Beowulf and Archaeology
Beowulf and Archaeology
Megaliths Imagined and Encountered in Early Medieval Europe
Since the mid nineteenth century AD, the poem Beowulf has long been a quarry for inspiration, analogy and insight for those exploring the archaeology of Early Medieval Britain and Scandinavia (Cramp 1957; Hills 1997; Webster 1998; Owen-Crocker 2000). The dialogue of archaeology and poem has been employed to explore a range of Early Medieval social practices and structures: the production and circulation of weapons and armour through inheritance and gift-giving, the role of vessels and feasting practices, hall-building and ceremony, the hoarding of treasure, and various dimensions of funerary practice including barrow-burial, boat-burial, and cremation. In discussing many of these practices, scholars have recently pointed to the sense of the past in the poem as a practice-orientated form of social memory. Synergies have been identified between heroic poetry and the ceremonial use of material culture, monuments, architectures, and landscapes identified in poetry and archaeological evidence as distinct but related technologies of remembrance within the hierarchical Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that emerge during the mid to late seventh century AD (Williams 1998; 2006; 2011a; 2011b; Owen-Crocker 2000; Semple 2013). In this fashion, the assertions of legitimacy and identities by Early Medieval elites, including their claims to land, power and people, were performed through the ritualized reuse, appropriation and naming of ancient monuments and their deployment within rituals and oral performances, including poetry (Semple 2013; see also Price 2010). The locations and immediate environs of major later Anglo-Saxon churches and elite residences, and the maritime and land routes connecting them, provided the dramaturgical and ritualized settings and media by which social memories were transmitted and reproduced. Landmarks such as ancient monuments were actively integrated through reuse for a variety of functions from burial to assembly (Williams 2006; Reynolds and Langlands 2011; Semple 2013). In particular, Sarah Semple’s (2013) important interdisciplinary survey and analysis of Anglo-Saxon perceptions and reuse of prehistoric monuments from the fifth to the eleventh centuries AD, identifies the variegated and shifting perceptions of prehistoric monuments revealed by later Anglo-Saxon texts, manuscript illustrations, place-names and archaeological evidence (see also Semple 1998; 2004).
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