Running behind with this as with much else, it would seem: on 29th April the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research renewed for this term with a paper by Andrew Reynolds, of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, entitled, “Assembly Sites and the Emergence of Supra-local Communities in Early Kent”, and I was there. I know of Dr Reynolds mainly as a convenor of the Institute of Archaeology’s own seminars, to which I wish I could make it more often, but his own work is also really interesting and he has a new book out entitled Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs which looks to be full of interesting stuff especially if you’ve shared my own passing interest in that sort of thing. Here, however, he was trying to look at how the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England might have come to be, by looking for local unities in the archæological record (defined broadly and including place-names, field names and so on) and trying to distinguish differences and development.
In particular, he was trying to look for assembly sites, not so much the big royal ones but the steps down from there, and most especially the old English territorial units known as hundred. These are well-recorded in Domesday Book, but of course that leaves one wondering how much older than Domesday Book they are. In fact, very few even of those that can be located have been dug, but the recent building of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link through Kent has laid bare a completely arbitrary trench of archæological potential through one of the key areas for the development of royalty in England, whereas we normally get to investigate only dispersed sites known to be of interest for some reason. Of course, that trench might have passed through nothing of moment, but in fact, and in particular, at a place called Saltwood it went through a complex of cemeteries, which Dr Reynolds believed represented four different communities, three of whom were burying with various levels of deliberate layout around Late Bronze Age barrows and one who apparently got there too late to have a barrow and had to have the fourth quarter. The site is at what appears to be a crossroads of old trackways (one of which was on the line of digging and produced fill with ceramics of this early date in it). The point of all this for the thesis is that the local hundred meeting site was at Heane Wood, all very close by, and the apparent focus of multiple communities burying here is very suggestive when linked to that later focus here of the whole region. Need more of a link? The cemetery sites are full of short-term cooking pits of the late seventh through to twelfth centuries, pretty much when the burial sequence stops onwards. These pits were not in long-term use and there’s no evidence for structures, so it looks as if people were coming here, eating and then going away again.
This is obviously a bit complex. There are shades here (no pun intended) of the meals with the dead ruled against in church canons from the Continent studied by Nancy Caciola, and it’s hard to say whether the fact that the cemeteries were apparently remembered linked to the fact of the nearby meeting place with any certainty. I would wonder (and asked) whether it wasn’t equally possible that they weren’t remembered as burial sites of these people’s ancestors, but just as sites with obviously visible barrows, which might have had a much older significance more or less reinvented by those gathering. But if one removes the burial link then obviously you need another reason why people gather here, and the hundred provides an obvious one. Then you have to ask if the burial comes first (because of the crossroads?) and the hundred sets up here because there are already gatherings there, or if the burial is put here because even in the sixth century this is where four communities territories meet? The causation is really all up for grabs. But it’s interesting, isn’t it?
Then in the last part of the paper, Dr Reynolds observed that in East Kent (whence come as we know the Men of Kent) the hundreds are much smaller and messier than in West Kent (whence come the Kentish Men), where moreover they often tend to centre on places with royal associations. He suggested that this shows something about the antiquity of and responsibility for the system in each area, such as that for example kingship may have arisen in the East and then hundreded the West, although I had to suggest that if two different communities had arisen at the same time in each area, and just done things differently, it might also look like this. Again, causation, especially since we have good reason to believe that the Franks were involved in early state formation in Kent. But which side? and so on. A lot of useful discussion arose, in any case, and I plugged Morn Capper’s work (which was actually relevant to a point about execution cemeteries on borders) and we came up with useful formulations such as “power by controlled violence” (which is like Weber you can actually use, isn’t it?) and in general it was what these gatherings are supposed to be. Thought you might like to know.
Reference is made here to, firstly, Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45, online here so you’ve no excuse for not reading this fascinating paper; for the Frankish involvement in Kent, most obviously Ian N. Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (Alingsås 1990); and lastly Morn Capper, “Contesting loyalties: regional and national identities in the midland kingdoms of England, c. 700-c. 1050″, unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008.