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‘hwelcum hlæwa’?: Mounds, The Pagan Past, and The Potent Dead in Anglo-Saxon England

Ryan Lash

Master Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2011

“Combining textual, onomastic, and archaeological evidence, this study traces the use and perceptions of earthen mounds across the Anglo-Saxon period in an attempt to better understand the interface of pagan and Christian ideas during the conversion and the impact of that process on attitudes towards society’s pagan heritage.

Although prehistoric barrow mounds seem to have been crucial to the ritual life and status-claims of communities in the pagan period, the coming of Christianity subjected the resonances of the monument-form to significant complications. The development of negative connotations can be traced in textual and pictorial depictions of mounds in eighth through eleventh-century sources as well as in the use of mounds as sites of execution and deviant burial from the seventh century onward. Despite this apparent ecclesiastically driven smear campaign to discourage residual links to the pagan past, mounds seem also to have served frequently in later Anglo-Saxon England as assembly places for administrative units, especially hundreds.

With recourse to comparable evidence relating to barrow mounds in the Celtic and Scandinavian worlds, I suggest that this dual, seemingly discordant use of mounds in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape becomes most scrutable when viewed in the context of the interaction of pagan and Christian ideas about the dead. More specifically, I argue that the cult of saints’ relics provided a Christian framework of thought into which pagan ideas relating to mounds and the ancestral dead were assimilated. While this perspective will suggest how both preexisting and purpose-built monuments could be used as either the suitably dignified or suitably loathsome stage-settings of later Anglo-Saxon regional government, references to mounds in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Beowulf, and the Alfredian Boethius will illustrate the various resonances of the pagan past that the use of mounds in the landscape could activate.”

Click here to read this dissertation on Academia.edu