Old, New, Borrowed, and Buried
Britain’s long fifth century, 350-550 CE, was a period of transformative change across the island. It was not simply the end of one civilization and the beginning of another, but rather was a period during which people made meaningful choices about how important it was to them to continue acting like Romans or start acting like their new neighbors when the economy and social structures that had defined life in Britain for centuries dissolved. Historians can study material culture and burial practices to make these fifth-century inhabitants of Britain – invisible in the scarce textual accounts of the fifth century – visible in our historical narratives. Where living communities chose to bury their dead, what they chose to send with the deceased, and how they chose to build monuments to their memory can tell historians how they connected with or distanced themselves from the past that was, materially at least, rapidly disappearing and being replaced. Careful analysis of data from 8,602 burials in 102 cemetery populations, as well as burials of dogs and infants on settlements, indicates that changes in burial practices were the result not of migration from the continent nor the “fall” of Roman Britain, but rather were part of a larger shift from a society based upon Britain’s relationship with the Roman Empire to one based upon its local communities, whether composed of natives, or newcomers, or both. No matter where people came from, no two communities reacted to the upheaval of the fifth century in the same way, and there were no monolithic or universal ways of relating the past to the present and future. New practices appeared, and old practices continued, some of which were better suited to some fifth-century inhabitants of Britain than others.