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An incomplete early early-medieval (Anglo-Saxon, 500-600 AD) gilded copper-alloy zoomorphic plate bird brooch with garnet eye detail, missing its pin. This type of brooch was found in many medieval furnished graves across Kent and the Frankish world. But after 600 AD European burial rites transitioned to unfurnished churchyard burials, according to the latest study.	Source: Hampshire Cultural Trust

Big Data Study Reveals Rapid Transition in Medieval Burial Rites

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An English archaeologist has analyzed “big data” to make a slate of new observations about changing burial traditions in medieval Europe.

In business the term “big data” describes large, hard-to-manage volumes of data, that can be analyzed for insights leading to better decision making and strategic business maneuvers. In archaeology, the first major big data set was presented in a 2020 study published in the  Journal of Field Archaeology , when digital and data-driven projects revealed new insights about precolonial life in the South American Andes.

Now, the results of a new big data project have been published in the journal  Internet Archaeology  by Dr Emma Brownlee, a researcher at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and Fellow of Girton College, University of Cambridge. Having looked at big data gathered from 26,000 graves across medieval Europe the researcher revealed that beginning in the middle of the sixth century AD there was “a dramatic transformation” in how the people of western Europe buried their dead.

Model of a warrior's burial known as “Hamburg-Marmstorf Grave No. 216,” dating to circa 50 AD. At the upper edge are turf and the plough horizon. Below is the burial in a ceramic urn and beneath that the grave goods. This is a classic example of one kind of furnished burial. As the power of the church increased across Europe medieval burial rites transitioned to unfurnished burials (i.e., just the body in the casket with no grave goods). (Hamburg Archaeological Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Model of a warrior's burial known as “Hamburg-Marmstorf Grave No. 216,” dating to circa 50 AD. At the upper edge are turf and the plough horizon. Below is the burial in a ceramic urn and beneath that the grave goods. This is a classic example of one kind of furnished burial. As the power of the church increased across Europe medieval burial rites transitioned to unfurnished burials (i.e., just the body in the casket with no grave goods). (Hamburg Archaeological Museum /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Charting Changing European Burial Rites With Big Data

A February 2020 article in  Futurity discussed the possible “future” applications of big data within an archaeological context. Researchers will be able to get “a sweeping, big-picture view of the subjects they study on the ground,” the speculative article said. Now, only a year and a half later, Dr Brownlee has used big data to chart a distinct “transition” within the burial rites and associated traditions of medieval Europeans.

This transition was from burials including  grave goods , known as “furnished burials” to “unfurnished” burials with no grave goods at all. This change began in the middle of the 6th century and unfolded across Europe during the early eighth century. Eventually, unfurnished inhumation burial rites became widespread across Europe, according to the study.

The new study explains that the transition took place over a 150-year period, which is considered to be a rather rapid transition. The paper suggests this rapidity demonstrates “the interconnectedness” of  early medieval Europe .

In medieval Europe, roughly between the 6th and 8th centuries AD, burial rites transitioned from furnished burials (i.e., with grave goods) to unfurnished burials (where the body is the only thing in the casket). Unfurnished burials were also overwhelmingly associated with medieval churchyard burials like the one shown here. (Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe Stock)

In medieval Europe, roughly between the 6th and 8th centuries AD, burial rites transitioned from furnished burials (i.e., with grave goods) to unfurnished burials (where the body is the only thing in the casket). Unfurnished burials were also overwhelmingly associated with medieval churchyard burials like the one shown here. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez  / Adobe Stock)

Accounting For Layers Of Death Rite Complexities

Dr Brownlee wrote that the observed burial changes at this time were traditionally viewed as a simple trajectory from a variable, furnished burial rite, to a much more standardized shrouded burial in a  churchyard. However, “it’s a really complex picture, with a lot more variation,” the researchers said. Because there were so many changes in the applications of grave goods over time it “isn 't possible to come up with a simple narrative to explain why funerary rites look a certain way in different parts of Europe,”, Brownlee observed.

The complications arise because while there are definite  burial trends  from certain perspectives, there is also a “huge amount of variation within regions,” said Dr Brownlee.

An example of this is offered in burials in  Kent in England and contemporary interments in  northern France  where the practice of burying with grave goods didn’t decline throughout the seventh century and continued to be “richly furnished” until the end of the seventh century.

The burial traditions shared between early medieval cultures in Kent, England, and those across the English Channel in northern France, suggest the two were “culturally interconnected.” This is contrary to the settlements in the rest of England who maintained closer relationships with  southern Germanic cultures , according to the paper.

The ruins of England's Tynemouth Castle and its church priory full of medieval graves that were likely all unfurnished burials. (Photo_J / Adobe Stock)

The ruins of England's Tynemouth Castle and its church priory full of medieval graves that were likely all unfurnished burials. ( Photo_J / Adobe Stock)

The History Of Death Rites Is “Emotionally Charged”

While many regional trends, and trends based on identity, were identified in the new study, it concluded that every burial was “unique and personal to the families,” said Brownlee. Posthumous decisions including the inclusion, or not, of burial goods, the types of rituals, coffin shape and  burial locations  were all “very personal,” and post-death rites were greatly based on the “emotionally charged circumstances surrounding a death,” according to Dr Brownlee.

Dr Brownlee’s  big data study  successfully revealed that funerary rites in any given region were heavily influenced by the traditions in surrounding communities, which were in themselves influenced by the identity of the deceased.

However, Dr Brownlee admitted that even with the power of big data there was “no way” of demonstrating that a certain  combination of grave goods  indicates one regional tradition over another. That level of archaeological data is simply lost in time.

Dr Brownlee pushed big data to it extreme boundaries in this recent study, but this work will surely pave the way for many more big data studies in archaeology in the coming years.

Top image: An incomplete early early-medieval (Anglo-Saxon, 500-600 AD) gilded copper-alloy zoomorphic plate bird brooch with garnet eye detail, missing its pin. This type of brooch was found in many medieval furnished graves across Kent and the Frankish world. But after 600 AD European burial rites transitioned to unfurnished churchyard burials, according to the latest study. Source:  Hampshire Cultural Trust

By Ashley Cowie

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