Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries: kinship, community, and identity

It has been more than two decades since Sam Lucy’s seminal book The Anglo-Saxon Way of Death, and in the intervening years new cemeteries, methodologies, and mortuary archaeology theory have advanced to the point that we are due a sequel. This book, a decade in the making, is the sequel we have been waiting for.

Sayer’s holistic yet nuanced multi-tiered approach to early medieval cemeteries in England incorporates new data and thinking with intriguing results. What makes this offering even more exciting is that it is available as an open-access eBook, and is accompanied by graphs deposited with the Archaeology Data Service (https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk). Sayer goes even further with the open-research principles, telling us what computer programmes he used to run analyses. Ideally, there would be the accompanying data too, but this is a progressing practice, so it is fantastic to see a book of this scale ‘open’ to this degree. It is at times very data-heavy, but for many that level of detail will be very engaging.

The six chapters go from the large-scale of cemetery space, through the syntax, metre, and grammar of funerary practices, to a chapter on individuals, then finish eloquently with historical contextualisation of two sites in detail.

Chapter 5, which focuses on individuals and aspects of the life-course, is where Sayer tackles some of the recent bioarchaeological data, framing it (as he has done throughout) within nuanced theoretical frameworks of identity. This chapter is perhaps heavier in hard data than the others, and sometimes does not fully take into account the scientific background to some of the data, isotopes in particular.

Chapter 6 is where the practicability and power of this book are realised in full, getting to the heart of early medieval communities, and the complex social interactions involved in mortuary spaces. Sayer demonstrates how we are now at an exciting juncture with the scientific approaches and the funerary theory to get at these ideas of kinship, identity, and community in new ways.

This is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in funerary archaeology, especially for those interested in the early medieval period.

Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries: kinship, community, and identity, Duncan Sayer Manchester University Press, £25, ISBN 978-1526135568.
Review by Sam Leggett.