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Durham e-Theses
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Dead body language: Deciphering corpse positions in early Anglo-Saxon England

MUI, SIAN (2018) Dead body language: Deciphering corpse positions in early Anglo-Saxon England. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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This work provides a study of corpse positioning as an aspect of mortuary practice. The positional representation of the dead body is fundamental to the perception of death and the deceased, but this aspect of burial treatment has been overlooked and under-theorised in archaeological and anthropological scholarship. With an aim to explore the significance of the positioning of the corpse and its place within wider debates surrounding dying and death, this research examines burial positioning in inhumation graves in early Anglo-Saxon England, c AD 400–750. Bringing together 3,053 graves from 32 cemeteries, this thesis combines statistical methods, artistic reconstructions, typological analysis, grave artefacts, osteological data, literary sources, and representational art to produce a new and challenging examination of funerary remains.

This work has identified a positional norm of supine deposition, extended legs, and arms positioned according to one of seven ‘main types’. Patterns and variations in burial positions were manifested as an interplay between conformity to this positional norm and variations beyond it: from the individual level to regional practices, and in relation to long-term changes through the early Anglo-Saxon period. The arrangement of the cadaver was intimately linked with the deceased’s social identity and relationship with other people, mediated by the bodily engagements that took place between the living and the dead in the mortuary performances. The positions of corpses can be argued through this new evidence to be comparable as a source to human representations in art, revealing a wider gestural repertoire in the early medieval world. This work has offered new and exciting insights into living and dying in early medieval England, and has set new agendas for studying body positions from archaeological contexts. This has far-reaching methodological and interpretive implications for the study of death and burial, in the past as well as the present.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Anglo-Saxon; burial; body; visual representation; funerary rites; death
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Archaeology, Department of
Thesis Date:2018
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:15 Oct 2018 11:18

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