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The archaeological evidence for equestrianism in early Anglo-Saxon England, c.450-700

Chris Fern 

Just Skin and Bones? New Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations in the Historical Past: BAR International Series 1410 (2005)

Studies of the phenomenon of horse burial and of horseequipment, for the early medieval period on the Continentand in Scandinavia, have demonstrated that equestrianismwas an important attribute of martial elites in these regions(Müller-Wille, 1970/71; Oexle, 1984; 1992; Rettner, 1997;Sundkvist, 2001). This is evidenced by the widespread practice of sacrificing valuable riding horses to accompanymale burials equipped with weaponry, horse harness and prestige goods, and by the related tradition of richlydecorating equestrian equipment. By comparison, theevidence for a parallel custom in early Anglo-SaxonEngland has been regarded as negligible and peripheral tothe main central European distribution, and thus reflectiveof the relative unimportance of equitation, and byextension the use of horses for warfare, in England in the period (Baldwin-Brown, 1915: 420-423; Härke, 1997).

This study seeks to reassess the archaeological data for early Anglo-Saxon England and to demonstrate inopposition to this view that, while small, the archaeologicalcorpus provides definite evidence for an equestrian cultureat the top level of society. This is suggested by a traditionof horse harness, which, while related to Continentalfashions, also demonstrates distinctly idiosyncratic traits.Furthermore, in line with European trends, on rareoccasions such equipment and/or a riding horse wasincluded in the funerary assemblages of Anglo-Saxon elites, in combination with weaponry and luxury goods.The restriction of such rites to this class is interpreted hereas a deliberate act intended to signal and at the same timeguard equestrian privileges

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(via Medievalists)