"'Eavedrip' Graves and the Treatment of Infant Burials in Early Christian England"
Seminar by Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins
Report by Claire Hyland
The lecture given by Dr. Elizabeth Craig-Atkins from the University of Sheffield was on the topic of infant burial customs in Early Christian England and how the Eave-Drip graves of infants may have been considered a form of posthumous baptism in a world of high infant mortality. Throughout Early Christian England, centered on the 7th-12th centuries, infant burials were often found clustered around the walls of churches. It has been suggested that by placing the infant burials near to the eaves of churches, it was hoped that the rain water that flowed down the roof would be sanctified by its contact with the church and would drench the infant burials in posthumous baptism, thereby ensuring a guaranteed place in heaven for the very young who perished early in life. Such burials usually revolve around infants under 1 year and who were stillborn or died soon after birth.
Throughout the lecture, Dr. Craig-Atkins stressed the importance of viewing the Eave-Drip in its proper historical context in order to fully understand how and why such burial sites were utilised especially for infants. She stated that studies of childhood in archaeology have the potential to focus on explorations of the life course of an early medieval child and its significance. Despite the evidence that very young children were treated differently in funerary customs, the topic has not received enough archaeological attention. In the early medieval period, infants were often buried in unusual locations and burial forms. The Dorchester Roman town house (4th-5th A.D.) is such an example. In osteological data, assessment of age at death is very accurate (the exception being stillborns or those who died shortly after birth) although telling the gender of an infant is incredibly difficult to determine without the use of DNA. Such assertions are based on dental data, epiphyseal fusion and bone length.
In Raunds Furnell’s hypothesis on the treatment of infant burials in early medieval England, he discovered that children under two years were often buried close to the church and that such a practise originated in the 11th century. He referred to such burials as ‘Eave-Drip Graves’ and noted that the infant burials were clustered around 1.5m within the church walls and that most were under a year old with Hereford, Pontefract and Spofforth being examples. However, the theory of eave-drip burials has received criticism. Recovery bias such as the failure to properly identify juvenile bones and a lack of a satisfactory explanation behind spatial patterning has been cited as to elucidate non-ritual explanations for the phenomenon of eave-drip burials. Taphonomy, which states that infants are often buried in smaller, shallower graves than adults and that selective preservation will often leave only certain remains behind, is suggested as an alternative to eave-drip graves. However these factors, as Dr. Craig-Atkins notes, only take into consideration preservation which does not create eaves-drips patterns. Demographic factors, such as peaks in infant mortality and there being few examples of multiple eaves-drip burials, may explain their quantity but not their unusual location in the early medieval churchyards.
Eaves-drip burials are seen as a further reinforcement of the baptism ritual and to ensure that the unlucky infants receive a place in heaven. Although early Christian writers are extremely poor at documenting funerary rites and the relevance of baptism was questioned at times, baptism was important enough for the county of Wessex in 640 A.D to pass a law insisting that all infants over 30 days be baptised. Regarding infant burials there seems to be a broad cultural distinction between infants and older children especially in regards to speech and independence. Rites of passage associated with children seem to have been the advent of speech, limited independence and the cessation of breastfeeding all of which occur around the age of two. Were children who passed the age of two therefore considered to be more valuable in terms of how they were buried? Is there a connection between the onset of speech in children and the alteration in funerary patterns? Were eave-drip burials reflections of an early Christian community attempting to echo negative connotations on the deaths of very young children? All in all, the subject of infant burials in early medieval England is fascinating, engaging and justly deserves more research and analysis with regard to its archaeological value.