People and place: the making of the Kingdom of Northumbria 300–800 CE

Charting the emergence, size and longevity of the early state has challenged many anthropologists and archaeologists; the scope, duration and ethnic composition often proving elusive because of the lack of appropriate data. The kingdom of Northumbria 300–800 CE, was a powerful, contested territory and a linguistic and cultural melting pot. It provides an ideal laboratory in which archaeologists can explore the processes of early political formation, through the analysis of populations that lived through the significant social transformations of this time. 

Building on a decade of dramatic advances in early medieval cemetery studies, our project, People and Place, exploits an aggregate of social and scientific approaches to the burial record for Northumbria 300–800CE. It will undertake a full reassessment of all known funerary evidence from the kingdom, at its greatest extent, from the Humber to the Firth of Forth and the North Sea to the Irish Sea. The withdrawal of Roman authority in Britain and an influx of continental migrants, as well as climatic disasters, contributed to the remodelling of social and political structures. By the eighth century a new political geography was in place and kings claiming descent from dynastic lineages were managing large kingdoms created from the coalescence of smaller groups and competing to expand their hard-won territories. The burial record for this era provides the richest evidence relevant to the study of migrations, identity and the reshaping of political structures. The living commemorated the dead in regionally distinctive ways, in terms of grave goods and funerary dress and the types of location chosen for cemeteries and burials. Material culture and landscape were powerful media which emergent groups used to create and construct social and political identities. Recent advances in early medieval cemetery studies have now yielded enhanced chronologies; new applications that inform on mobility and migration; and the ability to chart the health, diet and well-being of populations, offering new opportunities to expand and develop existing approaches. Such applications provide us with a means of creating an enhanced understanding of the social and political changes of the era. 


Clockwise from top left: the project study area: the early medieval kingdom of Northumbria © People and Place; a reconstruction of an inhumation burial from the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Norton, Cleveland, Co Durham. Reproduced with permission of Bede’s World, Co Durham; buildings and graves at the early medieval site of Yeavering, Northumberland © Brian Buchanan.

Our scope is ambitious: the project charts the burial record for an entire kingdom, interrogating surviving data in terms of identity and wealth, health, ethnicity and lifestyle and situating and exploring burials and cemeteries in their landscape setting. Using a comprehensive data set, culled from extensive exploration of published and grey literature, museum archives and PAS data, the project intends to take account of all aspects of mortuary data. New osteological and palaeopathological assessment, combined with the implementation of a large-scale programme of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and strontium isotopic analysis and high precision dating, will allow us to create a refined chronology for funerary activity and characterise the ethnic and social composition of communities. This methodologically innovative analysis will revolutionise our understanding of the populations and processes that underpinned the transformation of this frontier region 300–800 CE. 

Dr Sarah Semple
Durham University