Härke, Angelsächsische Waffengräber des 5. bis 7. Jahrhunderts
Annotation author: Stabel, Andrea
Book author: Härke, Heinrich

Heinrich Härke, Angelsächsische Waffengräber des 5. bis 7. Jahrhunderts (Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters, Beiheft 6), Köln 1992

„Angelsächsische Waffengräber des 5. bis 7. Jahrhunderts“ is Heinrich Härke’s dissertation, submitted at the Georg-August-University in Göttingen in 1988 and published in 1992. After various teaching activities in Great Britain and Germany as well as research in Russia and Kazakhstan, he has been an honorary professor at the University of Tübingen since 2010.

In the work at hand, Härke deals with the furniture of weapons in early Saxon graves and correlates the accessible archaeological and anthropological data as well as the written sources in a total of eight chapters. At the beginning he emphasizes that his work is not material- but problem-oriented (p. 15), which is evident not least from the lack of illustrations. The material, however, is summarized in numerous tables and a catalogue of the cemeteries covered.

In the introductory chapter Härke explains the historical background of the topic and the terms used in his work. A detailed overview of the theoretical and methodological approaches in Anglo-American and continental research follows in the next chapter on research history. He investigates their advantages and disadvantages, contrasts them, and then outlines the implications for his own work.

In the second chapter, he first devotes himself to the historical sources on the types of weapons in Anglo-Saxon sources – primarily heroic poems, but also Anglo-Saxon chronicles and the works of Beda Venerabilis and Gilda – and tries to evaluate their importance based on the frequency of mentions of each weapon type. It goes without saying that this approach is problematic due to the varying tendencies within the writings. This is then followed by observations on the correlations between weapons and social structures. Here, Härke looks into the structure of the Anglo-Saxon society, and especially the role of the so-called “Gefolgschaft” (retinue), the possession of weapons, the relation to the age of the buried and the manner of war or fighting.

The third chapter deals with the archaeological material. Härke explains the preliminaries of the samples used and evaluates them. Due to the lack of weapons in cremations, these are excluded. In total, Härke works with 3814 male body burials from 47 cemeteries. 702 of those burials were furnished with one or more weapons as grave furniture.

In order to be able to correlate the progression of the furniture with weapons, Härke deals with the Anglo-Saxon chronology in the following Chapter 4. In contrast to its continental counterparts, it can unfortunately be defined less sharply. Dating to the 7th century often cannot be broken down more precisely: a circumstance that holds up obstacles for further evaluation.

Such evaluation takes place in the following chapters. In the first, “Waffenbeigabe und archäologische Daten” (“Furniture of weapons and archaeological data”), the grave complex, its other objects and the chorological and chronological distribution of weapons in each cemetery are examined. Here he also works out 25 possible weapon combinations, which can be grouped into six weapon combination groups (“Kombinationsgruppen”). In the following chapter „Waffenbeigabe und anthropologische Daten“ (“Furniture of weapons and anthropological data”), Härke correlates the weapon furniture with age, body height, epigenetic features and pathologic agents and suggests various threshold ages.

The actual focus and the most important part of the work lies, however, in the last chapter, containing the final considerations. Here Härke emphasizes that the climax of the weapon furniture lies in a period (early to mid-6th century) that can be described as peaceful, in striking contrast to the sheer amount of weapons furnished. After the aforementioned period, the custom constantly wanes. Härke thus deduces that the real meaning of the weapon furniture does not lie in their actual usage and the identification of the buried as a warrior. Rather, they were used to emphasize the (high ranking) warrior status. This is also supported by the fact that the number and the quality of weapons correlates with the value of other objects in the grave. Moreover, the choice of weapons is not always to be addressed as functional armament and thus does not necessarily reflect the manner of combat. In contradiction to this conclusion, however, Härke tries to draw this exact connection afterwards – to little avail.

All in all, the work still represents substantial value for the archaeological research of the cultures of war, not least because of some findings being highly comparable to the Reihengräberfelder of the Merovingian Franconian Empire. Above all, the realisation of the symbolic meaning of weapons made a great contribution to the research of the early medieval warrior class.