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Issue 120

Sep / Oct 2011

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All the latest archaeology news from around the country

CBA Correspondent

Mike Heyworth plans for the future

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THE BIG DIG: Roman roads

Digging up the Picts

Sacred waters

Manga at the museum – NOT ONLINE

7 societies

Stones and names

Win or lose

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

feature

The law of the land: finding Early Medieval assembly sites

Government and law are shadowy features of the past, leaving subtle traces that present a difficult challenge for landscape archaeology. Yet, say Stuart Brookes, Andrew Reynolds and John Baker, recognising how pre-modern societies governed is crucial to understanding their worlds. Archaeology has much to say on the subject.

Tibblestone

An enigmatic stone known locally as the 'Tibblestone', Gloucestershire.

In a service station forecourt on a busy intersection of the A46, A435 and B4077 in Gloucestershire, is an enigmatic stone known locally as the Tibblestone. Roughly cylindrical and about 1.5m high this standing stone is deeply pockmarked, but shows no signs of any working or finishing. Reputedly unearthed and set in its present site in 1948, the 19th century first edition six-inch Ordnance Survey map appears to show it roughly where it is now. The Tibblestone looks prehistoric, and might be interpreted as a place of cultic veneration. As we shall see, however, it in fact marked an Anglo-Saxon secular meeting place.

Many similar stones are known in England. Just 15km to the north-east of the Tibblestone sits the Kiftsgate Stone, half hidden in undergrowth. Until the early 20th century, another was fixed in a wall bounding the north side of Salmonsbury Camp at Bourton-on-the-Water, 20km to the south-east. They are important clues to aspects of the past rarely considered by archaeologists.

How many in Britain today know that the jury of presentment so deeply embedded in the English sense of justice, is first documented in Anglo-Saxon England over 1,000 years ago? How were violence, discipline and order regulated at the grassroots of early English society? A major new project at UCL, the University of Nottingham and Winchester University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, sets out to understand one of the cornerstones of modern society. The aim is to define governance in Anglo-Saxon England through physical remains and placenames.

Explaining a landscape means considering all the evidence. Placenames provide fundamental clues. Tibblestone, for example, is also the name of the local "hundred", recorded in Domesday Book in 1086. Hundreds (called "wapentakes" in the area of Viking settlement in northern and eastern England) were administrative subdivisions of the shire, and the institution through which Anglo-Saxon communities enforced civil authority. As the name suggests, these districts consisted notionally of 100 land units – namely "hides", these being the area needed to support a family – although in practice their sizes varied considerably.

Communities discussed local issues and oversaw justice through the hundred. It was the administrative grouping by which civil militias were levied, and by the early 11th century it took collective responsibility for an individual's good behaviour. The hundred was, in effect, both part of the landscape, and a legal community to which everyone belonged.

Hundreds are first explicitly mentioned in a document known as the Hundred Ordinance, dating from King Edgar's reign (957–75), but their origins may be much older. Certainly something of the workings of the hundred can be gleaned from earlier texts. There was a place where the men of each hundred met regularly to discuss local issues and conduct civil functions. These meeting places provided formal contexts for negotiation, arbitration and justice. In seventh century law codes we hear of some of the procedures for settling disputes.

In cases of homicide and enslavement, the accused must clear themselves with the help of good witnesses ("oathkeepers"), one of whom must be from his own village. It is clear from the codes that issues were not tried on an examination of the evidence, but on the reputation of the accused and his ability to marshal people willing to vouch for him. Such oath-swearing required people to come together at designated assemblies or gatherings where the judicial process could be carried out. The practice required an altar or book, not necessarily a church. Significantly, justice appears to have been administered within and by the community itself, without direct involvement of royal officials, except in cases relating to the church or the king's affairs.

Above the hundred, other assemblies are known. Royal gatherings, the "witenagemot", were precursors to the formal parliament of the later middle ages. English shires each had an assembly where notables gathered twice a year to engage in local and regional politics. Towns had their own courts too, and these assembled three times per year. The fundamental importance of these various assemblies is that together they provided a means whereby royal and official prerogative met with local concerns and the lower orders of society.

Placenames

Gallows Hill, Cambs

Names such as Gallows Hill, Cambridgeshire, close to the meeting place of the Domesday hundred of Odsey, recall sites of punishment.

The Domesday survey records the names of most of these hundreds for the first time. At this point they seem often to be called after the place where their assemblies occurred. Interestingly, these were often marginal, open-air sites away from settlements, focussed on barrows (burial mounds, often prehistoric), stones, bridges and fords; fewer were in towns. Hundred names can clearly help us understand why a meeting place was chosen. Even when its location has been forgotten, its name may describe it. Remarkably, hundred names have been investigated nationally only once in the last 80 years, by the Scandinavian scholar OS Anderson. New research is required.

The origins of local units of government in England are unclear. Some texts suggest that tenth century organisation built upon local assembly, perhaps from before the conversion of the English to Christianity in the seventh century AD. Certain lacenames, for example, imply a pagan background of early English or Scandinavian origin, as the assembly sites and their districts refer to pagan religious figures such as Woden or Thor.

We have visited about 140 meeting places across southern England. This has enabled us to develop and test new methods of study, as well as define a system by which these sites can be categorised.

As might be expected, many hundred meeting places stand on or beside major early route-ways: Roman roads, prehistoric ridgeways or Anglo-Saxon "herepaths" (army roads). In most cases, the focus is a prominent natural or artificial marker. This might be a crossroads, ford, bridge or landing site; or a significant bend, rise or dip in the road. Typically, sites are marked by stones or barrows, reflected in the names given to hundreds. Barrows used as markers may be found directly beside a road, or in an elevated position within a few 100m and overlooking it.

Open upland spots form a further significant group of meeting places. These tend to be close to major routeways, if not right next to them, and to command good but not dominant views over surrounding countryside – a natural function of their upland location. They are typified by names denoting trees and barrows. Other meeting places are located at the periphery of a royal, noble or ecclesiastical seat of power: at the gates of a city, or just outside a monastic precinct. Yet a fourth category uses natural mound-like promontories jutting out from hill slopes.

There is considerable variation within these tentative categories, and many of them share common features. A number of hundred meeting places, for instance, are marked by a stunningly prominent topography. Eye-catching features may have guided those trying to find the meeting place. In other cases, audible qualities of the site may have been important: these were after all places where public proclamations were made!

Westgate court

Westgate hundred court met at this late 14th century gate just outside Canterbury's Roman walls.

It would be wrong at this stage to over-emphasise categorisation or to assume that such categories were planned; but by understanding the landscape of assembly sites, we may be able to detect changes in the nature of legal and governmental administration. To this end we have been making a range of observations at meeting places, such as recording the views and lines-ofsight, as well as documenting the "soundsheds" of audibility.

Excavations

Early medieval assembly places have never been comprehensively studied as archaeological sites, although some have been excavated, almost always inadvertently. This happened in 1977–78 at a mound now behind the public library in Milton Keynes city centre. In Domesday Book the area of Milton Keynes belonged to the Buckinghamshire hundred of Secklow – the meeting place of which was known to 18th century antiquaries as the tumulus of Selly Hill. Excavation revealed a flattened mound of around 25m diameter, encircled by a ditch about 1m across. The mound had probably once stood at least 2m high, but there was no evidence of it ever having been used to mark a grave.

The Secklow evidence suggests that some meeting mounds were artificially created, perhaps built in the 10th or 11th centuries. Analyses of the territorial arrangement of many hundreds, particularly in the Midlands, suggests that during this period West Saxon kings implemented a range of administrative reforms, often rationalising and simplifying the organisation of earlier, less regular groupings. The Secklow mound may be physical evidence of this development.

In other cases, archaeological remains suggest that meeting places might be much older. Recent excavations in advance of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at Saltwood, near Folkestone (Kent), have revealed important evidence for a meeting place. In the late fifth to seventh centuries some 219 pagan Anglo-Saxons were buried across four plots, three of them focussed on a bronze age barrow, either side of an iron age trackway. Some four centuries later the site was recorded as the meeting place of the local Domesday hundred, Heane (Heane Wood Barn still stands less than 250m to the south-west), consisting of the medieval parishes of Saltwood and Postling. Very probably, therefore, this coincidence records the transition from a pagan-period cemetery space used by at least four communities, to a hundred meeting place which continued as a centre of local administration until at least 1279.

Very often, archaeologists are drawn to highly visible monuments or places where the material record is particularly good. There is much sense in this: but many fundamentally important aspects of past societies leave only ephemeral traces. We hope that our challenging work will reveal much about the emergence of civil society in post-Roman England.

How you can help

We will create an "Online Anderson": a searchable gazetteer of early medieval English meeting places, bringing together not just toponymic (placename) but archaeological and historical data. To these will be added detailed, standardised reports based on site visits, considerably enhancing our understanding of the physical nature of assembly sites. A digital map of the Domesday hundreds will allow researchers to analyse and map the data in the Online Anderson.

There is much to be done, with over 800 hundreds and wapentakes to investigate before the project ends in November 2012. A number of local societies and private researchers are already carrying out site visits and researching the history of their local hundreds. A detailed study pack and proforma are easily downloadable from the Landscapes of Governence website. We would encourage anyone interested in the history of their hundred and keen to get involved with the project, to contact Stuart Brookes at the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Stuart Brookes is research associate at the UCL Institute of Archaeology on the Leverhulme Trust funded project Landscapes of Governance; Andrew Reynolds is professor in medieval archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology; John Baker is research associate at the Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham.

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