The middle-Saxon town or trading centres? – Hamwic

Monday, September 3, 2012

An imaginative reconstruction of Hamwic (drawn by John Hodgson)

Hamwic revealed: pits and post-holes from the Six Dials site (Photograph: Southampton City Museums) 

Typical Hamwic coins (sceattas) with pecking bird motif (scale 2:1) (Photograph: Ashmolean Museum)

To a student of the achievements of English royalty, those of King Ine of Wessex (688–726) do not immediately appear in the first rank; indeed as Sir Frank Stenton commented: ‘the course of events in his reign is remarkably obscure’. Some indication of the calibre of the man is, none the less, to be found in Ine’s code of West Saxon law, later adapted by King Alfred, his more famous successor, for the code with which our modern legal tradition begins. The written sources give little clue, however, to Ine’s key role in the revival of urbanism in England in the post- Roman period, although this has been graphically demonstrated by archaeological excavations at Southampton, in the heart of Ine’s kingdom. Today Southampton is a modern port city of a quarter of a million inhabitants, but its origins lie on the narrow spit of land between the rivers Test and Itchen, just above the point where they join to form the Solent estuary. A Roman fort, often known as Clausentum, lay on the east side of the Itchen, but there seems to be no direct continuity with the middle Anglo-Saxon site on the west bank. It is now clear from artefactual and dendrochronological evidence that a settlement of quite distinct character was deliberately founded here in the early years of the eighth century, a little before 721 when St Willibald departed from nearby Hamblemouth on his mission to Germany. The record of this event, dated to 778, is the earliest written source to refer to middle Anglo-Saxon Southampton and gives its name as Hamwih, but this spelling is now thought to be an error and the site is known today as Hamwic. The wic element in the name is shared by a small group of seventhninth- century sites in southern and eastern England, but also including Quentovic in northern France, and is thought to mean a specialist trading centre.

Although it was largely abandoned by c. 900, knowledge of the site of Hamwic has never been completely lost; a tradition of its location survived to the time of the Tudor antiquary John Leland and the seventeenth-century geographer and historian William Camden, but investigation of buried remains has its origin in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. During commercial digging for brickearth, pits were noted by several local antiquaries, in particular the Reverend Edmund Kell who, between 1853 and 1874, in the best traditions of the day, communicated his findings regularly to the British Archaeological Association and to his local paper The Hampshire Independent. It was not until the 1940s, however, that the real significance and date of the site became apparent when, as elsewhere, enemy bombing had the side-effect of clearing sites for archaeological excavation. Between 1946 and 1953 work was undertaken by Maitland Muller for the Southampton Excavations Committee, although resources only allowed investigation of small sites.

A major landmark in the study of Hamwic was a review of the evidence in 1969 by Peter Addyman and David Hill, the former then a lecturer at the university before his move to York. The pair had previously excavated at Bevois Street North where a road and pits were found, providing the first suggestion of deliberate settlement planning of urban character. This could, however, only be tested by large-scale excavation for which circumstances did not seem favourable and Addyman and Hill were led to conclude:
The remaining archaeological evidence is now imminently threatened as redevelopment of the St Mary’s area gains momentum. We can foresee, in the next few years, the final loss of a town story which cannot be written anywhere else unless appropriate action, on a scale commensurate with the importance of the site, and the magnitude of the destruction, is taken.
Fortunately this appeal led to the foundation of the Southampton Archaeological Research Committee in 1972. After eight years of independence, characterised by periods of financial uncertainty similar to those afflicting many other urban units in their ‘heroic’ early days, the responsibility for archaeology passed to the City Council, where it continues to flourish. A simple indication of the rapid growth of knowledge about Hamwic since 1972 may be found in the regular revisions of its estimated extent. In 1969 Addyman and Hill claimed 30ha (74 acres), in 1980 this had crept up to 33ha (82 acres), by 1984 it was 37ha (91 acres) and by 1988 45ha (111 acres)—an overall increase of 50 per cent in less than twenty years!

Within Hamwic the picture which has emerged from excavation is of a densely occupied settlement around the framework of a grid of gravel streets. The line of the principal north-south street survives as St Mary’s Street, which at the south end joined an east-west street on the line of Chapel Road. On its east side Hamwic was bounded by the Itchen and elsewhere by a ditch. This has only been excavated on the north-west and south-west corners of the circuit, but its course seems clear. Although only c. 3 per cent of the settlement has been investigated archaeologically, most areas, except the riverfront, have been sampled. While the intensity of occupation varies somewhat from site to site, the latest estimate of maximum population is 2,000–3,000.

Today’s visitor to the St Mary’s area, with its Victorian and later streetscapes, will know that nothing remotely ancient survives above ground. Below ground level, however, the remains of Hamwic are abundant and exist for the most part as pits and wells, and traces of buildings, surviving as post-holes and slots for ground beams, cut into the natural brickearth. Anyone who has seen a Hamwic site will be familiar with the perforated landscape created as a result of the excavations. The survival of horizontal strata above natural is rare, but has been found in places consisting largely of street surfaces and building floors, which are sometimes preserved by having collapsed into the top of earlier pits. In view of the relatively ephemeral nature of the remains, excavation of Hamwic sites calls for very special skills, especially in the summer months when the brickearth can become extremely hard.

In their 1969 review Addyman and Hill commented on the virtual absence of evidence for structures in Hamwic to set beside the abundant pits, but since then the buildings have emerged, especially at the Six Dials site. In Hamwic’s largest excavation 4,000 sq.m (4784 sq. yds) were examined between 1977 and 1985. A main north-south street was found, continuing the line of St Mary’s Street, and it was crossed by two minor streets. There were also the traces of over sixty buildings. Nothing of their superstructure, of course, survived in situ, but it is clear that they employed earth-fast posts, between which the walls were probably of wicker coated with clay; roofs were presumably thatch. The principal buildings seem very uniform in size, and were probably used for both domestic occupation and craft purposes. In addition three specialist smithies were identified on the basis of abundant deposits of slag. The buildings were sited on plots of land which were probably marked out at the foundation of the settlement, although subject to some subdivision as population increased. The boundaries were usually indicated by pits which had clearly been shared by neighbours.

In contrast to contemporary villages, there must have been numerous inhabitants whose involvement in agriculture was minimal, since it is clear from the prodigious quantity of objects and debris in the pits and wells that the manufacturing of a wide range of materials, including iron, copper, bone and antler, was taking place throughout the settlement. The quality of its products suggests that Hamwic forms an important landmark in the growth of craft specialisation. Metallographic examination of the ironwork has, for example, shown that knives were consistently well made. They exhibit good steel cutting edges and sophisticated welding techniques which make them markedly superior to the knives of earlier Anglo-Saxon times.

While manufacturing formed a vital part of its economy, the principal reason for the establishment of Hamwic may have been to concentrate growing coastal and sea-going trade under royal control. International trade in northern Europe had been at a low ebb in the fifth-seventh centuries, but in the eighth century a revival is indicated by both archaeology and such written sources as the correspondence between Charlemagne and King Offa of Mercia concerning trade in querns and textiles. The goods traded at Hamwic are not known, but exports may have included cloth, wool and other surplus agricultural products from the estates of the king and aristocracy Imports may have included items such as wine and gold to cater to their taste for luxuries. That at least part of the trade was in the hands of foreign merchants is suggested by the fact that some 18 per cent of pottery sherds were imported. Pottery was not necessarily a component of trade, however, since the foreign vessels are not containers and local potters made no attempt to copy them, as one might expect if they were suffering from competition in a free market. The imported vessels were probably merchants’ personal possessions and, significantly, a higher concentration of imported sherds has been found near the waterfront, suggesting a foreigners’ quarter.

Another feature of the finds from Hamwic, with a bearing on trade, is some 150 small silver coins known as sceattas. More eighth- and early-ninth century coins have been found as single finds in archaeological layers, as opposed to hoards, at Hamwic than on any other site of the period in Britain, and they present a unique opportunity to measure the amount and use of money in a settlement of this date. It has been calculated that the mint functioning at Hamwic, principally, perhaps, in the reign of King Cynewulf (757–86), produced over 5 million coins, forming evidence for a vast number of transactions and a highly developed money-using economy. A curious feature of the Hamwic coinage, however, is that it is virtually unknown elsewhere, which is surprising if Hamwic was part of a free-market trading network fully integrated with its hinterland. It looks as if its coins were primarily for use in the settlement itself, and they appear to be good evidence for restrictions on the inhabitants’ freedom of choice in commercial activity.

When the evidence for the street plan, the regularity of the internal land division, the buildings of standard size and the restrictions on commerce is taken together, it appears to confirm the theory that substantial control over the settlement was exercised by the royal house. While it is likely that the king had a seat in Hamwic, royalty at this time was usually peripatetic, and in any search for sites favoured by Ine and his successors we must also examine developments at Winchester 12km (7.5 miles) to the north. Within the surviving Roman walls and amongst numerous decaying Roman buildings, the seventh century saw the beginnings of new life which was to lead to Winchester becoming the principal town in Wessex, and, subsequently, capital of England itself.


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