Figure of an Anglo-Saxon man

About the object

© Norwich Castle

A unique figure

This little figure made of pottery sits on the lid of a burial urn that contained the cremated bones of an early Anglo-Saxon inhabitant of East Anglia. The urn was buried in a cemetery on Spong Hill in Norfolk. Known as Spong Man, he is the only three-dimensional human figure from this period found in England and one of only two found in Europe. Spong Man may have represented the deceased person or a character from mythology guarding over them; some archaeologists think that his purpose may be to lend a continuing bodily presence to the burned remains of the person placed in the urn.

The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons

We might ask how the Anglo-Saxon person whose remains were in the urn sealed by Spong Man came to be in Britain. The traditional explanation takes a simple approach to change, based on literary sources such as Gildas, a British monk writing in Brittany in the AD 500s, and Bede, a monk writing in the northeast of England around AD 700. This identifies mass migrations of Germanic peoples - Angles, Saxons and Jutes - from northern Germany and southern Denmark, who in the mid-400s AD invaded eastern and south-eastern England, wiped out the British or drove them west, and formed a number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Most archaeologists and historians nowadays would accept that that explanation is too simple, but still differ as to the size of the migration that created a dominant Germanic culture in Britain.

The argument for more gradual change reminds us that there had been an element of Germanic presence in Britain for centuries, perhaps even before the Roman invasion. Certainly a large number of the auxiliary regiments of the Roman army, which had the main responsibility for garrisoning the province, were formed of Germanic troops. Many of these may have settled in Britain after their discharge from the army. The recruitment of Germanic troops increased in the AD 300s in response to external pressure on Roman Britain, which had been developing during the previous century when forts were built along the east coast from north Norfolk to Sussex. According to this argument, with the weakening of the Romano-British elite following the withdrawal of Rome, it only needed the arrival of small groups of self-assertive invaders to tilt the balance of culture. While some Romano-British were killed resisting and others probably did move away, it is likely that the majority remained and from this co-existence with the newcomers a new Anglo-Saxon culture emerged.

Burials reveal change

The cemetery from which Spong Man comes was very large. The earliest burial in the cemetery dates from around AD 400 – 420 with around 2500 burials through to about AD 600. It is thought that the size of the cemetery indicates that it served several Anglo-Saxon settlements in the area. Almost all the burials are cremations, with the ashes of the dead placed in patterned urns and then buried. This demonstrates a clear change from that of the Christian Romano-Britons who disapproved of cremation and buried their dead in graves – these are called inhumations. In addition, it was not Christian practice to place grave goods in the burials, whereas the cremation burials contained a wealth of objects such as brooches, beads and other jewellery, spinning and weaving tools, weapons, toilet items such as tweezers and combs, gaming pieces and different sorts of vessels including glass beakers. Grave goods were usually burned. Complete objects are rare but some include specially made miniatures such as combs that were put into the pot after the body was burned.

In part of the cemetery a very small number, only 56, inhumations have been found. These burials date from the mid- to late AD 500s and do contain grave goods. They serve to remind us of the diversity and changeability of human behaviour and cultural practices.

More information

Spong Hill excavations
Norfolk Heritage Explorer on the Spong Hill excavations and Anglo-Saxon cemeteries.

Spong Hill artifacts
Summary of the wealth of artefacts excavated at Spong Hill on the Cornucopia website.

Anglo-Saxon England
Article from the British Museum website about Anglo-Saxon England with ten objects to click through and a link to the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Kent.

The peoples of Britain
Article from BBC History.

The beginnings of Anglo-Saxon England


Early Anglo-Saxon Britain
Article from BBC History about the early years of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain, and the conversion of kingdoms to Christianity.

Roman Britons after AD 410
Article from British Archaeology magazine about the continuation of Roman identity and British Christianity after the departure of the Roman.

Next section: A bigger picture

Figure of an Anglo-Saxon man