SMSW 2 – the reporting of Anglo-Saxon stirrup mount finds in south-east England

Your second dose of medieval mathematics moves away from history and place-names towards archaeology. The inspiration for this post came in the course of recent reading around the topic of “productive sites” and the interpretation of their artefactual profiles (for an update to one of my coin-based Work pages that is a matter of days away from being fit to publish on here), which got me thinking about Anglo-Saxon stirrup-strap mounts. More specifically, I wondered whether the fact Surrey’s Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), David Williams, wrote the book on late Anglo-Saxon stirrup-strap mounts means that the recording of artefacts through the Portable Antiquities Scheme may be inflected by prior knowledge among those who offer finds for recording of the specialisms of the FLO in question. By conducting a comparative statistical analysis of the Surrey dataset as contained within the PAS online finds database with those from surrounding counties as defined by PAS (namely Hampshire, East Sussex, West Sussex, Kent and Greater London), might it be possible to discern biases in the recording/reporting of later Anglo-Saxon stirrup-strap mounts? Well, let me tell you something…

The following information was accurate as of late on Monday night (15th July 2013), and was derived entirely from interrogating the PAS website using the following standard search procedure:

  1. Finds database
  2. [County name] EARLY MEDIEVAL
  3. County of origin > select appropriate county name
  4. Broad period > select EARLY MEDIEVAL
  5. All Object type options

This provides not only the county EARLY MEDIEVAL total, but also a range of related or possibly related Object types; classification is after all subject to the perceptions of the recorder and so identical or closely similar artefacts may not be classified as the same Object type. Anyway, here are the numbers and percentages for the six counties included within this survey:

PAS Late Anglo-Saxon stirrup strap mount and horse harness equipment data July 2013

Straightaway, it is obvious that stirrup-strap mounts (here represented by the PAS Object type STIRRUP) comprise a higher percentage of the total EARLY MEDIEVAL finds recorded to date in Surrey than in any of the adjacent counties. It is the third largest county total in the region in terms of the artefact, whereas Surrey ranks fifth out of six for its overall number of PAS-listed finds from this period. While it is not impossible that this may be a product of greater levels of horse ownership and use (parts of Surrey did form favoured royal and aristocratic hunting grounds in the medieval period, though the documentary evidence for this in the Anglo-Saxon period is very slight), or that (responsible) metal detecting has tended towards sites which are more likely to be the provenance of such items, I find it hard to see past the explanation that this stems in no small part from reporting behaviour influenced by the well-known expertise of the county’s FLO.

Other equine accoutrements, notably harness fittings and strap fittings, likewise seem to be more prominent among the corpus of recorded material from Surrey than is the case for neighbouring counties. The employment of a greater range of Object types to classify finds in some counties is the reason why I aggregated the results including the terms HARNESS or BRIDLE. However, somewhat reassuringly it shows little overall variation between most of the counties in question (Greater London having too few relevant reported artefacts for it to correspond to the same degree, while Kent’s relatively poor showing may result from better reporting of the prolific quantities of early Anglo-Saxon material for which the county is famed). This is why I also included a control sample of objects classified under the type MOUNT, with all counties returning figures of between 2% and 4% of the county total (in Surrey at least, not one such artefact is described as being of equine association).

I hope the above has shown that county corpuses of certain Object types contained within the PAS database can be inflected with an attitude among those wishing to report discoveries that particular objects may be of greater or lesser interest to the FLO (or other recorder) than others. This is by no means a criticism of David Williams or of those who bring their finds to him; it should be a cause for celebration that Surrey has such a wealth of knowledge and material available for study. One can only hope that wherever this occurs, such biases are not leading to other types of artefact going unreported (and this is not limited to metalwork – the absence of any pottery from Surrey’s EARLY MEDIEVAL element of the PAS database is noteworthy) and so unknown to the wider archaeological community.

(In pursuing the above I must confess a debt of inspiration to an excellent post by Toby Martin on his These Fragments blog examining the contrasting recording of cruciform and annular brooches through PAS – the sites’s gone a bit too quiet in the past couple of months, get back blogging Toby!)

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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 Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, internet, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Statistics, Surrey and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to SMSW 2 – the reporting of Anglo-Saxon stirrup mount finds in south-east England

  1. Toby Martin says:

    Thanks for the shout out Robert! I love these unexpected distributions thrown out by the PAS – I wonder if there’s a background (excavated or otherwise) dataset you could use to compare PAS stirrup mounts and harnesses against? It’d be interesting to hear an opinion from the PAS on this too. My blog has been a bit quiet of late, but do not fear, I have a few things in the pipeline!

  2. It’s a good point. My worry is that it’s hard to compare like with like, given there’s so few fully-excavated late Anglo-Saxon sites in the south-east (especially in Surrey). However, there must be a decent body of non-PAS material since David Williams published his book several years before the Scheme was established. So perhaps the FLO might know!

  3. Must it be reporting bias? I’d have thought a more likely explanation was that Williams’s expertise made him more able to identify such things when handed a recently-recovered lump of metal to assess than his contemporaries who hadn’t so literally written the book on the things.

  4. That could well be the case, although they’re not the most ambiguous of artefacts (or at least the ones that come up in a Google image search – Williams’s book of course shows the mounts in various states of preservation). There are few “unidentified” artefacts listed on PAS – at least under the Early Medieval period – but that may be to avoid creating a dump code which is of little use to anyone but the keenest-eyed experts. Also, I spotted at least one example from one of the Sussexes which had been recorded by him; I wasn’t considering the data in this regard so I don’t know if this is coincidence or representative of a wider trend. David Williams contacted me after I wrote the post but I was in Italy at the time and haven’t found the time over the past few weeks to drop him a line and discuss the real reasons for the figures. High time I put that right!

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