Many cemeteries in this region with fascinating finds were excavated prior to modern archaeology considerably challenging efforts to reconstruct burial assemblages (a problem we have discussed previously and will return to in a later chapter discussing the reconstruction of an assemblage from Bidford-on-Avon) but one cemetery in particular was meticulously excavated in the mid 1980s by some of the UK’s leading early medieval specialists, and after a lengthy delay its archaeology was analysed and finally published in 2009. The themes which emerged from the analysis of the ‘Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon Community’ cemetery at Wasperton challenged many of the existing assumptions and entrenched debates about the arrival of the ’Anglo-Saxons’, changing burial practices, expression of identity, and the emergence of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms (Carver et. al., 2009) in ways that have perhaps still not fully had chance to work through.
The archaeology here was, for an early medieval cemetery, almost uniquely long-lived and continuous, diverse, and did not fit with any particular simplistic model of settlement or change. Argued to ‘raise more questions than it answers’ the cemetery at Wasperton represents a local community, in the heart of what is now England – always diverse, highly networked with other regions, continually renegotiating its identity, and adapting or responding to outside change.
Seeking to raise awareness of this fascinating archaeology, here we present and discuss work led by Thegns of Mercia member and historic costume expert Lindsey Catlin to reconstruct the appearance of one individual from this late antique Anglo-British community based on remains from one of 242 burials in the Wasperton cemetery.
A fortified Iron Age homestead had been identified to the north, and the system of field enclosures yielded substantial Romano-British material, evidencing that this was an intense area of activity, farming and settlement throughout the centuries prior to the nominal ‘Anglo-Saxon’ period.
This phase was followed by a series of cremation burials – traditionally regarded as indicative of early ‘Anglian’ cultural practice – sited in the western half of the enclosure, in distinctly ‘Anglo-Saxon’ pottery urns, and mostly dateable to the late 5th to early 6th century. Exceptions are Cremation 20 – remains of a child carbon-dated (95% probability) to 220-430 CE (peak likelihood 350 CE) and Cremation 36 of an adult carbon dated (95% probability) to 250-430 (peak likelihood around 400 CE). The latter contained a fragment of a very early, scroll-patterned small equal-armed brooch compatible with this early date.
An unusual aspect of these was a series of post-holes – the only ones within the cemetery, which in some cases may have been for a fence, but in many cases were dotted near the cremations and may have supported small structures over the cremations, or acted as grave-markers. As well as these posts two ‘sunken feature buildings’ were identified in the south-west, one falling within the cemetery itself, which was ‘spatially respected’ by graves throughout all phases.
A few inhumations did continue in some parts of the cemetery, however, and into the 6th century these overtook cremation, and began increasingly to contain grave goods of a character mostly typical of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, with masculine assemblages including shields and spears, feminine assemblages including brooches and beads, and both often containing objects associated with feasting, such as stave-bound buckets and pottery vessels.
In the late 6th century burials occurred in a series of low burial mounds which surround the cemetery though it’s unclear if these were reusing prehistoric mounds, or were freshly constructed. They do, however, fit with a trend well established elsewhere, of a shift towards more ‘monumental’ burials for important individuals: female burials among these contained the most impressive sets of grave-goods.
Over all then, Wasperton is a cemetery which defies simple characterisation. Among the western-most excavated early medieval cemeteries to express nominally ‘early Anglo-Saxon’ burial rites, it is far from wholly ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in character, with a continuum of burials from the Roman period through to the 7th century, and a wide range of burial rites expressed. Such diversity may partly represent the arrival of waves of newcomers (Hills, 2017) but also adaptation and change of a community with heritage stretching back to the Iron Age who first became ‘Romanised’ and then ‘Anglo-Saxonised’ over time (Hamerow, 2009). It has been argued that, rather than persisting ‘otherness’, the diversity of coexisting burial rites at Wasperton represents a process of ‘inclusion’ (Harland, 2017) perhaps rooted in persistence of the necessarily cosmopolitan ideology of outer late-Roman provinces. The isotopic evidence suggests the community was quite varied in the late Roman period, apparently and surprisingly integrating ‘Germanic’ elements as far back as the 4th century (Carver, 2009) and continuing to adapt to changing practices, fashions and identity, which comes into clearer focus thanks to grave-goods from the 6th century burials. These were overall fairly typical, in terms of wealth expression, for a cemetery of this size, and (contrasting with other burial sites elsewhere in the valley) lacked signature items representing supra-local elites (with a lower-than-average rate of weapon-burial; Tompkins, 2017) suggesting this place only served a local , albeit well-connected community. Although the precise dating methodology has been criticised (Scull, 2009) over all these graves show us how fashions arriving from different regions intermingled with local, sometimes persisting Romano-British craft culture. We might interpret their burial assemblages / dress, therefore, as visually expressing a complex and fluid ‘Anglo-British’ identity with a distinctive local flair.
To explore and bring to life some of the themes emerging from this unusual but important archaeology, we embarked on a project to reconstruct the costume (at burial) of one specific woman who lived in the mid to late 6th century and was buried at Wasperton in what has been labelled Inhumation 24.
The Lady from Wasperton G24
Limited skeletal remains from inhumation 24 included a skull stain at the northwest corner, a leg bone to the east, and 20 tooth crowns which allowed for isotopic analysis. From examination of the bones and teeth it was determined that this individual was an adult, but with little sign of age-related pathology was deemed to have been relatively young at death, and both oxygen and strontium isotope analysis suggested she had grown up locally. It was not possible to identify osteological sex from the skeletal remains, but the assemblage of dress items / grave goods was feminine in nature so we’ve taken to calling this individual our ‘Woman from Wasperton’.
With the exception of a quite elaborate ~20cm diameter pot with stamped decoration, placed near the head, grave-goods from inhumation 24 were confined to dress items broadly consistent with nominally ‘Anglo-Saxon’ 6th century women's furnished burials, of quite high status, but importantly with substantial textile adhesions which provided valuable details regarding the clothing she was buried in, with some particularly unusual aspects.
The selection of grave goods, particularly the elaborate third brooch (see later) single this individual out within the cemetery as someone of high status, though as the cemetery contains a wide variety of burial practices, we cannot assume she was more wealthy or important than all those buried with other rites.
A pair of gilded cast copper-alloy ‘saucer brooches’ with iron pins were found in typical positions, presumably having been worn on each shoulder. Pairs of small brooches are all but ubiquitous in undisturbed furnished ‘Anglo-Saxon’ 5-6th century burials owing to being essential to hold together the prevalent dress style of the period – a tubular gown or ‘peplos-style dress’ (Walton-Rogers, 2007; henceforth, ‘peplos’) and come in a wide variety of different types which may, to some extent, reflect cultural affiliations but also fashion trends.
Trailing down from the location of these brooches and presumably originally strung between them were an array of 63 amber beads, smoothed and polished, but of irregular shapes, including some discoid, some barrel-shaped, and some approximately sub-cubical. Although many familiar with early Anglo-Saxon burial archaeology will be aware of the fabulous coloured glass, and sometimes elaborately patterned beads often found in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ women's burials produced by lampwork, amber is often overlooked, yet appears to have been immensely popular for bead-swags in the Avon Valley. Such amber could be sourced more locally, but it occurred in such abundance in these graves that it seems likely much of it came from the Baltic, demonstrating the trade connections of this inland location. Among them was a single spherical bead of clear quartz – likely the heavy centrepiece of this necklace, which must have been a considerable challenge to drill.
The Great Square-Headed Brooch
The most eye-catching item from this burial, however, singled out as one of the cemetery’s ‘star finds’ was a large, gold-plated cast copper alloy ‘great square headed brooch’ – 15cm long – and ornamented with Salin Style I animal art. Elaborate ‘third brooches’ occur in a minority of furnished womens graves, usually found in positions suggesting they were worn centrally on the chest (Walton-Rogers 2007, Owen-Crocker 2004) and as their inclusion in a grave represented a significant sacrifice of wealth during the burial rite (as such items could otherwise be kept in use) their occurrence is taken to be an indicator that the grave occupant was an individual of high status. Great Square Headed brooches also occur in Scandinavia, and have a widespread distribution across lowland Britain, but Portable Antiquities Scheme data suggests they were most common in traditionally termed ‘Anglian’ regions including, particularly, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.
Four burials at Wasperton contained great-square headed brooches. The example from Inhumation 24 is uncommonly large, though another, from inhumation 43 and found damaged, may have been even larger. Typically, much of the decoration is given over to delineation / concentric borders which frame various fields, which are then infilled mostly with Salin-Style-I ‘animal-salad’ (Haseloff, 1974) – a superficially chaotic jumble of beast-heads, arms, claws, wings, and helmeted human faces combining in abstract designs, where aspects of 3D beasts are represented simultaneously from multiple perspectives rendered in 2D (Martin, 2020; Kristoffersen, & Pedersen, 2020); ‘magic eye’ puzzle which rewards intensity of looking. Yet, again not unusually, there are some motifs which harken back to earlier styles – tiny running-spirals in crisply defined square cartouches which recall Nydam and Quoit-Brooch styles of the 5th century and earlier. And despite being distinct and regarded as having a distinct origin from the saucer and button-brooch types the discoid side-lobes, and the way they are decorated, could in a sense be viewed as being in discourse with them.
The juxtaposition of shoulder brooches of a style with nominally ‘Saxon’ affinities together with a great-brooch with ‘Anglian’ or Scandinavian affinities might sound remarkable, but among high status women's burials from the 6th century this combination is quite frequently seen throughout the middle zone of lowland Britain. We cannot infer from this that these women were themselves of mixed ethnicity or heritage, as material finds cannot be used to trace ethnic identity. It does, however, seem reasonable to infer that these eclectic sets were chosen as a conspicuous expression of an individual, family, or community’s importance, in having widespread connections / contacts in different regions, and thus an ability to acquire the best distinctive jewellery which each had to offer.
It is worth noting that the great square-headed brooch from G24, though with mostly well-preserved gilding, showed heavy wear, particularly at the top corners of the headplate, suggesting this item had been worn regularly for many years before it was buried, appeared to be of a subtype more associated with the earlier 6th century, and may therefore have been an heirloom. The brooches offer the best hope of dating this particular burial, and it appears that the saucer brooches (dated by the Wasperton archaeologists to the latter half of the 6th century) were younger than the great square-headed brooch, though precisely dating either is fraught with difficulty. The highly technical Hines, Bayliss et. al. (2013) attempt at a unified typochronology and seriation of early Anglo-Saxon grave goods using a Bayesian statistical approach assigned all types of square-headed brooches, and all saucer brooches to phase AS-FB (510-585 CE, 95% probability, or or 525-575, 68% probability) which is rather unhelpfully broad. Nevertheless, the combination suggests that the woman in inhumation 24 died at some time in the second half of the 6th century (Carver et. al. 2009).
Great square-headed brooches vary quite widely in size and quality, but, somewhat in contrast to more ‘sculptural’ cruciform brooches their design provides large flat surfaces, which on the front are intricately decorated, and on the back, provide particularly broad areas for contact with the fabrics onto which they were pinned, which are sometimes therefore preserved (Walton-Rogers, 2007).
The great-square headed brooch preserved two layers of particularly unusual textiles which represent two different garments worn by the occupant (Carver et. al. 2009).
The uppermost layer on the back of the brooch, representing the innermost garment worn by the individual, was a fine 2/2 ZZ diamond twill – a visually distinctive luxury weave seen quite commonly among textile remains from early Anglo-Saxon graves and a quintessential product of the ‘Germanic’ warp-weighted loom (Walton-Rogers, 2007). Unusually though, this was not wool but plant-fibre (most likely flax linen). While linen is also occasionally seen among textile remains from Anglo-Saxon graves, representing expensive fabrics, it is typically of ‘plain’ (aka. tabby) weave – the same weave pattern most often used for linens today. Twill weaves – and particularly, patterned twills such as diamond/lozenge – are rarely seen executed with linen, and suggest this was an especially expensive, luxurious fabric produced by a very skilled weaver. It’s likely that this fine patterned linen fabric was the flowing peplos dress which had been pinned by the saucer brooches (Carver et. al. 2009). A narrow band of 4-hole tabletweave – 12 warp cords wide, was also found in this layer and may have been the selvedge or trim of that dress, though was not well preserved enough for any pattern to be discernible: no dyes were identified. Although a patterned twill linen peplos may seem rather strange, compared to what we are accustomed to seeing from other Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, inhumation 24 was one of at least six womens burials at Wasperton to contain traces of dresses made of flax/hemp 2/2 twill (inhumations 13, 24, 43, 88, 111 and 167) of which at least three were diamond twills (Carver et al. 2009). It therefore seems that not only did the weavers which supplied this community unusually favour producing twill-woven (rather than tabby-woven) linen, but there may have been a particular local fashion for flowing peplos-dresses of fine linen rather than the more typical wool.
Underneath the textile remains already described on the back of the brooch, and representing the outer garment, was another ZZ 2/2 twill, but this time un-patterned, and of wool. Wool 2/2 twills are among the most commonly found early Anglo-Saxon textiles (Walton-Rogers, 2007) but this particular example was singled out for having a soft-finished / napped / tasselled surface, resulting from a finishing process after weaving which distressed and ‘fuzzed’ or ‘felted’ the surface of the fabric (Carver et. al. 2009). This would have made the garment feel thicker, warmer, and more resistant to wind, though at the expense of added visual ‘roughness’ which would stand in strong contrast to the very smooth and precise patterns of the diamond twill dress beneath. This is rarely seen in Anglo-Saxon textiles and Penelope Walton Rogers (2007) has suggested that, along with unusual 2/1 twills seen in other graves at Wasperton, the soft-finishing process represented by this garment is an indicator of continuity of Romano-British textile working culture among this community. Pinned by the heavy great brooch sitting centrally on the chest, this textile is likely to have been a warm cloak that was worn over the dress. Although no dyes were identified, the wool cloak is much more likely to have been dyed than the linen, with plant-fibre textiles from early Anglo-Saxon graves almost never yielding dye traces.
Reconstructing the Costume
Additional details could be carved or pressed into this negative mould before baking them, and pouring molten bronze in. An alternative approach might use wax as the initial modelling material, around which a clay mould was formed, to receive either the bronze, or possibly molten lead to produce a secondary master to which further detail could be added, and from which another mould could be made which would then be used for casting with bronze (Martin, 2015).
These models were handed to specialist bronze-caster Andrew Mason who produced negative moulds from them, adding pin-hinges and retaining hooks to the backs, and ultimately cast them in bronze using his own carefully honed process.
Meanwhile Lindsey began work on the clothing and beads. Nuggets of Baltic amber of various suitable sizes were acquired and laboriously hand-shaped with abrasives to match the 63 amber beads from the burial in terms of size and shape, and carefully drilled.
The dress was constructed from a wide rectangle of fine, white diamond twill linen. Linen remains from early Anglo-Saxon burials almost never yield dye traces and this was no exception. Although linen was likely very often used in its natural greyish brown / taupe colour, it could be bleached to a range of pale colours up to and including white, by heating with a dilute alkali such as wood-ash and then exposing it to the sun; a process described by Pliny the Elder as having been practised in Classical Era Britain and Gaul. Penelope Walton Rogers (2007) notes that many of the ZZ linen twills she has encountered from early Anglo-Saxon burials appeared to have been bleached white, and so Lindsey chose to represent this with the reconstruction of the dress from Wasperton g24. In the grubby environment of early medieval settlements bright white garments would have been at least as eye-catching as any colourfully dyed clothing, and the effort required to keep such garments clean would’ve meant their appearance likely served as a strong advertisement of social status. The flexibility of diamond twill linen of this thread count lends itself to flowing draping, so Lindsey chose to construct the peplos relatively wide – approx. elbow-to-elbow in width, which would gather into delicate pleats when belted.
As the early Anglo-Saxon peplos-style dress is inferred from adhesions on metal dress items we do not have direct archaeological evidence of the sides of the garment. However based on preserved tubular garments from the 'Germanic' Iron Age it seems likely that the dress was sewn into a complete tube. Lindsey chose to sew the garment with a backstitch, then fell the edges to prevent fraying. This technique is evidenced by textile remains from Sutton Hoo Mound 5 (run-and-fell seam on linen), 10th century linen remains from York, and remains of a (related) rolled-hem from Mucking grave 964.
As only a single layer was found, from the dress, on the back of the brooch, it’s likely that the dress was worn without a fold-down flap, though such a flap could be added to the dress simply by re-pinning it, bringing the hemline higher on the leg, but with no material change to the garment itself.
To represent the tabletweave found associated with the fine plant-fibre diamond twill dress, of unknown fibre but noted to be ‘coarser’ than the plant-fibre textile beneath it, we chose to use a fine 20/2 NM wool which had been dyed by Æd with home-grown woad. An initial attempt was made to tablet weave this precisely as described in the archaeological report, with all 12 tablets (each threaded with four threads) S-threaded to produce cables all twisting in the same direction (Carver et. al. 2009), but this was found to cause an over-all twist in the weave to quickly build up, which would have made continued weaving impossible, with the product contorting upon itself and becoming wholly unusable.
Other than a single leg-bone no finds or remains were found in this grave to the east, i.e. lower on the body than the lower chest, likely due to partial disturbance of the grave, and no belt buckle was recovered (Carver et. al. 2009). It is possible that the woman in inhumation 24 had a wholly tied sash in place of a belt, or a belt with an organic buckle leaving no trace, but it is at least equally plausible that remains of a more typical belt have been obliterated by disturbance. For this reason, we chose to present this impression with a simple belt of veg-tan leather with a simple iron loop buckle similar to those from feminine burials g80 and 81. Although no direct evidence of it was found in this burial there is abundant evidence from other womens burials, including at Wasperton, that women commonly wore a sleeved gown of linen or fine wool beneath the peplos (Owen-Crocker, 2004) so Lindsey is shown below modelling the outfit with an under-dress of natural taupe / unbleached tabby-woven linen. Layered gowns and overdresses of broadly this design would ultimately replace the peplos entirely as the predominant outfit for women in lowland Britain during the late 6th and 7th centuries (Walton-Rogers, 2007).
The cloak was made from a piece of heavy 2/2 straight twill wool. Wool has a much greater affinity for dyes, increasing the likelihood of dye traces surviving for detection in archaeological remains (Walton-Rogers, 2007), but no dye traces were identified in this case. The wool from G.24 was also not mentioned as one of the wools showing natural pigmentation (ie. from a grey or brown sheep), but similar ZZ 2/2 twills from cemeteries at Snape (Suffolk) and Mucking (Essex) were dyed brown using tannin-based dyes, which are generally extremely difficult to distinguish from the tannins which naturally occur in soils (Walton Rogers, 2007) and tend to saturate textile remains in many contexts, so cases of tannin-dyeing might often be missed.
The completed impression was first assembled and unveiled to crowds at a special event themed around exploring the lives, stories and archaeology of Anglo-Saxon women - "Queens of the Gold Age" - at Sutton Hoo in August 2023.
The suite of jewellery – both brooches and beads demonstrate the trade and cultural connections of this region, mixing styles and making use of materials with diverse origins, and also demonstrate how visually impressive the personal artworks found in early Anglo-Saxon graves often were. This project has also provided an opportunity to gain insights about how these items functioned, or explaining features of their design. In particular, seeing richly gilt saucer brooches worn has emphasised how the defining feature of this historically popular brooch type – the raised rim – serves to cast shadows on the interior which move along with movement of the body, in a way which enhances contrast (and thus effective visual depth) and sparkle of the interior decoration. The deeply cut running-spiral design itself implies movement, and becomes far more visually impactful on a moving body, where shadows cast by the rim continually dance across the surface giving the impression of breaking waves. This is an insight which cannot be gained by viewing such objects in museum cases under static lighting.
Visually, the flat head and footplate with shallow decoration are highly reflective surfaces: the brooch thus catches the eye even at a great distance. Yet, while we might imagine that the folk who wore such suites of precious jewellery would wish to display all of it simultaneously on their person, it's clear that the wearing of the ‘third brooch’ – always centrally on the chest on a necessarily heavy cloak – would have hidden the elaborate shoulder brooches and beads beneath.
This is evidenced archaeologically by the presence of the same fabric that occurs on the back of the great brooch (ie. ‘the cloak’) on the front of the shoulder brooches in some graves. Toby Martin (2015) writing with regard to the larger cruciform brooches (functionally cognate with the great square headed brooch) suggests that early Anglo-Saxon dress and jewellery was partly designed to draw attention or accentuate certain parts of the body, but that the wearing of the cloak and large brooch both conceals, and shifts focus to a different part of the body.
The images presented here represent the appearance of just one individual who died and was buried a little over 1500 years ago in a long-used community cemetery in the Warwickshire Avon valley, in the heart of lowland Britain. Part of a phase where individuals were being buried with the quintessential 'early Anglo-Saxon' furnished burial rite, she was of local upbringing and heritage; her grave goods were at once typically 'Anglo-Saxon' yet juxtaposed items with different regional affinities if not origins, reflecting connectedness to other parts of lowland Britain - of either her directly, or her community. Her costume also reflected contemporary Anglo-Saxon fashions, with ancient origins, yet was put together with fine and somewhat unusual fabrics displaying continuity of Romano-British textile working practice and a peculiar, locally distinctive aesthetic perhaps seeking to emulate the aesthetics of an earlier age. Over all, she reflects the complexities of the cemetery as a whole, and of this community which lived at the intersection between multiple regional identities, between territory traditionally demarcated as 'British'/'Welsh' and 'Anglo-Saxon', between what would later become Wessex and Mercia, but also at the blurry intersection between antiquity and the medieval period.
Folk of the Avon Valley 3: Wasperton Warrior
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