Many of us learned about the ‘Anglo-Saxon invasion’ at school, and this was a harsh narrative. Indeed, a line from Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) is often used to describe the early medieval experience: ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. These perspectives foreground death and solitude first, and yet Anglo-Saxon poetry places emphasis on responsibility and community. ‘The Wanderer’ from the Old English elegy of the same name, for example, has lost everything of meaning to him. In particular, he laments the loss of his lord, his home, and his kinsmen. What can archaeology add to the picture?
As this special issue shows, the advances in ancient DNA (aDNA) technology represent a revolution for archaeology. It enables us to link ancestry to otherwise anonymous ancient bones and can reveal biological relationships between individuals – but perhaps one of the more subtle insights it brings is the ability for us to home in on the experiences that we have previously sought in fragments of early medieval verse and prose. In this respect, it is an invaluable part of any archaeologist’s tool kit, working alongside a deep knowledge of artefacts, burial rituals, explorations of a person’s life-course using skeletal age, isotopes, and modern dating methods, to bring us closer to community histories and individual experiences than ever before.
Such stories are important. Today, influential accounts about how migration has shaped a person’s experience tend to focus on individuals, albeit encompassing mainly well-known people, figures like Albert Einstein, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Freddie Mercury, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Prince Philip, to name but a few. In archaeology, though, studies have traditionally focused on a ‘grander’ narrative of invasion or elite migration because it has been harder to access the human experience. With the advance of aDNA analysis and other scientific techniques, though, that picture is beginning to shift – and in this article we will bring you a few examples of the hundreds of stories that we are able to tell from the cemeteries examined within our project. Here, migration is no longer the destination of archaeological study, it has become the question. Not, ‘was there a migration and how big was it?’, but ‘how did migration affect the people and families of the past?’.
One of the most-striking individuals who featured in our study was not herself a migrant, but she was the daughter, granddaughter, or great-granddaughter of one – and her ancestor had lived a long way from the Kent countryside where she was laid to rest. At Updown, near Eastry in Kent, Grave 47 was found to contain the remains of a young girl aged 10-11 years old. She was buried in fairly typical style with a finely made decorated pot, as well as a knife, spoon, and bone comb placed at her waist on the left-hand side. Her DNA, however, told a more complex story: as well as 67% Continental Northern European (CNE) ancestry, she also had 33% West African ancestry, most closely related to present-day Esan and Yoruba populations (a result that will be published elsewhere). Her burial took place around the early 7th century, placing her African ancestor (probably on her father’s side, as her mitochondrial haplogroup, which reflects the maternal line, is typical of a Northern European ancestry) in the first half of the 6th century – perhaps her grandfather?
This is a captivating discovery, as the connection is firmly early medieval, not Roman, in date, and reflects a period when North Africa was part of the Christian Late Antique West. Evidence of far-reaching commercial connections with Kent at this time is known – the garnets found in many brooches from this region came from Afghanistan, for example – and the movement of the Updown girl’s ancestors was presumably linked to these Late Antique trading routes, whether as a trader or less voluntarily (a contemporary slave trade is known to have existed, facilitated via Byzantium).
Had this ancestry affected how the girl was perceived by her contemporaries, or how she was treated in death? Archaeological evidence suggests not. Two women buried close by (Graves 45 and 34) were first-degree sisters and had predominantly CNE ancestry (of which 20% was from what is now France/Belgium), but they were also third-degree relatives of the young girl, possibly her great-aunts. Strikingly, all three were buried in a similar way, suggesting that their funerary parties had intended to highlight a shared regional identity.
The woman in Grave 45 was also young, aged 16-24, and she was interred with a knife, workbox, chatelaine, latch lifter, bone comb, and spoon on her left side, while a pendant and beads were found in the area of her head and neck, suggesting that they had been worn at the time of burial. There was also a cowrie shell at the end of the grave, a little distance from her feet. Her sister in Grave 34 was more mature, aged 25-45, and her burial was the most elaborate – perhaps reflecting her age. A ring and a nail found in the grave might represent traces of a coffin, and at her left side was a selection of several knives, together with shears and a girdle hanger. She too had beads close to her head and neck.
Interestingly, this was not the only family link identified in this part of the cemetery: the two sisters were also relatives of the occupant of Grave 52. This was a man in his early 30s, who had been buried with a spearhead, buckle, and knife. He had a first-degree relationship (parent–child or full sibling) to the older woman in Grave 34, and a second-degree relationship (grandparent–grandchild, half sibling, or aunt/uncle–niece/nephew) to the younger woman in Grave 45. We suggest that the former was probably his mother, while the latter would have been his aunt. Although the lives of these four people were short, their graves were all located in close proximity, in a prominent position towards the north-east of the cemetery. The visibility of this spot, combined with the presence of a weapon and jewellery, marks these individuals as significant in some way, compared to the other burials. Their graves were separated by a generation or two, and it could be that this cluster of burials provided a place where a family could return, bury their relatives, and remember those already gone before.
West Heslerton’s weapon burials
The West Heslerton cemetery in Yorkshire was excavated 36-45 years ago, but it is one of those projects that has always managed to be pioneering. The first attempts to extract aDNA from Anglo-Saxon burials were conducted on skeletons from the site, during research in the 1990s by a PhD student from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. At that time, we were interested in looking at familial relationships and were looking for a method independent of grave goods and typologies that could help place the cemetery’s poorly furnished burials into context – however, these first-generation sequencing methods have subsequently been proven to be inaccurate and easily contaminated. As a result, several individuals buried with weapons who had been identified on osteological grounds as ‘tall and gracile’ were identified as female, raising thought-provoking questions about gender roles and the meaning of grave goods. Our new aDNA project revealed that this identification was incorrect, however, as for each of these individuals it has been determined that they were in fact male: each has a Y chromosome. In all, 48 burials from West Heslerton have now been examined in collaboration with the University of Huddersfield, during which we were able to pin down family relationships between some of them – as well as interesting insights about the artefacts accompanying them.
Take, for example, the individual found in Grave 122 (whom Duncan has already discussed in his previous article). He was identified as genetically male but had been buried with a single brooch, confirming and reinforcing the view that grave goods alone cannot be used with certainty as a basis for sexing individuals. Perhaps most interestingly, this individual is also one of a group of nine from a single family. Comprising 5% of the skeletons sampled from West Heslerton, this related group had almost exclusively CNE ancestry, and included three people buried with weapons (two with shields and spears, and one with a spear only).
There were two other people within the sample who were also found to be related: a man (Grave 74) buried with a sword, shield, and spear, and a woman (Grave 81) with a horn vessel indicated by a surviving iron staple, with rust replacing the horn, and a fragment of pottery. Again, both had almost exclusively CNE ancestry. Given the martial nature of many of the grave goods described here, one is tempted to see these two related groups as descended from migrant warriors – a somewhat traditional viewpoint – but it is with caution that we note these relationships might reflect descent from just a few individuals rather than a horde of weapon-wielding newcomers. It is also worth noting that many males in these families were not buried with weapons.
The arrangement of the West Heslerton weapon burials is as noteworthy as their contents: 20 are known in all, and they seem to have been deliberately placed in a line running through the centre of the cemetery. We have examined eight in this aDNA sample and, as all have CNE-dominated ancestry, this might indicate an elite group of Continental individuals – but it need not represent a war band or similar. Battle injuries are seldom seen in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, and so we should perhaps see weapons like those buried at West Heslerton as status symbols rather than practical implements wielded in war – highlighting significant family members and local mythmaking more than signifying the physical act of invasion.
Multiple-occupancy graves in the East of England
Alongside aDNA analyses, it is possible to use other methods to explore biological or non-biological relationships between individuals, and to begin really to explore ideas of ‘family’ in the past. Tooth size, for example, has strong links to genetic inheritance. This is helpful when DNA analysis is not always achievable because of preservation issues, cost implications or the destructive nature of the act of taking samples for such studies. As a result, a more-holistic exploration of skeletal characteristics can be especially helpful, and teeth can also be used to help select skeletons for later DNA investigation. The use of measurements obtained from dentition can achieve a more in-depth understanding – and a particularly interesting perspective comes when looking at the teeth of people buried in multiple-occupancy graves. These double or triple inhumations present an enigma: were the deceased related, did they die together, or are there other factors that lead to this type of burial in the early medieval period?
One interesting example is provided by two adult men found buried in Grave 88 at Oakington in Cambridgeshire. Skeletons 1798 and 1799 were those of 25- to 30-year-old and 18- to 25-year-old men, and the way they had been placed in the grave is suggestive of quite a close relationship, as the right arm of 1799 appears to have been placed over the left arm of 1798. Was the funeral party visually signalling a close personal relationship between the two men through this deliberate positioning and shared burial space? There were some striking differences between the two, however: 1798 was not interred with any objects at all, while the younger 1799 was buried with an iron shield boss and belt fittings. Could this discrepancy in grave furnishings relate to their relative standing within the community? Both dental and DNA analyses revealed there was no strong biological connection between these two males – indeed, 1799 had mitochondrial haplogroup X2b4a, which was not seen in any other individual in the cemetery – perhaps he, or his mother, had come from outside Oakington? Whatever these men’s relationship was in life, it was not based on biology, but is evidence of social bonds outside the family, perhaps of created kinship or at the very least a powerful connection between them.
Another example from Oakington involves Grave 109, a triple burial containing a young girl aged 1-3 years (2168), a young woman aged 18-25 (2165), and an older woman aged 25-30 (2154). None appear to be related in the first or second degree, although further planned work will look more closely at 2168 and 2154 as a third-degree or more-distant relationship remains possible. Interestingly, 2165 does have a relationship to another woman, 1450, who is buried further away in Grave 66. Mitochondrial DNA reveals that these two share a genetic connection as second-degree relatives, although their tooth sizes do not seem to share the highest levels of biological similarity, suggesting a relationship more akin to aunt–niece or half-sisters. Grave goods provide an additional clue: 2154 was buried with two applied brooches, making hers one of the earliest Oakington graves, whereas 1450 was interred with artefacts that might date more broadly to the 6th century – suggesting a cross-generational connection such as aunt–niece is most likely. Meanwhile, all four individuals in these two graves were found to have a mixture of CNE and Western British and Irish (WBI) ancestry, which might imply that there was indeed a distant degree of kinship between them all, which is yet to be unpicked.
What, then, does the triple grave signify? Its three occupants were of different ages, and were probably not closely related, although at least one of them was related to another figure within the cemetery. Might this scenario point to a shared cause of death, perhaps by disease or violence? This kind of snapshot of people buried closely, even intimately, points to the importance of social bonds that went beyond biological connections. Communities needed to be closely knit to survive, no matter who was related to whom, and perhaps that is what we see reflected in Grave 109.
There is a similar pattern in the multiple-occupancy graves at Hatherdene Close in Cherry Hinton, Cambridgeshire, but over at Lakenheath in Suffolk (CA 163) double burials seem to be doing something different. There, Grave 298 included two adolescents – a boy of around 15, accompanied by a knife and buckle, and a girl aged 11-13 with a latch lifter – whose mitochondrial DNA indicates a first-degree relationship. It appears that this pair were older brother and younger sister, and that they were buried at the same time. On the same site, Grave 297 contains the remains of an old man interred with a spear, knife, and pottery sherd, who shared the same Y chromosome as the boy described above. Their mitochondrial DNA was different, however, suggesting that the older male was probably the adolescents’ father or grandfather. Given his considerable age and the siblings’ lack of it, one cannot help thinking that he must have been present to bury the pair, personally experiencing the double tragedy of their young deaths.
Echoes of exogamy?
Back at Buckland, Grave 250 presents an interesting case where aDNA and isotopic data can be combined powerfully. This woman was 25-35 when she died, and had near-complete CNE ancestry. What is interesting is not her relationship to others, but the absence of it. Indeed, this woman had a V2 haplogroup, and is the only person analysed in this cemetery with that mitochondrial subclade. Haplogroups are a way to represent the major variations in human mitochondrial DNA which is inherited through the female lineage. It is likely, then, that this woman was genetically distinct from the cemetery population. Indeed, Sam Leggett’s isotopic evidence indicates that she was not born in Kent but moved when aged 15-25.
This suggests a few possibilities. Her DNA, isotope data, mitochondrial haplogroup, and artefactual evidence together point to a Scandinavian origin. She had travelled as a young woman, and probably did not relocate with her maternal family. Her grave dates to the mid-sixth century, so she had arrived to an established, thriving, Kentish community. Did she travel with a husband, or to meet one? Did she marry willingly, or was she traded? We may never know, but she was found with beads, a gold bracteate, a purse ring, pendants, an iron pattern-weld weaving batten, a glass bowl, two bell beakers, a knife, and a chatelaine (see CA 144).
By any standards this burial was generously furnished, indicating she had become part of a local family with some wealth and international reach. The bracteate in this grave is typical for Scandinavian pendants, but could equally have been of local Kentish manufacture. In our favourite scenario, her bracteate was made locally in a Scandinavian style, perhaps a gift to make her feel welcome. But it is also possible she took it with her when she left her homeland, as a valuable parting gift and a memento from the people she left behind. In either case, this was a very valuable object for her to be buried; perhaps it was so connected to how she was seen by others that, even after death, it was inseparable from her person.
These are only a few examples, but they highlight the contribution that aDNA is set to make across all of the historical periods where it can be applied. The potential to examine families through time and within sites is transforming understanding of individuals and the society they occupied, and it foregrounds the people themselves rather than their burial objects. Created kinships, mixed ancestries, and burial mysteries abound. Life in the past might have been short for some, but it was every bit as rich, complex, and multi-layered as human experiences are today.
All Images: Oxford Archaeology Ltd, unless otherwise stated