Book review: Buried by Professor Alice Roberts

Continuing with my Alice Roberts binge, I now review Buried: An Alternative History of the First Millennium in Britain. Following the theme of the two other books in the series, Ancestors and Crypt, Buried looks at history through the lens of seven burials. It finishes with a final, more general chapter which looks at identity and the balance between migration and cultural diffusion.

The first millennium covers the Roman occupation of Britain followed by the period sometimes known as the “Dark Ages” or the “Anglo Saxon Period”.

The first three burials are in the Roman era, they cover a weird pipe burial where the ashes from a cremation are buried in a lead container with a pipe leading up to the surface. This is believed to be a a facility for enabling mourners to symbolically eat and drink with the deceased. This was a funeral practice known in the Roman period and continued for a long time in, for example, Russia where food and drink were left on the grave. To a degree this is a chapter about cremation, which was the favoured Roman practice – sky burials were more the preference in Iron Age Britain – they leave little trace. After the Romans left inhumation became the common practice.

The second chapter is a somewhat traumatic one on infant burials in the Roman period, focused on the 97 infant burials found at the Yewden Roman Villa near Hambledon. Infants were often buried close to homes rather than in cemeteries in the Roman period. Some of the bones at Yewden show signs of cutting, it isn’t entirely clear why there are such injuries but obstetric surgery is a possibility. It has been estimated that infant mortality was as high as 30% in this period. There are hints that infanticide was practiced more widely than today on those infants who might today survive with treatment. These infant burials highlight the difficulty of understanding what was happening, and how people felt from fragmentary remains.

The last of the Roman burials covers decapitation, burials where the corpse has clearly been decapitated – it focuses on the Whelnetham cemetery at Bury St Edmunds. One thing that is becoming clear is that there is no such thing as a typical cemetery from this period, each of the burials in this book illustrates another variation from the “norm” – whatever that may be. Perhaps that is the result of the selections made by the author but it may be that in an era before mass communication and a strong nation state or church, burial was much more a local affair. Ultimately why bodies were decapitated before burial is unclear, sometimes it was as the result of execution or a final punishment for criminals in other cases it may have been a superstitious measure to prevent ghosts or other apparitions.

The diversity of burial practices is again highlighted in the next burials at Breamore in Hampshire dating from around 600CE where the local style seems to have been burial with a bucket amongst many other grave goods! The site was discovered after a metal detectorist discovered a very elaborate bucket which appears to have come from a workshop many miles away in the Southern Türkiye. It is here that the theme of Anglo Saxons, and how they came to replace the Romans takes place. The term “Anglo Saxon” has its own postscript chapter since it is a problematic term. For archaeologists it has a precise meaning: the period from the end of the Roman occupation to the Norman invasion but more recently it has been co-opted as an ethnic term meaning “white, of Northern European origin”. Some (approximately one) historical records suggest the Anglo Saxon takeover of culture in Britain was the result of mass migration or invasion. However, the writer of this history – Gildas – certainly had an axe to grind. It seems more likely that the apparent Anglo Saxon invasion was a cultural shift that came from longstanding trade links across northern Europe. The Roman invasion of Britain was more a replacement / coalition of the ruling class than a mass migration, although soldiers and mercenaries came to Britain from around the Empire. The Anglo Saxon “invasion” appears to have been more of a re-instatement of the Iron Age status quo drawing on existing trade and cultural links.

The next chapter is not focussed on a burial as such but on the Staffordshire horde, and the intensive study of a single type of jewellery and how it changes over time. Although dramatic, discoveries such as the Staffordshire Horde are frustrating since they come with no context, they are typically found with no accompanying burial, building or even roadway.

The local interest for me is in the sixth chapter, where Roberts looks at burials near Benllech in Anglesey – where we have been on holiday a couple of times. The “burials” are basically bodies thrown into a ditch, and the key question is whether they are part of a battle against Viking invaders. This again touches on the movement of people around Northern Europe and the degree to which they assimilated locally.

Towards the end of the Roman Empire it became Christian, and in the subsequent years Roman burial practices, and those countries where the Church prevailed, changed. Cremations were replaced with burials, grave goods fell out of favour (to the chagrin of modern archaeologists), and churches and cemeteries combined – in the earlier Roman period there were temples in settlements and separate cemeteries on the outskirts. In some ways the Roman Empire seems not to have fallen but rather have been replaced with the Catholic Church, based in Rome.

As I finish my binge on Alice Roberts I find her books make engaging reading, as well as archaeological detail they also cover historiography and the broader questions of the period the burials address. Buried addresses more of the historical record than Ancestors which focussed on an earlier period (where there were no historical records), and less of the ancient DNA work which is found more in the recent Crypt. Ancient DNA is particularly relevant to understanding disease. The field of ancient DNA is evolving very rapidly, even in the couple of years between the writing of Buried and Crypt.