CURRENT ARCHAEOLOGY 118
Plan of the boat burial - it was little more than a log-boat. Note the two cow-horns towards the bottom.
tree-trunk. It was, in modern terms, a dinghy.
In its final use as a coffin, the boat contained a body with an enigmatic selection of gravegoods. The acid sand had completely dissolved the skeleton, and the resulting sand-silhouette was a particularly poor one, not easily interpreted. It makes most sense if seen with the head to the west and the legs flexed. The sand-silhouette can provide no information about the sex of the person buried and it is unfortunate that the surviving gravegoods also give no clue. These are an iron knife of unusual form, placed well above the head, a simple iron buckle and stud from a belt at "waist" level. Arranged symetri¬ cally over the feet was a pair of what are probably cows' horns.
It was very fortunate that these horns survived to be recognised, for horn does not normally survive, except where in contact with metal. Yet, although this pair had neither rim bindings nor terminals, actual horn survived towards the solid tips and where they had been pressed together. Elsewhere, thin black lines of organic material enabled the reconstruction of their full original length (28cm between extreme points).
These horns must play a vital role in assessing the status of the person buried in the boat, for it is most likely that they are drinking horns. Their lucky survival, as a pair, thus gives an impression very contrary to that given by the humble iron knife and belt fittings, which, taken by themselves, point to "low" status. The horns, by complete contrast, demand comparison with those other AngloSaxon graves that have produced pairs of horns, notably Taplow and Sutton Hoo mound 1, the two richest known Anglo-Saxon graves.
As the fourth definite AngloSaxon boat grave to be excavated, the new Snape boat is clearly a find of considerable importance for our understanding of the rite of boat burial. Hitherto, boat burial has been seen as an extravagant status symbol, but one that demonstrates a link with Vendel Sweden. The new boat, however, casts doubt on such explanations by contradicting in every way the previous finds.
Thus its 3m length and dugout construction contrasts with the 27m clinker-built splendour of the Sutton Hoo ship and with the 14 metres of the 1862 Snape ship; the curious mixture of rich and humble in the grave goods contrasts with the unequivocally "high-status" objects from the Sutton Hoo and Snape ship burials; and finally its closest parallels lie not in the great Swedish boat grave cemeteries of Vendel and Valsgarde but rather among the rather earlier Roman Iron Age logboat graves from Slusegard on the Baltic island of Bornholm.
These contrasts make it impossible to fit the new Snape boat into the previously held ideas of the rite of boat burial but demand a new explanation. How can one explain why, in an area where it is likely that a substantial proportion of the population owned a boat, only a very few end up actually buried in one? In the case of the Slusegard boats, it was suggested that burial in a boat symbolised adherence to a specific family of pagan Germanic deities, one of the members of which, in the Viking period, possessed the magic ship Skidbladnir.
Such a theory can be applied more widely to Snape. We have already seen that the boat is just one of several types of container used in inhumation burials. Further variety of burial rite can be seen in the placing of pieces of charred wood in the grave and in the wide variety of body positions. Even more notable is that inhumation and cremation were both practiced at the same time - as we can demonstrate stratigraphically.
Anglo-Saxon archaeologists have in the past been curiously reluctant to put such variation down to religious belief, preferring instead to explain even the co-existence of cremation and inhumation as differing social status. The new boat burial from Snape has shown that this rite can more plausibly be explained by religious belief. It is logical to go on from this to account for all the other variations in a similar way and see them as demonstrating a rich variety in pagan religious belief about death.
The general impression of preChristian Anglo-Saxon belief, epitomized by the label of "paganism", is that it was a religion without variety or genuine conviction. The evidence of the Snape boat suggests that this impression may be a false one.
William Filmer-Sankey, Institute of Archaeology, 36 Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PG