Around this time last year, at the delightfully named Trumpington, just outside Cambridge, archaeologists discovered the burial of a 16 year-old Saxon girl who lived and died in the second half of the 7th century AD. This was a time when Christianity was taking hold in this region of England and the girl seemed to be at the heart of it.
Excavators immediately knew there was something special about the grave since the girl was laid to rest on a bed – a wooden frame supporting a straw mattress and held together with metal brackets. This type of burial (called, with great imagination, a ‘bed burial’) occurs only in a few other places and seems to cluster around the 7th century. All appear to have held women.
Laying the deceased on a bed may be an allusion to death being a form of sleep and it is interesting that the Old English word ‘leger’ (which gives us our modern word ‘lair’), was used in early literature to refer to both beds and graves. The arrangement of the bed in the grave may also hark back to ship burials, the most famous being at Sutton Hoo, where chiefs were laid in a chamber aboard a ship. These ship burials may incorporate even earlier beliefs about a ship taking the dead to the otherworld – and there is plenty of evidence for this in rock art from the Bronze Age onwards – but nothing in the Norse literature suggests that the belief was current at the time. Maybe a bed burial was a later equivalent of a ship burial, although the two women buried in a ship at Oseberg in Norway cautions that we should not assume a straight divide along gender lines.
Moreover, the ship burials were decidedly pagan, whereas many of the bed burials, including Trumpington, contained Christian imagery. In particular, the Trumpington girl wore a pectoral cross – a beautiful garnet-inlayed piece of jewellery made from solid gold – that marked her out as truly extraordinary. Such crosses are so rare that only five other examples are known, one from the grave of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. It raised speculation as to whether the girl was of royal blood – possibly a princess – and whether she could have been an abbess of one of the new monastic orders that catered specifically for women. Her young age may have been offset by royal connection.
Despite all the finery, there is another aspect of the burial that is less obvious and tells a richer story of life in these times. In addition to wearing the cross, the girl also had more typically pre-Christian Pagan items such as an iron knife, a chatelaine – which is a chain that hung from the waist – and some glass beads. Granted, it does not look much, but is possibly the equivalent of an abbess wearing a pentagram today. Clearly, neither the girl (assuming they were her usual clothes and accoutrements) nor those who buried her (who may have chosen the outfit she wore for her final journey) minded that the imagery shifted between Pagan and Christian.
In fact, Christianity might have been adopted by the Saxons, not because of its apparent message of self-sacrifice and care of the poor, but because of its presumed ability to win wars. An inscription with the Staffordshire hoard calls upon God to scatter his enemies and this is what people probably wanted first and foremost – a battling, champion God. This was a time when stories such as Beowulf were told around the evening fire and in the ‘Dream of the Rood’ Christ himself becomes a warrior (as does Judith, showing that Saxon women had pluck). It would not have been lost on people either that Christ, like the great Germanic God Odin, hung on a tree and descended the lowerworld for knowledge. Odin doubled for Christ just as Loki doubled for the Devil.
Although Saxon imagery became more Christian over time (albeit, until the coming of the Normans, churches were decorated with protective animals such as dragons), the 7th century was an age when traditions mingled. Odin set off to war alongside Christ, graves referenced the sleep and journey of death, and a young girl could wear the cross of a Christian abbess and the trappings of a Pagan princess. It is a fascinating time and perhaps, for a fleeting few decades, we can gain a glimpse of a more tolerant attitude towards religious affiliation that seems all but lost to us today.
The illustration shows a replica Anglo-Saxon bed burial from Kirkleatham Museum (Prioryman).