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Book review: The Bone Chests: Unlocking the secrets of Anglo-Saxons by Cat Jarman

19 April 2024

Gabriel Byng looks at the story of the Anglo-Saxon bone chests

USING material objects to tell episodic histories has become something of a favoured literary form since Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. Cat Jarman’s book adopts this format to organise the story of late-Anglo Saxon and early Norman England, using the “bone chests” in Winchester Cathedral, six mostly 16th-century boxes filled with the partial remains of 23 people all dating to this period. It is, in other words, the story of the kingdoms that emerged after the fall of the Roman Empire, Viking raids, the consolidation of Wessex and later of England, and then of 1066 and all that.

As a primer on seventh- to 11th-century English political history, the book is exemplary, clearly written, explicit about sources, and judicious with interpretation. Jarman’s accounts of the archaeological evidence are especially interesting, sensitive and constantly linked to broader historical contexts. There are good surveys of historiographical debates and academic but succinct discussions of how textual, archaeological, and scientific evidence may be combined. Although this is a history dominated by powerful men, Jarman turns her attention regularly to gender, or at least to some notable female aristocrats, and broader social or cultural questions.

The chests themselves make only infrequent appearances — and, indeed, their contents are so mysterious that there is little way to hang a narrative off them. They are labelled with the names of some protagonists of Jarman’s story, but their contents are jumbled, and DNA evidence does not yet provide a single conclusive identification. Even the labels are out of chronological order, which makes them an unideal skeleton for organising a linear history. The chests themselves offer slim pickings for evocative forays into the material culture of the past. They date, in any case, to long after their contents.

author’s collectionThe Winchester Cathedral mortuary chest referred to in the book as Chest Five, and considered to hold remains of Wini, Cnut, Ælfwyn, Emma, and Rufus. One of the photos used in the book

Each chapter starts with a fictional sketch from some period of the chests’ later history, intended presumably to lend variety to what is otherwise a strictly chronological narrative; but this mostly post-medieval history plays a distinctively second fiddle to Jarman’s central focus on Anglo-Saxon politics. The stories themselves are long on picturesque scenes written in the historical present, with plenty of “jostling for space”, “looming threats”, “gingerly turning the precious pages”, and so on.

Other excursions into the modern day — confusingly, sometimes in italics, sometimes not — explain how particular material objects were recovered or analysed. These are some of the most gripping parts of the book, with the verve and intrigue of an episode of CSI. Jarman is an excellent guide both to technologies that have often emerged only in recent years, and to the ingenuity of the scientists who use them to generate new historical knowledge.

Dr Gabriel Byng is a Fellow at the University of Vienna. He is the author of
Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages (CUP, 2017).


The Bone Chests: Unlocking the secrets of Anglo-Saxons
Cat Jarman
William Collins £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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