Tag Archives: Scotland

Seminar CLXXXIII: community law enforcement in early medieval Britain

My relentless progress through my seminar report backlog now finally leaves me looking at the last seminar I went to in Oxford, something of a milestone. The person who had the dubious honour of that slot in my academic life was the estimable Dr Alice Taylor, one of Kings College London’s regiment of Alices and an acquaintance of long standing from the Institute of Historical Research but here presenting to the Medieval History Seminar at All Souls with the title “Lex scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Scottish law compared”. This was a version of a paper she’d given in Oxford the previous year, but I’d missed it then and there was plenty of debate this time round…

Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, fo. 59v

The opening of the text of Leges Scocie, as close as there is to an early medieval Scottish lawcode, in Edinburgh, National Archives of Scotland, MS PA5/1, the so-called Berne Manuscript, fo. 59v.

It has so far been Alice’s most widely-recognised achievement to convince people that there even was such a thing as early medieval Scottish law, which she has had to retrieve from contextually-undatable references in much later manuscripts, but when you’ve done that, as she explained, you start to wonder about how the system worked and since, if that was your best evidence, you have no case-law or documentation by which practice might be examined, you have to start comparing. So, after a brief run-through of the different schools of historical thought on how written law relates to what people actually do to maintain social order in their communities, from the minimalist Patrick Wormald thesis that legislators of such law were not after judicial effects so much as the promotion of the legislators’ position above society to the somehow more spiritual one that written law reflects the wider community ideology as it was lived, she adopted a position for debate that written law was in these cases the top of an iceberg of unwritten legal practice, both part of the same corpus of social ideology, but more similar between her areas at the bottom than at the top.1

The three corpora do certainly differ, not least in preservation—Wales has various thirteenth-century redactions of what purports to be a royal lawcode of the tenth century, the Laws of Hywel Dda, Anglo-Saxon England has a large corpus of summative royal lawcodes with additional provisions also largely issued in royal council in what we now recognise as a fairly Carolingian way and in Scotland, as said, there are thirteenth- and fourteenth-century references to laws that in some cases probably go back rather further—but also in the legislative process: Welsh law names a king but its real developers were specialist lawyers, Anglo-Saxon England places the king first and foremost and Scotland is somewhere between the two. Alice argued, however, that all three corpora have references in that imply strongly that the legislators expected the initial action against criminals to come from the communities in which the crimes were committed, and the royal or state process would only creak into operation when that failed. The English laws are full of communal obligations for default of which the king can penalise, at what after the tenth-century is usually a flat fine of 120 shillings; Welsh law has a whole set of pay-scales for abetting crimes, which are charged at the same rate as the crimes themselves but to the state, rather than the victims; and the more shadowy Scottish references still assume posses who might hang a thief if he was caught, in a style quite similar to the Anglo-Saxon laws. All, or so Alice argued, expected the most immediate action to be taken in community, leaving royal justice as a superstrate over a bustle of quite various local enforcement of communal solidarities. For this reason, the main focus of the laws in all three areas is on persons, not communities, who have broken out of their social bonds by reason of their actions.

Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

An illustrated page from the Laws of Hywel Dda in Swansea, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 28, fo. 2r

This met with some opposition and refinement in discussion. Paul Brand pointed out that despite the texts’ focus on individual actions, royal enforcement was carried out against whole communities, such as the harrying of Worcestershire in 1041 by King Harthacnut’s orders to pick just one.2 Mark Whittow suggested that the real rôle of law in these cases was to penalise action on behalf of the kindred, i. e. feud, as opposed to action on behalf of the community; and Wendy Davies evinced scepticism that the local community existed in these areas as a group so clearly defined as that it could be expected to act as a body. To the last, Alice (correctly, it seems to me) said that the texts nevertheless envisage such a group with mutual knowledge, though this doesn’t remove Wendy’s objection that it’s hard to show that was really there on the ground. Thomas Charles-Edwards and Tom Lambert both raised the question of change, however, and here there seemed to be more room for modification at least about what the royal law was for: Tom has after all argued something not dissimilar to this but both he and Professor Charles-Edwards emphasised that the lawcodes we have (i. e. the English ones) develop new terms over the course of the tenth century, as the kings try and open up space for themselves in what had previously been community action.

My notes no longer make it clear to me exactly how the three positions differed here, but the focus of disagreement seems to have been on whether the legislators, in all three cases, were trying to use what the communities over whom they legislated already did, to support it or to change it. I think Alice was arguing for the first two options, but for England the swell of opinion elsewhere around the table seemed much more on the first plus the third. It did seem to me (what my notes do reflect) that the English laws have as a big part of their agenda to regularise and eliminate local variation in custom, and the detailed provisions of the Welsh laws look like that to me also; the Scottish stuff I know much less well, but since we don’t have it as issued (if it was) it’s harder to say. The differences in practice here may not matter very much, but the Oxford scholarship seems even now to be very keen on knowing the minds of rulers, and it does seem as if law should be a way one can do it; to that way of thinking, Alice’s paper was probably more subversive than it initially appeared…


1. Alice here contrasted Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. 1: Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001) with Ruth Mazo Karras, Slavery and society in medieval Scandinavia (New Haven 1988). Patrick’s book is certainly where to start for more on any of the lawcodes mentioned in this post. As for Alice, her beacon work so far might be “Leges Scocie and the lawcodes of David I, William the Lion and Alexander II” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 207-288, but this paper itself is out, since last month only, as “Lex Scripta and the Problem of Enforcement: Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon Law Compared” in Judith Scheele & Fernanda Pirie (edd.), Legalism: justice and community, Legalism 2 (Oxford 2014), pp. 47-76!

2. So recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its entry for the year 1041. in whatever edition or translation you prefer to use; mine of resort is Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996, repr. 1998).

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 CVIII: framing early medieval Scotland

Much prefigured, this post! I noticed last October, you might recall, that Alex Woolf was more or less doing a speaking tour of the south, to which I was going to be able to make it for only a few of the papers (and thus Magistra kindly blogged one of them for me); then in November I mentioned that he’d just been to Oxford and I’d been able to talk Picts to him, and said something similar when I finally got round to talking about his Leeds paper. Since then I have been citing him a lot and now we finally get to the Oxford paper. Yes, I am behind, I cannot tell a lie. You will deduce that I follow the man’s work, and indeed, Alex put on the first conference I ever presented at and thus indirectly got me my first offer of publication, so I owe him a favour or two. I had encouraged the convenors of the Oxford Medieval History Seminar to invite him, for all these reasons, and was not at all disappointed when on 7th November he gave us a paper called “Framing Scotland in the Early Middle Ages”.

The inner fort at Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland, from Wikimedia Commons

The inner fort at Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland, by David Wyatt and licensed under Creative Commons, from Wikimedia Commons; this is the alleged 'capital' of Dál Riata

The title, as you may have spotted, comes from the fact that one of the convenors has this little book called Framing the Early Middle Ages, which is extensive in coverage but for various reasons doesn’t cover Scotland.1 Alex thus wondered out loud for fifty minutes on how Scotland might be fitted into that larger picture, looking not at political developments primarily but at socio-economic ones. There is of course really not much evidence for this sort of thing (though it benefits a lot more from the ever-increasing archaeological data than does the political account) but Alex argued that we can probably still do better than just extrapolating from Ireland and England instead… The first thing he focused on was the weirdness that in 600 or so, Northumbria, Scotland and Ireland all had their political centres in areas that have almost always otherwise been politically marginal in these kingdoms, what’s now Northumberland, what’s now Argyll, and what’s now Donegal, and that by 900 this had stopped in all three cases. This is not just because these area generated written sources, though they certainly did, because we can also get the same clues from fortresses, of which small ones were springing up in all three zones at around this time. The development of the North Sea trade network in the eighth century however seems to have pulled power over to the east coast ports, in Britain, when we get York and Portmahomack developing as (very different) sites and Ireland generally falling back somewhat.2 Alex suggested that when this sort of system developed, these marginal areas became principally exporters of men, military or otherwise, looking for prospects beyond the marginal economy of their homelands, but that when those possibilities didn’t really exist, it became viable to turn military power into a base of local influence because there was a surplus of manpower with which to do it, and sites like the Mote of Mark were where these little sub-royal powers found their links into the trade zone that their presence drove. This may have a lot to do with why King Edwin was so keen to drive into Cumbria and Carlisle, and the kings of Northumbria were generally so active on the West coast, and why Dál Riata, which was surely a miscellaneous gathering of squabbling islands in its natural state, became a political power of any standing: it must have been the main route for goods travelling on that network to go into Pictland.3 That kind of influence might, indeed, get Irish missionaries received at the top of Loch Ness and sea-kings received into alliance with Pictish monarchs; annoying or not, those people were in a position to cut off the flow of shiny things on which early medieval kingship seems to have tried to enjoy a monopoly. For the short time in which that could continue, this Great Game, whose later more famous sibling would occupy so many Irish and Scottish soldiers, was in the West.

Penrith hoard of silver brooches in the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Penrith hoard of silver brooches in the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons, a bit late for our purposes (10th-century) but very sharp and shiny

My notes on this are pretty much covered in asterisks of emphasis; you who know my very limited work on Scotland will see how it makes things I want to argue make sense, or at least certainly could do. Chris Wickham asked why the eastern zones should ever have lost their influence, and Alex answered that they had been much more plugged into the Roman Empire and so suffered a greater degree of collapse when it withdrew. Since that’s been argued as an effect in many other places, it was hard to deny here.4 The western margins simply didn’t have as much to lose. George Molyneaux asked why such powers hadn’t generated more written sources, and Alex brought out various survival arguments as well as a plea not to think that these are big powers on a European scale.5 I asked about symbol stones, but Alex just thinks they’re later than I want to, well, OK. Thomas Charles-Edwards argued for the importance of the central zone where these powers met their eventual supplanters,6 and I also think we see that focus become very important during the eighth century and then the Viking Age, but obviously there could be lots of reasons for that…

Enhanced image of the Pictish boar carving from Dunadd hillfort, Argyll, Scotland

Enhanced image of the Pictish boar carving from Dunadd hillfort, Argyll, Scotland: culture contact or culture clash... ?

You can see, firstly, that it was a very full seminar, and secondly that there was an immense potential for discussion. I subsequently gathered from Alex that this paper, and the others he’d been doing on his tour, were sort of rehearsals of chapters from a book he’s putting together, partly because these are days in which almost all UK academics would like to have a book published between 2008 and mid-2013 but also because he feels there is room beside James Fraser’s book for something that takes this kind of socio-economic view. I think a book by Alex on the early period would form a very interesting counterpart to Fraser’s, as their approaches are probably different enough that one could profit from both, but I think two things are for sure when it comes out; firstly, it’ll be fascinating and invoke parallels from periods and places no-one else would ever have thought of comparing, and secondly, it will cause avid discussion. Both of these things happen a lot round Alex, and here’s to it.


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), Scotland’s absence regretted p. 6 n. 6.

2. For the development of the North Sea zone the classic account is Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd ed. 1989), though his new Dark Age Economics: a new audit, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2011) might have some repositioning of his argument. For York, I’m going on Richard Hall, “The Making of Domesday York” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988) and Dominic Tweddle, “York, Ciudad de Alcuino” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (Barcelona 1999), pp. 171-174, transl. as “York: Alcuin’s Town” ibid., pp. 504-506, though I realise there must be more recent stuff out there, I just haven’t read it yet; Portmahomack is a different matter, with the latest published word, at least, being Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008).

3. Here, I am actually working substantially off James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, Edinburgh New History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), but it would be worth adding Lloyd Laing & David Longley, The Mote of Mark: A Dark Age Hillfort in South-West Scotland, Oxbow Monographs (Oxford 2006) and, even now, James Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriata (Edinburgh 1974).

4. Here I think principally of Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), though fairness would probably also oblige me to mention Richard Hodges, “Anglo-Saxon England and the Origins of the Modern World System” in Hooke, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, pp. 291-304, which attempts a similar argument with rather less basis in about half a page.

5. In this question George was riffing on, and Alex largely conforming to, a piece by Kathleen Hughes called “Where are the writings of early Scotland?” in idem, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: studies in Scottish and Welsh sources, ed. David Dumville, Studies in Celtic History 1 (Woodbridge 1980), pp. 1-21.

6. Professor Charles-Edwards has a small and well-groomed dog in this particular fight, as he has been arguing that kingship really develops around the control of land, not the supply of shiny things, for a very long time now, and archæologists have increasingly not been paying attention to him because, of course, we have shiny things from the period than information about land control: see his “Kinship, Status and the Origins of the Hide” in Past and Present no. 56 (Oxford 1972), pp. 3-33, “The Distinction Between Land and Moveable Wealth in Anglo-Saxon England” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement: continuity and change (London 1979), pp. 180-187, and “Early Medieval Kingships in the British Isles” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 28-39, the first of these picked up and applied interestingly to English archæology, at least, by Chris Scull in his “Social Archaeology and Anglo-Saxon Kingdom Origins” 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), pp. 17-24, though the latter two are in the bibliography of Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003).

Carnivalesque leftovers and other fine webnesses

Sorry, yes, actual content will return shortly, in the meantime may I distract you with some links? There are a few things I wanted to include in Carnivalesque just gone, and didn’t, because I’d already used content from that source or because it just didn’t fit or whatever, and then there are also a few things that have cropped up since. Here goes!

That’s it for now, back shortly I hope…

‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

  1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
  2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
  3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field. So first of all I’ll deal with what the paper is doing, then try very briefly to describe the debate in which it belongs, and lastly assess the former against the latter. And because these things turn out to take a while, I will do so behind a cut… Continue reading

AFK some more

Gairloch Beach

I know I only just had a hiatus, I know, but I’ve been invited for a long weekend in Scotland which will be the first intentional holiday I’ve been able to take for a while. I might do some antiquarianism, but I’m putting down history for at least a couple of days, and most of all I will be out of reach of Internet until Monday afternoon. I have shedloads of stuff half-written and queued up so you shall not lack for my wittering thereafter. And I shall try and get some pictures of interesting things for them as like that sort of thing. Meanwhile, have fun all of you…

Brainiac Scottish archaeology: let’s just set fire to it…

I’m back. In fact I’ve been back for three days now, but only on Saturday did I actually get to sleep in my own bed and therefore actually start catching up on the whole backlog. For some reason Leeds and adequate sleep don’t really work out for me. Anyway, there will be a series of posts reporting on the International Medieval Congress 2008 as I experienced it, and here I will merely say that it was draining, but enlightening, fun and hopefully extremely useful as well as going relatively well from the point of view of the bits I was organising.

Brainiac logo

While I get everything else together, though, here’s a wonderful thing I discovered while reading on the train on the way up. We often talk about how to popularise our subject, or whether that would be a good thing to do at all: you can find a couple of arguments that have been started about this on Modern Medieval and several links to more if you should need them. In the UK the sciences have some of the same issues, because just as archaeology has Time Team, which popularises but perhaps at the cost of trivialising (and also encouraging digs to be done in two weeks with a JCB rather than a year with careful trowel-work), the physical sciences have Brainiac, which has such notable features as “does it fizz or does it bang?” and regularly seizing any excuse to demolish caravans with high explosives. Time Team doesn’t really compare, in as much as its actual aims are genuinely academic, after the important business of making money out of TV; Brainiac has no such awkward shame to conceal. (It is great fun though.)

Now, obviously there’s no way really to provide a Brainiac-level equivalent in archaeology, right? Wrong! It’s just that it was done far too long ago for TV. Let me explain. There are in Scotland a number of probably-prehistoric fortifications which were built of stone with a timber framework, and they’re usually called timber-laced forts, but also vitrified forts, because as they survive they tend to have been impressively burnt, so that the actual stone has liquefied and run in the heat, leaving it with a glassy appearance.

The vitrified fort of Tap o\'Noth, Aberdeenshire

Now historians and archaeologists (at this depth of early Scottish history there isn’t really a gap between the two) have often wondered how on earth these forts got that hot. Surely you can’t do this in a siege, can you? How horrible for the defenders if you could, sheets of blue flame gouting from the walls and so on, but it doesn’t seem initially likely. You’d have to somehow be at the wall-face with igniferous devices long enough to touch off the protruding beams with hostile Picts (or whoever) raining stuff down on you, much of which might be flame-retardant (you know, like water). And so, in 1937, two people decided to replicate this sort of burning by way of a test. Not with a real fort obviously, but with a stretch of wall they’d built in the same way. Who were these harum-scarum ragamuffins of early Scottish archaeology, you may ask? Step forward one Vere Gordon Childe and his assistant Wallace Thorneycroft. They’ll never amount to anything at that rate, right? But anyway. Leslie Alcock took up the story in that book I’ve mentioned:

… Childe and Thorneycroft built a length of timber-laced wall which incorporated 7 tons 7 cwt (7500kg) of stone, about 1 ton (1016kg) of dry pit-props and 6 cwt (350kg) of scrap timber. In their own words, ‘to ignite the wall, scrap timber and brushwood were heaped around,….about 4 tons [4064kg] being used’.

Apparently, all they got was “some degree of vitrification”, and after all what with being so historically careful (5 tons of dry wood! Just in case it’s damp I suppose!) you might expect no more. Their, and Alcock’s conclusion, is that to get the forts into the state they are now in they must have been slowly, methodically and very thoroughly burnt after their capture, covering them with wood and brush and generating a truly awful heat that, nonetheless, didn’t necessarily prevent the forts’ subsequent use as military defences. All a bit weird. But I mainly love the idea of Gordon Childe diligently considering how the best to set up a really really huge fire using tons and tons of wood and stone, all in the name of science…


I got this tale from Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), p. 182 whence quote with all its weird spacing in the original. He cited the original study, V. Gordon Childe & W. Thorneycroft, “The experimental production of the phenomena distinctive of vitrified forts” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 72 (Edinburgh 1937-1938), pp. 41-55, and also a later experiment in the same vein which apparently was televised–someone with a computer that can handle Youtube has to go looking for this. Text reference for that one is Ian Ralston, “The Yorkshire Television vitrified wall experiment at East Tullos”, ibid. Vol. 116 (1986), pp. 17-40. NB that in finding supporting links for this post I find also that I’m not the first person to put these references on the web, and a full-scale and more scholarly take thus awaits you at the end of this link.