Seminary XXV: why your Anglo-Saxon settlement maps need some rethinking

Archaeologist at Work, by Mary Chester-Kadwell and copyright to her

I have once before here mentioned my, well, friend is fair I think, Mary Chester-Kadwell, of whose research I am something of a fan. She works on archaeological landscapes in Anglo-Saxon East Anglia, but her approach is very technology-intensive and gets us a bit further than Myres’s distribution maps, and more towards what the context of our archaeological material is and how that explains some of what we find. This is in many ways the basic groundwork of archaeological interpretation, much like the basic `consider the author’ level of textual analysis, but it’s much harder to do in archaeology because you need so much context. Mary’s work draws on vast piles of records in archaeological archives and also, importantly, the ever-increasing body of metal-detector finds. Now there are arguments about the regulation, or lack of it, in British law about metal-detecting, and it is unquestionable that much more is found than is reported, but all the same the extra evidence we have because of this loose policy is undeniable. And on May Day Mary was at the McDonald Institute in Cambridge speaking to the Graduate Archaeological Seminar to the title: “The landscape of early Anglo-Saxon Norfolk: cemeteries, settlements and metal-detected finds”.

Mary is one of a number of scholars looking at approaches like this that involve a fairly serious reevaluation of our evidence. She is currently working on various forms of publication of her work, so rather than tell you what’s in it I’ll just give a few examples of the sorts of concerns she raises and therefore why I think her stuff is important. Her mapping is very dense: whereas many earlier interpretations of Anglo-Saxon settlement patterns tended to correlate only a few factors, settlement location against river access, against Bronze Age or Roman sites, against soil types, and so on, Mary is bravely trying to get all these things and more into play at once, and it is educational. In particular she was showing that we could, with such techniques, try and test some of the common assumptions about Anglo-Saxon settlement in the area, such as (i) that it’s usually riverside, (ii) that cemeteries often overlook significant places or routes, (iii) that the Anglo-Saxons favoured light well-drained soils because of not having the heavy plough, and (iv) that cemeteries are often placed near previous funerary monuments like barrows. Rather than just mapping the two things against each other and going, “Ta-dah! match!”, however, Mary computes baselines for a average distribution of, say, distances from rivers that are possible in Norfolk, and then applies the Kolmogorov-Smirnoff test to see how significant the data’s deviation from that expectation is. And in fact, in that instance, she finds that there is a stronger-than-expected tendency for settlement sites to be within 100 m of a river, for inhumation cemeteries to be about 200 m of a river, and cremation ones about 300 m from one, but that these are only trends and are easily countered with examples that form the tail of the distribution curves. So in that instance our understanding needs to be more complex. And this is the next step we have to be taking with evidence like this to start understanding what was really happening on the ground.

Saham Toney Terrets illustration

This sort of caution also allows one to start really facing the biases of the evidence. Example one: in archaeological digs of cemeteries, the metalwork that comes up is about as much iron as copper alloy. Metal detectorists don’t search for iron, though, so almost all of what they come up with is copper or precious metal, which means that sites only found by them look very different and perhaps shouldn’t. Example two: a very large proportion of Anglo-Saxon sites in the area are associated, or at least noticeably near, a Roman-period site. But there are shedloads more Roman sites known than Anglo-Saxon ones so that probably isn’t significant; it would be odder if they were not so associated just on probability. Example three: it is certainly true that a great proportion of Anglo-Saxon sites excavated have been on light well-drained soil. It is also however true that a vast proportion of all sites dug have been on such soil too, and there are plenty, if fewer, sites known from clay areas too. So we have to ask if really, that correlation isn’t more to do with where is easy to dig than where the Anglo-Saxons actually liked to live. Example four: there is a strong correlation between Anglo-Saxon mortuary sites that have been excavated and older barrows or barrow-like formations. But this correlation doesn’t exist with metal-detected finds, which suggests that the archaeologists are digging especially where there are barrows (as you’d expect), that the detectorists are avoiding such sites (which, since they’re not flat, I could understand) or both (which is probably the truth of it).

It all sounds terribly revisionist and destructive when I put it like that, I suppose, but firstly there is the usual argument for revisionism in such contexts, that it stops us saying things that are basically just plain wrong, and secondly there is the much more powerful argument that by trying to understand the complexity of the societies we’re looking at in all its horribly messy glory, using the sort of dense mapping techniques and data collection that Mary has done, we are likely to get further than we ever could by over-simplifying out most of the information. This way, I reckon, lies progress of a sort we previously couldn’t have made.

13 responses to “Seminary XXV: why your Anglo-Saxon settlement maps need some rethinking

  1. What effect does soil type have on the metal detector? Is it easier for the metal detector to find objects in loose, top soil? How hard is it to detect anything in clay? Or rocky soil? or chalk?

  2. highlyeccentric


    How very fascinating. I met a fellow- a history honours student, in fact- here the other night- who’s working on settlement-period Anglo Saxon England. I shall have to recommend he read your friend’s papers…

    Also, question for the ignorant: why is the controversy over metal detecting? Why does it need regulating?

  3. Michelle, as I understand it (though that isn’t very deeply), because metal detectors work by registering changes in electrical conductivity, the relevant factor is how mineralised the soil is, as certain mineral salts (and, obviously, iron) conduct quite nicely. That would make gold quite hard to get out of such soil, as it itself doesn’t conduct very well, but copper should still shine out I think. Mary talked to a lot of detectorists, so I would think that she was aware of this factor, but it isn’t an example that she gave. I may ask her.

    Ms Eccentric, should your friend want to be a citin’ Mary, her current bibliography is here but I believe that more will eventually forthcome.

    Metal detecting is a controversy mainly because of the rules governing what happens to the items. Most people in it, though historically interested, are hoping to get rich. Not everyone therefore goes through the strict and fairly archaic reporting procedure, and even that stuff that is properly reported isn’t always properly recorded, there are just too many links in the chain before you get to the Portable Antiquities Service whose job the recording is. But the biggest problem is non-compliance. Our friendly detectorists estimate that for every one of them there are probably nine more who aren’t reporting their finds, but resorting straight to selling them to dodgy dealers, eBay or people down the pub. So there’s loads of data going down the pan, basically, because even if this stuff surfaces somewhere legitimate, we have no idea where it was found. And for this reason some people think the British system needs more regulation (presumably at point of sale of detectors? can’t imagine where else it could be effective). On the other hand, from that honest 10%, we have so much more data that we hardly know how to understand it, so I’m not sure there’s a serious problem here.

  4. highlyeccentric

    Ahuh. That makes sense :) Aardvarchaeology had a post the other day in which I think he said metal detectors were/should be regulated (in sweden) like guns: only with a license and to those with proper training. I did wonder what was so dangerous about metal detectoring…

    Perhaps improvements could be made by making it easier (and more attractive in some way) to report finds and see what happens to the find when it gets reported?

  5. Martin’s post is linked in to both the main post and my previous comment, if you hunt for it, but I know by now from my stats that even if I point people at a link >>like this<< it’s rare that it gets followed.

    The reporting mechanism is not so bad, but the uncertainty over whether you get anything back and when is another matter: the Treasure process can take years to pay out. The other major problem of course is that the Treasure process assigns the compensation for anything the state takes over fifty-fifty between the finder and the landowner. If, as is sometimes the case, the landowner has no idea that you were detecting on his land without permission, well, you won’t report it will you?

    There is also the third factor, that we see a lot in the Museum, and for why we don’t publicise findspots closer than a parish: if a location is known to have thrown up some good stuff, lots of other people will start trying to get at it; some people fear that reporting things will expose their little patch to other treasure hunters. That one, at least, we can try to dispel.

  6. highlyeccentric

    *blushes* so it is. I am clearly a deficient non-follower of links.

    Also, that LJ post with the map of the internet is cool. Not as cool as the XKCD online communities poster, but nevertheless cool.

  7. I feel that I would be doing the authoress of it no favours, did I not point out that you can also buy the Internet Venn diagram as a poster, from here.

  8. Some other European countries have much stricter laws on metal detectors. I think it’s partly as a result of there therefore being far fewer coin finds on the Continent that some of the less knowledgeable partisans of the wonders of the late Anglo-Saxon state don’t realise how similar the Carolingian one was.

  9. Well, you can always start off with a K’zoo report section! All my troubles get a breather after May 15, so I should be able to help out a bit then!

  10. Pingback: Some principles for using online sources « The Naked Philologist

  11. ADM: I think even a round-up of Kalamazoo round-ups will still take up a sizeable portion of the post…

  12. Pingback: Seminar XLV: Viking metal for women « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  13. Pingback: Seminars CCLIII-CCLVI: Friends and the Famous Speaking at Leeds | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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