In the 5th century the principal means of disposing of the dead was by cremation, the practice of burning the corpse. The ashes were placed in handmade earthenware urns. The pots may have been closed with stoppers made from organic material, but a few urns with pottery lids have been excavated, reflecting a continental tradition likely to have been imported to England alongside other aspects of the cremation rite. A few lids may have been highly ornate, as shown by this remarkable example shaped as a seated figure.
This urn lid was found during excavations at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk, within the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. It had become separated from its urn, but the size of the rim shows that it must have belonged to a large, narrow-necked vessel. When complete, the decorated urn and its lid would probably have stood about 35 cm tall.
This figure is unique among surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon pottery and the closest parallels are from north Germany. Although popularly called ‘Spong Man’, the figure has no features to define its sex. It is one of very few three-dimensional representations of humanoid figures from the entire Anglo-Saxon period, although an emerging group of small metal figurines provides some points of comparison. It may be that the Spong Hill urn lid is an example of many other representational depictions of the human figure in art of this period and long since lost.