ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 3, April 1995


Carved symbols point to the high status of Pictish women, argues Ross Samson

Power to the Pictish ladies

The idea that women may have had unusually high status in medieval Pictish society has long been the subject of scholarly fascination - and dispute - even though there has never been much evidence on which to pin opposing views.

The idea started with the 8th century English historian, Bede, who wrote that, whenever the Pictish royal succession was in dispute, kings were chosen from the female royal line rather than the male. Although dismissed by some scholars as a myth, others have taken the absence of sons succeeding fathers in the Pictish king lists as supporting evidence for Bede's words. Several scholars have gone further, arguing that if women had a decisive role in succession disputes, their power doubtless extended to other areas of society as well.

An entirely new line of evidence, however, may be provided by Pictish symbols. These are carved on rough boulders or cross stones, and about 400 examples survive. They have been taken, at different times, to represent inter-tribal marriage instructions, estate boundary markers, records of personal professions, Pictish `flags', simple artistic expressions, even pagan altars--but never on the basis of much hard evidence. In my view, the symbol stones were memorial stones, and the symbols represent names - either the name of the dead person, or of the person who had the stone erected. Moreover, I believe that a fifth of the names belonged to women. Compared to other contemporary societies, this would represent a very high proportion-- in Ireland, for instance, we know the names of about 10,000 men dating from before AD1000, but of only 200 or 300 women.

The symbols almost always appear as pairs, and in several contemporary societies names were produced from two themes. In Anglo-Saxon, for instance, we haveAethelgifu (`Noble-gift'), Aethelstan (`Noble-stone'), and Wulfstan (`Wolf-stone'). On Welsh stones we find Vindobarus, a Latinised version of Finnbar (`Fair-head'). The few Pictish names we do know, such as Bridei, pose difficulties because they do not look dithematic, but the reason may be that the names have collapsed - as happened to names in Ireland. By the 8th and 9th centuries, many Irish names could no longer be recognised for the two themes they once contained.

Knowledge of the Pictish language is miserably poor, and many of the symbols are too abstract for us to guess what they meant. But even without knowing the names, I believe we can distinguish those of men from those of women. The gender of themes used for Anglo-Saxon names could not be confused - gifu or `gift' was feminine and Aethelgifu had to be a woman's name. But in several languages the gender of a name depends solely on its ending - for instance, in Latin, Aeternus and Aeterna (`Mr and Ms Everlasting', which appear on an early medieval Welsh stone), or in Irish, Aadan and Aednat (`Mr and Ms Fire').

I believe Pictish names may have worked in the same way, and that feminine endings on the Pictish carved stones were represented by the mirror and comb symbols that follow one in every five symbol pairs. A mirror and comb appear to the left of the only unmistakably Pictish woman represented on a cross stone - there are several biblical females - that from Hilton of Cadboll, dating from about AD800.

If this theory is correct, 20 per cent of Pictish stones were erected for or by women, which is between five and 20 times more often than in any other contemporary Celtic or Scandinavian society. One motive for commemorating the dead publicly is the statement it makes - I am inheriting this person's wealth, power, authority and prestige. If women held 20 per cent of the power and wealth in Pictish society, it is no wonder Bede heard such stories about their dominant role in the royal succession.

Dr Ross Samson is Editor-in-Chief of Cruithne Press (197 Great Western Road, Glasgow), which publishes books on the early Middle Ages

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Show me an industry, show me a town

Medieval Towns and pottery industries grew together, writes Alan Vince

Over the past 20 years it has become increasingly clear that the growth of towns in early medieval England and Wales was closely linked to the growth of pottery industries. The relationship has been demonstrated, through my own research on pottery, for London, Lincoln and towns in the west country, and is probably also true of towns elsewhere.

In some instances, as at Gloucester or Stafford in the 10th century, the new town was actually the location of a pottery industry. In others, as at Chepstow in the later 11th century, the foundation of a town was accompanied by the foundation of a rural industry in the surrounding countryside. The existence of towns, and their emerging links with the countryside, seem to have enabled pottery industries to flourish.

At London, study of pottery has not only shown that the mid Saxon and later towns were supplied by large-scale potteries, but has also revealed that the quantities of non-local English wares and continental imports fluctuated with changes in the size of the settlement. Contact between the town and its hinterland was most intense at times when the settlement was largest, and declined when the settlement shrunk, as it did in the 10th century.

At Lincoln, where the results of excavations carried out over the past quarter century are being analysed by the City of Lincoln Archaeology Unit funded by English Heritage, it has become clear that the walled Roman city and its principal suburbs were virtually abandoned for the four centuries between c 450 and c 850. Lincoln, unlike London, has yet to reveal any evidence for substantial mid Saxon occupation, but a considerable scatter of pottery from the site of an extra-mural church and churchyard outside the west gate of the old Roman fortress suggests that, as at London, any mid Saxon precursor probably lay outside the later town.

The earliest evidence for a post-Roman town comes from sites in the later Roman walled area known as the Lower City. These early occupation levels, dating to the late 9th century, show that Lincoln was already a pottery-production centre. By the middle of the 10th century a suburb, Wigford, had been built to the south of the Lower City, and in the following century the settlement extended to the north, with buildings erected along Bailgate, a successor to one of the cardinal streets of the old fortress.

Knowledge of the location of the pottery sources for the Anglo-Scandinavian town at Lincoln is growing rapidly, but at present it seems that the earliest Anglo-Scandinavian wares were made within the area of the early core. By the middle of the 10th century pottery production was taking place on the outskirts of the settlement, both inside and outside the Roman walls. In the later 10th or early 11th century this urban industry may have been supplanted by a rural centre, as happened in Gloucester at a slightly later date.

Lincoln provides a more detailed picture of the growth of a 9th to 11th century town than either London or Gloucester (its pottery sequence is more closely datable), and also provides an almost unique opportunity to study the interaction between town and country in similar detail preceding and during the growth of the town, as mid Saxon and later settlements have been appearing in remarkable numbers over recent years. Preliminary results suggest the later 9th century was a period of change in rural settlement, as it was in the town. Many of the medieval villages with rectilinear layouts seem to have come into existence between the late 9th and early 10th centuries, whilst the fewer mid Saxon settlements known rarely survived into the later 9th century.

Based on this research, the development of rural settlement in Lincolnshire can now be studied using the Lincoln sequence as a framework, and the mid Saxon settlement pattern and its economy may begin to be revealed. Despite the lack of evidence for a large settlement at Lincoln before the late 9th century, excavations at Flixborough in Humberside, and at Fishergate on the outskirts of York show that a high proportion of the pottery used at both places had its origin in central Lincolnshire, probably not far from the site of the later Anglo-Scandinavian town.

Dr Alan Vince is Assistant Director of the City of Lincoln Archaeology Unit

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Tracing the relics of wartime defence

Britain's wartime defences are under investigation Simon Denison reports

One of the Second World War's most far-reaching effects on people living in Britain was the way it transformed the British landscape in a vast and rapid programme of building.

Over 18,000 concrete pill-boxes were constructed, together with hundreds of miles of defensive ditches, hundreds of airfields, and tens of thousands of gun emplacements, radar stations, air-raid shelters, tank-traps, bombing decoys, nissen huts and other structures great and small.

Their purpose was the defence of Britain - from invasion, air attack and flying bombs. Yet for all their strategic importance, and their dramatic impact on the landscape, they have so far received little attention from historians. Many have now gone, swept away by post-war redevelopment, vanishing almost as rapidly as they first appeared.

Now, however, two complementary research projects have begun in an attempt to understand Britain's defensive network while there is still some of it left to study - and while there are still people alive to consult who were involved at the time.

The five-year Defence of Britain project, supported by the Department of National Heritage and launched this month, aims to catalogue and map all surviving 20th century defensive structures. It is being conducted mainly by amateur archaeologists and historians, members of the Fortress Study Group and other volunteers; and its findings will ultimately be fed into county Sites and Monuments Records and the national databases.

A separate project of documentary research on 20th century defences, running since the end of last year, is being financed by English Heritage. Its results will be made available to the Defence of Britain project, and will be used to inform decisions about protection for some of the structures through listing and scheduling.

There is, therefore, now a good chance that some of Britain's most important surviving wartime defences will continue to survive for years to come.

Almost everyone must know of at least one pill-box, standing forlornly in some field corner full of rubbish and mud. Hundreds remain because, although farmers were offered a demolition fee of £5 per pill-box after the war, demolition was often more trouble than it was worth.

Pill-boxes were strung out in lines across the landscape to resist enemy invasion, and each was linked to the next by defensive ditches deep enough to stop a tank, or by natural features such as railway embankments, rivers and canals. Most ditches were ploughed in after the war, but some survive in woodland and elsewhere.

According to John Hellis, a gunsmith, amateur archaeologist, and Field Co-ordinator for the Defence of Britain project, the most complete surviving line - `the Hadrian's Wall of the 20th century' - runs across the south-western peninsula, from Seaton in Devon to Bridgewater in Somerset, with about 280 surviving pill-boxes and machine-gun emplacements every few hundred yards.

The most ambitious line during the war, however, was the GHQ Line, designed to run from Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset to Berwick-on-Tweed and beyond, skirting round London to the south and travelling up the east coast. It was intended as a protection for Britain's industrial heartland in the Midlands, but the line was never completed.

One of the `big questions' for the project to tackle, according to Mr Hellis, is how and why Britain's defensive strategy changed towards the end of 1940. After six months of frantic construction, the military authorities decided that static lines of pill-boxes were not the best strategy for defence against invasion.

Instead they adopted a more fluid strategy, in which the invasion would be allowed to happen. `A strong line of coastal defences would remain, to give the enemy a bloody nose, and to hold them up just long enough to allow the mobile field army to pick a good place for a pitched battle,' he said.

Other questions include the precise strategic purpose of individual lines. In the north-east of England, for instance, three of the four defensive lines are oddly positioned, according to Alan Rudd, a chartered surveyor and the project's northern Area Co-ordinator. All the pill-boxes face north rather than east, where the invasion might have been expected to come from. `Perhaps they were afraid the Germans would land on the Northumberland coast, cross over to Carlisle, and cut the country in two. But it doesn't really make sense,' he said.

Other lines face west, such as those in Wales, designed to prevent invasion from Ireland. Here road-blocks were designed with a charming local peculiarity. In the rest of Britain, where defensive lines crossed roads, concrete blocks were set up to obstruct tanks; but in mountainous North Wales, local stonemasons despised new-fangled concrete and carved road-blocks from local stone.

`They were beautifully carved, with no rough-cut edges, as if designed to look like concrete,' said Medwyn Parry of the Welsh Royal Commission, and the project's local Area Co-ordinator. The stone blocks were massive and unmoveable, he added, and are mostly still in position.

Some of the eeriest memorials of the Second World War are the abandoned airfields of eastern England. Many have reverted to unfarmable waste ground, with crumbling runways and a few derelict buildings standing among the weeds.

Some, however, still contain a surprising amount of information, although much is invisible at a casual glance. At Warboys airfield, for instance, near Wyton in Cambridgeshire, buildings that survive include the guardroom, battle HQ, hangars, pill-boxes and other huts. Many have recently been studied by the Airfield Research Group, and the Defence of Britain project will complement its work.

One question to be answered is why the level of ground defence differs so markedly (and irrationally) between different airfields, according to Mike Osborne, a schools management advisor and the project's Area Co-ordinator for the Midlands. Alconbury in Cambridgeshire, for instance, has almost no ground defences, although it was an extremely important base from which Pathfinder aircraft flew to mark bombing targets for bombers. Wellingore in Lincolnshire, on the other hand, a relief landing ground, has massive defences, including earth-banked dispersal shelters for aircraft, and buried personnel bunkers with gun loop-holes at every entrance. `Many decisions on ground defences were probably taken locally, without an overall strategic plan,' Mr Osborne said.

In addition to real airfields, dozens of dummy airfields were built, as well as dummy factories, dummy towns and various other fake targets to attract enemy bombs. Bombing decoys comprise one of the types of defensive site studied by the current English Heritage documentary research project, conducted by archaeologist Colin Dobinson.

The 36 `day-time' dummy airfields, which contained replica buildings and aircraft made by the film industry, were quickly seen through by the Germans and as a result attracted few bombs. More successful, and perhaps more remarkable (at least for anyone who thinks World War II was a high-tech war) were the `night-time' dummy airfields, of which there were more than a hundred around the country. These consisted of little more than arrangements of lights to simulate runways and moving aircraft.

According to Dr Dobinson, when a raid was threatened, the operators would switch on the flight path lights, and stand in the middle of the runway waving car headlamps about in the direction of the enemy bombers. `When the bombs started falling, the operators would run like mad for the bunker,' he said.

Other bombing decoys were designed to look like burning factories or towns, to simulate successful first waves of bombing. The hundred or so larger sites, which were huge bonfires covering about 15 acres each, were considered top secret and - in Northern Ireland at least - heavily disguised to shield them from prying IRA eyes. Documents show the Ministry of Agriculture objected to the amount of land these and other decoys consumed, but the ministry was over-ruled by Churchill, who appears to have considered defence more important than food-production.

No one knows how many bombing decoys and other wartime defensive sites still survive, what their condition is, and what exactly they were all originally used for. The Defence of Britain project will rely on tapping into local sources of information in order to find out; so for those in the know, now is the time to tell.

Anyone with information, great or small, for the Defence of Britain project should write to Jim Earle, Project Co-ordinator, at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, Cambridge CB2 4QR.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995