ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 42, March 1999


Beowulf in Kent

From Mr Richard Ansell

Sir: So, the Beowulf legend has suddenly been shifted to a deserted clay hillside in Kent, according to Paul Wilkinson (`Finding Beowulf in Kent's landscape', November).

His claim is based on the Beowulf place-name Heoret, which he tries to match with Harty near Faversham, Kent, though the Domesday name was actually Herte. He even claims that Harty was the centre of the Faversham area, when in fact it has always been a little-inhabited hillside on the very fringes. His claim that the Nagden Bump was a `royal burial mound' is equally wrong, for it was a natural hillock of clay. When it was removed, nothing was found by watching archaeologists.

It would be rather difficult for the non-existent Beowulf to have seen the cliffs of Sheerness `shining', for the town is almost entirely below sea level and has no cliffs. Several miles away the cliffs are of dull-coloured London Clay, face north, and never `shine'. Nor am I impressed by his claim that the tiny River Swale, tucked well behind the Isle of Sheppey, was `the main waterway from London to the Rhine'. Most people would regard the adjacent River Thames (here some 20km wide) as a better option!

Yours sincerely,
Borough Green, Kent
17 November

From Mr RA Nicholls

Sir: Your article on Beowulf, which mentioned the possible `royal burial mound' of Nagden Bump, was of interest to me. I was the site engineer in 1953 on the contract for rebuilding the sea-wall between Faversham and Seasalter, after the serious over-topping caused by the North Sea surge. This was the contract which used Nagden Bump as material to heighten the wall.

We saw only London Clay, which is the local natural soil top layer. The clay showed layering, which suggests intermittent building over a number of years, probably resulting from previous wall-building, draining and dredging (converting the Swale from the `marsh' and `bog' you mention). In elevation, the shape of the mound was consistent with the sort of slope-angle arising from tipping, using a horse and cart.

We saw no artefacts of size or note - the odd pottery or clay pipe, I seem to remember. But we excavated a ditch about 60ft wide around the whole length (Nagden Bump didn't contain enough material for our purposes!) and saw similar in that. The notion of any connection between the Bump and Beowulf was certainly not current in the area at the time.

Yours sincerely,
Sherborne, Dorset
11 December

Roman invasion

From Mr Dudley J Moore

Sir: Having read your recent correspondence regarding the Roman invasion of Britain (Letters, November, December, February), I thought I would add my two denarii worth to reignite the discussion.

Dr Henig's idea of the invasion commencing in Sussex is not unfounded and he is certainly not the first to suggest that Plautius landed there. It has been said that Richborough was too small to accommodate the size of Plautius's force, particularly if the area was hostile. However, in Sussex size would not have been so important if the locals were friendly.

There is also strategy. To land on a known hostile beach-head (Richborough) against an unknown force would not have been very bright, whereas Sussex was presumed to be a safe district of which Plautius had full knowledge from Verica. Restoring Verica was an excuse, and a good one, to invade Britain. It was also good strategy. However, to implement this restoration a landing in Kent would make no military sense.

Richborough's claim to fame is based on archaeology and nothing more. Certainly there was a Roman harbour there and it was possibly set up by a force sent by Plautius, after it had subdued the natives, to welcome the safe arrival of the conquering Claudius - hence the triumphal arch.

The main historical source, Cassius Dio, gives few clues to the site. However, if anything, the text supports Sussex. He talks of a shooting star which flashed from east to west - the direction the Romans were making for. Such a route suggests Boulogne to Sussex. A Sussex landing would also explain why Dio says Plautius met no opposition: Verica's mob had proven friendly and Caratacus and Togidubnus were waiting for him in Kent!

Yours faithfully,
Bramber, West Sussex
23 January

From Mr Brian Philp

Sir: I must at once reject the accusation by John Manley that I have `invented' massive erosion at Richborough, the long-accepted Claudian invasion base of AD43. Having excavated for over 30 years along more than 120 miles of Kent coastline on some 26 sites, I feel able to comment on erosion.

At Reculver, my main Roman military coastal excavation, the fort (AD210) is half in the sea and nearly a mile of land to its north has long since eroded. Similar serious erosion can be detected on Sheppey, Thanet and even Dover. Indeed John Manley need only visit Chichester Harbour, as I do annually, to see that tidal advances at Bosham, Emsworth and Langstone continue yet.

As for Richborough, the fine Roman mansio (AD100) is more than half washed away and even the eastern quarter of the great Shore Fort (AD270) has gone, leaving only its east wall lying below the cliff. The plan of the Claudian invasion defensive ditches show they can be traced for 640m before their north end is cut by the same eroded cliff. Even if their missing north-west corner lay near then a total length of at least 650m is implied.

No serious student of Roman military architecture would regard the ragged remnant within these ditches, marked now by the eroded cliff, as the original area (hence 10 acres). It is very much more likely that the original form was rectangular and, if square, could have covered 650m x 650m minimum, or 42 hectares, thus 105 acres. This would accommodate the main invasion force and perhaps allow one or two detachments to land elsewhere, though Fishbourne is only one possible site.

Yours sincerely,
West Wickham, Kent
5 February

Dad's army

From Dr Arnold Baines

Sir: In 1943, the Rutland Home Guard made a survey of the field-names of that county (`Hunting the survivors of Dad's Army', December). This was a major source for John Field's fuller survey, now incorporated in Barrie Cox's definitive work, The Place-Names of Rutland (1994), in which these names are placed in 19 categories, with a small residue unexplained.

It would be interesting to learn whether any other Home Guard unit made such records for its own purposes, and if so whether they have survived.

Yours faithfully,
Chesham, Bucks
7 December

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1999