MUNDANE household objects were used by our distant ancestors to honour their dead according to an expert from Chester University.
Combs, tweezers and razors were among the distinctive artefacts used by the Anglo-Saxons.
According to new research conducted by an international expert at the University of Chester, the popular perception that the early Anglo-Saxons would mark death with grandiose gestures is untrue.
Senior Lecturer in Archaeology Dr Howard Williams has conducted research suggesting that it was more modest items which were particularly important to those in the fifth and sixth centuries. Dr Williams, who has an international reputation as an expert in mortuary archaeology, presented his findings at the British Museum to representatives of the museum, University College London, and other professional archaeologists.
He said: “The latest discoveries from cemeteries show that portable and quite modest artefacts, such as carefully wrought combs made of deer antler, and small tweezers, shears and razors made of iron or bronze, were of clear importance in the commemoration of the dead.
“Some of the objects were miniatures especially made for the funeral, and many were deliberately broken, with only a portion interred in the cinerary urns, with the rest perhaps kept as mementoes for the living.
“Combs, tweezers, shears and razors were objects intimately connected with the presentation of the body in life, and so placing them with the dead was a way for pagan Anglo-Saxons to create continued bonds with their ancestors following the spectacle of open-air cremation.”
“It reveals a belief that the dead in pagan Anglo-Saxon society retained a physical presence even after being reduced to ashes.”
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Germanic groups colonised and interacted with native Britons in Southern and Eastern England.
The widespread adoption of cremation practices among some communities heralded a new strategy for the display of social identities and the commemoration of the dead.
Popular perceptions of Anglo-Saxon burial rites at this time focus on rare cases of rich graves beneath large burial mounds, known most famously from excavations at Sutton Hoo.
Dr Williams’s study of relatively modest items therefore adds a new facet for understanding attitudes towards the death and the body in pagan Anglo-Saxon society.
Dr Williams, who arrived at Chester University recently, is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
He teaches across all levels of the University’s Archaeology programmes, including a module entitled Death and Burial, which explores beliefs and practices surround death and commemoration from prehistory to the present day.