Yeavering, Northumberland

Tuesday, August 11, 2015




Reconstruction drawing by S. James of one of the phases of the use of Yeavering, Northumberland. In the foreground is part of the `great enclosure' and one side of its entrance, a fenced circle enclosing a building. If animals were brought here as tribute to the palace's owner, it is difficult to see how they could have been prevented from trampling the barrow mound (emphasised here by a totem-like post). The great hall, joined by an open enclosure to a small annexe building, would have been the focus of feasts and entertainment. Beyond, the reconstruction of the post-holes and slots as staging suggests a setting for decision-making by the leader and his people. One of the buildings in the background may have been used as a temple, as human burials and deposits of ox bones and skulls were found associated with it.

A site which shows how an aristocrat's life-style might have been maintained in the fifth and sixth centuries is in the far north at Yeavering, Northumberland, an inland promontory-though not hill-top-site. Timber buildings, some very large and using very solid posts and planks, were replaced at various times in a period of occupation which ended during the seventh century. The site's initial use was in the Bronze Age as a cemetery, and recognition of this religious use in the past may have been a reason for reoccupation, if association with such antiquities was considered to give some claim to ancestral links, and rights of inheritance to land and authority. The reuse probably started in the fifth century as no mass-produced pottery or other fourth-century artefacts were found. The very few objects that were recovered included an elaborate bronze-bound wooden staff in a grave aligned on the largest building; its purpose is unknown, but its importance must have been clear to those who deposited it in such a prominently-placed grave. 

Ceremonial and ritual at Yeavering are also suggested by a timber structure, the fan-like ground-plan of which has generally been accepted as the remains of wooden staging, for use during assemblies. These occasions were presumably enlivened by feasts and sacrifices, which the ox skulls overflowing from a pit alongside one building seem to attest. Before their slaughter, the animals were probably kept in a great enclosure on one side of the site. Sheep were also taken to Yeavering, and at least one building may have been used specifically for weaving since loom-weights were found in it. 

Yeavering suggests a site to which large numbers of animals came, presumably brought as tribute owed from the surrounding area to its chieftain. The feasts that were held after their slaughter would have confirmed this leader's status as one whose authority brought wealth which could be conspicuously, even recklessly, consumed; the high proportion of young calf bones suggest a profligate disregard for the need to maintain breeding herds. The meeting-place was where decisions were announced and agreed; the biggest of the buildings is interpreted as a hall where the feasts took place and oaths were sworn. These occasions were used to reinforce social ties that bound people together, as lord and dependent. Nor is Yeavering unique, since there is a site not far from it at Sprowston which seems to have most of the same features, except for the assembly-place, and at Thirlings, also in Northumberland, a complex of rectangular buildings, one some twelve metres long, has been investigated. Dating is not precise at any of these, but that the Yeavering staging was enlarged from its original size could be an indication that a larger group of people was becoming involved in the affairs conducted there as time passed, as though the authority of the ruler was becoming extended over a wider area. 

Nowhere that has been excavated in the south of England has shown evidence comparable to Yeavering's. In the south-west, and possibly further east in a few cases, hill-top sites may have been used by the aristocracy, but it is difficult to establish the precise functions of those places where some evidence of activity has been found. Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, was initially interpreted as a chieftain's residence, on the basis that animal bones suggested food inappropriate to the religious life, but that is now seen as too exclusive an interpretation.  Activities there included metal-working; crucibles were found, and copper-alloy residues and a fine little head. Dating depends upon Mediterranean and Gaulish pottery imported into the south-west in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, bowls and dishes being recognisable as having been made in the East Mediterranean and North Africa between c. 450 and 550. Most such sherds are from amphorae, which were probably reaching the south-west as wine containers, so their presence at Glastonbury Tor suggests drinking of an exotic rarity at the feasts of those who managed to obtain it. But the bones found there do not suggest such high-quality consumption; most of the beef and mutton came from elderly animals, not young stock which would have provided the most succulent joints, as at Yeavering.

The meat consumed on Glastonbury Tor was nearly all brought there already butchered and prepared, which is hardly surprising on such a small site where there would have been no room to do the slaughtering. At Yeavering, the great enclosure and the ox skulls suggest that animals were brought on the hoof; only one quern-stone was found, however, which could indicate that most of the grain arrived already ground into flour. A good standard of agriculture would have been necessary to supply Yeavering and the other residences used by a chief and his entourage as they progressed round their territory. Various pollen studies from the north of England show no decrease in meadowland and cereal plants in the fifth century, though some show regeneration of scrub and bog during the later sixth; but these analyses have to be made on sites which, being prone to wetness, have low agricultural potential and are inevitably therefore marginal and not necessarily representative of what was happening everywhere. It is even possible that poorer land was being farmed in preference to better, because the latter tended to be in less remote areas and was therefore more vulnerable in troubled times to slave raiders and other disrupting agents. Nevertheless, the evidence from the north seems to support that from West Stow in the east, of reasonable standards being kept up.

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