archaeological signature, including water-burial and excarnation.’ (Williams 2006, 86)

It’s important to underscore that I’m not suggesting that all the deceased were subject to water-burial in the sense of corpses being deposited in the main river or tributary channels. It’s as much about riverside bogs and fens, and drier-land locations in close physical proximity to the Thames. A few of these burials may be tangible through objects (bones, former grave goods) that have entered the river environment as a result of natural erosion or some form of destructive human agency. The means by which this could have occurred are to all intents and purposes irrecoverable, but we can at least ask questions that may allow us to get some handle on whether they are more likely to have derived from a mortuary or non-mortuary context. The following pages (please click through via the numbers below) are designed to investigate the following questions:

  • Do we really know enough to be confident that even the most recent presentations/interpretations of the archaeological distribution patterns are accurate?
  • Should/can the explanation of non-funerary ritual deposition be applied to all “Anglo-Saxon” artefacts found in the Thames?
  • How can the burials known from in or alongside the Thames be characterised, and do they point to any shifts in the perception of the Thames as a mortuary space over time?
  • To what extent are Early Anglo-Saxon-period non-martial artefacts from the Thames shoreline best interpreted as former grave goods?

Of pretty much equal importance to the above is the stress I must place on the fact mortuary archaeology is not a field in which I can claim to have any real expertise. I’m all too aware that there are plenty of early medieval mortuary archaeologists out there doing and blogging about so much amazing research that the internet barely needs me to add to the hubbub! My plea here is that, as a problem that has implications at the social and political levels in which I am better versed, I thought I’d stick my head above the parapet and set out my hypothesis to see how those in the know respond to it. The remainder of this post is not the presentation of the proof of the hypothesis, rather the investigation of its credibility as a potential explanation for a curious gap in knowledge, in the hope that research may be taken further and deeper in the future.

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Landscape, London, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Ritual, Surrey, Thames and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The “missing” Early Anglo-Saxon-period burials of historic north-east Surrey: bodies in the Thames?

  1. Pingback: Godalming and Old English -ingas name formations | Surrey Medieval

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