Making progress on several fronts

“each age confronts the debris of its history, material and traditional, as a way of finding a home for itself.”

Picture the scene; it’s Saturday morning and I’m on a bus to Waterloo, blissfully unaware that half of London had donned a hat and was already at the station, attempting to board a train to Royal Ascot. I open Richard Hodges’ recently-published Dark Age Economics: a new audit and almost immediately come across the wonderful, pithy observation quoted above. The words are not Hodges’, I should make clear, rather those of archaeological theorist John C. Barrett, from a 2000 chapter entitled ‘A thesis on agency’, and are used by the former to open the first full chapter of what is an excellent book, which ticks many boxes for me both thematically (the surprisingly advanced nature of some aspects of the early medieval economy) and stylistically (lashings of footnotes citing unheard-of works). Being forced to read it on bus journeys and work-time lunch breaks means I have been jumping around the book’s chapters, picking up more or less wherever I happen to open it, so expect a more comprehensive and coherent appraisal in a few weeks once I have gone through it in a more linear fashion.

A couple of hours after this tiny bus-based revelation (and having made the mistake of going up Guildford High Street on crutches – considerably steeper than I remember it being), I was happily ensconced in the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Castle Arch library above Guildford Museum. Lately, I’ve been writing an short-ish paper which takes as its starting point ‘A study of settlement patterns’, an essay by the geographer E M Yates published in the 1961 volume of the now-defunct Field Studies Journal (which just so happens to have been made freely available online). Despite using ten mid-Surrey parishes as its subject area, and offering an interpretation on the origins of the medieval settlements they contain, Yates’ piece has been largely forgotten and has failed to be cited in any Surrey-focused works on the same subject published in recent years. Thus I have taken it upon myself to offer an assessment of the degrees to which its approach and conclusions remains relevant today, and where more recent research has modified or entirely overhauled them (it doesn’t need a spoiler alert to reveal in advance that there is a tendency towards the latter). Thanks to an afternoon of successful reference hunting, I now have all of the information I need to carry on and complete writing my piece. The end product will end up on here, of course, and with a bit of remodelling could warrant submission to one of the landscape archaeology journals. I had intended it to go no further than a forthcoming issue of the SyAS Bulletin, as a means of paying tribute to the late Dennis Turner and the influence his writings on so many aspects of medieval Surrey has had on my own research. However, I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to keeping things succinct and I have come to realise that there’s no way I can cram all I want to say into a note-length contribution. Instead, I will be putting together a snappy (I mean it!) overview of my into the settlement and land-use geographies of pre-historical Puttenham, both for the aforementioned reason and furthermore because next month marks a decade since I first began considering the medieval period in earnest on account of something of an epiphany I had concerning Puttenham’s status at the time of the Domesday Survey. Without that teenaged bolt of inspiration, there would be no Surrey Medieval.

Said epiphany took place while I was sat in a deckchair in my back garden (summers were a lot sunnier back then), which is also the provenance of about 200 pieces and counting of medieval pottery. Once or twice over the years I had made fairly amateurish attempts to date some of the sherds but, lacking courage in my convictions (or rather classifications), was loathe to attach too much weight to them. All that changed on Sunday…

This is but a fraction of all the medieval pottery I have collected in Puttenham over the past 15 years or so; some of the sherds pictured derive from locations within the envelope of the historic village (I now hesitate to say medieval), others from fields near and far.

It’s not long gone 10 in the morning and I’m in Abinger Hammer, as it happens right in the heart of Yates’ study area, only that’s not why I’m there. From the car park of a recently-closed pub (perhaps the letters on one of its gables identifying it as the BINGER ARMS are in fact a reflection of anti-social drinking practices which prompted the licensing authorities to act and shut it down?) I walk up to the no-less abandoned looking old village school and across its moss-strewn playground. Inside I’m met by two local pottery experts, Steve Nelson and David Hartley (to whom I am and shall remain deeply grateful both for their time and insights) and over the course of the next couple of hours we sift through most of my sherds from my garden as well as from other gardens and the churchyard in the village, and fields and paths in the wider parish. Their analysis was little short of revelatory in a couple of respects, and comes at the perfect time to feed into the Puttenham-based summary I currently have underway, even if it has thrown up one or two unexpected contradictions to what I thought I knew. In due course I’m going to write a fuller interim account (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) of the morning’s findings and what they contribute to understanding Puttenham’s origins as a medieval village, to be posted on this site under the Puttenham tab – just like a copy of my ten-year review when that’s complete. And then, who knows? Some test pits perhaps?

As helpful as all of the above was (and will be) to me, the many good aspects of the weekend pale into insignificance to seeing my father at home rather than in hospital for the first time in months. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject because I want to end this post as I began it, with a sense of excitement for what I do, what others do and what combining these can lead to in the future.

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Being organised, Books, Dating, Domesday, Dorking, Guildford, History, Landscape, Place-Names, Pottery, Puttenham, Roman, Surrey, Topography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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