Tag Archives: settlement archaeology

Next stop Iceland?

This post is about pre-Viking settlement in the North Atlantic, and here specifically the Faroe Islands. I originally stubbed this in September 2013, when I came across a relevant web report on Melissa Snell’s medieval history blog at About.com, but since that time it seems that they’ve stopped keeping archives over there, so that post is now gone. Actually this is good news, because it forced me to web-search out other reports, and the obvious one, on Nature World News, also includes a link to the actual article behind it all, so now I can write you something informed.1

View from the south-eastern extremity of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands, looking south down the chain

View from the south-eastern extremity of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands, looking south down the chain, and shamelessly plundered from a Faroes tourism site, linked through

The story is that new research proves that the Vikings were not the first colonisers of the Faroes. This, and the fact that this was being published in an geoscience rather than a specifically archæological or historical journal, gave me some faint worries about sensationalisation of research meant to prove other things, as we have seen here many times before, but in this case, as far as I can see, it’s the real deal. The team in question were doing a low-urgency rescue dig on a coastal site in danger of erosion at Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy in 2002 and 2006. The site had been dug once before in 1994 and had then shown a Viking longhouse at the bottom of its occupation sequence (which subsequently went all the way up to the 19th century, always on the same spot, not least, as the article says, because there just aren’t that many sensible places to put settlements on the Faroes).2 This time they located the long-house’s hearth, and then they kept going and found more beneath. It wasn’t much more, just peat ash with carbonised barley grains in it, but this is significant for two reasons: firstly, barley isn’t native to the Faroes, and secondly, peat-burning requires usually months of cutting, stacking and drying, and thus implies prolonged settlement, not just drop-in visits. And they duly had radio-carbon analysis done on the barley grains and got the figures you see below.

Calibration graph and stratigraphical context of the radio-carbon samples from Á Sondum, Sandoy

From Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dougmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 230, larger version linked through

There are some things I don’t fully understand about this, mainly because to get these dates they used not individual samples but a combined sample, whose results were mathematically combined using a ‘weighted mean’. Well, weighted how? I feel we should be told more about this.3 Still, unless it was actually weighted outside the sample dates, which would be some strange new definition of ‘mean’ of which I was not previously aware, the results still seem fairly inarguable: two straigraphically separate episodes older than the Viking site by between half a century and three centuries. I feel that a mean critic might be able to handwave away the more recent result, given it was right under the hearth and the dates could just about overlap, but the older one is much harder to get around, which gives one that bit more confidence in the younger one.

A forbidding shoreline in South-Central Iceland

An even more forbidding shoreline in South-Central Iceland, apparently being slowly washed away by glacial outwash, as presented in Albert C. Hine, Jon Boothroyd & Dag Nummedal, “Glacial Outwash Plain Shoreline, South-Central Iceland”, Beach of the Month, Coastal Care 1st August 2013, linked through

So, OK, what does this all mean? Well, most obviously it means that someone was on Sandoy burning peat and scattering its ash on the shoreline well before the Vikings got there (and the study is extremely careful to emphasise that we have no idea who). What our authors are most excited about is that there were, previously, very small signs of pre-Viking occupation in the palaeobotanical record (which is to say, barley pollen had been found before in a hard-to-date but potentially early context4), and that having been able to pin it down with actual digging like this has big implications for other island chains where such out-of-place floral data has turned up but been dismissed. But it also made them think of what it makes me think of, which is an old question about whether anyone got to Iceland before the Vikings. There are stories about this in the texts, firstly bewildering seafaring fantasies like the Irish Navigatio Sanctio Brendani, in which Brendan and his monks find a series of fantastic islands in the Western Ocean while in search of Paradise, which they duly locate and are allowed to stop in for a bit before turning for home to spread the good word.5 Much effort has been spent on pinning actual Atlantic islands into his tale, but, to be cynical again, one might as well try the same exercise with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the islands are equally allegorical in both texts.6 But there is also the Íslendingabók of Ari Thorgillson, ‘The Book of the Icelanders’, in which Ari reports that the first Viking settlers on Iceland found white-clad men they called ‘papar’ there who fled before the Norsemen, leaving behind croziers and bells.7 That looks so like the kind of people St Brendan actually led that it’s usually been assumed these were Irish religious taking the spiritual exile thing unusually seriously. But there is no archæological evidence to show that Ari was doing anything more than making this up by extrapolation from stories about the Western Isles of Scotland or similar. The archæologists here are suitably cautious about fitting these older debates around their findings:

“Who were these earlier settlers, how many of them were there and where did they come from? Were they single ecclesiastical anchorites as described by Dicuil from Ireland, Late Iron Age groups of colonists from Atlantic Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia? Did they continue on to Iceland, or did the Faroes represent a temporary diasporal bottle-neck, requiring later Viking seafaring technology to be able to sail to Iceland and Greenland, and importantly to sail back? To answer these questions, more and better-preserved pre-Viking Faroese archaeological sites need to be identified, excavated and analysed.”8

To that, I would only say that the Vikings’ seafaring technology was perfected well before the Viking disapora started, so that might not be the significant limitation, but the Faroes radio-carbon dates are still very early and the authors’ caution here is absolutely commendable.9 What they do do, however, is establish an excellent idea of where to look for such remains in island contexts, and that gives me hope that Iceland might, indeed, be the next stop, just because it would be fun finally to have some kind of archæology to set against Ari’s stories. I’ll let the authors of the article have the last word, though, because they have bigger things in mind than my antiquarianism, and will myself just finish by saying that I wish all science publications with historical impact could manage it as well as these writers have:

“This detailed examination at the base of coastal erosion archaeological sections was successfully used to identify the first archaeological sites of Mesolithic date in the Western Isles of
Scotland. A similar palynological argument for early human settlement was proposed for the ‘invisible Mesolithic’ of the Western Isles, where small-scale clearance episodes evident in pre-Neolithic pollen sequences, coupled with a rise in microscopic charcoal, led researchers to suggest that hunter-gatherer fire ecology accounted for these disturbances, despite the lack of any Mesolithic archaeological sites in the island chain. In the Faroes and the Western Isles of Scotland, small-scale perturbations in pollen sequences were interpreted as ephemeral human occupation events in periods prior to the orthodox landnám ['land-taking'] events attested by the substantial settlement record of structures, dating to the Viking and Neolithic periods respectively. In both cases, the palaeoecological interpretations were eventually proved to be correct on discovery of ephemeral archaeological remains of pre-landnám date at the base of large coastal erosion archaeological sections and this raises intriguing issues about perturbations in palaeoenvironmental sequences prior to orthodox landnám chronological horizons in other island systems elsewhere in the North Atlantic and across the world, as in the Pacific."10

1. Mike J. Church, Símun V. Arge, Kevin J. Edwards, Philippa L. Ascough, Julie M. Bond, Gordon T. Cook, Steve J. Dockrill, Andrew J. Dugmore, Thomas H. McGovern, Claire Nesbitt, Ian A. Simpson, “The Vikings were not the first colonizers of the Faroe Islands” in Quartnerary Science Reviews Vol. 77 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 228-232, DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.06.011. Assigning author order on that must have taken nearly as long as the project itself…

2. Ibid. pp. 228-230; the previous dig, led by the second author here, seems not to have been published.

3. Rather than tell us about it, they refer to two other studies, P. J. Ashmore, “Radiocarbon dating: avoiding errors by avoiding mixed samples” in Antiquity Vol. 73 (Edinburgh 1999), pp. 124-130, which you’ll notice is a vote against doing this, and Ascough, Cook & Dugmore, “North Atlantic marine 14C reservoir effects: Implications for late-Holocene chronological studies” in Quarternary Geochronology Vol. 4 (Amsterdam 2009), pp. 171-180, DOI: 10.1016/j.quageo.2008.12.002, which presumably isn’t.

4. Here they cite a whole rook of stuff, the most recent of which is K. J. Edwards & D. M. Borthwick, “The pollen content of so-called ‘ancient’ field systems in Suethuroy, Faroe Islands, and the question of cereal cultivation” in S.-A. Bengtson, P. C. Buckland, P. H. Enckell & A. M. Fosaa (edd.), Dorete – Her Book – Being a Tribute to Dorete Bloch and to Faroese Nature, Annales Societatis Scientiarum Færoensis, Supplementum LII (Tørshavn 2010), pp. 96-116.

5. I’m not sure what the preferred edition of the Navigatio is these days but in trying to find out I have found Guy Vincent (ed.), “Navigation de Saint Brendan : texte latin et traduction”, http://www.utqueant.org/net/doc.3.Bren.II.html, last modified 24th October 2005 as of 26th August 2014, which will probably do. There is a good English translation in J. F. Webb (transl.), Lives of the Saints (Harmondsworth 1965), pp. 31-68, repr. in D. H. Farmer (ed./transl.) & Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (Harmondsworth 1983), pp. 231-267 even though the text is likely from a century after Bede.

6. There are various studies on the Atlantic world implied by the text in John W. De Courcy & David Sheehy (edd.), Atlantic Visions (Dun Laoghaire 2009), which I will admit straight up I have never seen but just now pulled out of a database; any other suggestions?

7. There seems to be an edition of Íslendingabók by Guðni Jónsson online here but I have no idea how good it is; again, any better references would be appreciated. The standard translation, Siân Grønlie (transl.), Íslendingabók; Kristni Saga. The Book of the Icelanders; The Story of the Conversion (London 2006), pp. 3-34, is online here in PDF.

8. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.

9. Jan Bill, “Ships and Seamanship” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 182-201.

10. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.

Seminar CLXXVIII: comparing post-Roman European uplands

May 2013 seems to have been a busy month in Oxford for seminars and the like, despite my attempt at daily posting I seem still to be fourteen months behind and possibly even falling back. Though this is alarming what is to be done but press on, and on this occasion hot from the press is the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar of the 15th of that month, at which Nicholas Schroeder presented a paper entitled “From Roman to Medieval Landscapes: settlement, society and economy in Belgian, English and German uplands”.

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region. There are less hospitable-looking study areas, for sure… “Vue de Malmedy en mai 2012” by CathLegrandOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve already described Dr Schroeder as one of the brighter sparks of the transient Oxford firmament, and it was noticeable how much progress he’d made since his previous paper here recounted, a progress primarily of breadth as his title may imply to you. In an attempt to gather what was going on in the Ardennes region in the fourth to the sixth centuries he had embraced the power of wide-ranging comparison and also studied the old British kingdom of Dumnonia (modern Devon and Cornwall) and the German side of the Jura region, the ‘Swabian Alps’. The first part of the paper was thus a comparison of the areas’ scholarships — lots more actual dug archæology and aerial photography in Britain, lots more economic history writing and more pollen data in Belgium, much stronger structures of interpretation in Germany but largely focussed on centres not landscapes, among other things — and then turned to a detailed comparison of the former two areas, Britain versus Belgium.

I don’t want to recapitulate Dr Schroeder’s summary of the two areas as he had learned to see them, but the elements of comparison are worth drawing out: these were, more or less, villas, hillforts, the balance of cereal and pastoral agriculture and the rôle of new centres of lordship. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given for example that Devon and Cornwall are coastal and the Ardennes/Eifel region is not, there seem to have been more points of difference than comparison: Belgium has far more villa sites generally while Dumnonia’s Roman-period settlement was largely in what are called ’rounds’, the Ardennes had a noticeable return to woodland (though the same work with pollen doesn’t exist elsewhere, which may make this a weaker comparison) whereas in Britain what we have noticed is hillforts, the Ardennes’s culture remained at least slightly monetised and ceramic while Dumnonia lost both, Belgium’s shifting settlements associate with cemeteries of firstly a German-Roman military character and then what’s identified as ‘Merovingian’ in new locations whereas the sub-Roman population is famously invisible in funerary archæological terms, and each area grows different crop complexes at all points, though not without change, but there are also points of comparison.

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall, a hillfort with two ’rounds’ fairly clearly visible on the side nearest the viewer and strip fields corrugating the far side of the hill. Photo copyright Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service so only hotlinked here from their site.

The first important one of these, in as much as neither this nor the following point are what we would necessarily expect from the historiographies, is that both areas seem to have made heavy use of a form of agriculture that Dr Schroeder called ‘convertible husbandry‘, in which one grows crops on a field for 3-4 years then turns it over to pasture from 6-7, rather than switching dramatically between agrarian and pastoral models. (Rosamond Faith argued in questions that mixed agriculture must have been the general pattern almost everywhere before economies were developed enough to permit specialisation, but the question is when and where was that? I have more to say on this, I think.) The second point was that in both areas the durable changes happened not in the wake of the Roman collapse in the fourth and fifth centuries but in the seventh. It was then that in Dumnonia ceramics return to view, that rounds began to die out and longhouses appeared, and what seem often to have been royal estates developed in valley bottoms that became the new foci of the rural economy, while in the Ardennes it was not least then that the major monastery of Stavelot-Malmédy that dominates the evidence here got itself established, but also that burial moved into churchyards and again, that royal vills start showing up as, along with monastic estates, the articulations of the new economy. This I find intriguing: I think I would have expected the eighth century, as the climate began to improve and, in Dumnonia at least, as the kings of Wessex took over there. As it is it might be that the collapse of Rome was more survivable in these areas than in some others less marginal to that system, but that these survival mechanisms themselves ran into a kind of crisis that permitted reorganisation in favour of the new powerful later on. Dr Schroeder doesn’t seem to have published anything between now and then and I imagine he has been well occupied by writing up this project, but when he does it will be very interesting to see what his interpretations of what he has found look like.

I didn’t get down many of Dr Schroeder’s references, which were not all full cites rather than namechecks, but they certainly included (among the former) S. J. Rippon, R. M. Fyfe & A. G. Brown, “Beyond Villages and Open Fields: The Origins and Development of a Historic Landscape Characterised by Dispersed Settlement in South-West England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 50 (Leeds 2006), pp. 31-70, DOI:10.5284/1000320 and (among the latter) Adriaan Verhulst and Chris Wickham. From the former I suppose a good reference points would be his Le paysage rural : les structures parcellaires de l’Europe du Nord-Ouest, Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental 73 (Turnhout 1995) and from the latter the obviously relevant works here are Wickham, “Pastoralism and Under-Development in the Early Middle Ages” in L’Uomo di fronto al mondo animale nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 31 (Spoleto 1985), pp. 401-455, and idem, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, both rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 121-154 & 201-226 respectively.

Seminar CLXVI: debating with John Blair

The next seminar in my backlog pile is not about Anglo-Saxon England, it being when Marie Legendre spoke to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 27th February 2013 with the title, “Neither Byzantine nor Islamic? The Dukes of the Thebaïd and the Formation of the Umayyad State”, and that was really interesting, but the thing is, I’m fourteen months behind with these posts and Magistra et Mater already covered that one. So I thoroughly recommend you go and look at that, and meanwhile I will write some more about John Blair’s Ford Lectures. But what? I hear you say. You dealt with the last one only four posts ago! True, but there is, it transpires, also a Ford Lecturer’s Seminar, in which the year’s lecturer is invited to discuss his findings with his audience, and that happened on 1st March 2013 with the same title as the lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and I was there.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The format this took is that John had distributed a handout that gave a seven- or eight-point summary of each lecture and then after a very short introduction simply took questions for an hour, and whatever discussion kicked off out of them was followed as far as it led. There were certainly lots of people with questions to ask, but the biggest focus of interest was on the organisation and planning of settlements for which John was arguing in the Anglo-Saxon world. In particular there was discussion about the shift of paradigm that he had proposed from central places to central zones: I wondered how much the concentration of sites in such zones differed from that outside them, to which John said that the important thing might not be concentration so much as the links between the sites, and Mark Whittow wondered if the burh in these complexes of sites wasn’t still the centre, to which John countered that as far as he could see the different elements in these complexes were as important as each other in as much as none of them shared functions, so were all indispensable to the whole. As Mark said, there’s a model here that could work in a number of other places where someone was organising the landscape to this much effect.1

Scalpecliffe Hill, Stapenhill

Scalpecliffe Hill, Stapenhill, supposed site of the hermitage of St Modwenna and certainly site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, just across the River Trent from Burton-on-Trent

That leads us onto the other question that really had people going, which was that of who was organising these landscapes and how. John had argued, as part of his section on the grid-planning he had detected in many Anglo-Saxon settlements, that the key knowledge involved here was probably preserved and transmitted through monasteries, but of course monasteries were themselves large landowners so it was hardly locked away, and their links to the nobility and to kings were such that their knowledge would have been available for most of the people we can imagine planning sites. Nonetheless, we see little if any such sign of organised planning in the early trading ports or wics that have long been seen as the lynchpins of economic development in middle Saxon England and whose organisation is usually attributed to the kings.2 John pointed out that some of Hamwic, the site of this type across the River Itchen from modern Southampton, was in fact gridded, but reckoned that this was probably a monastery within the town.

Reconstruction drawing of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

Reconstruction drawing of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

This bit of the discussion didn’t really reach a conclusion that my notes record but John was again keen to emphasise chronology in what he saw, in as much as while settlement gridding was for him a phenomenon of the eighth and late-tenth-to-eleventh centuries, and often very short-lived indeed, to the extent that he thought it might have been more symbolic than functional (very interesting), the basic organisation of settlements as dispersed houses each with their infield for cereals and outfield for animals goes on throughout and doesn’t change until well after the various things that are supposed to kick off economic take-off in the tenth century. That take-off thus precedes the things that English historians have tended to blame for England’s medieval economic miracle, open-field settlements and three-field crop rotation, but the change in settlement pattern does coincide with that, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries primarily.3

Reconstruction drawing of ninth-century Stafford

Reconstruction drawing of ninth-century Stafford; note the shape of the enclosure. I think someone involved may have been present at these lectures…

There were also smaller issues raised: Lesley Abrams wondered about the spread of the ‘egg-shaped’ fortified sites John had detected in the later part of his study period and their relation to the villages of which they were part, to which John responded that so far they were all in the East Midlands (though we know that Allan McKinley thinks others could be found further west…) but that their relationship to villages differed a great deal, being built on top of them, within them or outside them; this may be a matter of their functions, which are not yet clear. There were also a number of questions about minsters as centres of organisation which didn’t really add anything to what John has already written on the subject.4

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at East Firsby, Lincolnshire

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at East Firsby, Lincolnshire, of a typical type that may be one of the few things that seems to have transmitted from British to Anglo-Saxons; image from Wikimedia Commons

The other question, that might in some ways be the biggest one, was that of the West. Most of what John had discovered in the archæology was at its most evident in what he had termed the Wash Catchment; this is good in as much as our texts favour the South and the North and not the Midlands, but the West Midlands, the North-West and anywhere British had still been very much missing from these lectures, and that basically because material culture remains have been far less frequently discovered there. To some extent, this is a matter of lowland versus highland with the economic intensification possible in the one leading to scales of wealth and structure not visible in the other, but since John had been at pains to stress that much of Anglo-Saxon wealth was expressed in portable and transient forms, and the British West was no stranger to such goods, there’s still some mysterious gaps to account for. John’s work and that of others have already taken some steps to guess what’s in those gaps, but gaps they remain, and yet as you know if you’re a long-term reader I feel that these zones, where British met English and held them off for quite some time in some cases, must be an important part of the story of how the one became the other and I wish more would come out of them to make that story possible to tell.5

1. Of course, one could argue that this model was already out there in the form of Glanville Jones’s concept of multiple estates, in his “The multiple estate: a model for tracing the interrelationships of society, economy, and habitat” in Kathleen Biddick (ed.), Archaeological approaches to medieval Europe (Kalamazoo 1984), pp. 9-41, and Rosamond Faith raised this; John’s counter here was that Jones argued essentially for the long-term survival of Roman settlement organisations with devolved functions, whereas John sees a wave of new creation of such sites from the eighth century onwards.

2. The basic integration of wics into a scheme of history is still that of Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn. 1989); cf. relatively current discussion in Tim Pestell & Katherine Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in early medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003) or Mike Anderton (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Trading Centres: beyond the emporia (Glasgow 1999).

3. E. g. the unquestioning use of this paradigm in C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, DOI: 10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5; cf. the various international perspectives presented in La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

4. In J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), more or less passim to be honest.

5. Christopher Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A. D. 400-600 (Stroud 1998); Steven Bassett, “How the West Was Won: the Anglo-Saxon takeover of the West Midlands in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 11 (Oxford 2000), pp. 107-118; J. Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013); Chris Wickham’s vision of Britain in this period in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 306-333 & 339-364, rather involves assuming that these zones did not impede access of English to British and this is one of the few places where I think that book’s ideas might need revision.

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!

Seminar CLXIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, IV

Continuing to tackle the seminar write-up backlog, I must reluctantly skip over the next paper I went to, Zubin Mistry’s “Tradition in Practice: thinking about abortion under the Carolingians” at the IHR, because it has already been well-covered at Magistra et Mater, which means that five in six of the last posts will have been about Anglo-Saxon England one way or another. Looking back at this, it does become a bit clearer why I was finding it so hard to make progress on things Catalan in Oxford… Anyway, after Zubin’s paper came school half-term, which meant that I unfortunately had to miss one of John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “From Central Clusters to Complex Centres: economic reorientation and the making of urban landscapes”, and whatever was following it the next week in various places, and resume seminar attendance with the fifth of those lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape (5): landscapes of rural settlement”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The subject of this lecture was basically the village, and how and when it moved from being a relatively loose association of linear enclosures to the houses-all-facing-one-road croft-and-toft layout that the English now think of as being typical for an old village. One way at this is via boundary ditches, and there are lots of these known, but eighty per cent of them date from after 1050, and the remainder from the seventh to ninth centuries, with nothing in between! If you buy John’s idea that use of grids and standard measurements bespeaks monastic involvement in laying out the land, even if they just provided consultant expertise when divisions were needed or something (as John thinks detectable at Stotfold in Bedfordshire), then there is presumably rather a lot of less orchestrated settlement that we are simply not seeing here, and in the ninth to eleventh century gap it’s almost all of it.

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire

Map of present-day Stotfold, Bedfordshire; the Anglo-Saxon settlement was located south of the roundabout at bottom right

Stotfold actually makes a good example of how such a community might develop. The place-name derives from a very large cattle corral (a stud-fold) that seems to underlie the early settlement; in this was later built a church and three farmsteads, with one more outside, two of the farmsteads inside having been divided on a grid plan. Each of the farms seems to have had a circle of ‘inland‘ around it, but the old corral puts them all in the same gathering somehow. Was this a village? Is it nucleated? Is it dispersed? Are these even real categories? What it’s not, anyway, is toft-and-croft down a road with common fields: that all seems to be eleventh-century or later, here around the Norman church, and then to have endured until the ninenteeth!1 Before that, however, we’re not looking at anything that would be sensibly called a ‘manor’ or similar; John prefers Rosamond Faith’s terms warland and inland, free warrior tenancies versus slave-farmed reserves, the latter of which have no documentary presence of course.2

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar again, because it’s good

The revival of planning in settlement layout is also almost entirely within the area John had earlier noticed as significant, the catchment of the Wash understood in broad terms, or in other words the east and south Midlands and northern Home Counties extending towards the Thames Valley. In this area we have plenty of what might be warland settlements, but what is oddly lacking is much sign of very large estates such as might belong to major aristocrats. Even the supposed palace sites we have are in relatively minor estates as far as can be told, leading to Cheddar’s description as a hunting lodge.3 As had been discussed in one of the earlier lectures, early and middle Anglo-Saxon high status just doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of immovable expression of hierarchy.

Reconstruction drawing of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho

Reconstruction drawing (and a highly fanciful one) of late Anglo-Saxon Goltho as proposed by its excavator

In settlements like Stotfold and the more famous Goltho, with whose dating John has strongly-expressed issues, he sees then the housing of the rising low-grade nobility, the thegns vying for social promotion, and sees this as a fairly late phenomenon. What we have here is the burhs that the tenth-century laws required such men to have if they were to claim thegnly status, which raises the question of whether there are fortified examples of such houses.4 To this John’s answer was so characteristic that I wrote it down verbatim: “The answer seems to be, yes there are and they’re egg-shaped!” You may blink somewhat at this but Goltho, and also Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire, another and perhaps better candidate for a late Anglo-Saxon ‘castle’, and Sulgrave, Northamptonshire, all show ovoid ramparts around relatively small halls that fit this expectation, and there are probably more under later Norman motte-and-bailey overlays. That however takes the lectures into something quite like a new society, and this was left for the last one the next week.

1. John had a clutch of references that kept coming up for later medieval villages and settlement, and this time I wrote them down. They were: B. K. Roberts & S. Wrathmell, Region and Place: a study of English rural settlement (London 2002); A. Lambourne, Patterning within the Historic Landscape and its Possible Causes: a study of the incidence and origins of regional variation in Southern England, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 509 (Oxford 2010); and Tom Williamson, Environment, Society and Landscape in Early Medieval England: time and topography (Woodbridge 2013), the last of which he must have had in draft I assume!

2. I’ve linked to Rosamond Faith’s The English Peasantry and the Growth of Lordship (London 1999), which covers this formulation in great detail pp. 15-136, but another work of hers that kept coming up was eadem & Debby Banham, Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming (Oxford forthcoming) which is obviously going to be pretty good news for those who are interested in such things when it finally emerges.

3. See once more J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675100001964.

4. The source here is a tract associated with Archbishop Wulfstan II of York (which puts it in that most dangerous category, draft moral legislation) called Geþyncðo, translated by Dorothy Whitelock as “Concerning Wergilds and Dignities” in her (trans.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 51(a). On it in this sense see Ann Williams, “A bell-house and a burh-geat: lordly residences in England before the Norman Conquest” in C. Harper-Bill & R. Harvey (edd.), Medieval Knighthood IV: papers from the fifth Strawberry Hill Conference 1990 (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 221-240, repr. in Robert Liddiard (ed.), Anglo-Norman Castles (Woodbridge 2003), pp. 23-40, and more generally W. G. Runciman, “Accelerating Social Mobility: the case of Anglo-Saxon England” in Past and Present no. 104 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-30.

Seminar CLX: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, III

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

Returning to a thread after our short diversion to Lotharingia, the next paper I went to in my massive backlog of such reports was the third of John Blair’s Ford Lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, this one entitled: “Why was Burton Built on Trent? Landscape Organisation and Economy in the Mercian Age?” and occurring on 1st February 2013. Here John was propounding a really quite simple theory that has big implications. Starting by setting out the assumption that other kingdoms would have imitated the practices that had made Mercia successful during the period when it more or less dominated Anglo-Saxon England, he reminded us of his last week’s proposition that at this time the functions of central places were decentralised across wider zones and then asked, more or less, what then is to be read from the place-name ‘Burton’, burh-tun, more or less ‘fortress settlement’? What do these places in fact have to do with fortresses and what would that mean?

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air

Bailey Bridge, crossing the River Trent at Walton, near Burton-on-Trent, viewed from the air. Note the cropmark near the pylon! Probably modern, but if not, could it be the ‘Wall’? No, OK. For more such conjectures, read on!

The scale of John’s project made him uniquely able to try and answer this; as he put it, by now he had “gone for pretty much every Burton there is”. And there are a lot! And John’s contention was that they mostly, perhaps almost all given the incomplete state of our knowledge, stand upland from and within sight of an Anglo-Saxon burh, and should be seen as supporting settlements, watch-places or similar. The best example, because actually documented, is Bourton-on-the-Water (unrelatedly, the town I have been to with the highest concentration of teashops—there is a part of the High Street where you can stand and see seven, knowing that two more lie just round a corner—and a really quite good motor museum, but I digress), which King Offa gave to his thegn Dudda in 779, and which is is explicitly said to be “portio ruriculi illius attinens urbi qui nominatur Sulmones burg”, ‘the rural portion belonging to the town named Salmonsbury’, but John had many others, as well as regional variations (Boltons, in Northumbria, relating to Bothals, Kingstons in Wessex, Newtons relating to Roman sites that could be described as “ealde geworce”, ‘old earthworks’).1 The biggest of all, subject of his title, is actually only one of five on the Trent, but relates most probably to Tutbury, an old Iron Age fort facing the Peak District and close to the Mercian royal centre of Repton and Breedon. Littleborough, anciently a Roman site (and in Anglo-Saxon times known as Tiowulfesceaster, ‘Theowulf’s [Roman] fort’) boasts two Burtons and two Strettons (Straet-tun, ‘settlement of the [Roman] road’), spread out on either side of it, and Burcot in Oxfordshire seems to link Badbury and Lechlade, being equidistant between them.

View of hilltops from Burcot, Oxfordshire

View from Burcot towards I-know-not-what hilltop, but maybe one of the right ones. Now we are dealing in sites that are below the burhs, not above them, but then this is a -cot, not a -tun

By this stage, while the number of examples was hard to dismiss, the idea of a system was getting harder to hold on to. John had found many many different ways to relate Burtons to burhs, but I began to wonder whether the choice of which one they related to was always clear, especially since some of the burhs in question were so much older than others, Roman or even Iron Age sites to which names of equally unclear date were being related. One, Black Burton near Bampton, has at least been dug, and produced exactly what John would have wished, Middle Saxon buildings and Ipswich Ware pottery pinning its activity reasonably to the late eighth and early ninth centuries and I expect he will have more, but as ever the work of Mary Chester-Kadwell leaves me bothered about making these links by pure geographic association.2 What if there were just enough burhs in the landscape that when you put a new settlement down there was one nearby it could be defined by? Correlation does not equal causation, and so on. But particular concentrations of Burton-names are still suggestive: John saw a line of them in the Peak District more or less delimiting it, a different pattern of burhweord multiple estates down the Welsh border and a row along the edge of the semi-independent enclave of Hastings with which Offa had trouble.3 (One such site, Bishopstone, relating to the burh at Lewes, has also been dug and showed an eighth-century hall with an associated church over-writing an old minster that Offa seems to have repossessed.) Even if not all of this matches up as neatly as John was arguing it does, quite a lot of it could still be some kind of deliberate organisation.

View of hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire

An obvious-looking candidate, the hills at Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, now topped by a modern ‘Topograph’ but who knows what lies beneath, inside those rampart-like ridges? Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In some ways this ought not to be a surprise: we do after all accept that the Mercian kings could enforce, to a reasonable degree, obligations of military construction on their subjects, and even if John were not right about centres being decentralised in this period, a fortress network still needs links and watchposts, something which I very much observe in the similar roll-out of a network in Catalonia.4 Something like this system should have existed, and it may be that John has in fact demonstrated it. There is a space for factual realism here that lies somewhere between my wish for a clearer pattern and a readiness to accommodate all possible variations; after all, the landscape itself is very various, and incorporating legacy elements like Roman and Iron Age fortresses would obviously make sense, both in terms of investment cost and the likely defensibility of their locations. Nonetheless, I suspect I will not be the only one who will want the publication of this theory before them before they can shrug off their modern discomfort over accepting a system so authentically ready to be unsystematic, at which point such a publication may indeed do us a power of good in terms of helping us think in Anglo-Saxon terms, not our own…

1. The 779 grant is printed in W. de Gray Birch (ed.), Cartularium Saxonicum (London 1885-1899), 3 vols, no. 230, and indexed in the Electronic Sawyer here as Sawyer 114. Anything else in this post which is not linked or footnoted to a source is coming out of my notes, and will therefore presumably be found in John’s publication of these lectures.

2. M. Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

3. The defeat of the Hæstingas by Offa in 771 is recorded only in Simeon of Durham’s Historia Regum, trans. Joseph Stevenson in his The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham, Church Historians of England III.2 (London 1855), online here.

4. It remains a pleasure to invoke Nicholas Brooks, “The development of military obligations in eighth- and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 2108 (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47, but we should also add Stephen Bassett, “Divide and Rule? The Military Infrastructure of Eighth- and Ninth-Century Mercia” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 53-85, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2007.00198.x.

Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The second of John Blair’s Ford Lectures was in some ways the first substantive one, the actual first having cleared the interpretative ground more than actually laid down new structures. In this one on the 25th January 2013, however, structures were right up front, the structures in question being those where the élite did their thing. The lecture’s title was “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, 2: landscapes of power and wealth”.

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar, a controversial one to interpret…1

As my notes tell it there were three essential contentions to this lecture, buttressed with a lot of data and examples and a good few maps. The first of these contentions was that in the Anglo-Saxon world secular power did not have centres, but zones of interest or focus, in which they would have and use many sites at different times for different things. These would include places for meeting, places for hunting, places for worship and so on. (Here I thought the maps were not as convincing as they could have been: John had focused right down to areas of interest, naturally enough, but this meant that one didn’t have the surrounding landscape to compare to and couldn’t see that these zones were any busier than anywhere else in the larger area. Probably a lesson for us all…)

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

None of this really needed long-term structures: wooden building was quite adequate for these purposes and would probably have periodically been abandoned to set up somewhere new, which need not have precluded living very splendidly in more portable terms of food, drink and treasure of course. (John briefly drew attention to a division between zones where gold is found, principally the west and uplands as opposed to the silver-using east and coasts; he suggested that this was to do with payment for focused resources as opposed to more general agricultural wealth. He also seems to have suggested that the royal site at Rendlesham has now been dug, too, which shows how fresh his information was as the Archaeology Data Service knows nothing of it and it only hit the news twelve days ago as I now write!)

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

The so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent, a good enough example to use twice!

The second contention was however that the Church changed this. Where royal and secular élite settlement was light and mobile, ecclesiastical settlement was fixed-location, intensive and highly-structured, often in stone. But it was often in the same places: the number of royal vills handed over to become churches is very large, the most recent and obvious one being Lyminge in Kent where the royal hall has been so dramatically found but others known archæologically being Repton (where the halls underlie the church) or Sutton Courtenay, and others known documentarily including St Paul’s London of course and Reculver. The latter opens up another possibility, since it lies in an old Roman camp: of the kings’ numerous places (N. B. this is not a typo for `palaces’), of which they could apparently easily spare one or two for the Church, these ex-Roman sites were perhaps especially suitable for the slight return of Rome represented by Christianity; one could also name Burgh, Dover and Dorchester and that just from my notes.2

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

But the keyword there, and the core of the third contention, is ‘intensive’. Monasteries or minsters used the land in new and resource-expensive ways, like tidal mills, grid-planning, enclosure and so on.3 The results of this, we can guess but also see from the rich finds of such areas, were good, and perhaps too good; John argued, as he has done before, that the ability of minsters to grow resources left the secular élite trying to get back into control of them, and by the 730s indeed doing so. Æthelbald of Mercia controversially subjecting the Church to the ‘three burdens’ of fortress-work, bridge-work and military service as protested against at the synod of Gumley in 749 may have been the pinnacle of this, but may also have been the result of a bargain in which he gave away the right to make arbitrary levies on the basis of hospitality.4 And at this pinnacle things were left, until the next week’s lecture.

1. See J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered”, Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, doi:10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. For this process, of course, one could see J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 8-78.

3. These terms’ synonymity has been a cause of much debate: the locus classicus is a tangle in Early Medieval Europe, Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis'” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104, and J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212, but see also Sarah Foot, “What Was an Anglo-Saxon Monastery?” in Judith Loades (ed.), Monastic Studies: the continuity of tradition (Bangor 1990), pp. 48-57. John gives more recent references in Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 2-5.

4. Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 121-134.