Thursday, June 28, 2012

A woman, a cow, and a chatelaine

~Dr. Duncan Sayer, University of Central Lancashire

Just outside Cambridge, U.K., in Oakington, students from Manchester Metropolitan University are working with Dr. Faye Simpson and staff from the University of Central Lancashire and Oxford Archaeology East to excavate a 1400-year-old Anglo-Saxon graveyard. They had unearthed 100 graves, with an estimated 50-60 remaining, when one of the students - Kate Smith, 19 - discovered the burial of a woman of much greater status than the other occupants. "She is almost certainly a regional elite - a matriarchal figure buried with the objects that describe her identity to the people who attended her funeral," said co-director of the excavation Dr. Duncan Sayer.

The biggest such sign of the woman's wealth and power was the adjacent skeleton of a cow. Animal burials are extremely rare - only 31 men have been found buried with horses in Britain - but the discovery of a woman buried with a cow is unprecedented. Simpson commented, "A cow is a big thing to give up. It's a source of food and something that would have been very expensive to keep, so to sacrifice it would be a big decision. They would have wanted to give her something really important to show respect and they wouldn't have done that for just anybody." This is the 1st find of its kind in Europe.

Aside from the cow, grave goods include brooches and hundreds of amber and decorated glass beads. Said Dr. Sayer, "It's also incredibly early to find any grave of a woman buried with such obvious wealth." Another symbol of her position within the community is the chatelaine she was found with. I was unfamiliar with this word, defined only as a keychain, and found a more thorough explanation:
"The word 'chatelaine' derives from the Latin word for castle. It refers to the lady who, in the Medieval times, was in charge of the day-to-day castle functions. The chatelaine ordered supplies, did the bookkeeping and supervised the servants. She also taught the children who lived in the castle and served as a guide to the guests. One of her most important responsibilities was to keep the keys to the castle."
The keys and other useful items like scissors were hung from a chain around her waist, an assemblage that came to be known itself as a chatelaine (examples here) and was worn into Victorian times.
Earlier posts about skeletons:

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