Tag Archives: burial archaeology

Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4


1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.

Gallery

Flat out for Sutton Hoo

This gallery contains 14 photos.

The Easter holiday was short in the UK last year, but this didn’t stop some of us making good use of it, and for me this included, somewhat to my surprise, an Anglo-Saxonist roadtrip. This excellent idea was one of … Continue reading

Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.


1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.

Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5

Did you see that? Surely not! But yes! It was a post about my research area! But it went so quick you may have missed it because now it’s back to Anglo-Saxon England again, which does seem to be most of what I spent the spring of 2013 reading or hearing about. I did go to one other seminar between this and the previous one reported, in fact, but it didn’t really give me anything to work with so instead we pick up where we left off with John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, here with his sixth and final lecture on the 22nd February, “Landscapes of the Mind”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

This lecture revolved around the worthy contention that it’s only really possible to understand how people in the Anglo-Saxon world were using and changing their landscape if we also have some idea how they thought about it, easy to say but rather less easy to do! There are some obvious texts, and some less obvious ones: John did not, for example, use The Ruin, a poem which seems to be about what was then left of Roman Bath that even I have worked to death in a teaching context but which seems, well, kind of like a literary construct, but he did use The Wife’s Lament to open up for us a world constructed in zones, in here and out there, safe versus wild, the hall, as we might (and John did) put it, and the sparrow. As I say, the literary and textual evidence for this kind of thinking has been well worked over but there is these days also the possibility of doing more, and recently much more, with the archæology.1

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, Tæppes hlæw, Tæppa’s Low, built within an Iron Age fort and later, as we now believe, equipped with a church

One of the things that becomes obvious when you approach the matter like this is that the Anglo-Saxons were keen reusers of sites that had associations with the past. Despite the otherworldliness felt by the narrator in the Ruin, or rather, because of it, they built in old monumental precincts, they buried people in Iron Age or Bronze Age burial mounds, or, as at Taplow above, built new burial mounds within Iron Age structures. It seems unlikely that the people reusing such sites can have had more idea what their original purpose had been than do we, but that they connected with something unusual may have been enough. After conversion to Christianity, also, as we’ve seen before, these sites retained old associations so that executed criminals might be buried there, or, The Wife’s Lament suggests, the living imprisoned there as exiles from normal space. Those were, however, some kind of official response, and for people without a full understanding of Christian practice such places presumably shared their significance with newer places of contact with the beyond like churches, all being points of access to the sacred or supernatural.

Crop-marks of a 'woodhenge'-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire

Crop-marks of a ‘woodhenge’-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire, a point which became the main entrance of the Saxon settlement, which, John told us, also backed onto a Roman road, had burials at all its entrances and was laid out on a grid-plan

Both churches and older constructions could in fact be seen as replications of antiquity, John argued, the stone structure of churches calling on Roman antiquity and Anglo-Saxon mounds calling on the older landscape in which their builders found themselves. These ‘structures of eternity’, perhaps also reflected in stone cairns, contrast sharply with the ephemeral, transient traces of the structures of the living, timber houses that would move over generations as one mouldered and a new one replaced it nearby, and that would be opened and closed by rituals we see in the form of placed deposits of materials, animal remnants and so forth.2 These also had their life-cycle, whereas the landscape of the beyond worked in terms beyond mere life-times or generations.

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth, with a distinctive fabric that may result from the imitation of building in wood. Photo by the author, more of these in a future post…

Much of this, however, seems to have changed, wouldn’t you know it, around the year 1000, when the building of churches on a much wider scale really got going, many of which were probably therefore of wood; they start to have stone fonts, too, which is hard to show earlier when baptism may have been done in lead or wooden tanks. Stone bridges begin to be known, by the twelfth century stone houses too, whose generational perambulation around sites was thus arrested.3 In the 1050s, as discussed here before, we also seem to start seeing fortification in stone. The landscape now became permanently occupied, unlike the light, precise and ephemeral imprint left on it by the earlier Anglo-Saxon cultures. John, closing with these ideas, was careful to stress extensive local variation, made worse by the fact that our texts, largely from the West Saxon milieu, tell us little of the areas where we can see most investment in material culture, the Wash catchment area he’d identified in earlier lectures. For some areas, especially the West Midlands, there is for some periods just no settlement evidence at all, and almost everywhere there is still much more to do. But, a cheering thought, with so much of what is being done now a matter of digital record, we can proceed to do this more with a much better and easier grasp of what there is to do it with.


1. A first attempt at both in Sarah Semple, “A fear of the past: the place of the prehistoric burial mound in the ideology of middle and later Anglo-Saxon England”, in World Archaeology Vol. 30 (London 1998), pp. 109-126.

2. Most of what I now know about such things I know from sharing a Common Room for two years with Clifford Sofield, whose work has been mentioned here before but from whose thesis, “Placed deposits in early and middle Anglo-Saxon rural settlements”, unpublished D. Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2012, we should expect interesting publications.

3. On the explosion of church-building the best place to look is, of course, John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), forgive no page references but I’m away from my notes as I write this. On bridges, the best and almost only thing is Nicholas Brooks, “Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1381″ in Nigel Yates & M. James Gibson (edd.), Traffic and politics: the construction and management of Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1993, Kent History Project 1 (Woodbridge 1994), pp. 1-20. Where you go for stone houses, I’ve no idea, it’s after my period; wait for John’s book!

A theory on Kent I would have taken further

When I wrote the bulk of this post in September 2012, I had lately read an article I should have looked at long previously, by Charlotte Behr, called “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent”.1 It’s is a rather odd piece of writing: it’s thoroughly academic and erudite but it still reads somewhat as if the author had left notes in the margins of things they had meant to mention later and a scribal error had then incorporated them into the main text in the wrong places; it digresses a lot. I read it after a solid week of copy-editing the final version of Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, so I itched to do a major hack job on this article, but this is not much good with something in print for twelve years already and it has made me think, so it’s obviously not bad. I just, would maybe have pushed it a bit further.

A seventh-century gold bracteate pendant from a cemetery at Faversham in kent, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, object no. 1909-194.

A seventh-century gold bracteate pendant from a cemetery at Faversham in kent, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, object no. 1909-194.

What Dr Behr argues is that even though Bede tells us the men of Kent (as opposed to the Kentish men) were Jutes from Jutland, Scandinavian material culture only shows up there with any strength from the mid-sixth century onwards, after we presume any migration to have happened. (Yes, I’m not sure about the assumed links there either, but let’s roll with it for now.) Even once visible, that Scandinavian signal is swamped in Frankish-style goods both imported and locally-made, but it is there. Furthermore, Dr Behr argues that: (a) it is especially to be identified in gold bracteates, which in Kent are almost entirely found in wealthy female graves (though this is not their usual Scandinavian context), (b) these bracteates are related in iconography (and occasionally even in runic text) to the cult of Woden, and (c) that that, as far as place-names can tell us, was confined to one small area of Kent which is also busy with major élite sites, the chief of which are the cemetery of Finglesham, where a ‘founder’ warrior grave became the focus for three centuries of interments, Eastry, where a later villa regalis (royal vill) is well-attested and burial also occurred from early on, and Woodnesborough (‘Woden’s barrow’), presumably the religious site, to which could be added the coastal site of Sandwich as the fourth part of a rather nice little royal development complex linked to Dover and Canterbury by Roman roads.2 Moreover, the bracteates found here and more thinly elsewhere in Kent are all of one specific type, with an identifiably single prototype, suggesting that they were locally-made on demand for a single group who were pushing themselves as Scandinavians in some respect or other.

A gold buckle from the cemetery at Finglesham, supposedly depicting Woden

A gold buckle from the cemetery at Finglesham, supposedly depicting Woden, though a figure in headgear with two things on shafts is perhaps not native to Scandinavia

Now there are bits of this that aren’t logically present in the article but need to be to connect these things up, I think. The conclusion seems perfectly plausible, it’s the sort of thing we’re encouraged to see as behind the goods in the Sutton Hoo ship burial as well, and it lines up with a lot of work going on at the time Dr Behr was writing that encouraged us to see southern Scandinavia as a kind of alternate locus of power and importance which gets its brief spotlight period in the aftermath of the fall of Rome.3 However, the bracteates aren’t die-linked, so there’s not a lot to say that those showing up outside this little core zone aren’t good imitations. That would also work in terms of showing it was an attractive way to represent oneself, I suppose. The fact that it’s almost always women is also interesting, too; should we imagine this ideology being something men can join in with by marriage? Have we then got a successful (and potentially actually Jutish, I feel it should be said, if that term means anything beyond `from Denmark’) warrior family having established themselves at Eastry and area, with their portus at Sandwich, then making links with other élites in sites like Dover and across the water in Francia too that got cemented by marriage, and shortly becoming the number one power in sixth-century Kent?

Reverse of a gold D-type bracteate found at Denton, Kent, and now in Canterbury Museum

Reverse of a gold D-type bracteate found at Denton, Kent, and now in Canterbury Museum, image licensed from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons BY-SA

Dr Behr, perhaps because she was going into print in a respected journal and because she knows how to be careful better than I do (I have not met her), did not go so far in this piece. But this is only a blog, so I can, and I can go further, because it would all fit quite nicely. It marries up a lot of things that Anglo-Saxonists used to believe because the sources tell us them (warrior settlement by small numbers of migrants with ancestral connections overseas establishing themselves in new lands) with more realistic, socially-based work about control of luxury goods, manipulation of genealogy and expression of desired identity via material culture and burial etc. But if we also fit it into the time-frame then it helps explain a disjunction in what Bede tells us about the early Kentish kings. He repeats Gildas about the settlement of the Saxons in Kent, basically, that they arrived as mercenary warriors then rebelled and took over, but Bede puts names on them. Those names are interesting: the first two leaders are the legendary Hengest and a son or colleague Horsa (two names meaning ‘stallion’ and ‘mare’, always an unlikely occurrence), but the subsequent kings take their family name from a third generation in the person of one Oisc. How these three are related varies between the few sources, though all the genealogies ultimately go back to Woden.4 (Dr Behr covers all this, but she doesn’t, perhaps sensibly, go where I’m about to go with it. She does, however, point out what I’d never noticed, that the Kentish kings are the only ones whose Wodenic ancestry Bede also records.5) To this we can also add Ian Wood’s stress on the early kingdom’s Frankish connections; even if we don’t go so far as to claim that Kent was actually subject to Frankish overlordship, the first Christian king of Kent, Æthelberht, had a Frankish wife and a father with a Frankish name, and there is all this Frankish bling in the graves of Kent, as said.6

A fragment of a Frankish copper-alloy buckle found at Hollingbourne, Kent

A fragment of a Frankish copper-alloy buckle found at Hollingbourne, Kent, image licensed from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons license BY-SA

So, okay, a hypothetical way to reconcile all this: in the mid-fifth century a proto-kingship was built up in the Eastry-Finglesham complex identified by Dr Behr which was demonstratively (rather than demonstrably, though maybe that too) Scandinavian, and let’s say Jutish, even if I’m not really sure those two things should be assumed to be overlapping sets, and it rapidly acquired dominating links to other power centres like Dover. It may even have been the power that managed to grab Western Kent into the same hegemony. It stressed this Scandinavian identity because there was opposition that identified more clearly as Frankish, which is why we have Frankish kings reporting themselves as rulers of Britain in Procopius’s recollection (however good that may be). And by the end of the sixth century, that opposition won out in the form of King Æthelberht. But the combined kingdom’s identity remained Jutish at some level, not least maybe because Æthelberht himself seems to have wanted to avoid ties too close to the Franks anyway (else why not accept Christianity from them?) so perhaps liked to be able to get a grip on local feeling like this. (Was his father Irminric’s wife one of these women with bracteates on her dress, do you suppose?)

Reverse of a Frankish tremissis loosely aiming to be one of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, found near Sevenoaks

I couldn’t get through this post without using a coin somewhere, come on. This is the reverse of a Frankish tremissis loosely aiming to be one of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, found near Sevenoaks, image license from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons license BY-SA

I like this because it would allow so many things to be true at once: it could accommodate a genuine migrant warrior group moving into a fragmented power vacuum in eastern Kent and a small family quickly becoming powerful by genius of location and resources and by skilful manipulation of a politically-useful identity for which one could hand out almost literal badges of membership and that other people apparently wanted to join. (I do wonder what the men in this group wore, but whatever it was apparently we haven’t found it as such.) It was such a good appeal to legend that by the time they were remembered in the eighth century Bede knew, or his informant knew, that the founder had been a legendary warrior and Hengest was the name they knew best for the time. And his story would then actually be relevant, explanatory and important! These pseudo-Hengests would have pulled together a small but wealthy kingdom in the space of a couple of generations, substantially just by having a good starting position and an obvious Frankish problem for which they could advertise themselves as the solution. (“No more tribute to the sons of the sea-monster! Choose Jutes for Woden!”7) And then one of the family that must have set up in Canterbury somewhen (and let’s call their founder Oisc) got in on the act and, as luck and skill with a blade and a retinue would have it, completely cleared the floor over most of the south of England, sending the political axis skidding backwards and forwards between Francia and Scandinavia until some well-timed missionaries arrived to offer a third way (unbeknownst to them) and the whole game changed scale. This is, of course, completely unprovable (though one could wish for DNA testing of the female skeletons with the bracteates) but it fits very much with how I have long tended to see the Anglo-Saxon settlement: not many people but a few clever and lucky ones in just the right place and at just the right time to make something that became history.


1. C. Behr, “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 9 (Oxford 2000), pp. 25-52, DOI: 10.1111/1468-0254.00058.

2. Most of what i know about Finglesham comes from the short but good picture essay, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, “Finglesham: a cemetery in East Kent” in James Campbell, Eric John & Patrick Wormald (edd.), The Anglo-Saxons (London 1982), pp. 24-25, but there is much fuller publication, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes & Guy Grainger, The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Finglesham, Kent (Oxford 2006); on the other sites mentioned, see most recently Keith Parfitt, “Further Investigation of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Eastry” in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 129 (Canterbury 2009), pp. 313-332; Parfitt, “Excavations at Ringlemere Farm, Woodnesborough, 2002- 2006″, ibid. Vol. 127 (2007), pp. 39-73; and Helen Clarke, Sandwich: the “completest medieval town in England”. A study of the town and port from its origins to 1600 (Oxford 2010), all of which citations, I should stress, I have pulled out of databases just now rather than actually read

3. Best exemplified by several papers in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), in which many but not all of the contributors were in fact from Scandinavia; there was also John Hines, however, whose book The Scandinavian character of Anglian England in the pre-Viking period , British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 124 (Oxford 1984) is the starting point for this trend on my side of the North Sea. Hines’s contribution to the Sachsensymposium was, admittedly, not about Scandinavian power foci; as to what it was about, that would be a future post

4. All this is best covered by none other than the late lamented Nicholas Brooks, in his “The Creation and Early Structure of the Early Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 55-74.

5. Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 28.

6. Ian Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (Ålingsas 1987), put more lightly but also more easily obtainable in his “The Fall of the Western Empire and the End of Roman Britain” in Britannia Vol. 18 (London 1987), pp. 253-262.

7. I thought of that just because it jingles nicely but IS IT A COINCIDENCE THAT the bracteate type used in this Kentish group is the one whose iconography is actually a monster, defeated and bound, presumably by Woden who is elsewhere depicted in such a combat (Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 37 with illustrations on p. 38)? Or can these things actually be anti-Merovingian campaign badges? OK: if I hadn’t gone too far before, I have now, it’s nice to be sure…

Seminar CLV: an uncertain number of Vikings in a boat (at Ardnamurchan)

As I work through this backlog of seminar reports I do begin to realise that maybe one reason I seemed to get less done in Oxford than I have done since is because I was at seminars all the time… In particular, on this occasion, on the 21st of January 2013, I was at two in immediate succession, in that way that the coincidence of the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar at Oxford currently makes possible. This post is about the former of them, when Dr Oliver Harris of the University of Leicester came to speak with the title, “Places Past and Present: the Ardnamurchan boat burial”.

The reconstructed ship setting of the Ardnamurchan boat burial, published to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license by Jon Haylett of A Kilchoan Diary

The reconstructed ship setting of the Ardnamurchan boat burial, published to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license by Jon Haylett of A Kilchoan Diary

You may have heard about this site, because it was all over the news when it was fresh; the BBC coverage includes a short video showing our speaker in full animation; that may make it clear how much fun this paper was, but it was by no means lacking in care and thought even so. Basically the story is that they were doing a much wider survey of this peninsula on the western coast of Scotland, interested in remains of all periods (and I mean all – they have found Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and early modern stuff here, all within a few kilometres of each other, though no medieval bar what I’m here describing), and identified a low mound that early modern ploughing had respected. Investigation revealed that this was probably because it was full of stones, and once the turf was cleared off them it began, as Dr Harris put it, to look suspiciously like a boat. If there’d been any doubt, the finding of a broken spear and a shield boss helped reassure them there really was something here, and that something, rivets made clear, had been an actual boat that was dragged up the beach, parked on a local rise in the ground, banked with kerb stones and then filled with stuff. That stuff also included a drinking horn whose fittings survived, an axe, a cauldron or hanging bowl with a hammer and tongs in it, a whetstone, a sickle, food, apparently a bag of spare rivets and under it all, perhaps originally down the side of the boat, a sword. (I do wonder in writing this up if the person in question were being marked as a shipwright, but if so obviously a fairly martial one.)

Dr Hannah Cobb posed with the sword from the Ardnamurchan boat burial

One of quite a number of pictures from the same press shoot by Jeff J. Mitchell that one can Google up of Dr Hannah Cobb posed with the sword from the burial

What it could not then be said to have included, however, was a body, though soil analysis may change that (or by now, may have, though I can find nothing newer on it). For now, though, the possibility that there was never a person in the boat remains intriguingly open, and a further possibility (suggested in questions by Lesley Abrams and David Petts in accumulation, on the basis that sickles usually occur in female graves) is that there was more than one, accounting for the multiple significations of the goods, though in that case the chemical action of the soil was unusually aggressive for the area just here. Likewise absent was any scientific dating as yet, but the sword, which had copper and silver interweave decorating the pommel, was enough for Colleen Batey to suggest the first half of the tenth century, and I am as happy with that as I ever am with stylistic dating, given that I am not expert enough to contest it and would rather have some figures out of a computer. I would also like some publication beyond the very short note in Medieval Archaeology for 2012 that seems to be all that has so far resulted, but the Historic Environment Record lists a report apparently submitted as part of a post-excavation budget submission, and maybe that’s where things rest. That would be a shame but hopefully eventually remediable.

Aariel view of the coats around Swordie Bay, Ardnamurchan

The coast around the site, which could you but see also houses a Neolithic chambered tomb and a Bronze Age kerbed cairn as well as the ship burial. The name of the place? Swordle Bay…

The main thing that Dr Harris was keen to stress, anyway, was the landscape into which this then-new monument was being inserted, which could fairly be characterised as funerary: the very stones they built the ship-setting with were robbed from a Neolithic cairn nearby! The wider landscape is also obviously maritime: though this is the only boat-burial so far found on the mainland, it’s really only just the mainland and has a lot more to do with the others on the islands to which the sea links it for users of such boats than the zones inland. The longue durée approach of the project here was good for showing depth in time but breadth in space is also pretty clear for its frame of reference; all the goods seem to be Scandinavian in type or manufacture and there’s no reason to suppose the person was at all local. (There were two teeth, so isotopic analysis may just be possible, but without a skull, who’s to say whose teeth were deposited for what reason?) The diggers presumably knew the coast, picked a very well-used bit of it full of monuments to make their own, built it and then sailed away again, a burial very much in keeping with how Vikings interacted with this coastline and others further south when they lived. There’s a lot more it would be nice to know here but this paper gave us a lot more than was on the web, so it’s nice to be able to distribute it a bit further.


As far as I can discover, so far the only academic publication of the site (a somewhat unfair judgement-by-comparison on the press releases and website, which contain nearly as much information but fewer site photos) is Oliver Harris, Hannah Cobb, Héléna Gray & Phil Richardson, “A Viking at Rest: new discoveries on Ardnamurchan” in Märit Gaimster & Kieran O’Conor with Rory Sherlock (edd.), “Medieval Britain and Ireland – Fieldwork Highlights in 2011″ in Neil Christie (ed.), “Medieval Britain and Ireland 2011″ in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 333-339 of 321-339 of 301-339, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.00000000011.

Seminar CLIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures I

Turning to the pile of unreported seminars, lectures and so on that I have for you leaves me keenly aware of how far behind I am but also of how much I don’t, in some sense, need to cover. The last seminar I went to in 2012 and the first in 2013 were covered at Magistra et Mater long ago already, and so was the second, and thus I find myself leaping forward to 18th January 2013 and back to Professor John Blair, who on that afternoon gave the first of his lectures as Ford Lecturer for 2013.1

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The Ford Lectures are an annual series of public lectures in history that have been running in Oxford since 1896. They are given by a historian elected by a board that administers the relevant bequest, and they are what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’. They are attended by a whole range of people, by no means all historians, and they consequently have to be pitched for an intelligent but non-expert audience. Probably as a result of this some fairly important books have resulted from them that hold their value even today.2 Given this audience and opportunity, Professor Blair opted to showcase his latest work, the early outcomes of the project that had left yours truly holding the fort for him while he was on leave, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and the first lecture was called “Defining Anglo-Saxon Landscapes”.

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

One recent high-profile excavation, the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The starting position here was basically that the massive availability of new archæological data accumulated since digging became a normal part of building and development work permits a new survey of what we know about settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period, but very little has been done to take this chance, not least because of the sheer volume of material.3 But John evidently likes a challenge and has read really quite a lot of it, and talked to a great many people in various places. Not all these people had talked to each other, of course, so sometimes there was work from places very near to each other which no-one but John had seen all of; even where this wasn’t the case, the construction of a national framework offered new meanings for it all at a higher level. In the lectures John focused most notably on Mercia, but the book will apparently offer more (and he has already covered some of the gaps by publishing his recent Chadwick lecture).4

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Recreation Anglo-Saxon woodwork made by Regia Anglorum

Even what we had involved considerable diversity, however, of settlement and of evidence and investigation: coins, sunken-featured buildings, post-built houses, portable artefacts and grave-goods have all been found and indeed been sought differently over the years and from place to place. John also laid considerable stress on what we cannot see, of which the most obvious thing is wooden artefacts, tools and possessions and indeed in some cases buildings; he used examples from modern Karelia, here among many other places, to make the point that, “fugitive things can be very elaborate”. Not just wood, of course: my notes also mention tapestries and tents as examples of things that we know could be very splendid in the Middle Ages but which almost never survive archæologically. On top of this, but consequently hard to detect, are genuine regional differences in Anglo-Saxon-period practice, which might be matters of fashion or identity but might also in any given case also or instead be environmental as much as anything, and lying around the landscape are things that are very evident but impossible to date, like earthworks, which lately have been getting more and more likely to be Anglo-Saxon in date in at least some cases but usually only might be.

A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

Last signs of an identity crisis? A burial with brooches from West Heslerton, East Yorkshire

The purely environmental factors can be differentiated from more cultural ones because the latter change, however. For much of this period, for example, the South Coast was apparently not as important an area in trading and settlement terms as the North Sea coast, despite the former’s greater proximity to the Continent.5 Trade is one thing, however, and settlement is another and harder to get at; it doesn’t seem to reliably coincide with coin finds or cemetery evidence, for example, so that a complex model of culture and materiality is needed. John hypothesized that for the earliest part of the period, where furnished burial seems to be the main cultural expression we can recover archæologically, Anglo-Saxon society was going through a crisis of identity that makes the very phrase `Anglo-Saxon society’ problematic, but that once it was through that things like buildings, coins and ceramics became a a more likely sphere for material investment. Filling out that suggestion had to wait a week for the next lecture, however, and so I shall leave it to another post having hopefully whetted your appetites for more!


1. The ones I’m not covering, just for completeness, are: Edward James, “Visualising the Merovingians in Nineteenth-Century France”, paper presented to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 12th December 2012; Éienne Rénaud, “From Merovech to Clovis: what can we really know?”, ibid., 9th January 2013; and Rob Houghton, “The Vocabulary of Groups in Eleventh-Century Mantua”, ibid. 16th January 2013.

2. I suppose the ones that matter most to what I do are J. Armitage Robinson, The Times of St. Dunstan: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1922 (Oxford 1923); Frank Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066–1166: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1929 (Oxford 1932, repr. 1961); Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Hilary Term, 1943 (Oxford 1946, repr. 1998); J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent: the Ford Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford in the Michaelmas Term, 1970 (Oxford 1971); Donald A. Bullough, Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation. Being Part of the Ford Lectures Delivered in Oxford in the Hilary Term 1980, Education and Society and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance 16 (Leiden 2004); and Peter Sawyer, The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2013), but there are lots of others covering other periods.

3. An Oxford determination to address this is already evident in Helena Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2012).

4. John Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013).

5. John here made considerable play of distribution maps emphasising the relative wealth of an area he described as “the Wash catchment area”, a sort of Greater Great Ouse reaching down to the Chilterns, but in terms of the coastal areas the importance of the North Sea compared to the Channel is a conclusion one could also find in Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982) and Chris Loveluck, “Problems of the definition and conceptualisation of early medieval elites, AD 450-900: the dynamics of the archaeological evidence” in François Bougard, Hans-Werner Goetz & Régine le Jan (edd.), Théorie et pratiques des élites au Haut Moyen Âge : Conception, perception et réalisation sociale. Theorie und Praxis frühmittelalterlicher Eliten: Konzepte, Wahrnehmung und soziale Umsetzung, Haut Moyen Âge 13 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 21-68.