Symbols of gender
Perhaps the most distinctive objects to be placed in women’s graves of the early Anglo-Saxon period are girdle-hangers, which imitate the shape of keys or latch-lifters. They were made from metal, usually iron but sometimes copper alloy, and hung from a belt around the waist called a girdle.
Although the girdle-hanger was not an actual key or latch-lifter, it seems to symbolise the idea that women controlled access to the home. Other items could also be hung from the girdle, like shears, steels for sharpening blades or for making fire, needle cases and even spoons. When we look at these objects alongside others found more often in women’s graves than in men’s, we can see a distinction based on gender that locates the woman firmly within the home.
Men’s graves generally contain weapons and pieces of armour as well as objects related to gaming and feasting. Apart from the objects already mentioned, other objects typically buried with women are spindle-whorls – used as weights for drop-spindles to spin yarn from wool - and amulets made from, for instance, cowrie shells and boar’s tusks. Taken together these objects suggest that women would be responsible for cutting hair, sharpening knives or lighting fires, mending and embroidering clothes, spinning yarn and weaving cloth, and may have taken care of the health and spiritual well-being of the family too.
The life of women
While the symbolism of the objects buried with women locates their main responsibilities in the home and family, one notable exception was the preparation of food, which was done by men. Women prepared and served the drink. The nature of life for any particular woman depended on her social class. In the home, women from higher social groups probably took on a more supervisory rather than practical role, and could be literate and well-educated. Women of lower status must have been involved in any activities required to maintain the household and its well-being. Scientific analysis has shown that there are often signs of osteoarthritis in women’s bones from a much earlier age than we would expect today. This suggests that they undertook very physical work, alongside men, tending animals, churning butter, chopping wood, weeding the fields and helping with the harvest
We know from historical sources such as wills and court records that women were allowed to own their own property independent of their husbands and could divorce their husbands and take their children with them. They also had some say in whether or not they would marry a chosen husband and maintained some rights over their dowry after marriage. For all women, of course, mortality rates were high due to the dangers of childbirth.
The early Anglo-Saxons still held pagan beliefs, whereas the Romano-British people they came into contact had been Christian and were usually buried with no grave goods, rejecting the display of wealth in death. When Anglo-Saxons died they were either cremated and the burned remains buried with objects, or they were placed in an inhumation grave (unburned) with their goods alongside. The woman who was accompanied by this girdle-hanger was inhumed and was also buried with a brooch and a pin with three spangles that would have jingled as she walked - it may have been worn in the hair or to secure a cloak.
Judging from the quality of this girdle-hanger with its finely made animal heads and her other grave goods, the woman buried in Searby was clearly of high status. The objects people were buried with reflected their status in life and their wish to continue this in the afterlife. It was also an opportunity for grieving relatives to celebrate the character and accomplishments of the deceased, while demonstrating how much wealth they could afford to be committed to the earth and never retrieved.
Article on the British Museum website about the Searby girdle-hanger.
Information about a project exploring Anglo-Saxon girdle-hangers with images of dozens of girdle-hangers.
Article on the British Museum website about the Anglo-Saxons.
The role of Anglo-Saxon women