“We’re all gonna be dirt in the ground”

This post has been in draft a while. I first wrote it in January in a sink of a mood, which its contents may explain, and then the content material got worse. Then it went on hold while I got permission to use some of the images, permission that I’m happy to say was readily given by Professor Martin Carver, whom all praise. (Those known to be in copyright are so marked.1) Now that I’ve given the lecture with which it substantially started, I’m a lot more sanguine about things and have revised accordingly, but, nonetheless, this one merits the gloom gargoyle and I warn you that unpleasant mortuary stuff and sad praise of the dead lie ahead.

Right, consider yourselves warned

December was a month of the dead, and it was a long December running well into January. I was predisposed to notice this, because one of the tasks of the term has been a lecture on burial in Anglo-Saxon England and, though I know something of this, there is certainly a lot more I could know and so I was reading it, specifically and especially the site report from the excavations of 1983-2001 at Sutton Hoo.2 It didn’t take long to creep me out. Did you know, for example, that at Sutton Hoo the soil is sufficiently acid that within a decade—a figure the excavators arrived at by burying some organic material and coming back to it a few years later to see how far it had gone—the bulk of a human body buried in that soil is gone, become merely a crust of dark sand that just about holds its shape when carefully dug round and within which, if you’re lucky, a few bones may survive? They look like this.

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery, copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

When Mr Tom Waits croaked the line I’ve used for my title here, I don’t think he meant it this literally.3 And it gets more morbid. The few bodies that survive even this much at Sutton Hoo are not from the famous burial mounds, of which there were once many but all but two of which were robbed out, probably in the sixteenth century. Instead they are from one of two execution cemeteries that were near what may have been the oldest mound, one cemetery around the mound itself (which perhaps had a gallows set up on it after a few decades) and one nearby around a substantial old tree that later blew down and was replaced with another gallows (which I feel sure, though there’s no way to know and the excavators don’t suggest it, must have been made from the wood of that tree).4 Many of these graves are what we would now call ‘deviant’, that is to say there’s something weird about the burial practice. Around the mound the worst that it gets is probable binding of limbs and face-down burial, though several were also decapitated. Around the tree, however, all kinds of stuff occurs: bodies buried sitting up (with their legs or arms tied), kneeling face-down in the dirt backside skywards, more decapitations, prone burial, sideways with the head somewhere else… It is nasty to read. The strangest is this one.

Sutton Hoo Burial 27, as uncovered; image copyright Martin Carver and The British Museum and used by kind permission

Sutton Hoo Burial 27, as uncovered; image copyright Martin Carver and The British Museum and used by kind permission

You don’t get like this in a grave by happenstance. Of course, how you see it does rather depend on what way up it should be seen, but I can’t find a rotation that makes that splay of the legs look at all natural. Was he bound at the legs, struggled on the rope and got one leg free, then, I don’t know, they shot him with an arrow in case he got down? But the weirdest thing of course is that we ask this because they put him in the grave in that position, and indeed dug the grave to fit. There’s a danger of chicken-and-egg reasoning here, I suppose, but from not just this but the others in contorted positions the view of the excavators was that these bodies had been placed in the grave in the positions in which they’d died. I can’t get my head round that at all, but I don’t like the alternatives—such as they are: planned in-grave distortion of the body? Why would you? Who’s the audience? which is where it gets nasty again—and would prefer to give the excavators credit where possible. And then those burying him covered him with planks, or something like, and filled it in.

Sutton Hoo Burial 28, face in the dirt, posterior upwards, hands tied behind the back; image copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

Sutton Hoo Burial 28, face in the dirt, posterior upwards, hands tied behind the back; image copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

For some, at least, a more regular burial was possible; a few around the tree had coffins, and there were several apparently empty grave pits that suggest that, if one’s family were lucky perhaps, it might yet be possible to get the condemned deceased away from where the old (and presumably pagan) king laid in state, presumably to a proper Christian cemetery. But for some, obviously, no such quarter was offered, and they were to rest with the damned. The thought-world there is interesting—conversion doesn’t so much make these places obsolete as recast their significance, it seems—but I’m glad I don’t share it. I was quite glad to get the lecture out of the way and concentrate once more on the living.

Liber mortuorum

With that all said, I don’t think that it was just my temporarily morbid focus that made me notice a recent array of deaths. Obviously millions of people are dying all the time and it just so happens that the odds have swung slightly more than usual towards my circle of acquaintance, but all the same, we do seem to have lost some of the good ones just lately, and I wanted to notice them here: five scholars (and it was two when I started the post, horribly), and two musicians who didn’t have anything to do with my usual subject matter but who should not, all the same, be allowed to go quietly into that great night. I’ve never met any of these people except the last, but I’ve read or listened to their work, and it’s one of the commonalities of both fields of endeavour that one can feel a connection to a creator who by definition only exists, as author of that work anyway, in the past and is no longer ‘there’, either in space and time or in his or her work. This usually gets me when listening to music by people I know, which of course is by them as they were not as I know them, but it should also apply to scholars, really. Anyway. These are the good names gone.

Scholars’ roll of honour

  • Firstly Rachel Bromwich, whose edition of the Welsh Triads was perhaps the first literary evidence this historian ever wrestled with, an eye-opening glimpse into a fragmentarily-preserved world of oral history in which not just the name Arthur, but more interesting more historical names were woven.5 One of these names was Áedán mac Gabráin, Aeddan Uradawc, the Wily, which was why I was interested, but it was a fascinating read even where he wasn’t and it was Dr Bromwich I had to thank for it.
  • Then, Professor Manuel Riu i Riu, about whom I’ve written here before, one of the most important modern scholars of the medieval past in Catalonia and Spain more widely there has so far been, I kid you not. I phrase it thus because I’ve no idea whether to call him a historian or an archæologist, he did both with equal facility, dug sites and edited charters, and could converse across the disciplines meaning that for a while at least, his colleagues and friends were almost uniquely well-informed in their studies about what was going on the other side of the fence, as their footnotes attest.
  • Then, archæologist and enthusiast Geoff Egan, a friend of my old colleagues and a contributor to at least one of my old endeavours at the Fitzwilliam, a man whom many people will miss.
  • After him, the Islamicist son of a Byzantinist father, Professor Oleg Grabar, not a great force in my own work but mourned by people I know, and certainly deserving of a sad mention here.
  • And lastly, I hope for a while, Professor Robert Markus, the chief rival to Peter Brown‘s throne (or Brown perhaps chief rival to his) and someone whose work I soaked up in quantity as an undergraduate. Always clear and convincing and dispassionate without being dull, he was the man who introduced me to Origen, to Chalcedon and the extraordinarily late date (as it seemed to me then) that the canon of Christian Scripture was, well, canonised,6 all of which was very powerful to me back then, escaping from 14 years of school with integral Church of England worship daily; he earnt an obituary by Jinty Nelson no less, which is worth a read.

So look, that’s enough. But then there’s the musicians.

Not Going Quietly

Arguably one of the musicians needs no notice either, he’s had so many, but I own a lot of his records, one of his songs was even about archæology (or at least palæontology):7 you will have noticed, probably, that Captain Beefheart died, but it’s still a shame. On the other hand, not only did I never meet him, he stopped making music in 1983, and I never had much of an urge to acquire his paintings; his reputation was secure and he had been ill for a long time, it couldn’t be called a surprise and we had, at least, received most of what he had to give us. Less so from a man I did know, Trev Thoms, who dropped out of contact a few months ago, turned out to have pancreatic cancer and succumbed to it a few days before the good Captain did the terminal shuffle. You won’t have heard of Trev, and probably not of any of his bands either—Inner City Unit, the Imperial Pompadours, Atomgods, Bajina, Mother of All Bands—but you might have seen him, either if you hang around in the pubs in Brighton where they have open mic nights or if you saw the right version of Nik Turner’s various post-Hawkwind outfits such as Space Ritual, or if you ever drop in on what remains of the UK festival scene, which he did quite a lot to assist in his own way. Next one I go to, he won’t be there trying to sell me anything, and I shall be damn sorry about this. So here’s some of his stuff to wrap up with, with supporting photo-montage assembled by others who feel the same way. Ironically or appropriately, it’s a song about another dead man and Trev is guitar and lead vocals.

He made the Big Noise, and he had fun doing it. Bye bye Trev, I hope you’re a star if you’re anywhere to be one. I’ll get back to the Middle Ages in a minute.


1. The colour images from the Sutton Hoo dig are thus taken from Martin Carver (ed.), 2004, The Sutton Hoo Research Project 1983-2001, available at http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/resources.html?suttonhoo_var_2004, last accessed 29 January 2011, and here cited as per their copyright notice and requirement. The black-and-white one, I scanned myself from M. Carver et al., Sutton Hoo: a princely burial ground of the seventh century, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 69 (London 2005), Plate 48 (a), and use here with Professor Carver’s permission. It is not available for further reproduction without his permission; terms for the others are available at the link.

2. Carver et al., Sutton Hoo. This is the basis of what follows: organic preservation in the soil there is covered at pp. 49-53, among other places.

3. Tom Waits, ‘Dirt in the Ground’, on idem, Bone Machine (Island Records 1992).

4. Martin Carver, “Execution Burials of the Eighth to Eleventh Centuries” in idem et al., Sutton Hoo, pp. 315-359 including an appendix, Francis Lee, “Report on the Human Bones”, ibid. pp. 349-359. The feature interpreted as a tree and then a gallows is covered at pp. 324-325.

5. R. Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads (2nd edn. Cardiff 1978).

6. I think, on looking back at his bibliography, that the one that must have made a dent on me was his Christianity in the Roman World (London 1974), but now I think I would like to read his The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1990), which seem to have missed at the time.

7. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, ‘Smithsonian Institute Blues’, on eidem, Lick My Decals Off Baby (Warner Bros Records 1970). As he says, “you can’t get round the big dig”. But then if I start quoting Beefheart wisdom we’ll be here all day. Let’s stick with, “everybody’s coloured, or you wouldn’t be able to see them“.

11 responses to ““We’re all gonna be dirt in the ground”

  1. Sarah Rees Jones

    And this week I buried my father. Some time I will copy what he wrote about man, industry and art on my Facebook page. I am glad he was fortunate enough to die of old age. It could so easily have been otherwise. But a long complicated life, fully lived brings sadness and regrets as well as happiness.

    I first realised that I would die when I was about 8. I still feel 8 at heart.

    • Of course there are always regrets; I’m sorry for your loss, but I think it’s right to take comfort in a peaceful passing. My father died quickly in his own house and was fit until his last day, and as you say it could so easily have been otherwise; that did, I found, make things easier. I’m sorry to have intruded my mourning onto yours like this, anyway, possibly insensitive.

  2. I had missed the news about Bromwich; thank you for drawing my attention to it. She had a good innings, but I do feel the scholarly world is the poorer for her passing. At least I still have a backlog of her work to read.

    • Ah, yes, in that sense alas quite a lot of scholars important to me will still be saying new things to me a long time after they’ve gone. Which is good, I suppose? One comfort about there being too much to keep up with…

  3. Another one for the Liber Mortuorum is Mick Kahn, the bass-player in Japan. Fine fretless bass-player, with a very distinctive sound. I lost interest in Japan after their first album, really, but I always thought he was an interesting musician.

    • Damn! I missed out on them when they were happening but came to their stuff later on via their keyboardist finishing up in Porcupine Tree and Hawkwind’s violinist joining them, and yes, he was a good bassist. Oh well: thankyou for passing the news…

  4. Pingback: Seminar LXXXIX: “recycling after Rome’s fall” « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. And now we must add, on the music side, Gary Moore, of Skid Row and sometimes Thin Lizzy, commemorated by Magnus Reuterdahl here, and on the academic side, Martin Welch, well-known and well-regarded Anglo-Saxon archæologist. The Reaper is keeping fit, it seems…

  6. Pingback: Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Pingback: Flat out for Sutton Hoo | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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