Burial Practices in Transition: A study of the cultural and religious cohesion of Early Medieval Europe

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Brownlee, Emma Claire  ORCID logo  https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7430-526X

In the seventh century AD, burial practice fundamentally changed across northern and western Europe, transitioning from burial with varying provision of grave goods, to a standardised, simple burial, with no accompanying objects. This was a process that happened around the same time across many areas of Europe, but previous studies into the transition have been constrained by modern national boundaries, resulting in quite different explanations being proposed for the same process in different countries. I have analysed data from a sample of 246 cemeteries from England, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. I used GIS and basic statistical analysis to map the changing use of grave goods over the sixth to eighth centuries, looking at numbers, and types of objects placed in the grave, as well as where objects were placed in relation to the body. By analysing these processes at a variety of scales, from continental, to individual sites, I assessed how local communities fitted into broader networks of social change. This analysis revealed that although the abandonment of grave goods was a drawn-out process, it began in almost every region around the middle of the sixth century. I argue that there was a link between this process and the contemporary development of Christian thought on death and the afterlife, influenced by events such as the Justinianic plague, which affected Europe from the mid-sixth century onwards. This in turn inspired a change in the perception of the corpse; from the continued embodiment of the person which was capable of maintaining possession over select objects, to more of an object itself, devoid of possessive agency. Finally, I use globalisation and diffusion theory to argue that this change was evidence of strong cultural and religious connections across early medieval Europe, which made the rapid transmission of cultural practices possible.

Hakenbeck, Susanne
Funerary Archaeology, Early Medieval, Europe, Globalisation, Grave Goods
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Funded by the AHRC (grant no. 1808445), and by the Cambridge School of Humanities and Social Sciences