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Issue 119

Jul / Aug 2011



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THE BIG DIG: Bishopstone and Lyminge

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Under the North Sea

Great archaeology movies

Southwell Roman villa

Varmints' – Folk Music


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


THE BIG DIG: Bishopstone and Lyminge (Cover Story)

The Big Dig

Gabor Thomas has been directing major excavations of Anglo-Saxon remains at Bishopstone, East Sussex, and Lyminge, Kent. Here he compares the results of the two projects, and asks what light they throw on the origins of the modern English landscape. All images © Gabor Thomas or Mark Gridley.

It is now well established that the structure of the English medieval countryside emerged between AD600 and AD1000. During this time a patchwork of petty Anglo-Saxon kingdoms became a nation. Rural settlement patterns across much of England were redefined, contributing to the countryside's strongly regional character. We still inhabit a good majority of the farms, hamlets and villages founded then.

Timber Complex

Conjectural visualisation of the Bishopstone highstatus complex, with timber buildings around a courtyard close to the church, with a tower at one corner

This continuity means that later Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology frequently (and quite literally) lies beneath our feet at the centre of modern rural communities. Public archaeology now regularly targets these places for small-scale excavation, as happened with Time Team's Big Dig and the recently aired BBC series, Michael Wood's Story of England: both of these deployed test-pitting in back gardens to unravel the development of villages back before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Commercial and public-funded archaeology too have helped flesh out the physical details of these hidden phases of village history, as vividly demonstrated at Raunds, Northamptonshire (Books, Mar/Apr 2011, no 117), and other expanding dormitory towns.

The challenge for archaeologists is to extend such research into new regions which have not benefited from the intense level of academic scrutiny lavished on the English midlands (home of quintessential "champion countryside"), and to where commercial archaeology has proven less informative for identifying sites of Anglo-Saxon occupation. One such region is southeast England, a gateway peninsula bordered by the Thames estuary and the English Channel, and home to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent and the South Saxons.

The archaeology of these kingdoms was long dominated by early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Now, however, the focus has shifted firmly into the realm of living Anglo-Saxons, thanks to spectacular insights gained by two successive campaigns of village-core archaeology undertaken on a grand scale. The first, at Bishopstone, East Sussex, is completed, and has recently been published as a CBA Research Report (RR163, see end note). Fieldwork by the University of Reading continues at the second, at Lyminge, Kent.

I would like to reflect here on the embryonic village histories brought to life by these two projects. What makes these Anglo-Saxon sites distinctive? How do they compare with the wide range of excavated rural settlements from later Anglo-Saxon England? And what are they contributing to our knowledge of early medieval communities?

Villages on the move

Mobility is one of the defining themes of Anglo-Saxon rural settlement. Sites frequently shifted location, sometimes as part of extended sequences of settlement "drift" spanning two centuries or more, the classic paradigm for which is Mucking, Essex, revealed by excavation of 18 hectares (44 acres). Greater stability emerged over the seventh and eighth centuries when a new generation of settlements was established on what were to become permanent sites. But even these places were subject to regular shape-shifting over the later Anglo-Saxon period. This mutability accounts for the fact that the sites of Anglo-Saxon occupation unearthed at Bishopstone and Lyminge, both abandoned before the Norman Conquest, escaped disturbance from later occupation.

Radiocarbon dates from the later Anglo-Saxon settlement underlying Bishopstone village green show its origins date back to the eighth century. This valley-bottom site appears to have superseded an early Anglo-Saxon focus – comprising an expansive sprawl of timber buildings and an adjacent cemetery – on the dramatic crest of Rookery Hill, the site of excavations by Martin Bell in the 1970s. But one would be mistaken in thinking that this was a simple one-for-one replacement.

Lyminge Glass

Glass vessel fragment and beads from one C6th–7th sunken-featured building at Lyminge

Excavation in the outlying hamlet of Norton indicates that it was founded at broadly the same time as Bishopstone. So the Anglo-Saxon population of Rookery Hill may have fragmented into two (or even more) valley-bottom foci. Why did this happen? The settlement unearthed at Bishopstone was unequivocally high-status (from around AD800 the site was administered by the South Saxon bishopric), so one possibility is that these changes were caused by growing social stratification. Under this view, Norton and other satellites may have been occupied by servile tenants (and perhaps slaves) tied to the estate centre at Bishopstone.

Settlement mobility at Lyminge appears to have been more restricted. Most of our work in the past three years has involved sampling an extensive swathe of eighth–ninth century occupation forming the outer precincts of an historically-attested monastic community, one of a network of "double houses" founded by the Kentish royal dynasty, imitating the Frankish aristocracy.

The most recent campaign of excavations in 2010 revealed that beneath the centre of this settlement is an older C6th–7th focus. This occupation, represented by a diffuse spread of timber halls and sunken-featured buildings, is distinguished by its high-status artefacts, including glass vessels, a luxury otherwise restricted to the most richly furnished graves of the same general period. This may well represent the domestic component of an important pre-Christian Kentish royal tribute centre or royal vill, testified by historical sources. Given the historical framework, it is tempting to view the settlement shift seen at Lyminge as a product of monastic foundation, perhaps even a deliberate policy of "Christianising" the landscape.

A profusion of pits

Lyminge Cesspit

Half-excavated, square rock-cut pit at Lyminge, C8th–9th (scales 1m)

One of the stand-out features of both sites is a high concentration of rock-cut latrines and rubbish pits: Bishopstone had a total of 78, and the count at Lyminge (all from the C8th–9th phase) is currently at 100. These features cover a wide range of shapes and sizes, suggesting specialised uses: the average depth was about a metre, though the deepest examples penetrated the chalk to over twice that. A persistent theme is the care that went into their creation; most striking of all are square examples with vertically cut sides which may originally have been lined with timber. Detailed analysis of pit fills using micromorphology, suggests that many of these features had complex life histories; latrines were often capped off with chalk and then filled up with hearth sweepings, kitchen waste and redeposited surface middens – though this sequence was sometimes reversed.

It is unusual to find such high numbers of pits on Anglo-Saxon rural settlements (discounting sites where sand quarrying occurred), and the densities found at the two sites are more closely comparable to contemporary towns. At the latter, however, the pits tend to be distributed fairly evenly across urban plots, while those at Bishopstone and Lyminge form distinct clusters: in each case, the disposal of human and domestic waste appears to have taken place within prescribed zones, clear evidence that daily activities within the settlement were spatially regulated.

Only future excavation will determine whether this tendency reflects the specialised functions and roles of the two sites, or perhaps a regional trend in refuse practices on Anglo-Saxon settlements on the southern English chalklands. Whatever the case, the result is that both sites have yielded large volumes of domestic waste and human cess, rich in artefacts and bioarchaeological material. Most unusually for any rural settlement of the Anglo-Saxon period, the latter includes plant macrofossils and digested food – fish bone, cereal bran, fruit stones – preserved through mineralisation.

Burying iron

Bishopstone and Lyminge have produced compelling archaeological evidence for ritual behaviour, in a form now being recognised on an increasing number of Anglo-Saxon settlements: so-called "special deposits", an early medieval version of votive offerings better known from prehistoric times. We need to exercise caution in assigning all potential deposits of this type to ritual action. Many of the domestic pits produced whole or semi-articulated animals, most of which probably represent butchered carcasses. Rather different in character and meaning, however, are specific depositionary "events" linked to the abandonment of buildings and structures.

On both sites, ritual activity of this kind was embodied in the burial of iron artefacts, either singly, or (in the case of Bishopstone) in a hoard. At Lyminge, an iron plough coulter was carefully deposited at the base of a sunken-featured building, on the point of its abandonment in the C7th (this is the first known such coulter from Anglo-Saxon England, described in News May/Jun 2011, no 118). The hoard of iron tools and implements from Bishopstone (spanning a spectacular array of 25 objects) was discovered beneath two metres of chalk rubble dumped into the cellared foundation of a timber tower abandoned towards the end of the ninth century.

These placed offerings (whereby serviceable and recyclable iron objects were taken out of active circulation) suggest that the passing into history of certain buildings was marked by ritualised acts of commemoration drawing upon established traditions of "folk magic" or "popular religion". This suggestion may seem anachronistic in an early medieval context – and in Bishopstone's case, a Christian-period one – but it must be remembered that these rural communities were no less subject to the vagaries of the natural world (and of uncertain harvests) than their prehistoric forebears. In this light, it is perhaps not insignificant that plough fittings appear in ritual contexts at both Bishopstone and Lyminge.

Making a living

Both sites occupy comparable ecological niches: chalk downland close to the south coast. Bishopstone is less than a mile inland, and Lyminge is about four, as calculated from the early medieval coastline. This coastal setting is typical for territorial centres in Kent and Sussex which emerged within the long-settled heartlands of the respective Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. A characteristic of the territories controlled by these early coastal settlements is the inclusion of outlying estates further inland in the Weald (and in Lyminge's case the coastal wetlands of Romney Marsh), offering a spectrum of specialised resources: timber for building and fuel, grazing for pigs, iron ore and so on.

This composite territorial geography harked back to the days when these outlying regions were exploited communally; but by the seventh and eighth centuries the system was being "privatised" under the impetus of kings, bishops and monasteries. With this development came innovation and investment designed to ramp up estate surplus and income. This intensification can be detected in various ways at Bishopstone and Lyminge, but here we will concentrate on just two archaeological expressions.

Cod Bones

Cod bones from C9th contexts at Bishopstone

Intensification is particularly apparent in the extraction of coastal resources, as reflected in the large fish bone assemblages (numbering several thousand specimens) from both sites. Significantly, these assemblages are dominated by cod and herring, marine species exploited at very low levels in the early Anglo-Saxon period and which experienced a general take-off only with the expansion of the fish trade from about AD1000. In the case of the monastic community of Lyminge, such catches (alongside other commodities such as salt and imported wine for the Eucharist) would have been channelled through outlying estates on Romney Marsh, including Sandtun, a known site of middle Saxon occupation located below the escarpment of the North Downs at West Hythe.

At Lyminge, intensification is also seen in relation to that most important of Wealden resources: iron. The context is provided by the only surviving Anglo-Saxon charter to mention mineral extraction rights of any kind. Dated AD689, it records an exchange of iron-bearing land, detached from the Wealden portion of Lyminge, to St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury.

In 2008 and 2009 we found signs of iron smithing in the domestic area of the middle Saxon monastic settlement, where slag was a regular component of refuse deposits in pits. But this background noise appears to be subsidiary to a specialised iron-working installation discovered in the outer margins of the monastic precinct in 2010, marked by extensive spreads of smithing slag and hearth-pits. Such satellite activity recalls similar zones of industrial-scale ironworking found on early medieval monastic complexes in Ireland.

The look of the south

It is interesting to compare the artefact signatures of our two southern English sites with broadly contemporary estate centres (whether under secular or monastic control) excavated in more northerly parts of eastern England, such as Brandon (Norfolk), Flixborough (Lincolnshire) and Whitby (Yorkshire). A clear distinction can be observed in the quantity of portable metalwork – principally ornamented dress-accessories – found at these sites, the range from Bishopstone and Lyminge being considerably more austere and limited. This north-south divide is replicated more broadly across the landscape in metal-detector finds, and appears to relate to a genuine regional difference in the way in which wealth and status were expressed amongst upper echelons of Anglo-Saxon society.

It must be remembered that full opportunity was being taken to exploit alternative status symbols at Lyminge and Bishopstone: exuberant architectural displays feature at both sites (a continentally inspired stone church at Lyminge, the cellared timber tower at Bishopstone); and the procurement and consumption of luxury foods are also clearly attested. The formative socio-economic changes which swept across the countryside of later Anglo-Saxon England triggered regional responses shaped by cultural and environmental constraints. The archaeology unearthed from the core of Bishopstone and Lyminge is helping us to detect how this process forged the medieval downlands of south-east England.

Gabor Thomas is lecturer in archaeology at the University of Reading, and author of The Later Anglo-Saxon Settlement at Bishopstone: A Downland Manor in the Making, CBA 2010

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