Friday, January 30, 2009


The quoit from the south. Trethevy Quoit at St Cleer in Cornwall is a portal dolmen of localized Penwith type. It stands more than 3 m. (3.3 yd) high on its southern side.

The portal dolmen of Dyffryn Ardudwy, Merioneth. The original dolmen is left of centre. Later the tomb was enlarged by the addition of the eastern chamber and rectangular mound. The smaller drawings show cross-sections of the west and east chambers. (After Lynch, 1969)

In the west and north of Britain the place of the earthen long barrows with wooden chambers was taken by megalithic structures utilizing the local building stone—megalithic means ‘great stones’. The earliest tombs were probably portal dolmens. These are usually small, free-standing stone chambers with few or no circular mounds or stone cairns around them. The chambers are rectangular, becoming lower and narrower towards the rear. A sloping roofstone rests on two portal stones which mark the entrance and project beyond the chamber to form a porch. Between these two stones is a third septal or blocking slab, which often reaches up to the roofstone and acts, in theory at least, as a door. In parts of west Wales tombs can be found in which these features are no longer very obvious, suggesting that the type has a long uninterrupted history of devolution.

Today most portal dolmens are in a ruinous state. Sweyne’s Howe North in Glamorgan has all the typical components but the capstone has slipped backwards and the blocking slab has fallen forwards. Modern excavations have taken place at Trefignath and Din Dryfol in Anglesey and at Dyffryn Ardudwy in Merioneth. At the latter site a complete portal dolmen with a Vshaped forecourt was examined (fig. 20). In the disturbed chamber only one cremation burial remained, whilst in a pit beneath the forecourt were many fragments of plain-bowl style neolithic pottery. The whole tomb was originally enclosed in an oval cairn of stones. Sometime later a new and larger rectangular burial chamber, measuring 2 m. (2.2 yd) by 1.5 m. (1.6 yd) and not dissimilar to a portal dolmen, was constructed 10 m. (11 yd) east of the first. (Its contents had been robbed before the excavation.) Eventually, when access to neither burial chamber was required, a rectangular cairn of stones 30 m. (33 yd) long was constructed to enclose both tombs.

The Whispering Knights near the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire is a ruined portal dolmen, as is Kit’s Coty House, an outlier in Kent. Related but not exactly similar tombs can be found in Cornwall where they are sometimes called Penwith chamber tombs, and of which Trethevy Quoit is the best example.

It has been suggested that whether built of wood or stone the burial chambers imitate the houses of the living, and that in them not only would the remains of the dead lie in perpetuity but also their spirits could dwell and watch over the living. Indeed the position of many of the tombs on hilltops might be a clue as to the location of neolithic settlement. It is dangerous to suggest modern parallels but perhaps the majority of tombs served a function more akin to medieval parish churches, in that they provided a structure in which to perform religious ceremonial and at the same time were the burial places of a small, selective group of the parish dead, added to only occasionally over hundreds of years.

Broadly speaking the chambered tombs of Britain can be divided into two groups, first recognized by Glyn Daniel, and known as gallery and passage graves. The gallery graves consist of long stone passages either divided into sections with cross (septal) slabs, or with chambers on either side. They normally occur in rectangular mounds. Passage graves have longish passages, opening into a round or rectangular chamber at the end; there is usually a circular covering mound. These occur mostly in western and northern Britain.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Star Carr. This seems to have been a minor lake-side platform, not the main camp for the area, from which everyday activities such as hunting, fishing and preparing food and skins was carried out. (Tracey Croft)

Britain’s best-known Mesolithic site, Star Carr, was examined by Professor J.G.D.Clark between 1949 and 1951. It lay on the western edge of the Vale of Pickering, about 3 km south of Seamer (Yorks), on the shore of a former lake that is now filled with peat. The lake had been surrounded by birch trees, and some of these had been cleared and used to build a rough platform of branches and brushwood, on to which lumps of turf and stones had been thrown. The surface was too eroded to leave any trace of dwellings, but these were probably built of skins over a framework of poles or woven reeds. By recording the density of waste material such as bones and flint flakes it was possible to estimate the approximate area occupied, something like 200 m. (219 yd) square, and it was deduced that this would have been utilized by four or five families, perhaps two dozen people. The site was probably an activity area visited from time to time by folk primarily engaged in the food quest, hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants, as well as manufacturing tools and weapons and working skins for clothes.

Examination of the bones found shows that red deer were the main animals hunted, followed by roe deer, elk and wild oxen. There is evidence to show that the animals were selectively culled, perhaps to preserve the strength of the stock. Wild pig also contributed to the diet of the inhabitants; water birds played a small part, and almost certainly fish, though their bones have not been preserved. The bones of a small dog were also found. Plenty of evidence for the use of the bow and spears was present in the form of pointed microliths and barbed bone and antler points. Red deer antlers had been utilized in various ways. Many had deep V-shaped grooves cut into them with sharply pointed flint burins to provide longitudinal splinters which were then carved with barbed points along one edge for harpoons.

The fronts of a number of deer skulls with parts of the antlers still attached seem to have been worn by the men as hunting masks. Holes were cut into the frontlets for attaching to the head and the insides had been hollowed-out to make them light to wear. Whether they were used as decoys, or for magical, ceremonial purposes, perhaps as still remembered in the Abbotts Bromley horn dance, we are unlikely ever to know. Objects identified as ‘mattock heads’ were manufactured from elk antler. A high proportion of flint scrapers for cleaning skins suggests that clothes of animal fur were almost certainly worn, and Star Carr has provided beads of perforated amber, lias and deer teeth as decoration.

The waterlogged nature of the site allowed the preservation of bracket fungus, possibly used for tinder, and rolls of birch bark, perhaps used to make containers or as a source of resin. A wooden paddle (or spade?) suggests that canoes were available, although none were found at the site. Such a canoe is known from Friarton in Perthshire dated to about 6500 BC. The radiocarbon date for Star Carr is around 7500 BC.

Professor Clark saw Star Carr as a winter base camp from which the hunters made their way to the high moors in summer. Today specialists think it more likely to have been used only temporarily between late spring and early summer, and to have been only one of many encampments in that part of east Yorkshire. It is likely that hunting groups travelled 80–160 km (50–100 miles) during the year, following the movements of herds of red deer, and camping at familiar stopping places beside crags or streams, that were used time and again, year after year. The length of their stay at each camp was dependent on the amount of food available, not only to man, but to the animals he hunted as well. Excavation of moorland sites shows the same familiar range of microlithic tools, though the heavy axes are usually missing, probably reflecting environmental differences to the lowland areas. In southern Britain a few rock-shelters were occupied, typified by the site at High Rocks in Sussex. As people followed their traditional routes paths formed, fording places were established and sources of raw material were exploited. Gradually a network of well-worn trackways emerged which were ancestral to those of later prehistoric times.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Excavation of the fortifications in the western precinct of the oppidum at Staré Hradisko, Czech Republic, in 1990


Iron Age fortifications, like those of other periods, are best understood as directly related to a given society’s battle techniques/traditions. This is the common-sense view and was, until recently, the usual archaeological interpretation, since it is clear that innovations in weapons technology have often given rise to basic changes in the development of defensive earthworks. However, experts now increasingly recognize ancient fortifications also as important cultural statements which define group identity and status. Thus, each defensive structure must be viewed in its social and economic context, since it may have served as a demarcation of ethnic, economic, political, social, or territorial boundaries, but might have alternatively or also stood as a marker of power and prestige. Advanced types of composite ramparts, such as the murus gallicus (see below), together with their often imposing gateway constructions, must be viewed as monumental elements of the Celtic hill-fort or oppidum.

The majority of fortifications date from the later Hallstatt period (c. 700–c. 475 bc) and Earlier and Later La Tène (c. 475 bc until Romanization). Continuous settlement at such sites was rare (e.g. Závist in the Czech Republic, see Boii), with a hiatus often occurring during the Middle La Tène period (c. 350–c. 200 bc).

Late Hallstatt and Early La Tène fortifications rarely exceed 30–40 ha (72–100 acres) and are mostly situated on naturally protected high plateaux. Defensive circuits of ramparts on islands and plateaux, as well as promontory sites partially defended by natural features (such as the sea or sheer cliffs), and the more typical hill-forts with single or multiple rings of defences have been discovered.

Rampart Types

Besides simple earthen ‘dump’ ramparts and dry-stone walls, other techniques of defensive construction attested at late prehistoric sites include simple wattleand- daub structures with palisaded walls and wooden box-type constructions, such as that found at Biskupin in Poland. By the Iron Age, more advanced methods of defensive construction had developed. The clay brick construction employed at the Heuneburg with its bastions is unique and does not seem to have been of great influence. It appears to have been an imitation of such techniques in use in the classical world, and will not be dealt with here. The main construction methods employed on Continental and southern British hill-forts and oppida are outlined below:

(1) The Altkönig-Preist type rampart was constructed of vertical wooden posts inserted in a drystone wall. These vertical timbers were exposed in the outer face of the rampart and, less often, in the inner face. The posts were earth-bound or supported on stone slabs positioned about 1–3 m apart. The thickness of the rampart varied between 3.5 m and 6 m. One variation of this method was the use of horizontal wooden beams, arranged lengthwise and crosswise, to link the vertical posts, with the space in between filled with a mixture of stone and soil. This type was prevalent in a region stretching approximately from the northern edge of the Alps in the south to Luxembourg in the north.

(2) The Kelheim-type rampart was a vertical post and stone panel-work arrangement, similar to the Altkönig-Preist type, but much simplified, with only one layer of horizontal beams anchored into the earthen rampart. In this form of rampart the inner face was often ramped gradually down to the ground level of the interior. This construction technique was mostly utilized in the eastern part of the La Téne cultural area.

(3) The Ehrang-type rampart was constructed of horizontal beams arranged lengthwise and crosswise and anchored to a stone wall which formed the defensive exterior, with the ends of the beams running crosswise through the rampart, visible in its outer face. The dry-stone facing of the outer walls was generally only a course or two thick and could not have survived any length of time without the timber-laced backing of earth.

(4) The murus gallicus technique described in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (‘Gallic War’) is a variant of the latter Ehrang type. In this type, the lengthwise and crosswise beams were fixed together at the point where they passed over one another by using large iron spikes. The bulk of the rampart was filled in with rammed soil and, as with the Kelheim-type rampart, the inner face was often ramped gradually down to the ground level of the interior. This type was first noted by Caesar at the siege of Avaricum in 52 bc and appears to have been popular in western Gaul. In this case, the deep ditch, which often lay immediately outside the rampart, sometimes possessed a near vertical inner edge, which was combined with the outer face of the rampart to form a sheer obstacle several metres high. Modern estimates based on excavated examples suggest that up to 700 man-hours may have been required for the construction of each metre length of such ramparts. Several other variants on timber-laced ramparts composed of stone and earth—such as the Kastenbau type, the Fécamp type and the Basel-Münsterberg type—have also been identified by archaeologists.


Besides simple entrance gaps in the walls accompanied by short passageways, several more elaborate gateway layouts are known. The typical gate was the zangentor, the pincer-gate, in which the gate passage narrowed towards the inside. The passageway, which frequently assumed a funnel shape, often had two lanes and was secured by a gatehouse (e.g. Závist, Bohemia, and Manching, Bavaria) or a gate tower (e.g. La Chaussée- Tirancourt, France). Otherwise, towers are rather rare. At their entrance point, gates could be as wide as 15 m (e.g. Bibracte, France; Titelberg, Luxembourg), but there were also very narrow passages with a width of only about 2.5 m (e.g. Kelheim, Bavaria). At several sites the entrance way featured extra walls or ‘hornworks’, which extended outwards from the main defences at a right angle near the gateway, thereby extending the passageway to the entrance considerably and, as a result, the exposure time of attackers to the efforts of the defenders (e.g. Danebury, Dorset).

Further reading

Bibracte; Boii; Caesar; Danebury; Gaul; Hallstatt; Heuneburg; Iron Age; Kelheim; La Tène; Manching; oppidum; Titelberg; Buchsenschutz et al., Les remparts de Bibracte; Collis, Celtic World 159–75; Collis, Defended Sites of the Late La Tène in Central and Western Europe; Collis, Oppida; Dehn, Celticum 3.329–86; Dehn, Germania 38.43–55, 47.165–8; Fichtl, La ville celtique; Furger-Gunti, Jahrbuch der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Ur- und Frühgeschichte 63.131–84; Guichard et al., Les processus d’urbanisation à l’Âge du fer; Harding, Hillforts; Leicht, Die Wallanlagen des Oppidums Alkimoennis/Kelheim; Metzler, Das treverische Oppidum auf dem Titelberg; Meylan, Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde 20.388–91; Moor, Spätkeltische Zeit am südlichen Oberrhein 22–8; Motyková et al., Archaeology in Bohemia 1986–1990 115–25; Ralston, Celtic World 59–81; Sievers, Manching; Urban, Der lange Weg zur Geschichte 332–68.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Saxons - Archaeological evidence

Archaeological evidence has a great potential for reconstructing the nature of the Anglo-Saxon settlements and the circumstances in which kingdoms developed. However, archaeologists have naturally been influenced in their interpretation of the material from settlement sites and cemeteries by the surviving written sources, although currently there is a greater appreciation of the written material’s evident inadequacies. It has been realized for some time that the date of around the middle of the fifth century for the Saxon adventus, which Bede derived from his reading of Gildas, was too specific. Germanic settlement in Britain may have begun before the end of the fourth century and seems to have continued throughout the fifth century and probably into the sixth century. Nevertheless Gildas’ explanation of why the Anglo-Saxons were allowed to settle in Britain has remained very influential. Confirmation of the use of Anglo-Saxons as federate troops has been seen as coming from burials of Anglo-Saxons wearing military equipment of a type issued to late Roman forces which have been found both in late Roman contexts, such as the Roman cemeteries of Winchester and Colchester, and in purely ‘Anglo-Saxon’ rural cemeteries like Mucking (Essex). The distribution of the earliest Anglo-Saxon sites and place-names in close proximity to Roman settlements and roads has been interpreted as showing that initial Anglo-Saxon settlements were being controlled by the Romano-British. However, it is not necessary to see all the early settlers as federate troops and this interpretation has been used rather too readily by some archaeologists. A variety of relationships could have existed between Romano-British and incoming Anglo-Saxons.

The broader archaeological picture suggests that no one model will explain all the Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain and that there was considerable regional variation. Settlement density varied within southern and eastern England. Norfolk has more large Anglo-Saxon cemeteries than the neighbouring East Anglian county of Suffolk; eastern Yorkshire (the nucleus of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Deira) far more than the rest of Northumbria. The settlers were not all of the same type. Some were indeed warriors who were buried equipped with their weapons, but we should not assume that all of these were invited guests who were to guard Romano-British communities. Many, like the later Viking settlers, may have begun as piratical raiders who later seized land and made permanent settlements. Other settlers seem to have been much humbler people who had few if any weapons and suffered from malnutrition. These have been characterized by one archaeologist as Germanic ‘boat people’, refugees from crowded settlements on the North Sea which deteriorating climatic conditions would have made untenable. The settlers were of varied racial origins. In one of his additions to Gildas’ narrative Bede says that the settlers came from:

Three very powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. The people of Kent and the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight are of Jutish origin and also those opposite the Isle of Wight… From the Saxon country…

came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons. Besides this, from the country of the Angles…came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all the Northumbrian race.

Bede’s account is in part a rationalization from the political situation of his own day, but he does seem to have been broadly correct in identifying the main North Sea provinces from which the bulk of the Germanic settlers in Britain came and their main areas of settlement within Britain, though the artefact evidence for Jutish settlement is less substantial than that for the Angles and Saxons. However, archaeology reveals that the detailed picture is more complex. There seems to have been considerable racial admixture in all areas reflected in variations in dress and burial custom. ‘Mixed’ cemeteries, in which both cremation and inhumation were practised, occur throughout southern and eastern England. Other Germanic peoples also settled in Britain, as Bede acknowledged in a later passage in the Ecclesiastical History. Scandinavian settlers have been located in East Anglia and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard, and there seems to have been some Frankish settlement south of the Thames. However, there is always a difficulty in deciding whether archaeological material from a specific area of Europe is an indicator of movement of peoples from that area to Britain or merely of trade or gift-exchange of various commodities. Although there does seem to have been some Frankish settlement in Britain, the bulk of the Frankish material which has been recovered is more likely to reflect the close links which existed between Francia and south-eastern England, and Kent in particular, in the sixth century.

But what was happening to the Romano-British population while the Germanic settlement of Britain was taking place? Archaeology has been particularly useful in showing that many Roman communities throughout Britain experienced substantial changes during the fourth century before Anglo-Saxon settlement began. The changes appear to have included a shift from an urban to a rural-based economy. In Wroxeter (Salop) and Exeter stone town houses were replaced in the late fourth and early fifth centuries by simpler, flimsier buildings made entirely of timber, while some areas of the towns were abandoned altogether or were farmed. Comparable drastic changes seem to have occurred in towns like Canterbury and Winchester in the eastern half of the country. The eventual result was the virtual abandonment within Britain during the fifth century of towns as centres of population. Some rural villas initially gained advantage from the changing economic circumstances, but there are also signs of villas being adapted in the fourth and fifth centuries to become more self-sufficient. At Frocester (Gloucs) and Rivenhall (Essex) the villa buildings were allowed to decay or were turned into barns while new timber buildings, more typical of the early Middle Ages, were erected. Although attacks by Anglo-Saxons (and in the west of Britain by Irish) exacerbated a difficult situation, they did not cause it, as Gildas’ account seems to imply. The complex problems which caused the decline of the Roman empire affected the inhabitants of Britain well before Anglo-Saxon settlement began on any scale, and, by the time the Anglo-Saxons arrived, the Romano-British inhabitants had already begun to adapt themselves to a way of life that can be described as ‘early medieval’. By the end of the fifth century different settlement patterns are discernible between eastern Britain (which had been settled by Anglo-Saxons) and western Britain (which had not). One sign of changing circumstances in the west of Britain was the re-emergence of hill-top settlements which, it has been argued by Leslie Alcock in particular, may have functioned as chieftain centres and be linked with the emergent British kingdoms we can dimly discern in the written sources. The reoccupation of the impressive Iron Age hill-fort of South Cadbury (Som) is a good example of the type. The whole of the innermost rampart of nearly 1100 m in length was refortified in the subRoman period and a substantial timber hall built on the highest point in the interior. Yet there were very few finds of artefacts from the South Cadbury excavations, and this helps to explain why the British generally have proved very hard to detect in the subRoman period. After the Romano-British lost access to Roman industrial products, they become all but invisible in the archaeological record as they were no longer using on any scale artefacts which were diagnostically Romano-British or, at least, not of a type that survives in the soil. The Britons of the West Country received the occasional consignment of pottery from Mediterranean kilns brought by foreign traders; the Britons in the east presumably made use of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen. We should not assume that every owner of an artefact of ‘Germanic’ type in eastern England was of Germanic descent.

In fact, the majority of the people who lived in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms must have been of Romano-British descent. The large pagan Anglo-Saxon cemeteries like Spong Hill (Norfolk) which contained over three thousand burials, might at first sight seem to suggest that Anglo-Saxon settlement was on such a substantial scale that the native British population would have been completely overwhelmed by the newcomers—which is rather what Gildas seems to imply. However, when it is remembered that these cemeteries were in use in many cases for upwards of two hundred years it is apparent that the communities they served cannot have been that numerous; Spong Hill may have serviced a population of approximately four to five hundred people, though these would appear to have been dispersed over a wide area of countryside, rather than concentrated within one settlement. Outside eastern England and Kent it is rare to find a cemetery of more than one hundred burials and, even allowing for the fact that the most westerly shires were not conquered until after the time the Anglo-Saxons were converted and had abandoned their distinctive burial customs, it is unlikely that the newcomers outnumbered the Romano-British, in spite of evidence for a substantial drop in the size of the Romano-British population in the fifth and sixth centuries. Place-name evidence also provides indications of British survival even in the areas of densest Anglo-Saxon settlement.

The Anglo-Saxons did not settle in an abandoned landscape on which they imposed new types of settlement and farming, as was once believed. Recent landscape studies have suggested a high degree of continuity between rural settlement in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods and this links with indications of early Saxon settlement taking place under the aegis of the Romano-British. Landscape studies are a complex matter which draw upon a variety of topographical, archaeological and written sources. There are major problems in trying to relate Anglo-Saxon charter boundaries to those of Roman estates for which there are no written records, and by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period there had been major changes to the organization of the landscape which can obscure earlier arrangements. Interpretation is also hindered by uncertainty about late Roman administrative arrangements. Nevertheless, studies carried out throughout the country, in ‘British’ as well as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ areas, have found examples of continuity of territorial boundaries where, for instance, Roman villa estate boundaries seem to have been identical with those of medieval estates, as delineated in early charters, though settlement sites within the defined territory might shift.

What we see in these examples is probably continuity of the estate or territory as an unit of administration rather than one of exploitation. Although the upper level of Roman administration based on towns seems to have disappeared during the fifth century, a subsidiary system based on subdivisions of the countryside may have continued. The basis of the internal organization of both the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and those of their Celtic neighbours was a large rural territory which contained a number of subsidiary settlements dependent upon a central residence which the Anglo-Saxons called a villa in Latin and a tun in Old English. These vills were centres of royal administration and visited by the kings and their entourages on regular circuits of their kingdoms when food rents which had to be rendered at the royal vill would be consumed. In Anglo-Saxon England of the seventh and eighth centuries groups of royal vills and their dependent territories formed regiones, discrete territories within kingdoms for administrative purposes. If this recent research is correct it suggests that the basic infrastructure of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was inherited from late Roman or subRoman Britain.

In recent years a number of royal vills of the early Anglo-Saxon period have been identified from fieldwork and aerial photographs and some have been excavated. One of the best known is Yeavering in the kingdom of Northumbria, which is identified in the Ecclesiastical History as a villa regalis (royal vill) and seems to have been used by Northumbrian kings in the late sixth and seventh centuries, after an earlier history as a British cult and administrative centre. Yeavering is a remarkable site and in addition to a series of large timber halls and a protective fort, had a unique wedge-shaped building which resembles a segment of a Roman amphitheatre. One notable feature of Yeavering is the small yield of diagnostic Anglo-Saxon finds or buildings; only a couple of sunken-featured buildings and a handful of pottery and other small finds betray their presence. All the other structures appear to have British or Roman antecedents. Nothing quite like Yeavering has been excavated further south, but comparable halls have been excavated at Cowdery’s Down, near Basingstoke (Hants) which were in use during the sixth and seventh centuries. Although the Basingstoke area was part of the West Saxon kingdom at the end of the seventh century it is not clear what the political organization of the area was at the end of the sixth century. The size and sophistication of its large timber halls suggest that it too could have been a royal vill. Like Yeavering, the halls of Cowdery’s Down have no exact parallels in the Germanic world, though they cannot be exactly matched in Romano-British tradition either. The great halls of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms seem to represent a fusion of Germanic and Romano-British building traditions. They symbolize one of the most important contributions which archaeology has made to our understanding of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, namely the demonstration of the importance within them of Romano-British as well as Germanic roots.

We cannot expect archaeology to show us the exact point at which Anglo-Saxon leaders became kings, but as the sixth century progresses we can trace the evolution of a class of male burial which has a number of distinctive characteristics and is substantially richer than the average warrior burial. By the end of the sixth century particularly significant individuals were being buried under mounds, either on their own or as part of a cemetery of similar barrows, and with a rich array and variety of grave goods including foreign imports and objects made from gold, silver and semi-precious stones. Such burials are commonly referred to as ‘princely burials’ and, as has been argued for the appearance of rich burials in the prehistoric period, the focusing of attention on the burials of the élite of the community may be an important indicator of ‘state formation’, or, in Anglo-Saxon terms, the growth and development of kingship during the latter half of the sixth century. The princely burials could be seen as showing the insecurity of the parvenu who needs to proclaim his new status with ostentatious display. The best known and the grandest of the princely burials is the ship-burial from mound 1 at Sutton Hoo which has often been claimed as the burial of King Rædwald of the East Angles (d. c. 625), but two other early seventh-century burials at Taplow (Bucks) and Broomfield (Essex), which unfortunately were not excavated under modern conditions, approach it in richness and range of grave-goods.The archaeological evidence thus provides some support for the indications we have from the more reliable of the written sources that the sixth century was the period when most Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came into existence.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Possible reconstruction of building C12 at Cowdery’s Down, Hampshire (source: Millett and James 1983, Figure 70)

Carpentry was also extensively used to build the houses, barns and byres which were more common and fundamental to everyday life. The skills required were no less than for the intricate metalworking and jewelling skills of the period, but the effort and raw materials required were on an altogether different scale. A variety of building types is represented at some settlements, for instance Cowdery’s Down, where building C12, the largest and possibly the most elaborate, may serve to demonstrate the skills required. Any estimates of the quantities of raw materials required must be approximate as they are, in turn, dependent on a preferred reconstruction of the super-structure.

It has been estimated that to construct the rectangular timber building, C12, would have required the movement of c. 81 tonnes, or 45 m3, of topsoil, clay and chalk for the footings which would have taken approximately 90 man-hours. The building materials such as timber, daub and thatch would have weighed 70 tonnes (Millett and James 1983, M5/02). Our ignorance of the methods makes it difficult to establish accurate estimates of the effort involved in carrying out the various tasks but we may at least gain some idea of the order of magnitude of the work. The timber work presents more difficulty as we are even more uncertain about the methods used and the tools available. Millett and James take the absence of large saws (1983:198) literally and assume timbers would have been split radially; as we have already seen tools are generally rare finds during the period and the absence of a surviving saw need not represent the real situation (Wilson 1968; Darrah 1982). If an adze was used, smaller trees might have been more practical so that one finished square might have been formed from a single trunk. We gain an impression of the quantities of oak involved from the estimates for the building; the 55 m3 of oak required would have been obtained from about eighteen mature trees. A conservative estimate suggests that the principal timber work would require trees from two hectares of oak forest to construct the building, excluding any floorboards.

The probable sequence of events in erecting such a structure would begin with the excavation of the flat-bottomed wall-trenches dug into the chalk. Judging from the signs of pecking on the trench sides, the trenches were made with a pointed tool. Gaps were left for the doorways and the resulting rectangular area would have measured 22.1×8.5 m, if slightly wider at the middle of the long sides. Staggered vertical timbers were erected in the trench with horizontal members between the verticals to hold the intervening panels of daubed wattles. The most practical means of achieving this would be to partially construct the wall panels on the ground with the uprights and horizontals pegged together. The panels could then be raised into position. The wattling would then be inserted and finally the wall-plate. In the absence of internal roof supports, the wall may have been supported by two pairs of curving cruck blades supporting a horizontal beam carrying a king post to support the ridge, although other reconstructions are possible (Alcock and Walsh 1993). Rafters would be placed from the wall-plates to the ridge piece, probably supported on purlins. Millett and James (1983) argue for a raised joist and plank floor. As the majority of the roof load, thatch or oak shingles, was placed on the wall-plates, steeply inclined external raking timbers counteracted the thrust of the rafters. The total hours of work required to construct such a building is impossible to estimate. The preparation of the foundations and the timbers alone would have required considerable time and although C12 is the largest building excavated at the settlement, the effort required to build many of the others would not have been much less.

Such timber buildings would have been built using the accumulated experience of the community and would not have seemed such an intricate task to those who regularly witnessed the activity. Carpentry skills did not stop there as furniture would have been required within domestic buildings. What furniture actually stood inside them we can but guess. The rarity of artefacts from within buildings does not help our knowledge of furniture fittings. It is only in those rare instances where furniture is incorporated in funerals, whether specifically made for the funeral or not, that we get a glimpse of what was possible. There are a number of definite examples of bed burials especially in Wiltshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. The example from Swallowcliffe, Wiltshire consisted of ash plank sides and headboard, iron handrails and leather ‘webbing’ forming the base, the whole requiring a variety of iron cleats, eyelets and nails (Speake 1989: 82–115). An iron folding stool whose inlaid decoration suggests a sixthcentury date is another known piece of furniture (Wilson 1957). The clay figure decorating the lid of a cremation urn from Spong Hill is depicted sitting in a chair (Hills, Penn and Rickett 1987, Figure 82).

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Offa’s Dyke. King Alfred’s biographer Asser, writing at the end of the ninth century, attributes the building of the great earthwork between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms to King Offa of Mercia (757–96). It would have appeated more impressive originally when it was probably surmounted by a wooden palisade.

An assessment of Æthelbald and Offa is of their government of Mercia itself and the shortage of charters from the Mercian province is keenly felt. However, some tangible signs do remain of the imposition of the common burdens through which Æthelbald and Offa were able to counteract some of the effects of the introduction of bookland and to establish important principles on the rights of kings to exact public services. Perhaps the most impressive memorials to the kings’ power in Mercia are Offa’s and Wat’s dykes. Attacks from the Welsh became an increasing problem in the eighth century and the solution seems to have been to establish a patrolled frontier along the 150-mile western border of Mercia from the Irish Sea to the Bristol Channel. The defences included at least 80 miles of earthwork defences with a rampart 24 feet high and a six foot ditch and associated forts. Even today the dykes are impressive monuments, but they do not survive in their entirety and may originally have carried stone fortifications on top. Thousands of labourers must have been conscripted from different parts of Mercia to build them and a substantial force would have been needed if the frontier was to be fully patrolled. The Mercian rulers may have been responsible for building other defences as well, such as the earliest phase of the ramparts at Hereford. By the end of his reign Offa was organizing defences against the Vikings in both Mercia and Kent. Jeremy Haslam has suggested that not only was Offa responsible for a defensive network of burhs at important bridgeheads in eastern England, but that he may also have established a series of ‘urban’ markets to stimulate the Mercian economy. Some caution is necessary here for Offa does not seem to have been sufficiently aware on economic matters to encourage the use of coin throughout Mercia or establish Mercian mints. But, even if we do not know as much about Mercian administration as we would like, we can see that Offa, like Charlemagne, had the ability to exact substantial services from his subjects and organize major campaigns of public building works.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


The north end of Lough Gur reaches up to a maintained lawn at the visitor area at the lake. The clump of trees jutting out into the water hide the site of a crannog.[1]

Lough Gur, Loch Gair in Irish, is a lake in County Limerick, Ireland near the town of Bruff. The lake forms a horseshoe shape at the base of Knockadoon Hill and some rugged elevated countryside. It is one of Ireland's most important archaeological sites. Man has been present in Lough Gur since about 3000 BC and there are numerous megalithic remains here.[1]

The largest stone circle in Ireland, at Grange is located near the lake. The remains of at least three crannogs are present, and remains of stone-age houses have been unearthed (the house outlines are known as "The Spectacles"). A number of ring forts are found in the area, with one (a hill fort) sitting atop the hill that overlooks the lake. Some are Irish national monuments.[1]

A visitors' centre is open beside Lough Gur, along with a car park and picnic area. The location is pleasant, particularly in the summer months. A gradual shore-line is present at the visitor area, with a shallow section of lake reaching up to the maintained lawn. As a result, the area is often used for water sports. Motorised craft are banned on the lake.[1]

There is a castle, or tower house — closed to visitors — near the entrance to the carpark. Named Bourchier's Castle after Sir George Bourchier, the son of the second Earl of Bath,[1] it lies at the neck of the peninsula around which the lake washes. There is some other architecture dating from more recent times, with the ruins of an early Christian church by the road leading down to the lake. At the far end of the lake are the ruins of a Norman castle, Black Castle,[1] which is reached by a hill-side walk along the east side of the lake and with a walled enclosure and a causeway leading up to the entrance gate: this is one of the keeps used during the Desmond Rebellions, and is probably the place where the Earl of Desmond secured his authority in 1573 after casting off his English apparel and donning Irish garments on his return to Munster from London.

Other archaeological sites are also found nearby, including the Grange stone circle, and a dolmen.[1]


[1] Illustrated Guide to Lough Gur, O'Kelly, M. J. and O'Kelly, C. 1981. Published by Houston, Cork.

FILM Irish Stone Circle Lough Gur Co.Limerick


Friday, January 23, 2009


(Cave of Cruachan, Cave of the Cats) Irish mythological site. In Co. Roscommon, in Ireland’s western province of CONNACHT, there is a tiny CAVE of huge mythic importance. Oweynagat is part of the great archaeological complex of CRUACHAN, the ancient capital of the province of Connacht centered on the fort of its goddess-queen MEDB. Still visible and accessible in a small field on the edge of the complex, 700 meters southwest of the great mound where Medb’s palace was said to stand, the cave’s opening is quite small, some three feet high by four feet wide, formed by a medieval souterrain or underground passage. After that narrow opening, the cave opens up to a huge cathedral-like space.

Oweynagat figures prominently in ancient Irish myth and legend. It was the birthplace of Medb herself. The goddess and fairy queen ÉTAIN, fleeing with her FAIRY lover MIDIR from her human husband, stopped at Oweynagat with her companions, who included her maidservant CROCHAN Crogderg, whose name means “blood-red cup.” Midir was said to have wanted to visit a relative who lived in the cave, the otherwise unknown Sinech (“large-breasted one”), for whom he had great affection. At the end of their stay, Crochan was so enamored of the place—which although it seems only a dingy cave, is a great palace in the OTHERWORLD—that she begged to stay. Étain and Midir gave her the cave, and so it was there that Crochan’s daughter Medb was born.

Oweynagat also appears in the ADVENTURE tale about one of her servants, a man named NERA who saved Cruachan from an attack by Otherworldly forces with the assistance of a fairy woman whom he met in the cave and married. She warned him that Medb’s beautiful palace would be burned to the ground the following SAMHAIN, a warning that brought the forces of Medb and AILILL mac Máta into the cave to eliminate the danger. As with other tales, this one associates the cave with the feast of Samhain.

The cave is also associated with the great figure that shadows Medb throughout the epic through which she is most known, the TÁIN BÓ CUAILNGE or CATTLE RAID on CUAILNGE—the MÓRRÍGAN, who drove her Otherworldly cattle into the cave each sunset. She may be the one who flew out of the cave, called “the hell-mouth of Ireland” in medieval documents, for apparitions were said to appear there, especially on the magical Celtic festival of Samhain (November 1) when the veils between the worlds were thin and even those without SECOND SIGHT could see beyond this world and into the next.

The Mórrígan was known to have stolen the herds of a girl named ODRAS and to have driven them down into the cave of Oweynagat. Undeterred by Mórrígan’s fierce reputation, Odras pursued her, trying to regain the cattle upon which she relied. She got almost to Mórrígan’s domain, but the great queen was more powerful than the girl and turned her into a lake.

How the cave got its name is unknown; no CATS appear in its folklore or myth. An oracular cave in Connacht where a cat was consulted by fortune-tellers is recorded in some texts, but its location is not given, so it is unclear whether Oweynagat is intended. Oweynagat is much more commonly associated with CATTLE than with cats; not only does the Mórrígan drive her cattle through the cave, but a woman was said to have traveled underground for many miles, dragged there by a calf to whose tail she clung.

In a text from the 18th century, the cave was described as the “Hell-mouth of Ireland,” suggesting that the deities and spirits who had been believed to live within Oweynagat were still imagined as active, if diabolical. The cave is still accessible, although its frighteningly tiny entry makes it one of the least-visited of Ireland’s great mythological sites.

Sources: Dames, Michael. Mythic Ireland. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992, pp. 237–239; Gwynn, Edward. The Metrical Dindshenchas. Royal Irish Academy, Todd Lecture Series. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, and Co., Ltd., 1906–1924, p. 22.


Openings to the OTHERWORLD held a special place in the Celtic imagination. These were to be found in such liminal zones as BOGS and swamps; in land surrounded by water, such as seagirt ISLANDS; and in places that join different levels of the world, such as caves and MOUNTAINS. The parallelism of cave and mountain was reinforced when raths or HILLFORTS were built near natural caves. In Ireland the most mythologically significant cave was OWEYNAGAT, the Cave of the Cats, a natural underground gallery beneath MEDB’s rath at CRUACHAN in Co. Roscommon. Down its tiny entry, the great queen MÓRRÍGAN drove her Otherworldly cattle; within it, the great CAULDRON of abundance, once kept at Tara but later returned to the Otherworld, was stored. The cave, like other passages to the Otherworld, was considered especially powerful on SAMHAIN, when spirits rushed around it. Many of the epics set at Cruachan begin on Samhain, including the Adventure of NERA and the famous TÁIN BÓ CUAILNGE.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


The existence of a developing form of leadership and kingship at least by the seventh century has led to a search for a settlement type befitting persons of such status. A problem arises in the choice of factors that should be used for the identification of such ‘palaces’. Initial, perhaps premature, excitement following the identification of a type of large timber building from aerial photographs (Rahtz 1976:65–8; Sawyer 1983b) has been tempered by the discovery, from excavation, that the form and size of these buildings are present on many, otherwise ordinary, rural settlements; in one unusual instance excavation showed that the features were medieval rabbit warrens (Clark, Hampton and Hughes 1983). Many writers have taken building size as an indication of high social status. The range of sizes of buildings at some settlements, for instance Cowdery’s Down (Figure 3.7), is above the norm, and the largest have been described as ‘palaces’ (Figure 8.4). Size alone need not make a building the residence of a king and Millett and James suggest that the absence of seed and bone at Cowdery’s Down is not so much due to poor preservation but because crop and meat processing may not have taken place there because of the status of its various occupants (1983: 249–50).

The problem is exemplified by two sites, at Northampton and Yeavering. To the east of a series of minster churches in Northampton, dating from the middle- Saxon period onwards, was a rectangular stone hall. It had an internal floor area of 315 m2 and dates to the eighth century. The building is interpreted as the centre of secular power on the royal estate in the same way that the minster was the seat of ecclesiastical authority (Williams, Shaw and Denham 1985). Below the stone building was a large timber hall of the seventh century with a floor area of 252 m2, consisting of a rectangular centre with square annexes at either end, which appears to be a highly sophisticated, possibly bayed, structure, which was set with extreme precision. In contexts associated with the eighth-century minster and ‘palace’ were a bronze shrine fitting, a bronze stylus, glass vessels and a decorated pin; all are relatively unusual items. Yet no such items were associated with the timber predecessor. We are left with the problem of whether the timber structure and the stone building that replaced it were used by persons of a similar status for the same functions. The erection of the stone palace and the church may be a reflection of a change or an extension in the status of the site, from an unexceptional rural settlement to a ‘palace’. If size is relevant it must be noted that the timber building was certainly large, being 35 m2 larger than the biggest building at Cowdery’s Down. It may be that the principal change that had occurred was conversion to Christianity following which a secular lord would wish to be associated with ecclesiastical power (Williams 1984a, 1984b).

The problems of interpretation surrounding Yeavering are of an altogether different nature (Hope-Taylor 1977). The settlement is identified with Bede’s Gefrin that was graced with royal visits and one by Paulinus who preached and baptised there in AD 627. The site was abandoned in the early eighth century in favour of Maelmin, according to Bede, which has been identified from aerial photographs a few kilometres to the north at Millfield. Hope-Taylor’s interpretation promotes Yeavering as a British folk-centre with religious foci and a ‘cattle corral’ that became the palace of the Anglo-Saxon kings of seventhcentury Bernicia. It was an administrative centre with great halls for king and court. The post-Roman development consisted of wooden buildings and a great enclosure. There was a square enclosure of wooden buildings on the site of a prehistoric stone circle, around which were inhumation burials. This was followed by the construction of major halls, a temple and a timber auditorium or grandstand. At the settlements height the grandstand was enlarged, the great enclosure rebuilt, and a great hall (A4) was erected. Under its threshold was a grave accompanied by an object identified by the excavator as a surveyor’s groma, but possibly a ceremonial standard. When Paulinus visited in the 620s the temple was altered and reconsecrated while in the western part of the settlement there was the final phase of a cemetery. The settlement itself was deliberately burnt in the seventh century and a re-occupation followed. This phase was characterised by numerous posts, the foci for graves, and which may have carried ‘totemic and zoomorphic emblems of the tribe’. After the abandonment of the western cemetery a church was built with a churchyard with orderly rows of graves. The grandstand was replaced and new halls built. This settlement was also destroyed by fire, but the significance of the site is indicated by four new buildings before a final decline and abandonment.

It is impossible to do justice, in summary, to the magnificent timber structures that were excavated, especially the grandstand, halls and pagan temple, and the details should be sought in the excavators report. However, a paradox arises again when we contrast the magnificence of contemporary ‘royal’ burials and the apparent material poverty of Yeavering. Yet this is a characteristic of most settlements of the period. Hope-Taylor emphasises that the potential magnificence of the buildings can only be measured by pestholes, as the timber and plaster may have been ideal media for decoration by carving and painting. Over and above an acceptance of the identification of Yeavering as Bede’s Gefrin, the principal factors used to emphasise the settlement’s status are the size and nature of the buildings, the great hall having a floor area of 336 m2. We must be wary, at present, of being overawed by the range of archaeology at Yeavering when there are so few excavated settlements to compare it with in northern England. Bede also mentions Rendlesham (Suffolk) as a royal palace and its close proximity to Sutton Hoo (6 km) has raised expectations. Similarities in metalwork from the two sites suggest this may be warranted. Recent field walking has demonstrated the existence of a large scatter of Ipswich ware indicating that the settlement was very large and, unlike early Anglo-Saxon rural settlements, demonstrates continuity into the middle-Saxon period as at other royal sites (Newman 1992).

The development of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and leadership might have been symbolised by palatial central places. Contenders for this position have been argued on their individual merits, in the case of Northampton and Rendlesham by site continuity and context, and in the case of Yeavering by historical evidence and the scale and type of the structures. High-status settlements may be expected at major centres, particularly those that achieved ecclesiastical and commercial prominence in the seventh and eighth centuries, such as Winchester, Canterbury and London (above). Both Yeavering and Foxley (Hinchliffe 1986) have buildings that are interpreted as churches. We should, perhaps, be wary of imposing such status on other settlements too readily (Hawkes 1979; Arnold 1982c); to do so makes great assumptions about early Anglo-Saxon society and especially how authority was held, dispensed and symbolised in the material world. Within the pagan world power was demonstrated and symbolised in visible, moveable wealth. This is exemplified by the rich seventh-century burials constructed in direct opposition to Christianity. The construction of magnificent buildings as appropriate housing for such individuals may only have arisen following the establishment of Christianity; the power and authority of the Church were demonstrated in buildings and secular lords may have felt it necessary to match such splendour. Indeed the development of a more institutionalised form of kingship in the later seventh century may owe as much to the influence of the Church as to the evolution of secular institutions.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


A map of the Burghs of Alfred's Wessex, taken from the Burghal Hidage.

After he had beaten off the serious Viking attack of 878, which very nearly cost him his throne, Alfred the Great set himself to reorganising Wessex’s defences. This reform had two principal elements. The first was the construction of a series of burhs, discussed further in chapter 10, organised so that no one lived more than about a day’s journey from one. Each burh was assigned to an administrative district, which would maintain the walls and furnish its garrison. We know about the system by which this was calculated from an early tenth century document known as the Burghal Hidage. This states that one man from each hide of land would be responsible for the maintenance and defence of about 4 feet of wall. If one measures the length of the walls of Alfred’s burhs, where this is known, and compares them with the size of the area assigned to the burh, the former fits very closely with the latter, according to the Burghal Hidage’s formula. The document, as we have it, dates from the reign of Alfred’s son, Edward I ‘the Elder’, roughly to 918. Though it may well represent Edward’s formalisation and administrative regularisation of a situation created by his father, during Edward and his sister Æthelflæd’s expansion of the burghal system into Mercia and the territories conquered from the Danes, it is equally likely that the system described originates with Alfred’s reforms forty years previously.

London is not listed within the document, which has often caused some confusion, as London was certainly within the West Saxon kingdom. It may be that London, which did not really have a rural hinterland and which lay on the edges of several earlier kingdoms and later administrative districts, depended for its garrison and maintenance upon its own burghers. The men of London appear, in military contexts, as a distinct entity from the late ninth century. Thus it would lie outside the provisions of the Burghal Hidage’s system. Whilst Southwark is listed in the document, it is assigned to Surrey and, to judge from Domesday evidence, was assigned more or less all of the resources of the county.

King Alfred and the Vikings - strategies and tactics, 876-886 AD.

By Jeremy Haslam




Tuesday, January 20, 2009


1074 Chirbury character area, showing the village of Chirbury viewed from the west. A defensive burh was founded at Chirbury in 915, during the Danish wars. It subsequently became the principal manor of the Domesday hundred of Witentre and the site of an Augustinian priory. Extensive remains of ridge and furrow representing medieval arable open-field cultivation survive in the fields on all sides of the village.

The main reason for the willingness of the Mercians and the Welsh to enter alliances with the West Saxons was the existence of even more formidable enemies, the Vikings. The first Viking raid on Wessex had been made in the reign of King Beorhtric, but serious attacks did not begin until 836. To begin with the West Saxons were reasonably successful against the Scandinavians, even when the invaders joined up with the Cornish, but after 851 they fared less well and were unable to prevent a Viking army from wintering in Thanet in that year. Alfred’s four elder brothers died during the period of intensifying Viking attacks and, although we do not know the reasons for the deaths of any of them, it seems more than likely that some of them at least were attributable to injuries received during the campaigns against the Vikings. By the time the Great Heathen Army arrived in 865 the West Saxons had already been fighting major campaigns against Scandinavian forces for fourteen years, with substantial losses of personnel. The West Saxons were fortunate that the Vikings’ priority seems to have been the conquest of northern England and of York in particular, but they nevertheless came close to being conquered. 871 was one crucial year in which nine battles were fought between Vikings and West Saxons; Æthelred died in the middle of the campaign. In 878 Alfred was nearly captured in a surprise midwinter raid; he was forced to retreat to the Somerset marshes (scene of the popular, but apocryphal, cake-burning episode), but rallied and won his decisive victory at Edington (Wilts) after which terms were reached with the Viking leader Guthrum. In 886 Alfred recaptured London from the Vikings and although this did not lead to the recovery of all the lands the West Saxons had held in the former East Saxon territory, the victory seems to have been seen in Wessex and in other Anglo-Saxon areas as a sign that Alfred had mastered the Viking threat. Alfred also succeeded in countering a major attack by a new Viking army between 892 and 896.

The Chronicle accounts concentrate on the set-piece battles between West Saxons and Vikings, but Asser’s more detailed narrative allows us to see more of the logistical problems which the Viking wars introduced. It is clear from what Asser says that there was resentment within Wessex because of the long periods of military service and the other royal demands made upon the time and purses of the West Saxons. Some refused to obey royal commands and we know of at least one ealdorman who defected to the Vikings; a substantial portion of Wessex seems to have surrendered to the Vikings in 878 when Alfred’s future seemed uncertain. The bulk of the population might expect to reach reasonable terms with the Vikings which might ultimately leave them better off than they would be after a long period of resistance. But for the royal house there was no alternative but resistance, for the Vikings made a point of killing or expelling native kings when they conquered their kingdoms.

The West Saxon rulers had to develop new strategies and increase the demands they could make on their subjects in order to defeat the Vikings. They had precedents from Francia and Mercia (the latter too had drawn on Frankish advances) which they could follow. One important innovation was the burh or fortress which could be used both as a local refuge and as a base for a militia to intercept Viking forces and hamper their manoeuvrability. When Offa ruled Kent he had introduced the public services of fortress-work and bridge-work to help counter the first Viking attacks on the province so when the West Saxons conquered Kent they inherited the Mercian burhs there. The West Saxon burghal system has traditionally been associated with the reign of Alfred, but some of the West Saxon burhs, such as Wareham, were probably in existence before Alfred came to the throne, though he may deserve credit for extending the system and establishing a permanent militia in the fortresses. Fortress-work only seems to have been regularly referred to in West Saxon charters from the reign of Æthelbald (855–60). The fortifications themselves generally seem to have consisted of a timber-revetted bank with a ditch and even today some of the surviving ramparts such as those at Wareham are impressive structures. The task of building the fortifications and manning them fell upon the population of the surrounding countryside. Asser reveals that fortress-work was one of the royal demands which was most resented and it would appear that Alfred had some difficulty in enforcing it. However, if the West Saxons were to defeat the Vikings they had to persuade their subjects of the necessity of accepting greater royal control over their lives.

The Viking armies which attacked Wessex also operated in Francia and the Chronicle contains reports of the movements of the Viking forces across the Channel. The Franks also built fortifications to try to contain the Scandinavian threat and there are some similarities between Frankish and West Saxon defences. It was probably the common Viking threat which brought the Frankish and West Saxon royal houses closer together (though relations would have been established when Egbert spent three years in exile at the court of Charlemagne). One result was the marriage of Charles the Bald’s daughter Judith firstly to Æthelwulf of Wessex and then to Æthelwulf’s son Æthelbald. Such a marriage of stepmother and stepson was highly irregular by the ninth century and presumably reflects the importance placed on the Frankish-West Saxon alliance. By the reign of Alfred new powers were rising within the old western Frankish kingdom and towards the end of his reign Alfred married his daughter Ælfthryth to Count Baldwin II of Flanders.




Monday, January 19, 2009


Maes Howe gives its name to a small group of tombs found in the Orkney Islands. Only about a dozen have been recognized, and Maes Howe and Quanterness are fine examples. The cairns are round with a long low passage entering the chamber at right angles to its axis. The main chamber is usually large and squarish with three or more side chambers leading from it. Maes Howe is the most sophisticated monument of its kind in Britain, if not in eastern Europe. Built of carefully shaped blocks of stone to a symmetrical design, it is a triumph of the mason’s art. Inside a broad circular ditch stands a grass-covered mound 7.3 m. (8.2 yd) high and 35 m. (38.3 yd) in diameter. A passage 9 m. (10 yd) long leads into a chamber 4.5 m. (5 yd) square, and originally about 4.5 m. (5 yd) high, with a square corbelled roof vault. On each side a small square opening leads into a side chamber averaging 1.7 m. (1.9 yd) by 1.3 m. (1.4 yd) in size. Any burials that the tomb contained have long since disappeared. The entrance passage to Maes Howe faces south-westwards. At midwinter the rays of the setting sun shine along the passage and fall on the rear wall of the central chamber.


Sunday, January 18, 2009


Runder Berg near Urach

The tribe of the Alemanni formed in the third century A.D. as a union of several Germanic groups from the Elbe region. After A.D. 233 this new tribe participated decisively in the plundering raids into the limes region, the provinces beyond, and Italy. After the fall of the limes in A.D. 259–260, the archaeological evidence reveals a lack of continuity of a provincial Roman population. Roman encampments and settlements, including the villae rusticae (farms), were abandoned and destroyed. The limes region was not resettled until the fourth century, when the Alemanni conquered and occupied it.

Several centers of early Alemannic colonization are ascertainable. These centers include the upper and central Neckar region, the region of Heilbronn, the area around the mouth of the Neckar, the Brenz Valley and the Ostalb, the Breisgau, and the Tauber Valley, which lies outside the former limes region. Especially striking in the Alemannic region are many fortified hilltop settlements. Based on early twenty- first-century knowledge, the building of the hilltop settlements in the Germanic-Alemannic region of southern Germany on the far side of the late Roman Danube-Iller-Rhine limes cannot be linked to older local Germanic traditions. Yet models certainly do exist in the military and civilian hilltop sites that were founded by the late third century in the region of the late Roman Danube-Iller-Rhine limes.

The evidence indicates that Alemannic hilltop settlements were not founded until the fourth century and stopped being occupied by the end of the fifth century. Most of these sites were abandoned around A.D. 500, which can be explained by the defeat of the Alemanni by the Franks. There is no evidence of continuity between the Alemannic hilltop settlements and the late Merovingian-Carolingian castles that occasionally followed. The Runder Berg near Urach is the best researched of these sites.

In the former limes region, Roman villas continued to be occupied. This practice and the use of land cleared by the Romans indicate that there must have been only a short period of time between abandonment and reuse. In southwestern Germany, too, most evidence of Alemannic settlement can be drawn from the form of graves and single, random, or accidental finds. Some larger settlements have been excavated methodically as well. In the settlement of Sontheim, which dates to the first half of the fourth century, excavators identified relatively large post dwellings; smaller economic buildings of post construction, including a round storage building with 7 post holes; and a rectangular area with internal construction (the largest measuring 70 meters) separated from the rest of the settlement by a massive palisade. This is believed to have been the fortified residence of a group having a higher social status. Great quantities of iron slag suggest that ironworking was one of the economic bases for Sontheim.

In the Breisgau, too, large excavations indicate increasing early Alemannic settlement by the fourth century. After the middle of the fifth century, the Alemannic settlement region expanded rapidly. By then it included the Alsace, northern Switzerland, the Swiss Midland, Upper Swabia, the region of Bavarian Swabia up to the Lech, and the Algäu. The Alemanni who carried out this colonization until the seventh century had long been under Frankish rule.

The Alemanni did not enjoy political independence for long. The end of the fifth century was characterized by conflict and defeat of the Alemanni in battle against the Franks. After the defeat of A.D. 496–497 and the suppression of their uprising in A.D. 506, the Alemanni lost their kingdom and their independence. Alemannia became the Duchy of Swabia, a region at times more or less loosely connected to the Frankish empire. Archaeologically this fundamental change is evident in the disappearance of the hilltop settlements of the Alemannic nobility and the end of its cemeteries. At the same time, strategically situated settlements of Frankish warriors and their entourage emerged in the sixth and seventh centuries. Many of their cemeteries are well known. These Frankish officials in Alemannia also included warrior groups of Thuringian origin that became Frankish subjects after the defeat of Thuringia by the Franks in A.D. 531.