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

Chris Fern

University of York, Archaeology, Honorary Research Fellow and Associate

Studies of the phenomenon of horse burial and of horse equipment, for the early medieval period on the Continent and in Scandinavia, have demonstrated that equestrianism was 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 accompany male burials equipped with weaponry, horse harness and prestige goods, and by the related tradition of richly decorating equestrian equipment. By comparison, theevidence for a parallel custom in early Anglo-Saxon England has been regarded as negligible and peripheral tothe main central European distribution, and thus reflective of the relative unimportance of equitation, and by extension 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 in opposition 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 tradition of horse harness, which, while related to Continental fashions, also demonstrates distinctly idiosyncratic traits. Furthermore, in line with European trends, on rare occasions 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 time guard equestrian privileges.

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