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Chapter 6: The people of the cremation cemetery

By Richard Gurnham

A rather impoverished group?

It is difficult to know what to make of the number of grave goods found with the cremation urns at South Elkington; the quantity was relatively small and this might mean that the Anglo Saxon settlers in this area were a rather impoverished group. Anglo- Saxon urns usually contain two types of finds: grave goods which were on the body when it was burned and graveside offerings, which were placed in the urn by the mourners, after the cremation. Brooches, beads, sleeve clasps and counters were always burnt, but toilet implements, tweezers, shears and razors, were never burnt. At South Elkington, very few of the urns were buried with graveside offerings, and the proportion of urns containing grave goods – just one in five – was unusually low. The paucity of graveside offerings may reflect a different burial rite, but the lack of grave goods could also suggest that this was a community with relatively few wealthy members. By contrast, approximately two thirds of the urns found at both Cleatham and Elsham contained grave goods; a similar proportion was recorded at the cremation cemetery at Spong Hill in Norfolk, and almost sixty per cent of the urns found at Millgate, near Newark, contained grave goods. However, no grave goods at all were found at West Keal, and it is unlikely that this was entirely a consequence of the poverty of the settlers in that area.

It is possible that some items were overlooked during the excavations at South Elkington and West Keal. No comb fragments were found, for instance, although these are common at other sites. But it is unlikely that this is the main reason for the lack of grave goods. Some easily recognised objects like burnt glass beads were also less common. Whereas almost a third of all Cleatham urns contained glass beads, at South Elkington less than one in twelve did. Historians and archaeologists have generally been reluctant to assume that this necessarily indicates poverty, as even a lack of grave goods could be accounted for by different burial rites and by different means being chosen to display wealth. On the other hand, it is possible that J. N. L. Myres was right in his initial assessment, in 1952, when very few other cremation cemeteries had yet been excavated. He wrote:
‘… the Elkington folk may have remained from first to last a poor, backward and rather unenterprising community…. The paucity of small objects deposited with the burnt bones in the urns is in remarkable contrast with the numbers of brooches, toilet sets and so on from the cremations at Lackford, or even the less spectacular furnishings at Caistor-by-Norwich. Even in the earlier urns at Elkington, objects even of the poorest quality are extremely rare’.

He concluded that this poverty was probably a reflection of the relatively isolated nature of the community, rather cut off and distant from developments further inland. [1]

None of the contents of the urns suggested that the person cremated belonged to a wealthy family of high social status. But such people would, by definition, represent only a small proportion of the community, and it is quite possible that their urns still lie undisturbed under the soil on Acthorpe Top. We must not forget that the archaeologists believed that they had only excavated about a quarter of the site, and the excavation has never been completed. Alternatively, the urns of the elite class may have been found but they may have found other ways to display their rank and wealth. It is also quite possible that from quite an early date – even before the end of the fifth century – some members of the local aristocracy may have been choosing inhumation rather than cremation for themselves and their families. [2]

Some of the cremation urns found at the South Elkington cemetery

Fig.6.1: Some of the cremation urns found at the South Elkington cemetery and now in Louth Museum. (Photograph courtesy of Louth Museum)

It is probable, however, that the poorest in the community are represented by many of the urns which contained no grave goods at all, and that the urns that did contain some grave goods or funeral offerings do give us at least a partial glimpse of the possessions of the ‘not-so-poor’. At least twelve urns contained glass beads, although in most cases only individual beads rather than a full necklace; at least four urns contained parts of a bronze brooch and two others contained pieces of ‘fused bronze’ which might also have been brooches; and four urns also contained pieces of iron which were identified as probably being from knives. Only about six or seven urns contained unburnt funeral offerings. The only toiletries found were three tweezers and possibly one or two shears. Two of the tweezers were iron but one was bronze, of good quality and of Roman origin. Shears, tweezers and combs are very common items in Anglo- Saxon cemeteries and clearly indicate the importance of personal grooming and personal appearance, at least among the better-off. Perhaps we can imagine not only much time being spent in this life shaving, plucking and combing, but also an expectation that this would also be important in the next life as well. The Roman tweezers may simply have been found by a settler family, but they might also have been brought into the family through marriage with a member of a native British family, for whom the tweezers could have been a family heirloom. [3]

Another item frequently found in cremation urns are the burnt remains of bone gaming counters, and this was the case at South Elkington as well. Two urns were found containing bone counters, one with just the one counter but the other with seventeen pieces of burnt counter, which it was believed represented at least fourteen or fifteen complete counters. A smooth pebble was also found with the counters, which might have been used as another counter or at least as part of the same board game. Two other bone items found were a bead and a seven inch length of bone – perhaps a knife – with ring and dot decoration. [4]

In many similar cemeteries archaeologists have also found some of the implements associated with weaving, such as spindle whorls but these were not found at South Elkington, although we can be confident that spinning and weaving wool was an important domestic occupation. Many households may also have made their own pots. Myres’ examination of the cremation urns convinced him that most had probably been made by the separate households themselves:
‘Apart from one or two not altogether convincing cases there are no instances in this cemetery even of two stamped pots being attributable to one potter, certainly nothing remotely resembling evidence for a specialized industry.’ [5]

He saw this as more evidence of the poverty and backwardness of the area for this was not the case in any of the other larger cremation cemeteries known of at this time. It is likely, however, that some pots were not made locally. It is now believed that some of the cremation pots found at South Elkington, and at other cemeteries in Lindsey, had been transported over a considerable distance and were the work of specialized potteries whose products were traded over a wide area. One of the first such ‘regional potters’ to be identified was a potter working at Sancton, near Market Weighton in the East Riding of Yorkshire (then in the kingdom of Deira) whose work appears among the pots found both at South Elkington and at Cleatham. [6]

The Early Anglo-Saxon settlement area focused on the South Elkington cemetery would appear to have consisted of numerous very small and largely self-sufficient settlements. It would seem that throughout the many decades when the cremation cemetery was in use, no settlement area, including Louth, was ever large enough to attract a specialist potter. We can imagine that everything that could possibly be made in the household was made in the household; not only pottery, but also woollen clothing, bread and beer, simple wooden implements, and also the mud, timber and straw house itself which the family lived in.

Metallurgical items such as bronze brooches, however, did require specialist craftsmanship. These were items worn by women, who usually wore two, one on each shoulder to fasten their full length dress. Unfortunately, the few found in the South Elkington urns were, at best, in a fragmentary condition. The remains of at least two cruciform brooches were found, but one consisted only of the bottom half of the brooch – a small, early type which was characteristic of the earliest settlement period – and the other comprised only the coiled spring which held the pin in place. [7]

Before leaving the evidence of the cremation cemetery, there is one other issue which it raises which needs mentioning. When Graham Webster and his team began to excavate the site they immediately found that the cremation urns were, in Graham Webster’s words, ‘concentrated in a limited area, with the result that in many cases three or four vessels were jammed into one another’. This might seem rather strange. It could seem to us somewhat disrespectful of the dead, as if the mourners burying the urns of the recently deceased were deliberately smashing the urns already buried, and, on a practical note, it seems so unnecessary, as there was no shortage of space, and the ground was not needed for cultivation. Not much was made of this at the time and it remained one of those oddities which can often arise when trying to understand people of a very different civilization who lived and died 1,500 years ago. However, in 1984, when Kevin Leahy began the excavation of the Cleatham cremation cemetery, which probably also dates from the late fifth century, he and his team also found that many of the later urns had been driven down into the earlier ones, badly damaging them. This would clearly seem to be a deliberate policy, perhaps reflecting a long-established tradition among the Angles and Anglo-Frisian people of this period. Leahy suggests that, far from showing disrespect for the dead, the crushing of one pot onto another was probably a sign that the lower urns contained the remains of family members of the mourners and of the recently deceased, and the mourners were therefore trying to re-unite their deceased family members. Far from showing disrespect, therefore, they were perhaps asserting their belief in the importance of family links, both in this life and the next. It is an attractive suggestion and I cannot think of a better one. [8]

Some other aspects of life in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Work carried out in the last thirty years or so on the bone fragments which can be extracted from some cremation cemeteries, together with analysis of skeletal remains from a number of inhumation cemeteries, has thrown much valuable light on some aspects of the life of the first Germanic settlers and those who came after them. Although such work has not been carried out on the South Elkington finds, the information gained from other sites helps us build up a picture of the life of the early settlers here too.

Analysis of skeletons found at inhumation graves at Elsham, for instance, has made it possible to calculate the age at death in the case of over five hundred burials. The early years of adulthood was a dangerous time and nearly a fifth of all deaths after infancy were of those aged 19 to 24, but just over half (51%) died between 25 and 35. However, only a small minority (12.3%) lived beyond 35. Age measurements carried out on skeletal remains found at Cleatham reveal an even grimmer picture, for here well over half the adult population (about 57%) appear to have died between 18 and 25. Age at death may have been similar in the area served by the South Elkington cemetery but if the proportion of poor peasants was higher here than at Cleatham or Elsham, as – we have seen – might have been the case, then we might expect even more to have died while still in their early twenties or younger. However, we have to be quite cautious about this. At Castledyke inhumation cemetery, near Barton on Humber, the early twenties was a less dangerous age and a surprisingly large number (31% of women and 34% of men) lived to be 45 or older. Infant mortality was very high, however, and almost a quarter of all deaths at Castledyke were of infants and children under fourteen. [9]

The Castledyke skeletons also suggested that the early Anglo Saxon population was of similar height to that of the British population in the 1950s: 1.72m for men and 1.6m for women. This is higher than might have been expected and it would appear that the Castledyke folk were sufficiently well fed to allow them to achieve almost their full potential height. At least one man was over six feet tall (1.89m) and one woman almost as high (1.81m). At Cleatham the average heights for both men and women were even a little higher.

Less surprisingly, an examination of the skeletons at both sites revealed a fairly high incidence of degenerative joint diseases, especially at Cleatham, where twenty-one of the sixty skeletons (35%) were affected, the great majority being male. This will have been the result of constant heavy manual work and there is every reason to believe that, had it been possible to carry out a similar investigation in the Louth area, the results would have been similar. For the poor peasant farmer, life from an early age would have meant much heavy, back-breaking labour. Even if only a small amount of new land was brought into cultivation by the newcomers, this would probably have required much tree felling, the digging out of tree roots, and heavy ploughing. Also, signs of spinal damage were found in both men and women; in the lower back, in the lumbar region, in men, probably owing to much heavy lifting; and mainly in the upper back in women. Kevin Leahy suggests that the latter was probably a consequence of the women spending many hours with their arms raised while spinning and weaving. [10]

The siting of the cemetery

Most of the large cremation cemeteries, including South Elkington, were placed on the top of hills, with fine views over the surrounding countryside but a little apart from the nearest settlements. This may reflect Anglo-Saxon beliefs about the dead and the afterlife. There was probably an expectation that the spirits of the ancestors would in some way protect and look after the living, while fear of the power of the dead may also have dictated that they should be placed at some distance from the living. But there were also practical reasons for the sites chosen. On Acthorpe Top, we have seen, the ground was unworkable hard clay, and therefore good arable land was not being taken, and its elevated position may also have been useful for defensive purposes. For the first settlers, who built the original cemetery, and who were probably mercenary warriors hired to defend the coast, this was an important consideration. It meant that anyone up here would have a good view of the coast and be able to send warning of the pirates and sea raiders whom these first settlers may have been employed to confront and repel. At West Keal, where the cemetery is also to be found on top of a hill, with a commanding view of the Witham valley to the south, the names of two nearby settlements, Toynton St Peter and Toynton All Saints, can be interpreted as ‘the estate associated with the look-out hill’. The Witham valley was one of the major entry points for both Lindsey and Lincoln and the first Anglo-Saxon settlers here were also probably hired mercenaries. [11]

The location of the South Elkington cemetery on Acthorpe Top was also conveniently close to the first settler communities at Yarburgh and Covenham and within a day’s return journey (even in the short daylight hours of winter) for the earliest settlers further away at Haugham to the south and at Wykeham to the west. Its reasonably central and accessible position was also helped, of course, by being so close to the north-south Barton Street as well. Another factor influencing the choice of site, however, may have been the numinous nature of the river valley just below the hill, where the rushing waters of a number of streams met to form the river which these first Anglo-Saxon settlers called ‘the loud one’ or the ‘hlud’, and beside which the settlement of Louth would later grow. This was probably already a special and sacred place and therefore this hill would be seen as a most suitable place on which to build the cemetery and its accompanying cremation pyres.

The area served by the cemetery

The Angles, Frisians and Anglo-Frisians who built the South Elkington cemetery occupied a distinct area of eastern Lindsey, dictated largely by distance from the cemetery. The two nearest large pagan cremation cemeteries, at West Keal and Elsham, were about seventeen and nineteen miles away, respectively, and we can therefore assume that the great majority of cremations at South Elkington would have been of settlers who were living within about eight or nine miles of the cemetery; that is, closer to South Elkington than to West Keal or Elsham. A day’s return journey, leaving sufficient time for the ceremony on the hill, the cremation, the collection of the remains and the burial of the urn meant that it was not possible to live more than about nine miles away.

For some of the early settlers living on the edge of the South Elkington cemetery’s area – perhaps eight or nine miles away - it would, however, have been more convenient to establish their own cemeteries, and there is some evidence that this happened. At least two – and possibly three - small cremation cemeteries are known of within a few miles of Louth, although none have yet been excavated. In 1828 ‘more than 20 urns’ were found along the line of a round barrow at Wold Newton, one of which survives. This little cemetery is about nine miles from Louth and would have been on the northern edge of the South Elkington cemetery’s area, and, interestingly, also lies close to the Barton Street. A little further north, and again close to the Barton Street, a single cremation has also been found at Great Limber; and about eight miles to the south-west of the South Elkington cemetery another small cremation cemetery may have been built near Donington-on-Bain, also at the edge of the area served by the larger cemetery. It was reported in the nineteenth century that a field a mile and a half north-east of the village ‘frequently turned up’ cremation urns and partially burnt human and animal bone during ploughing. Although these reports have not been verified, this certainly sounds like a small early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery, which, like that at Wold Newton, presumably served the small communities of early Germanic settlers living close by. [12]

We also know that not all the early settler families chose to cremate their dead, and preferred instead to adopt the burial rite of the native British, inhumation. But for most of the sixth century, cremation probably remained the burial rite of the great majority, and the South Elkington cemetery probably therefore remained at the heart of the Louth-area settler community for over a hundred years, probably until at least the last decades of the sixth century and possibly into the early seventh century as well, until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 620s.

A social and political function

For these first few generations of Germanic settlers, the funeral services and rituals performed at the South Elkington cemetery would have played an important role in instilling and maintaining a sense of clan loyalty and unity. In some cases the cremations may have taken place where the deceased had died, and their ashes collected in an urn and carried to the cemetery for burial. Usually, however, those who died in the territory served by the cemetery would have been carried by their friends and relatives to the funeral pyre on top of Acthorpe hill, no doubt often in procession. The cremations and the burial of the urns would have frequently been accompanied by feasting and drinking and no doubt some appropriate words would also be said about the deceased. The funerals would therefore have been not only important religious occasions but also opportunities to cement traditional loyalties and group cohesion. Funerals have always been, and still are, important social occasions, opportunities for old friends and relatives to renew bonds of friendship and kinship, and this would certainly have been the case for the first Anglo-Saxon settlers of the fifth and sixth centuries, especially as they were very probably for many years a minority in the area and their religion and language at first alien to their British hosts.


  1. Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey, pp. 44-8: Myers, p. 64.
  2. Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey, p. 57.
  3. Webster, p. 29.
  4. Ibid., pp. 29, 59.
  5. Myers, p. 63.
  6. Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey, pp. 50-2.
  7. Webster, pp. 29, 59.
  8. Ibid., p. 26; Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey, pp. 38-40.
  9. Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey, pp. 78-9.
  10. Ibid. pp. 79-80.
  11. Green, ‘The British Kingdom of Lindsey’, p. 21, fn 120, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 56, (2008).
  12. Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey, pp. 40-1; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 177, 275.

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© Richard Gurnham 2018

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