When Burial Begins
Editor Simon Denison
Great Sites: Hamwic
Helena Hamerow on excavations at Southampton, which reshaped our views of the origins of English towns and of long-distance trade in the 8th/9th centuries
For much of the 20th century, historians and archaeologists believed that the 7th and 8th centuries AD were economically disastrous for Britain and North-West Europe. Following the influentual thesis of historian Henri Pirenne, developed in the 1920s and 1930s, this was believed to be when - thanks to the Islamic advance westward - the former north-west provinces of the Roman Empire were once and for all cut off from the Mediterranean. As a result, they were plunged into an economic 'dark age' characterized by sparse, debased coinage and a collapse of long-distance trade. These centuries also, so it was believed, delivered the coup de grâce to whatever remained of town life.
Anglo-Saxon Southampton - or Hamwic as it was then known - has, more than any other site, helped to reshape our thinking about the fate of long-distance trade and the origins of towns in England during this critical period. It has long been known from written sources that Hamwic was a port and market during the 8th and early 9th centuries. Indeed, we now know that, far from being a 'dark age', this period saw an economic resurgence in Anglo-Saxon England. The Life of St. Willibald, for example, records that in around 721 the saint caught the 8th century equivalent of a cross-channel ferry from a place near Hamwic, which is described as a commercial port (mercimonium). Hamwic (also known as Hamtun) must have possessed considerable administrative importance, as by the middle of the 8th century it had given its name to the shire - Hamtunscire, that is, Hampshire.
Archaeology has enabled us to paint a remarkably detailed picture of Hamwic at the time of Willibald's journey. Because occupation had shifted by the 10th century to the site of the medieval town of Southampton, mid-Saxon Hamwic, which lay on the west bank of the River Itchen, has remained relatively well preserved. Numerous excavations have taken place since the Second World War, but it was the work of Peter Addyman and David Hill between 1968 and 1971 which stimulated particular interest in Hamwic's archaeology.
Their now-famous 'reviews of the evidence' published in The Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club in 1968 and 1969 remain essential reading for students of the Anglo-Saxon trading places known as wics. Addyman and Hill argued that large-scale excavations were needed to understand the true significance of Hamwic. In 1978, the site at Six Dials in the northern part of the settlement provided the opportunity they had been hoping for.
The Six Dials excavations - conducted initially under the aegis of the Southampton Archaeological Research Committee, and later by Southampton City Museums - have provided the most informative window yet opened onto Hamwic. Over 60 mid-Saxon buildings were uncovered as well as large numbers of pits containing datable assemblages of finds and animal bones. Six Dials showed conclusively that Hamwic possessed, from the outset, a planned system of well-maintained, gravelled streets as well as defined plots and properties. This was crucial evidence for it implied that the settlement had been created by a centralized authority - presumably the king of Wessex, maybe Ine.
As a result of Six Dials and over 50 other excavations within Hamwic, we now know that the wic was founded in about 700, and possibly somewhat earlier, it occupied at least 100 acres (42 ha), and is likely to have had a population of 2,000-3,000. This new type of settlement - so different in size, appearance and function from the farms and monasteries of the period - must have been perceived by contemporaries as a radical innovation, although whether its founder thought he was establishing a 'town' remains a moot point.
Where did the idea of a large trading centre with a system of streets and properties come from? Was it inspired by Continental sites such as Quentovic in northern France, or perhaps by the ruins of Roman towns such as nearby Clausentum (Bitterne Manor) or even Winchester? We can only speculate.
Coins and trade
The evidence which Hamwic yielded for long-distance and regional trade also set it apart. Its wide-ranging trade contacts with the Continent as well as other parts of England are reflected by the provenance of the many coins found there, and by imported goods. Most prominent among these are quernstones from the Rhineland, Frankish glass and pottery. Some 18 per cent of the excavated pottery had been imported from abroad, especially from northern France, the Rhineland and the Low Countries, although some was almost certainly brought by the traders for their own use.
As David Hinton and others have shown, however, it is difficult to define Hamwic's trade connections with any precision, particularly as most of the exports known from written sources to have left England in this period - such as hunting dogs, wool, cloth, hides and slaves - have left no archaeological trace.
Many different crafts were practiced at Hamwic, including metalworking, textile production, bone and antler working, and glass working. We can perhaps assume that much of this production served the needs of the local community. Some items, however, must have been marketed more widely. Hamwic was certainly well connected by road and river to its hinterland and, of course, to Winchester.
Indeed, Martin Biddle has defined its relationship to Winchester as complementary, with the civitas or urbs of Winchester serving as the administrative and 'emotional' focus of the kingdom of Wessex, while the wic acted as a centre for commercial activity. Unfortunately, however, most of the objects which were made at Hamwic are insufficiently distinctive to be recognized as imports if found elsewhere. The scale of craft production also remains ill-defined, as only a small fraction of the industrial debris could be recovered.
While the wic was clearly a prosperous place, little has been uncovered so far to suggest exceptional wealth. The inhabitants appear to have had access to a plentiful supply of metal objects, but little has been found that could be described as truly precious - although very recent excavations recovered a tiny skein of gold wire, lost by a Saxon goldsmith.
The archaeology indicates that by the mid-9th century, like other English wics, Hamwic was in severe decline, almost certainly caused by the disruptive impact of Viking raiding on long-distance trade and the vulnerability of an undefended riverside site. By the 10th century, Hamwic had been largely abandoned in favour of a site a short distance to the south-west, where a defended settlement was established.
The king's design
In Dark Age Economics, the influential book on the origins of post-Roman towns and trade published in 1982, Richard Hodges argued that Hamwic was founded by the king of Wessex as the kingdom's main port-of-entry, so that he could obtain luxury goods from the Frankish world. In the next stage of its development, according to Hodges, the wic became a means of channelling long-distance trade through a single entry point, making it easier to exact tolls from traders and thereby generate a handsome income - an enterprise overseen by the king's representative, the wic reeve.
This model has naturally been modified as a result of further excavation and analysis. It is now clear, for example, that Hamwic was permanently, not seasonally occupied as Hodges originally thought, and was not primarily an enclave of foreign traders, although they were clearly present. The economic motor driving trade could not, furthermore, have been luxury goods, which by definition must have arrived in tiny quantities, but larger-scale trade in relatively low value commodities such as wool, timber and quernstones.
It is also becoming apparent that trade with the immediate hinterland of the wics was far more important than was originally believed, indeed perhaps more important than trade with the Continent. Finally, it is likely that Hamwic was only one of a number of trading places within the kingdom.
It is hard to exaggerate the impact that the excavations at Hamwic have had on the study of the mid-Saxon economy. The evidence they yielded sparked renewed interest in the wics at London, Ipswich and York and helped archaeologists interpret the findings from these and other sites.
Together with the pioneering work by Michael Metcalf on Anglo-Saxon sceattas (small silver coins) indicating that these were minted in their millions in mid-Saxon England, the excavations at Hamwic - and more recent excavations at other wics - finally put an end to the long-standing idea that long distance trade had virtually ground to a halt by 700. Excavation has disproved the old idea that the mid-Saxon economy was moribund and that no significant steps towards urbanism were taken before the reign of Alfred the Great.
Large-scale excavation campaigns invariably result in complicated and protracted publication programmes, and Hamwic is no exception. Yet it remains the most extensively investigated and published of any of the Anglo-Saxon wics and the synthesis of previous work published by Alan Morton in 1992 (Excavations at Hamwic: Volume 1, CBA Research Report 84) is a model of its kind. As a result, Hamwic has had a huge impact on our assumptions about the way in which wics operated.
But there is the possibility that it was in some ways atypical: the highly restricted distribution of so-called 'H' sceattas which were minted at Hamwic suggests that it may have been a coin-using enclave within a non-coin-using hinterland, which was certainly not the case at London, Ipswich or York.
Furthermore, in her study of the animal bones, Jennifer Bourdillon has shown that most of the meat consumed by the inhabitants of Hamwic had arrived on the hoof at a mature age, after a working life in the countryside. The plentiful but rather tough meat that was available suggests that it was not bought directly by the consumer from the producer at market, but was instead a form of tribute or tax paid in kind. A different picture is emerging at London and possibly at Ipswich, where the presence of younger, more palatable animals suggests that nearby farms were rearing animals for meat, to be brought to market at the wic.
7th century origins
Work at Hamwic continues. The most recent excavations on the site of Southampton Football Club's new stadium have uncovered richly-furnished 7th century burials containing weaponry and gold jewellery (BA August 2000) possibly associated with a royal 'vill' or settlement at the north-eastern edge of the wic. These suggest that the date of the founding of Hamwic may need to be pushed back to before 700, thus corresponding more closely with the founding of the wics at London and Ipswich. Some 30 years after the excavations at Six Dials, Hamwic still has stories to tell.
Helena Hamerow is a lecturer in medieval archaeology at Oxford University.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005