British Archaeology, no 20, December 1996: Features


Linking Wessex with three rivers Avon

Why did Wessex excel so? Andrew Sherratt sees the answer in `the river'

Wessex is the classic brand-name of British (or at least English) prehistory - where to go for the very best. Why, though? What were its special qualities? Were its chalk downlands once so fertile that they provided the nation's breadbasket? And if they were, why should this come to be expressed in massive monuments and graves rich in gold and amber? (Unlike some other famous prehistoric regions, such as Brittany or the Harz Mountains in Central Germany, there are no convenient deposits of metal ores to sustain its prosperity.) Why was it that as late as Saxon times, Wessex seemed as natural a core of the kingdom as Middlesex?

One indication may lie in the the old folk-tale of the `Wiltshire moonrakers' - the brandy-smugglers who pretended to be village idiots after having abandoned their barrels in the All Cannings village pond. The contraband was being taken by packhorse from one river to another, having been brought from France in small boats - first up the Wiltshire Avon and then down the Bristol Avon, and so for onward distribution. Funny, that - both rivers being Avons; or is it more than coincidence? I believe that this may be the clue to the answer. Celtic river-names which survived in areas later conquered by the Saxons were usually those of important arteries (Afon is Celtic for river), and these `Avons' may originally have had other, more specific names, but everyone knew which was `the river' - even if several rivers were involved in a single route.

The route from the south coast to the Bristol Channel was important because it was not possible to sail up the west coast of England in the same way as the east coast - Devon and Cornwall get in the way, forcing sailors into the teeth of westerly gales. Much more sensible to use inland water-transport, and take the shortest portage between them. It is a classic example of what geographers call a trans-isthmian route. The Wiltshire Avon, ending opposite Hengistbury Head, conveniently faces the Cotentin peninsula, giving a reasonable crossing to the Continent in a small boat; the Bristol Avon not only gives access to south Wales (and so to southern Ireland), but also to the extensive catchment of the Severn and Midland Avon, giving access not just to the Midlands but also to north Wales and so to the Irish Sea. Together these three Avons combine the roles of the M5 and the M6, the western part of the M4 and the A34, in linking south coast ports with a western hinterland.

Such a network of contacts brought different regional products into relationship, and gave wealth to the well-connected area in the centre of them. It was as logical a pattern as the London-centred configuration now seems to us. Indeed, prehistoric Britain was continuously oscillating between these competing orientations - via Wessex to France and the Atlantic, or via the Thames to the North Sea and the Rhineland.

Early Neolithic long-barrows looked eastwards, to the loess-lands; while Late Neolithic links were stronger with Brittany. The subsequent bell-beaker culture looked east, reversed by the Wessex culture in the Early Bronze Age. The Thames came to dominate again in the later Bronze Age. Then the earlier Iron Age, centred on Wessex (with its port at Hengistbury), was succeeded by an eastern, Belgic, aspect. Both Britains co-existed, but in competition for the wealth of the west, like Welsh and Irish gold. The scene of the most spectacular developments shifted between these two focal areas. So long as the traffic consisted in small quantities of relatively precious materials - as valuable and desirable as brandy was to become in more recent times - then the riverine routes centering on the three Avons were the best channels of long-distance contact. When materials began to be carried in bulk, then the Thames corridor, with its wide, east-facing estuary (convenient for the Rhine and the Seine) began to be a more convenient route of entry. This was what began to happen shortly before the arrival of the Romans, and more decisively before the arrival of the Normans - each time heralding a closer political integration with the Continent.

This vision of prehistoric geography leaves no place for `ridgeways', which are a modern ramblers' myth - it is high time that this romantic notion was pensioned off. It was riverine routes which provided the principal arteries in prehistory, and the Celtic flat-bottomed boat-building tradition took advantage of this to provide maximum scope for integrated riverine and maritime transport; and it was the rivers which finally allowed Saxon and Viking raiders and settlers to penetrate deeply into the interior of the country. It is ironic, therefore, that these waterways should preserve the oldest names still in use in Britain - the Celtic Avon, Aire, Derwent, Exe, Ouse, Stour, Severn, Thames, and Trent.

Dr Andrew Sherratt, of the Ashmolean Museum, teaches archaeology at Oxford University


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Anglo-Saxon influence has been found at Dunadd. Alan Lane reports

Saxons in the first Scottish kingdom

Dunadd, a fortified hill in Argyll, has traditionally been seen as the capital of the first `Scottish' kingdom in Scotland - known as Dalriada - created when an Irish dynasty transferred their centre of power from Antrim in c AD500.

Some may suppose that Dalriada remained quite distinct from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms created in England at roughly the same time. Recent work at Dunadd, however, has produced striking evidence of Anglo-Saxon influence at the site, indicating it was a major point of contact between Anglo-Saxons and Scots as early as the 7th century.

The evidence was contained in metalworking deposits, which preserve moulds for casting gold, silver and copper alloy objects - penannular brooches, buckles, pins and more complex items. Among the moulds are objects for which strong Anglo-Saxon parallels can be advanced. The most interesting are bird-headed penannular brooches which can be closely paralleled by annular brooches from Yorkshire. Likewise moulds for silver buckles seem likely to be modelled on Anglo-Saxon types and can be closely matched in Kent.

This copying of Anglo-Saxon forms and decoration, but transformed in a Celtic milieu, was predicted by scholars such as Françoise Henry as long ago as 1965 and was seen as part of the process by which the Hiberno-Saxon art style was created. The art of the great illuminated manuscripts - the Books of Durrow, Lindisfarne, Kells, and so on - is agreed to contain Celtic and Anglo-Saxon elements. Less well understood, however, is where the earliest manuscripts were made, and what the relative contributions of the two artistic traditions were. Was it in Northumbria under Irish tutelage? Was it largely a Northumbrian initiative? Or was it in Ireland where Françoise Henry felt suitable artistic creative spirit resided? The issue has caused bitter argument and at times has taken on a modern political dimension related to issues of Irish nationhood and perceived English arrogance.

The Dunadd moulds now demonstrate that key elements in this process of artistic fusion were taking place in Scottish Dalriada. Fragments of metalwork show that high status Anglo-Saxon items - gold and garnet jewellery and zoomorphic stamped bronzes - were being used alongside Celtic items such as trumpet spiral decorated discs and penannular brooches. The combination of radiocarbon dates, datable imported ceramics and metalwork suggest that this process was taking place in the 7th century, though exactly when is difficult to say.

Among the moulds are fragments of big penannular brooches related to the (probably Irish) Tara and (perhaps Scottish) Hunterston pseudo-penannular forms - the two richest examples of early medieval brooches known from the British Isles. The scholar Robert Stevenson has argued that Hunterston shows the process whereby Anglo-Saxon Style 2 was adopted into an essentially Celtic brooch type. It is unknown where Hunterston was made, but at Dunadd we seem to be seeing the same process.

How did Anglo-Saxon objects reach Argyll? Seventh century aristocrats and clerics were highly mobile. Warbands, exiles, and monks moved widely throughout the British Isles. Several Northumbrian princes spent time in exile in Dalriada and in Ireland. Lindisfarne was founded by monks from Iona and much of the successful conversion of England was undertaken by Irish and Scottish personnel. At times Northumbrian kings claimed overlordship of much of northern Britain. The objects at Dunadd may have come there as gifts or as booty, or worn by warriors or princes. What seems clear is that objects such as these helped to stimulate a transformation in the art of the whole of the British Isles. The Book of Durrow, for instance, the finest surviving early Hiberno-Saxon manuscript, shows Anglo-Saxon, Pictish and Celtic influence. It may have been created at Iona, the great monastic centre of the Columban confederation, which is only 35 miles from Dunadd.

As a key royal site, probably the place where the kings of Dalriada were inaugurated, Dunadd will have had close links with Iona as well as royal and aristocratic visitors from throughout Britain and Ireland. In a society without towns, traders probably came direct to the royal centre. Among the continental imports of pottery, glass, beads, and dyes at Dunadd, a small yellow fragment indicates that the Mediterranean colorant orpiment, which is used in the Book of Durrow, may have reached Iona from Dunadd.

Dunadd may not have been unique. Other sites in other areas will have participated in the creation of this international art style, but Dunadd is one of the very few places where we can see such artistic fusion in the making.

Dr Alan Lane is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Wales, Cardiff. His work at Dunadd was funded by Historic Scotland.


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The end of Roman Britain was largely an inside job, writes Michael Jones

Rebellion remains the decisive factor

The ending of Roman rule in Britain in the first decade of the 5th century creates one of the great historical mysteries of late antiquity. Despite almost four centuries of Roman occupation, the hallmarks of Romanitas - including spoken Latin, an episcopal Christian church, a moneyed economy, and urban and villa culture - did not survive in the British provincial areas eventually ruled by the Anglo-Saxons. In this respect, Anglo-Saxon England differed significantly from its post-Roman counterparts in Frankish Gaul, Visigothic Spain, and Ostrogothic Italy. Who or what was responsible for the death of Romanitas in Britain?

In earlier traditional theories, the Anglo-Saxon invaders were the prime suspects. More recent analysis, however, has focused on the overall Roman imperial context, and stressed the role of economic changes outside the island. What has not been seriously considered is the possibility that the Romano-Britons themselves played a crucial role in the destruction of Roman institutions and culture.

Consideration of opportunity and means seems to rule out the Anglo-Saxon invaders as primary agents in the ending of Roman Britain. Although Saxon raiding troubled Britain in the early 5th century, and possibly in the later 4th, Anglo-Saxon settlement seems to begin c AD430 with the main episode of early settlement in the mid-5th century. Only in the 6th century did the Anglo-Saxons win control of the bulk of lowland Britain. This chronology provides the invaders with an alibi. Roman governance in Britain had ended by AD410. Thus, a generation or more separates established Anglo-Saxon settlement from the collapse of the Roman order. This suggested chronology is consistent with the minimal association of Roman goods and early Anglo-Saxon sites.

Nor did the Anglo-Saxons evidently have the means with which to destroy Roman civilisation. Estimates of early population are notoriously speculative, but recent estimates share the same order of magnitude, with a minimal immigrant population of perhaps 10,000 and a maximum migration of perhaps 100,000 people. In contrast, the population of Roman Britain at the end of the 4th century probably numbered three or four million. In this context, an invasion hypothesis relying on a mass migration of Anglo-Saxons to displace the native population and destroy the Roman order seems far-fetched. In fact, archaeological and literary evidence indicate that not until the 7th century did the Scandinavian and northern Germanic peoples, including the Angles and Saxons, adopt the use of mast and sail. A mass-migration across the North Sea using open, clinker-built, oar-driven warships such as the Sutton Hoo, Nydam (northern Germany) and Kvalsund (western Norway) vessels seems to be a logistical impossibility.

Given the imbalance between relatively plentiful archaeological evidence and the poverty of written sources for later Roman Britain, it might seem to make sense to attempt to explain the end of Roman Britain through an archaeological approach with an eye to the broad imperial context. The results of such investigations generally stress the effects of external rather than insular causes. A recent study by AS Esmonde-Cleary (The Ending of Roman Britain, Batsford 1989), for example, which is representative of this line of thought, argued that Rome lost control over significant territories in the western portion of the empire during the first decade of the 5th century. This loss disturbed the rough balance of tax levy, tax payment, and the provision of security, according to the argument. In a chain reaction, a diminished tax base proved too small to maintain an army capable of securing external and internal peace and the collection of taxes. In these circumstances, Rome surrendered its hold on Britain. Without the cycle of Roman taxation and revenue, an already declining economy failed in Britain; and without an economic underpinning, Romano-British society collapsed.

Without doubt, the fate of Roman Britain was tied to events and processes elsewhere in the Roman Empire. However, concentration on archaeological evidence, the economy, and the wider imperial context does not explain satisfactorily why the ending of Roman rule and culture in Britain was so early, so rapid, so complete - and so unlike the experience of the rest of the western empire. Careful attention must also be paid to distinctively Romano-British factors. Archaeological evidence alone can never answer a number of vital questions - the attitudes of the Britons toward Roman rule, for example.

Both the economic/imperial explanation of the end of Roman Britain, and the Anglo-Saxon invasion hypothesis, share the assumption that the Britons had been assimilated into the Roman Empire. Successful Romanisation would have created an identification with Rome, so that British provincials did not think consciously of `we' and `you'. Romanisation is often thought to have spread in a lower key beyond the élite into the lower classes. However, a more novel reading of the Late Roman and early medieval literary evidence suggests that Romanisation in Britain had in fact failed in several vital respects.

Although the Romans are generally thought to have been largely free of regional and ethnic prejudice, a distinctly and consistently hostile attitude toward the Britons is detectable in Late Roman literature. From popular game boards to aristocratic poetry, from ecclesiastical letters to narrative histories, Britons were regarded as treacherous and rebellious no-goods. This anti-British prejudice is found even among the neighbouring Gallo-Romans.

Ausonius of Bordeaux, for example, whose powerful Gallic circle in the late 4th century influenced or controlled the praetorian prefect in charge of the British diocese, viciously lampooned Silvius Bonus, the only British poet named in antiquity. A series of epigrams reveals that `a good Briton' was regarded in Ausonius's circle as an impossibility. The British origin of Pelagius, whose theological works are the earliest surviving writings by a Romano-Briton, was a vulnerability ruthlessly exploited by his theological enemies.

Britain was regarded as a spawning ground for usurpers. This reputation was not undeserved. In the period AD340-411, the army in Britain threw up a series of usurpers, backed willy-nilly by the British provincials. The string of military revolts climaxed in the first decade of the 5th century, and ended c AD410 only with the final separation of the Britons from the Empire.

In a crucial passage written at the beginning of the 6th century, the historian Zosimus described the final revolt and recorded that the Britons had thrown off Roman rule, expelled their Roman governors, and set up their own administration. Thereafter, the Britons lived independently `without submission to Roman laws'. Zosimus is not the most reliable of Roman historians, and the implications of his account are much debated. In an important sense, however, Roman Britain ended when the Britons no longer regarded themselves as Romans. According to Zosimus, this had happened by the close of the first decade of the 5th century. Other Roman sources confirm the finality of the separation of the Britons from the empire at that time.

EA Thompson popularised the idea that the rebel Britons described by Zosimus were from the lower social orders. The few remaining early medieval British writings, however, suggest that the crucial distinction in identity between Britons and Romans also extended into the ranks of the élite. For example, in a 5th century letter, St Patrick draws a distinction between his fellow citizens, the fellow citizens of the holy Romans, and the fellow citizens of the devils. His tripartite meaning is somewhat obscure, but he seems to distinguish the Britons from the (holy) Romans.

The British author Gildas makes it clear that at the end of the 5th century Britons and Romans were regarded as separate and historically antagonistic groups. This is fundamental to his historical vision of Roman Britain. The main theme is rebellion by the Britons throughout the Roman period. Gildas chastens his fellow Britons for rebellions that he regards as sinful. He also, however, presents a chilling view of Roman rule, which was typified by harsh servitude, exploitation, and insecurity. Throughout his work, Gildas clearly defines his fellow citizens to be the Britons in contrast to the Romans.

Ironically, almost four centuries of Roman occupation seem to have forged diverse congeries of Iron Age tribes and communities in Britain not into good Romans, or even good Romano-Britons, but simply Britons. In explaining the ending of Roman Britain, due attention must be paid both to the stylus of the imperial accountant and the sword of the barbarian invader. The Britons themselves, however, also played a fundamental role. To a significant extent, the destruction of Roman Britain was an inside job.

Dr Michael Jones is Professor of History at Bates College, Maine, USA. His book, `The End of Roman Britain', was recently published by Cornell UP at UKP35.50, ISBN 0-8014-2789-4


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