The Ravens Warband

Weapon burials and the social context

The practice of inhumation with weapons is widespread, both temporally and geographically, among those peoples commonly referred to as Germanic. It seems to have begun in the late Roman empire, and has been seen as an attempt to reflect the barbarian Roman's status in death as well as in life. The rite partially supplanted, and in many cases continued alongside, the older rite of cremation, both finally dying out with the conversion to Christianity. Common assumptions that are made are that the weapon rite represents both the burial of a warrior and of a full set of fighting kit (or "Heregewede"). From this, the extrapolation of status, wealth and social categories has often been made. Pader has analysed Anglo-Saxon graves (largely female: on the whole they contain more gravegoods to analyse) on the basis of artefact distribution, both in the type and position, and found a complex structure of factors such as age, sex, position in the cemetery, and posture, which seem to influence gravegood distribution.

In testing the premise that weapon burials equate with warrior burials, Härke analysed some 1,700 graves with respect to weapons, other gravegoods, grave construction, body position, location in the cemetery, the technical specifications of weapons, skeletal and anthropological evidence and the pathology of the remains. 18% of all inhumations, and 47% of adult males (on bone evidence), contain weapons. The distribution varies: the proportion of inhumations containing weapons is higher in the North than on the South Coast, further inland, and in areas where cremation is popular. Briefly, a "typical" Anglo-Saxon weapon burial can be described as:

At Dover, both richer and more typical of "Southern" cemeteries, the position is slightly different:

Continental graves of the period are superficially very similar; however, the frequency of the various weapon types varies. Spears are found in 80% of Anglo-Saxon weapon graves and only 50% of continental; shields are again more common in Anglo-Saxon graves (50% as opposed to 20%), whereas seaxes (4% - 60%) and arrowheads (1% - 30%) are markedly less popular. It should be further noted that the seax occurs only towards the end of the pagan period in England.

This is perhaps surprising, given the Anglo-Saxon's origins in the same areas of the continent. What it might mean is somewhat unclear: we have to assume either that the nature of warfare differed drastically, or that the choice of weapons to deposit was occasioned by factors other than those that the deceased commonly used.

Härke then asked the following questions:

  1. Weapon burial and warfare

    Of the graves that can be dated (and using three different statistical techniques) the peak date for weapon burial can be established at c.550. This perhaps surprisingly, coincides with a period in which few battles are recorded in the sources. It seems that the period generally regarded, on both historical and archaeological evidence, as the key period of Anglo-Saxon expansion has contributed relatively few weapon burials to the archaeological record.

    It should be noted that dating evidence can be controversial, but the very least that can be said is that there is no positive correlation between weapon burial and the prevalence of warfare. If the apparent negative correlation is allowed, then it would seem that an explanation should be considered that sees weapon burial more as a symbolic enhancement of the warrior status in times of peace.

  2. Weapon burial and wargear

    The most frequent type of weapon burial contains a single spear, followed by the set spear + shield. Combinations such as sword + shield + spear are comparatively rare. Weapon sets comprising a single spear, axe (usually a "francisca", a throwing weapon), or seax occur frequently; the third most common "set" is a single shield, which in no way can be considered a usable set of kit! Härke suggests that the weapons in a grave should be considered a selection from the deceased's armoury.

    It is known, from both literary and archaeological evidence, that items such as swords could be handed down as heirlooms. As examples, the practice is mentioned in "Beowulf, swords have been found with a wide temporal range of fittings and in later graves than the design of hilt would suggest, and in many cases the rings on ring-swords appear to have been removed prior to deposition, perhaps because a new owner was not entitled to wear one. This evidence, surely, militates against the idea of burying a warrior with his full set of fighting kit, at least as anything like a universal practice.

    The evidence from possible battle-damage is somewhat equivocal. 29% of adults have damage to weapons which could conceivably have been sustained while in the owner's use, but then so do 14% of juvenile. Deliberate or "ritual" damage to weapons is rare and confined to a few localities: it occurs equally with adults and juveniles.

    In short, Härke concludes that the weapons in a burial did, in fact, belong to the deceased (there is after all, a very strong literary tradition to this effect) while not necessarily representing a full set of harness.

  3. Weapon burial and warrior status

    Sex: Härke found only nine cases of possible female weapon burials, and two probables. Of these two, one was in a double mixed burial, and the other a badly-preserved juvenile identified on bone evidence, so perhaps these can be discounted. This suggests that the recipients of weapon burials were universally male.

    Interestingly, Härke notes a few cases where spearheads are found at the waists of female skeletons: he suggests these were used as knives or, blunted, as weaving batons.

    Age: Although the age-distribution peaks at young adulthood, there is a large spread of data either side of this. The oldest is senile, and the youngest aged 12 months +/- 6. 12% can be identified as younger than 12-14.

    Physique: There is virtually no difference in physique (where ascertainable) between those buried with or without weapons.

    Trauma: The same is true of disabling injuries and the presence of genetic disorders such as spina bifida (which would render any sufferer incapable from going to war). In the case of clean-edged cutting injuries, there is again no correlation either way: an Anglo-Saxon buried without weapons seems just as likely to have come to a sticky end as one buried with weapons.

  4. Weapon burials and society

    On average, weapon burials are richer than those without (4.05 items compared with 2.32), although perhaps this is self-defining. However, a weapon burial is also more likely to contain precious metals, liquid containers or coffin fittings, and is less likely to occur in multiple burials, especially in chalky areas where these are more common. Unfortunately there has been little research into the labour investment in Anglo-Saxon graves in general: this might be obscured by, for example, the decay of luxurious perishable items.

    An analysis of the stature of the skeletons in weapon burials concludes that in average they are 1" - 2" taller than those without weapons; this difference disappears over time. This may be due to the presence of some sort of "élite" enjoying a better diet and general standard of living; on the other hand it may be interpreted on an ethnic basis. (Härke seems happier to do this than I would be.) It is known that identifiably Romano-British skeletons are on average some 4 cm shorter than Anglo-Saxon: this may then show something like an overwhelmingly Germanic "élite" buried with weapons, a more mixed population buried without, and assimilation being completed by the 7th - 8th centuries.

    From the analysis of epigenetic data - broadly, inherited traits - a pattern emerges, albeit on a small sample of evidence, of weapons being present in groups of burials with "family traits" in common. One striking example is the spina bifida mentioned above, which at Berinsfield occurs in a "family" buried with weapons.

In summation, it seems that weapon burials can be characterised as:

The conclusion must be that "warrior" (or weapon-bearing) status was as much social and economic as military in nature: weapon burial was apparently an effort to enhance the status of a ruling (or at least dominant) "class" by the token deposition of warlike gravegoods, especially in periods of peace.


Heinrich Härke: "Early Saxon weapon burials: frequencies, distributions and weapon combinations" in S.C. Hawkes (ed.) "Weapons and warfare in Anglo-Saxon England". Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, Monograph 21, 1990.

Heinrich Härke: lecture given to a University of Newcastle upon Tyne Adult Education Conference, 10 March 1990, as noted by the author.

Ellen-Jane Pader: "Symbolism, social relations and the interpretation of mortuary remains". BAR International Series, 130, 1982.

Philip Clark

© 1991

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