The Saxons - Archaeological evidence

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 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.

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