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.

Anglo Saxon "London" Lundenwic

Central London was once largely marshland. The first major Anglo Saxon settlement was Lundenwic (now Covent Garden/Aldwych). Later, King Alfred re-established a town within the old Roman walls, known as Lundenburh.

The archaeological discovery of Saxon London is an object lesson for anyone believing that archaeological theory and fieldwork need not be connected. The city of London is one of the best-documented settlements in Anglo-Saxon England, both in terms of contemporary documentary sources and in terms of what can be gleaned from later sources about conditions pertaining in the sixth-eleventh centuries. Despite this, the location and the nature of settlement in London during this period, especially in the earlier centuries up to the end of the ninth century, have been a source of speculation and contention from the days of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, whose work begins the scientific study of Saxon London (Wheeler 1927, 1935). It continued through the early 1980s, when a spate of articles appeared, all stimulated by two papers published simultaneously by M. Biddle and A. G. Vince in 1984, which suggested that, in common with several other seventh-ninth-century trading centers, the port and main settlement of London lay outside the Roman walled city on a "green field" site. This period of speculation was brought to a neat conclusion with the discovery of extensive archaeological evidence for settlement to the west of the Roman city, along and behind the Strand, an area of London along the Thames. Despite criticism from place-name scholars, this settlement has been termed Lundenwic in recent archaeological literature. The name Lundenwic was current in documentary sources from the early eighth century to the late ninth century and undoubtedly did refer, in most cases, to the Strand settlement. Indeed, it appears to have been commemorated in the name of an area of the Strand occupied in the Medieval period by a triangular market Aldwych. However, it is claimed that the name may well have been one of several used for London, depending on the context. When referring to the defensive aspects of the site, the name Lundenburh (or variants) was preferred; when the name was used as a mint mark, it was either shortened to Lundonia or appeared as Lundonia Civit.

The history of Anglo-Saxon London relates to the history of the city of London during the Anglo-Saxon period, during the 7th to 11th centuries.

Romano-British Londinium had been abandoned in the late 5th century, although the London Wall remained intact. There was an Anglo-Saxon settlement by the early 7th century, called Lundenwic, about one mile away from Londinium. Lundenwic came under direct Mercian control in about 670. After the death of Offa of Mercia in 796, it was disputed between Mercia and Wessex.
Viking invasions became frequent from the 830s, and a Viking army is believed to have camped in the old Roman walls during the winter of 871. Alfred the Great re-established English control of London in 886, and renewed its fortifications. The old Roman walls were repaired and the defensive ditch was re-cut, and the city now became known as Lundenburh, marking the beginning of the history of the City of London. Sweyn Forkbeard attacked London unsuccessfully in 996 and 1013, but his son Cnut the Great finally gained control of London, and all of England, in 1016.

Edward the Confessor, the step-son of Cnut, became king in 1042. He built Westminster Abbey, the first Norman Romanesque church in England, consecrated in 1065. Edward's death led to a succession crisis, and ultimately the Norman invasion of England.


Early Anglo-Saxon settlement in the London area was not on the site of the abandoned Roman city, although the Roman London Wall remained intact. Instead, by the 7th century a village and trading centre named Lundenwic was established approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) to the west of Londinium (named Lundenburh, or 'London Fort', by the Anglo-Saxons), probably using the mouth of the River Fleet as a trading ship and fishing boat harbour.

In the early 8th century, Lundenwic was described by the Venerable Bede as "a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea." The Old English term wic or 'trading town' ultimately derived from the Latin word vicus, so Lundenwic meant 'London trading town'.

Archaeologists were for many years puzzled as to where early Anglo-Saxon London was located, as they could find little evidence of occupation within the Roman city walls from this period. However, in the 1980s, London was 'rediscovered', after extensive independent excavations by archaeologists Alan Vince and Martin Biddle were reinterpreted as being of an urban character. In the Covent Garden area excavations in 1985 and 2005 have uncovered an extensive Anglo-Saxon settlement that dates back to the 7th century. The excavations show that the settlement covered about 600,000 m2 (6,500,000 sq ft), stretching from the present-day National Gallery site in the west to Aldwych in the east.

By about 600, Anglo-Saxon England had become divided into a number of small kingdoms within what eventually became known as the Heptarchy. From the mid-6th century, London was incorporated into the Kingdom of Essex, which extended as far west as St Albans and for a period included Middlesex and Surrey.

In 604, Sæberht of Essex was converted to Christianity and London received Mellitus, its first post-Roman Bishop of London. At this time Essex owed allegiance to Æthelberht of Kent and it was under Æthelberht that Mellitus founded the first cathedral of the East Saxons, which is traditionally said to be on the site of an old Roman temple of Diana (although the 17th century architect Sir Christopher Wren found no evidence of this). The original building would have been only a modest church at first and it may well have been destroyed after Mellitus was expelled from the city by Sæberht's pagan successors in 616. The majority of London's population remained pagan during the larger part of the 7th century, and the bishop's seat was occupied only intermittently, by Cedd between 653 and 664, and by Wine between 666 and c. 672. The bishopric of London was re-established for good in 675, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, installed Earconwald as bishop.

Lundenwic came under direct Mercian control in about 670, as Essex became gradually reduced in size and status. After the death of Offa of Mercia in 796, it was disputed between Mercia and Wessex.

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