Shedding light on Christianity in the Dark Ages

The Guardian has a really interesting story (“Cross and bed found in Anglo-Saxon grave shed new light on ‘dark ages’“) about how Cambridge archaeologists are thrilled by their recent discovery of a 7th century grave with body of young woman on a bed with an ornate gold cross:

The dead are often described as sleeping, but archaeologists in Cambridgeshire have uncovered a bed on which the body of a young Anglo-Saxon woman has lain for more than 1,300 years, a regal gold and garnet cross on her breast.

Forensic work on the first woman’s bones suggests she was about 16, with no obvious explanation for her early death. Although she was almost certainly a Christian, buried with the beautiful cross stitched into place on her gown, she was buried according to ancient pagan tradition with some treasured possessions including an iron knife and a chatelaine, a chain hanging from her belt, and some glass beads which were probably originally in a purse that has rotted away.

The story has many details about the modern use of the land where the young woman laid and we learn that it may have been a wealthy monastic settlement back in the day. There are no records of any church being on that land prior to the 12th century village church that was there.

I do wish there were a few more details:

Pectoral crosses from the dawn of Christianity in England, and bed burials – where the body was laid on a real bed, now traced only by its iron supports, centuries after the timber rotted – are both extremely rare.

There are many technical details shared about both the pectoral cross and the bed — we learn about the metalwork and stones and how rarely they have been found. One was found in the coffin of St. Cuthbert. I could have used more information, if we have it, of the significance of bed burials or the pectoral cross.

We’re told that all the bed burials that have been found have been from the same late 7th century date and that:

Lucy said the beds may well have been the ones the women used in life, as they are all believed to be pieces of real furniture, not made specially for a funeral ceremony. At Trumpington the evidence suggests the bed was lowered first into the ground, and then the body, uncoffined, laid on it.

It’s a great story and a fascinating read, but perhaps it would have been wise to include quotes about the religious significance of the find as well. If you’re interested in those details, the University of Cambridge itself has an interesting story with some additional background.

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  • Jerry

    Thanks for highlighting this wonderful story, Mollie. There may be things we never know about the past, but knowing a bit more shines light onto our present.

  • Dave

    Certainly more details could have been provided, but there’s almost no end to that. The reporter would practically have had to write a book. (And if this find proves as interesting as the Iceman a book may indeed be written.)

  • Chris M

    And by Dark Ages, I hope you meant to say Early Middle Ages. Historians don’t tend to use ‘Dark Ages’ due to its inaccuracy.

  • Jay DiNitto

    What Chris M said, although that is the term the article used.

    I had a history professor who would throw one of those blue rubber balls if someone in class used the “dark ages” term. He only had to use it a few times…we were a quick learning bunch.

  • one christian


  • mattk

    I am surprised and alarmed to not read in the story about any plans for the girl to be reburried. Evidently, this girl is an Orthodox Christian awaiting resurrection. I understand that she was uncovered by accident, the story makes that clear, but are there no plans to make right what was done by accident? The reporter should have asked.

  • mattk

    I made a mistake. I read the article which said the girl was found in an area being developed for buildings and assumed that meant construction workers had unearthed her body. But I just watched the video and see that it was arachaeologists who intentionally did it. This is sick.

  • R9

    According to this item in the Guardian a few years back, human remains must be reburied within two years.

    Interesting question tho. What do religious groups and archeologists think on the matter of reburial? As soon as possible, or once the experts have got all the useful information they can, or is it ok to leave bones in a drawer in the lab indefinitely?

  • Julia

    In my state of Illinois there was a large brou ha ha about displays of primitive, presumably Indian, bones in some small museums. Various Indian groups complained and I believe the bones were given to the Indians to re-bury. So many centuries later it is difficult to determine who has the rights to final disposition of remains such as these. If I remember correctly, the state used DNA and mitochondrial elements to determine the closest matches.

  • Julia

    Regarding the Dark Ages: There is a fascinating 2009 book by Christopher Wickham, Professor of Medieval History at Oxford, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400 – 1000. He looks at

    the period of the end of Roman unity and the formation of a myriad of smaller polities, across the whole space of Europe and the Mediterranean, the ex-Roman lands and the non-Roman lands to the North of Rome.

    The Professor says that beginning in the 1970s, research into the early Middle Ages blossomed amid a realization that all the available written accounts from the past are bound by narrative conventions, which require a critical re-evaluation of sources. It was the self-congratulatory men of the Renaissance who invented the concept of the Middle or Dark Ages.

    He states that he tried to look at each region and time period individually without considering too much their relationship with what came before or after, looking at each in terms of its own social reality.

    Among other things he notes that the violence of the barbarian invaders is a literary trope, there were few if any aspects of post-Roman society and culture that did not have Roman antecedents, and that one can continue to study the early medieval world, east or west, as if it were late Rome.

    Fascinating look at the current re-appraisals of that time period which was not as dark, compared to what went before and after, as had been thought. Getting rid of a teleological way of looking at the past is not easy, but historians today are trying to do that.