Seminar LXXIX: “recycling after Rome’s fall”

Cover of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome

Cover of Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome

If you are like me, or if gods save you this blog is your main source of history information, you will largely think of Professor Robin Fleming as an expert on the Norman Conquest and Domesday Book, and so it will have been with some confusion that you (in the former of our cases there) learnt of her new book, Britain after Rome, which, I am told, decides that no meaningful history of the period following the Roman withdrawal from Britain can be done from the texts, and therefore ignores them completely in favour of seeing what the archæological record alone tells us.1 This is a weird departure for someone whose stock in trade thus far has been making one particular immense text give up its secrets, but the archæologists I’ve heard talking about it are all delighted by the book, so it was with great interest that I made it down to London against the weather on the 15th December to hear her present to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, to the title, “Recycling In Britain after Rome’s Fall”.

Holy Trinity Church, Colchester, built in the eleventh century from reused Roman building stone

Holy Trinity Church, Colchester, built in the eleventh century from reused Roman building stone (from Wikimedia Commons)

My reactions to this paper were twofold: one, that it was incredibly interesting, and two, that I wanted to go and get all the references because the amount of stuff Professor Fleming had that I’d never heard of set off the alarm bells that ring when conspiracy theorists bring together a huge range of unrelated sources and string links between them. This was not because she was doing that! It was just because it seemed too damn rich to be instantly believable. I will admit that some of the assertions about quantity seemed to me to be very unlikely to be, well, quantifiable, but she had plural examples for most of what she was asserting, which is better than some do. What was she asserting, Jonathan, I imagine you’re saying, so, well, for one thing, that there was massive re-use of Roman building stone, which we sort of knew but no! more massive than that, quarries out of use for centuries massive, building still being raided in the eleventh century massive. And raided not just for stone, but for the metal bits of their structure that held the stones in place, these going into smiths’ hoards along with tools, cutlery, coins, anything that could be melted down and used again. There’s [edit: almost] no evidence (she said) of iron production in Britain between about 370 and the seventh century because of this second-hand supply. Pottery gets reused, too, intact stuff where it can be and otherwise bits used as moulds. This, for Professor Fleming, is how to explain a quantity of separated pot bases found especially in Oxfordshire settlement sites (she named Barrow Hills): they were serving as moulds for the plates in composite brooches, she reckons, the metal for those presumably being scavenged too.2

South Cadbury Castle hillfort, Somerset

South Cadbury Castle hillfort, Somerset, from English Wikipedia

As that example suggests, there was a lot of regional variation in this presentation. That’s what they were doing with old pots in what would be Oxfordshire, break ‘em up and make Saxon-looking stuff with the bits, but when the fort of South Cadbury (which was of course Camelot as any fule kno) was reoccupied in the fifth century one of the things this left for us is Roman cinerary urns, being used in domestic contexts. That is, it was important enough to these guys to use fine Roman ceramics, in a world where those were now basically unobtainable, that they would raid cremation cemeteries and take the urns to put food and drink in. (Yes, we’re still on mistreatment of the dead, sorry.) You see, then, why this rings like fantasy and yet I asked her where this, at least, was written and it’s in a book I’ve read, so I guess that I, like everyone else apparently, must have missed the significance.3) Some places obviously had more building stone to reuse than others; a lot of Professor Fleming’s examples of this stuff came from Bath, which is not really surprising. Closer to Kent, they were reusing Roman funerary ceramics as, well, funerary ceramics, going into the ground next to Merovingian finewares and local pottery. And again, you see, I’ve read more Kentish cemetery reports than some, especially this last few months, but I had not noticed this stuff there and I must go back and look again.4 Everywhere was reacting differently to the new shortages in supply and loss of technical skills, argued Professor Fleming, but the general picture is one of rapidly-developing material poverty being met with manifold and baffling ingenuity as each community made its choice between staying some kind of Roman or becoming early medieval. No Saxons necessarily required, you’ll notice, though of course there were ‘barbarian’ soldiers perhaps around who would now have been important in times of trouble, perhaps important enough to be imitated…5 Even if the quantities don’t add up to the kind of picture I seem to have come away from this paper with, that is a powerful paradigm for the so-called adventus, that is, and one which needs really very few immigrants to make it float.6 Once this gets out, we’re not going to be able to ignore it, so it merits attention, and I was glad to have been attending.


1. R. Fleming, Britain after Rome: the fall and rise, 400-1070, History of Britain (Harmondsworth 2010), to which compare for example eadem, Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge 1991) or Domesday Book and the law. Society and legal custom in early medieval England (Cambridge 1998).

2. Barrow Hills is not yet actually in print, it must be said, but it won’t be long apparently, Oxford Archaeology’s website advertises it as: Richard Chambers & Ellen McAdam, Excavations at Barrow Hills, Radley, Oxfordshire, 1983-5, Volume 2: The Romano British cemetery and Anglo Saxon settlement (Oxford forthcoming). By that time, of course, I guess that they will have been able to take Professor Fleming’s interpretation into account, since she obviously talked to them, so her source may wind up citing her. Is that actually circular? I’m not sure.

3. It being Leslie Alcock, S. J. Stevenson & C. R. Musson, Cadbury Castle, Somerset: The Early Medieval Archaeology (Cardiff 1995), though on inspection I discover that I actually read only Alcock, “Cadbury-Camelot: a fifteen-year perspective” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 68 (London 1982), pp. 354ff, repr. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987) pp. 185-213, so I could very easily have not got this level of detail.

4. Though, again, I must recognise that what I’ve read has very largely been the work of Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, who wrote mainly sober catalogues of finds mainly interested in Saxon material that might be diagnostic of date or ethnic affiliations, in what we might call the old tradition, and indeed that was substantially what I was reading for, so maybe I would again have overlooked or she thought unimportant the Roman material reused like this. I’m much readier to blame me than her, though, and there is an incredible amount more publication than just hers as the link above starts to make clear.

5. I am primed to think like this at the moment by finally making it urgent to read Guy Halsall’s excellent Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which covers the barbarisation of the Roman military at pp. 101-110 with copious references.

6. Although, again, I’m conscious that there is out there a very similar invasion-free acculturation and fashion-change argument out there about the creation of Muslim al-Andalus in Spain, which has been basically dismissed as the work of a madman, and I can see the scope for a similar reaction to this work too (referring to Ignacio Olagué, Les Arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne (Paris 1960, 2nd edn. 1973), which dammit used to be online for free but seems no longer to be, and to which see the stinging rejoinder of Pierre Guichard, “Les Arabes ont bien envahi l’Espagne : les structures sociales de l’Espagne musulmane” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 29 (Paris 1974), pp. 1483-1513, which is online for free, here.

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7 responses to “Seminar LXXIX: “recycling after Rome’s fall”

  1. Robin Fleming

    A couple of minor corrections: Actually, I don’t hold “that no meaningful history of the period following the Roman withdrawal from Britain can be done from the texts, and therefore ignores them completely in favour of seeing what the archæological record alone tells us.” I just think historians need to deal with material evidence, especially if they want to write something other than political history. And no, I don’t think that no new iron was smelted in the eastern half of Britain before the seventh century–I just think that the evidence suggests that VERY LITTLE was produced, and that most of the iron used in this period was recycled. I’ll be happy to send you a draft of the paper, too, if you are interested in chasing down the footnotes. As you say, it’s bits and pieces, but quite a lot of them seem to argue in the same direction…

    • Gosh that was fast. My apologies for the mistakes: as to the former, my fault for relying on hearsay before I’ve made time to read the book, sorry, but the hearsay came from the best of sources I assure you; as to the latter, that is entirely my fault, my notes actually say, “iron production more or less stops”, which is not quite the same as what I had above; I have now corrected.

  2. It is remarkable that Romans liked to build in stone and yet there are very few Roman remains left compared to the rest of the Roman empire.

  3. Wow. You get celebrities on your blog. I just get you. ;-)
    Seriously, thanks for the nice comment about my book. Glad you’re liking it.

    • Well, who knows whether my mind will change over the next hundred pages? :-) But it seems unlikely, though my attempts to push it to students have so far not reaped much, which is a shame because I’d have thought they’d like your style.

      As for the ‘celebrities’, it took most of them (everyone except Julia Barrow, I think) a couple of years to notice this screed, and Professor Fleming knows of it because of it being mentioned in front of her at a Haskins Society conference–I just hadn’t realised she was actually reading! And sometimes people are obviously Googling themselves and find it… It’s never safe to assume no-one’s listening out here on the Internet, or something.

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