Macquarie University
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Displays of womanhood in the grave: an examination of female social status, roles, and individuality in three cemeteries from early medieval England

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posted on 2023-02-17, 04:11 authored by Caitlyn Dunn

In England, from the 5th through to the early 8th centuries AD, new row-grave cemeteries were used to bury individuals in furnished graves as part of an emerging burial rite. This thesis analyses the female graves of three such cemeteries to investigate displays of female social identity. There are limited historical texts about females contemporary with this period which makes it important to investigate this archaeological evidence. The study of female social identity is also a relatively new area of research because much of modern scholarship has focused on displays of ethnic identity.

The cemeteries chosen for this research are Buckland, Kent; Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire; and Norton, Cleveland. Osteological analysis has identified a substantial number of female graves at these sites which are the focus of this study. Grave goods such as jewellery and items of dress, knives, weaving and spinning tools, keys, and other artefacts are analysed in order to understand the status, roles, and individuality of females displayed in the grave. This analysis is undertaken with the understanding that the survivors of the deceased chose and placed artefacts in the grave to create a curated display. 

This research finds that female status was displayed in locally distinctive ways. Status could be displayed using certain dress accessories specific to each community and the artefacts that were prestige items were unique to each cemetery. It also finds that female tasks using knives were emphasised, while duties involving textile production, and household authority were far rarer. Other important roles such as wife and mother were only indirectly displayed at most. Finally, analysis of the types of dress items used in female graves indicated that there were local norms in fashion and varying levels of individuality expressed in the female grave display at each cemetery.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction -- Chapter 2: Female Status Displays -- Chapter 3: Female Role Displays - Jobs and Duties -- Chapter 4: Female Dress Displays - Norms and Individuality -- Chapter 5: Conclusion -- Appendix -- Bibliography

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Danijel Džino


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