Tuesday, January 27, 2009
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
The broader archaeological picture suggests that no one model will explain all the Anglo-Saxon settlements in
Three very powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. The people of
came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the
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
But what was happening to the Romano-British population while the Germanic settlement of
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 (
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
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
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.