Women in the Dark Ages were their own knights in shining armour
Equality between men and women in England predates modern times, archaeologists have found
The emancipation of women is generally considered a modern phenomenon, but a new burial site in Lincolnshire, England, has shown women were already enjoying high social status, wealth and power in their own right during the Dark Ages.
Archaeologists at the University of Sheffield discovered 20 burials at a cemetery in Scremby, on the southern edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, dating back to the late fifth to mid-sixth centuries AD. Around half the graves were women who were found to be richly dressed and surrounded by riches including amber necklaces, hundreds of glass beads, silver buckles and ivory clasps.
Dr Hugh Willmott, senior lecturer in European Historical Archaeology from the University of Sheffield, said: “What is particularly interesting is the significant proportion of very lavish burials which belonged to women.
“There are proportionally far more highly furnished female burials than you might ordinarily expect.
“These women wore necklaces made from sometimes hundreds of amber, glass and rock crystal beads, used personal items such as tweezers, carried fabric bags held open by elephant ivory rings, and wore exquisitely decorated brooches to fasten their clothing.
“In what is often seen as a very masculine ‘warrior’ society, the women were clearly held in high regard.”
The Germanic Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain around the beginning of the 5th century and by 900AD had established four powerful kingdoms – East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex – turning England into one of the wealthiest countries in Europe.
Where early settlers had been warlike, by the later period most were settled in agricultural communities, overseen by nobles and royalty.
Previously historians believed women had little power in Anglo-Saxon England, effectively becoming their husbands’ property on marriage. However, lecturer Emma Fells of the University of Nottingham has argued that they were “near equal companions with males ... much more than in any other era before modern times”.
The new cemetery appears to support the claims that women were on a more equal footing, particularly in East Anglia. Usually, fewer than one in 10 women’s graves are found with rare items, but at Scremby it was one quarter.
A woman buried with a newborn child was found to have more than 500 beads placed in the grave. Normally 100 was considered a wealthy haul.
The cemetery was first uncovered when a local metal detectorist found a number of artefacts, including copper gilded brooches, iron shield bosses and spearheads.
The finds were typical of those found in early Anglo-Saxon burials and archaeologists have been keen to excavate the area before further artefacts were destroyed by farming activity.
The grave goods were found to have travelled from far away, such as a silver trapezoid bucklet usually found in Kent. Bone and tooth analysis also suggests one of the women was originally from the South Downs, showing both objects and people were travelling widely during the period.
Men in the cemetery had also been buried with rich grave goods including weaponry such as spears and shields.
The team is now carrying out extensive analysis on the skeletons and grave goods to find out where they originated.
Dr Katie Hemer, lecturer in bioarchaeology at the University of Sheffield, said: “Analysis also extends to a number of the finds, including the amber beads, which are being provenanced.
“We will analyse the elemental composition of the metalwork and identify the elephant species which produced the ivory rings.”
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