They let those darn Saxons settle just anywhere!

Almost as soon as I was back from Leeds, I was informed by the web that something extremely relevant to my period had occurred while I’d been out: the University, celebrating its 800th anniversary, had for some reason that neither report I found makes clear organised an archæological dig underneath the oldest University site, the courtyard and cloister known as the Old Schools which is now the centre of the university administration. And they came up with Saxon remains! Not least a dog, of eleventh-century date, but also some other stuff, as you can see from the report on the BBC website here (though I should also mention this Iranian, of all places, site which I saw first and Archaeology in Europe which pointed me at it; News for Medievalists also carried the text of the BBC article and this picture of the skeletal dog).

Eleventh-century dog skeleton found in digs under Cambridge University Old Schools

Eleventh-century dog skeleton found in digs under Cambridge University Old Schools

The thing that bugs me about this (obviously there had to be one, and I mean apart from the anniversary celebrations—they gave out little ‘800’ badges we were all supposed to wear, you know) is that one comes away with the idea that there was nothing here before this find. In particular this quote:

Some material pre-dates its foundation in 1209 by over 150 years, and is said to be the first evidence the area was occupied by an Anglo-Saxon community.

Archaeologists have unearthed several animal bones, boundary markings and signs of quarrying, which a spokesman said suggested that in the final decades of the Saxon era the foundations of Cambridge were being laid.

This is true with one important qualifier: they mean in the city centre. Neither article has this proviso, but St Giles’s up on the castle mound has Saxon fabric buried deep in its Anglo-Norman structure, no-one knows how old St Peter’s also on the mound really is, and there was a thriving settlement on the river at Quayside. This might be more properly called Grantabrycg but it’s all of ten minutes’ walk from the Old Schools, I know having done it many times. The dig, and the reporting, are basically about adding extra antiquity to the University. The peculiar thing is that that agenda is not sharp in the University press release, where actual history (I’m sorry Mary, archæology) has apparently triumphed. Contrast this to the report above, knowing what you now know:

“The site has enabled us to prove what we previously had no proof for – that by the time of the Norman Conquest, there was a thriving settlement in the middle of Cambridge,” Richard Newman, site director with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, said.

“Until now this was one of the least-investigated parts of the city. What it has shown is that a century and a half before the University arrived and 300 years before it started to build in this area, people were already living and working here. The boundaries marking where their homes begin and end do not change for several centuries, until the University moved in.”

This is a lot more balanced, and they’re still excited about the age of the University, but from the other reports you’d think there was nothing else here at the time of these finds whereas this makes it clear we’re only dealing with a specific area of town. I don’t know who the `spokesman’ the BBC got was, but I bet they were wearing their `800′ badge. The finds are really interesting, and will probably tell us something about what the university bought to establish itself, but they’re being spun, even when the actual experts have tried to prevent it. Pah.

Our badges were rather less splendid than this limited edition theyre selling to alumni...

Our badges were rather less splendid than this limited edition they're selling to alumni...

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7 responses to “They let those darn Saxons settle just anywhere!

  1. “Eleventh-century dog skeleton found in digs under Cambridge University Old Schools”

    Am I the only one who read this caption and immediately got a mental image of “digs” as student accommodation…?

    The press release seems quite reasonable; is it possible the spokesman, whoever it was, was misquoted?

    • That only struck me on seeing you quote it, perhaps because it’s not really Cambridge slang (students of the older university here have rooms in college or hostels, rather than their own lodging arrangements, for the most part). I see it now, of course… Stranger things have probably been found in student rooms here! As to the latter, well, it’s perfectly possible I guess—how could one tell?—but it seems quite plausible to me that he or she was quoted accurately.

  2. In my day some colleges offered rooms in college for two of the three years of an undergraduate course but for the other year, usually the second, students rented rooms in the city. Sometimes in college-owned houses, sometimes from private landladies. Like everything else, it varied by college. I certainly remember a fair number of jokes about student digs – and as you say, stranger things than a thousand-year-old dog skeleton featured in some of them :-)

    • Possibly just my college experience isolating me from the daily grind, then, as certainly happened in a lot of ways. (I was at Pembroke, and they guaranteed rooms in College for first-years and high achievers, the rest of us were found space in college hostels further out.)

  3. Oh dear… Modern life gives me present participle fatigue.
    How much do you suppose they paid someone to come up with ‘Transforming Tomorrow’ as a slogan?

  4. Pingback: British Chilterners | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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