Hunting for cave art
Archaeology of industry
Editor Simon Denison
Britons & Welsh
From Mr Neil Howlett
Sir: A few years ago you carried an essay on the similarities between various rural dialects, suggesting that the survival of 'Welsh' counting words in parts of Britain reflected areas of British survival after the Anglo-Saxon invasions ('Rural Dialects and surviving Britons,' July 1999).
I think there is a simple explanation for the appearance of Welsh counting words for livestock in rural areas of England. All trades have their own jargon, and agriculture is no different. Such a language will help create an exclusive community and preserve the 'mysteries' of the trade. Alongside the 'vertical' separation of Britain into geographical regions, there is also a separation 'horizontally' by which commercial activity, and the social bonds that go with them, link individuals and groups in different regions. For words or phrases to have wide distribution, there does not need to be movement of single individuals over the whole geographical range.
The trade in cattle and sheep is regional, national and international. This kind of long-distance trade leaves little archaeological evidence but we have records for the trade in late medieval times and it is reasonable to speculate that the trade is ancient.
In the area I know, Somerset and Wiltshire, there is evidence of the involvement of the Welsh in this trade, and in particular, in the droving of cattle and sheep. According to Prof JH Bettey, in The Livestock Trade in the West Country During the Seventeenth Century, (Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, 1984), there even still survives a 17th century cottage in Stockbridge, Hampshire, on the droving route from Wiltshire towards London, with an inscription across the front in Welsh. It says: 'Gwair tymherus porfa flasus cwrw da a gwal cyserus' ('Satisfactory hay, sweet pasture, good ale and a comfortable bed').
If the Welsh language was used in the droving business in this way, is it not likely that it would have been used in trade-specific activities like counting? I cannot understand the counting at my local livestock market, but I suspect that farmers from other parts of England or Wales would. That will have been the case in medieval times too.
Welsh would be an obvious choice of language, as it was used by a significant proportion of those involved - with the advantage of being incomprehensible to outsiders.
From Mr SM Stirling
Sir: With respect to the letters by Messrs Collis and Tankard (Letters, May), commenting on mine about the issue of Anglo-Saxon migration, comparative DNA work does in fact give dates of the movement of populations, albeit roughly. When a previously unified population is split by migration, differential mutations begin to accumulate. Measuring the frequency of these gives you a broad time-frame for the period of separation.
The University of London work strongly indicates that the migration which established the current population in England took place no earlier than 2,500 years ago - that is, some time after 500 BC. Historical records rule out the past 1,000 years for a population-replacement migration to England; so we're left with a period between 500 BC and 1000 AD.
Now, it's quite possible that there was some immigration from the Continent, and specifically fòom the Low Countries, during the Iron Age - the presence of common tribal names on both sides of the channel, particularly the Belgae, and the uniformity of language and custom strongly suggests it. This doesn't solve the problem; it merely gives you a choice between Celtic and Saxon mass-migrations. I favour the latter, because the orientation of Celtic migrants seems to have been south of Frisia, and because of the linguistic evidence.
Caesar's account of the migration of the Helvetic tribes shows an entire population, hundreds of thousands strong, deliberately picking up and attemping to move from Switzerland to the Atlantic coast. That migration happened to have a literate observer at hand, and there's no reason to believe that similar things didn't go on all the time. You can walk from the Channel to Moscow in a summer, and the technology of 'feet' has been around for a long time.
Returning to the original issue, the University of London's DNA work cannot distinguish between the Anglo-Saxon immigration and that of the Danes during the Viking period; they're too close in time and too genetically similar. And in fact, the 'Anglo-Saxons' included people from the entire North Sea Germanic area as far as Jutland. Specifically Norse migration can be traced, however, and this bears a strong relationship to the distribution of Norse place-names.
Moving on to linguistic evidence, Professor Collis correctly points out that modern French has about 120 Celtic loan-words. However, this figure does not prove what he thinks it does. This is precisely ten times as many as the number of Celtic loan-words in Anglo-Saxon. Nor is there any evidence of substrate influence on the syntax of Anglo-Saxon, which remains a fairly conservative West Germanic tongue when it emerges as a written language several centuries after the invasions.
Continuing the comparison with Gaul and other mainland late-Roman areas, we know that the Gallo-Romans acquired a pagan, Germanic-speaking aristocracy during the Frankish invasions. Despite this, the native inhabitants neither abandoned Christianity, nor imitated their new landowning class linguistically. Instead it was the Franks who were assimilated. As were the Goths, Burgundians, Lombards, and every other Germanic invader of the Roman Empire except the Anglo-Saxons. Something very different happened in the British Isles.
After 1066 the Norman French, who were in close contact with their nearby homeland, who totally supplanted the Saxon landowning class, who were accompanied by their households and many lower-status French migrants, and who had the prestige of the premier language of culture in medieval Western Europe behind them, still did not succeed in linguistically assimilating the English peasantry.
There was a massive influx of French loan-words into English, and ordinary English people adopted many French personal names over the following two centuries, but the language remained English - and absorbed the invaders.
To suggest that a thin stratum of Anglo-Saxon immigrants, ruling a vastly larger population, without a written language or a state level of organisation, could linguistically assimilate their social inferiors simply makes no sense. It flies in the face of virtually every well-documented case of language succession we have on record.
In the absence of institutions such as formal state-sponsored schooling, intensity of contact, particularly in childhood, is the crucial factor in determining who assimilates whom. If the invaders were a small stratum of landowners they - and, crucially, their children - would be in intense linguistic contact with the natives (as servants, concubines, nurses, and so forth) while the bulk of the native population would have little contact with their overlords.
Numbers count in these matters. For an adult to learn a new language is usually difficult; for him or her to learn it without bringing substantial vocabulary and syntax across the linguistic barrier is virtually impossible.
How could vast peasant populations have the necessary degree of contact with far less numerous Anglo-Saxon invaders? Did they crowd into the lord's hall to take lessons after ploughing? Drill each other on the declension of nouns as they swung their sickles in the cornfields? Go over the myths of Woden and Thunor on the long winter evenings in order to fall in with the tastes of the aristocracy?
In these circumstances, language acquisition is rarely a matter of conscious choice or political decision; it's more like an organic process, taking place spontaneously. The inferences, I suggest, are obvious.
Iron Age coins
From Dr David Bird
Sir: I can't let the Leicestershire claim to 'the largest hoard of Iron Age gold and silver coins yet found in Britain' go unchallenged (News, July). Sober estimates of the numbers of coins in the Wanborough hoard, mostly of Iron Age gold and silver, start at over 9,000. Some have suggested it may have been as many as 25,000. We will never know for sure of course, since so much vanished onto the black market. Even so, around 1,000 coins made it to the British Museum.
We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at email@example.com or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005