Anglo-Saxon Cinerary Urns at Kettering Museum
It was only when I read the interpretation that I realised the significance of the unassuming ceramic pots I was about to clean. Inside several of the pots are charcoal fragments: the remains of cremated bodies from the 6th Century.
Similar urns have been discovered at Anglo-Saxon sites across England, but the tradition is familiar to many cultures. Pottery urns dating from 7000BC have been found in China. In Bavaria, a urn similar to Kettering’s would have held the heart of a King. The shape, a bellied pot with a narrow neck, is common in many cultures across the globe, including those as seemingly distant to Kettering as the Mayan civilisation. (6)
In his article, Pottery and Other Finds from the Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Sandy, Bedfordshire, David Kennett describes one of Kettering’s urns alongside those at the British Museum, the Ashmolean and Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Archaeologists have taken great pains to categorise Saxon cinerary urns by their design. Kettering’s star piece is known as a Buckelurne, categorised as Group 5: “those with or without feet, and with free or exuberant use of stamps (1)”. Charmingly, none of Kennett’s examples have such “wild stamping (2)” as the Kettering urn.
There is some debate over the meanings of the specific decoration. Myres considered the trade implications revealed by the urns and suggested that some patterns evidenced Pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs. Richards loosely demonstrated that the markings correlate to the social standing of the deceased by analysing the remains inside the jars. Williams states that the size of the urn relates to the age of the deceased. Perry claims that remains of food in urns discovered in Lincolnshire suggests that urns had been repurposed from the Saxon kitchen. (4)
Animals and eyes are a recurring theme in the decoration, to give “haptic and visual qualities (5)” that may have been used in the funeral rites, a reminder that the dead still see the living and that their remains are guarded. Knowing this now, I wish I had looked more carefully at the patterns. Fortunately, I have one more day of cleaning and cataloguing at Kettering Museum.
- 4 & 5: Why Decorate Early Anglo-Saxon Pots?, Howard Williams: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/why-decorate-early-anglo-saxon-pots/
- 1 & 2: Pottery and Other Finds from the Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Sandy, Bedfordshire, David Kennett: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/myads/copyrights?from=2f6172636869766544532f61726368697665446f776e6c6f61643f743d617263682d3736392d312f64697373656d696e6174696f6e2f7064662f766f6c31342f31345f3031375f3033332e706466
- 6: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urn
Charlotte Pratley is one of the Culture Syndicates Directors. More of her writing has been published in the Museum’s Journal and is available here: http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/comment/18122015-is-unethical-employment-a-time-bomb-for-museums