The Heirloom Factor Revisited: Curated Objects and Social Memory in Early Medieval Mortuary Practices
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AbstractIn the early 20th century, Baldwin Brown’s investigation of early Anglo-Saxon burials stated that the low ratio of deposited swords was likely caused by the inheritance of the weapon by a family member. This became known as the heirloom factor and has been a generally accepted summary of early AngloSaxon curation ever since. Chronologically older material culture originating from the early medieval period, however, has been consistently noticed within burials but overall neglected. Instead, researchers have focused on the reuse and recycling of Roman and Iron Age artefacts in early medieval furnished inhumation graves. Heirlooms, however, are biographical objects, imbued with the stories and events in which they had been present. Heirlooms from the early medieval period would have a known biography to their owners, families and wider social networks, whereas the biographical history of Roman or Iron Age objects would have been lost and unknown. Furthermore, the mortuary deposition of older objects would likely have made them noticeable and significant effect as a mnemonic device of social remembrance by participants and audiences. This thesis implemented an original combination of methods to contextually identify curated objects, or heirlooms, within the early medieval burials of Kent. The study subsequently interprets their roles in terms of social remembrance during the funerary rituals. Evidence from both archaeological and historical sources have indicated that swords and brooches were socially significant and distinct objects, presenting them as likely candidates as possible heirloom status objects. Early medieval cemeteries of Kent (5th–7th centuries AD) were chosen for this study because of the higher ratios of the number of swords and types of brooches found within burials compared to other areas of early Anglo-Saxon England. Kent is also the region where the first written laws are recorded in the beginning of the 7th century AD, with certain codes directly involving the inheritance of property. The study also responds to recent work on Kent’s graves in terms of grave re-opening. This research has analysed 1743 graves from 20 cemeteries in Kent to identify curation characteristics of either swords or brooches. Graves containing these objects were analysed for a series of characteristics to decipher chronological disparities within the entire grave context. This thesis has discovered that the deposition of curated objects within early Anglo-Saxon Kentish burials was a rare but discernible practice in which known biographical objects were utilised for several different funerary reasons. Swords and brooches were significant objects chosen to continue their circulation within a family or kin group for a period prior to their inclusion within a grave. A number of swords, however, have provided evidence that pieces of their hilts were likely inherited and continued while the rest of the sword, such as the blade, was included within a burial. The thesis argues that these practices facilitated the social remembrance of the significant weapon to be present during the funeral, as well as continuing its biography through its hilt fittings within the community. It has also been interpreted that the deposition of older brooches within subadult burials provides evidence of the effort to bolster the idealised identity of the deceased during the funeral or negotiate the relations between familial or kin groups. As the 5th—7th centuries AD were a period of social stratification, the utilisation of heirlooms within furnished burials has been found as a strategy to significantly influence the social remembrance of the mourners present at a funeral.
CitationCostello, B. (2020). The Heirloom Factor Revisited: Curated Objects and Social Memory in Early Medieval Mortuary Practices. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Chester, United Kingdom.
PublisherUniversity of Chester
TypeThesis or dissertation
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