Books on Anglo-Saxon Surrey are a lot like buses…

… but as I’m sure you know how the saying goes, I won’t belabour the point (other than to note that unfortunately it doesn’t apply to the bus stop outside my front door, which has a steady stream of services around the clock). For all that I’ve posted on the subject over the past three years, Surrey is not a massively “Anglo-Saxon” county in the same way as Lincolnshire, Norfolk or Kent (let’s agree not to get into the Jutish question right here and now, okay?). It has a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon mortuary archaeology and likewise a decent-sized corpus of documentary records (some of the aforementioned being of national, if not international, importance – for instance the great square-headed brooch from grave 225 of the Mitcham cemetery, pictured below, or subregulus Frithuwald’s endowment charter for Chertsey minster a.k.a. S 1165) but overall both quantity and quality are somewhat lacking. This is reflected – not unfairly, I would go so far as to say – in the less-than-spectacular flow of new scholarship with a Surrey focus published over the decades.

Image via Museum of London's Medieval London AD 410-1558 online catalogue

Image via Museum of London’s Medieval London AD 410-1558 online catalogue

Given this situation, for a new book to be published which deals at length with one aspect of life and material culture in the Surrey area during the post-Roman centuries is something of an event. To have two published around the same time is rather remarkable. For three to come out in the same calendar year – well, that’s inviting the misuse of a bus-related colloquialism in the name of emphasising quite how extraordinary such a triplicate coincidence is.

One of the three titles, Susan Kelly’s Charters of Chertsey Abbey, has been the subject of so many apologetic emails from Amazon (yeah, sorry, but they were doing a deal…) explaining publication had been delayed for unknown reasons that when I say I’m expecting to at long last have a copy of it in my hands by the end of this month, I do so with the hopefulness that only an innate optimist can retain after so many disappointments. Needless to say when(ever) it does appear, it will be a work of the highest quality and a substantial fillip for research into the monastery at Chertsey, its considerable landholdings and early medieval Surrey at large.

The second book is the reason why, two evenings ago, I was at the UCL Institute of Archaeology where, for the final seminar in this year’s IoA/British Museum medieval series, Sue Harrington spoke on the topic ‘The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain AD450-650: Beneath the Tribal Hidage. Readers in the know (or who have worked out the above image is a book cover) will be aware the title is the same as that of an important new book which is on the cusp of being published, the key product of a three-year funded research project which ran between 2006 and 2009 (an overview of said project under its original title Beyond the Tribal Hidage can be found here).

The delay between completion of the research and publication of the main report can be attributed to two factors: the enormous size of the assembled dataset (we’re talking tens of thousands of entries) and the untimely death of the principal investigator, Prof. Martin Welch, in 2011. Dr Harrington was open in explaining how the latter had curtailed the breadth of the final report, with not all of the original research questions able to receive full discussion. This is immediately apparent in the book, which offers extended accounts of themes such as the importance of visibility in the choice of Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery location – lavishly illustrated with photographs by Dr Harrington in her presentation – and the Frankish influence exerted upon the material (and by extension political) culture of what is now south-east England, but not so much in the way of overarching conclusions; the final synthesis runs to only a handful of pages.

In her presentation, Dr Harrington referred to the book as ‘a fragment of the potential of the data’, which is perhaps to underplay the scale of what her and her late co-author (and the many others who were involved in the project) were successful in bringing to print, but nevertheless is a frank and accurate acknowledgement that the sheer volume of information collected could never be subject to comprehensive analysis even if circumstances had been much more favourable. Of course, this gives researchers like me the opportunity – and, through the data assembled, the material – to go forward and answer some of the unfulfilled research aims of the original project, as well as taking the analysis in entirely new directions.

To this end, I was particularly excited to discover that Surrey is the subject of a case study chapter considering the provenances of the relevant archaeological material and the reasons for their uneven spatial distribution. I wasn’t able to read the chapter in full (I was doing my best to skim-read the book during a wine reception, dahling) but gleaned enough to appreciate that it takes forward the template for the county-level comprehension of the archaeology laid down by John Hines a decade ago. I look forward to giving it my undivided attention when my pre-ordered copy is delivered soon (word to the wise, do as I did and get it from Oxbow for a special price).

SpoilHeap Publications

One book which is already out and which I heartily recommend is a new double excavation report with the snappy title of *takes a big breath* Late Upper Palaeolithic/Early Mesolithic, Roman and Saxon Discoveries at Fetcham, near Leatherhead. Written by Tom Munnery but with contributions from several specialists, it details the results of two excavations conducted in 2009 and 2010 in the mid-Surrey parish of Fetcham. As the title makes plain, the work extends across several periods and offers some useful observations, such as the identification of a Roman villa in a Surrey river valley, a rare occurrence as things stand although I am firmly of the belief that in Surrey, as in other English counties, we don’t even know the half of it when it comes to the numbers and densities of villas (if they are indeed susceptible to classification as a single group of buildings-cum-settlements). In other words, its characterisation in terms of its situation as ‘unusual’ may be an index of its discovery and excavation rather than it being counter to a trend which prevailed in the county area in the second to fourth centuries AD.

The Anglo-Saxon period is well represented in the book, with the account of the excavation of 18 inhumation burials forming the bulk of the second chapter. However, arguably as important is the note that the discovery of Early Anglo-Saxon pottery at the Roman villa site ‘raises the possibility of continuity of occupation’ into the fifth century, although wisely this is backed up with an concession that such things are notoriously hard to demonstrate clearly (page 39). The aforementioned inhumations are identified as belonging to the long known about but haphazardly excavated cemetery of Hawk’s Hill. The majority of the burials contained grave goods, which permitted the burials to be dated to the seventh century, a conclusion which is extended by Rob Poulton in his contextual discussion to apply to the whole cemetery (one distinguishable in time as well as space from an earlier, albeit ?late sixth-century, furnished burial site at Watersmeet to the north-east).

Images of a coin of Hadrian (minted c. 119-22), pierced for reuse as jewellery, found in Inhumation 229 at Hawk's Hill (Copyright SpoilHeap Publications, not mine)

Images of a coin of Hadrian (minted c. 119-22), pierced for reuse as jewellery, found in Inhumation 229 at Hawk’s Hill
(Copyright SpoilHeap Publications, not mine)

Poulton’s subsequent appraisal of the regional context, in which he pays particular attention to the estate/parish-edge location of the cemetery and the relationship between the excavated burials and the Christian conversion of the Surrey region, will make for an interesting point of comparison with Harrington and Welch’s county case study. In turn, both will warrant testing against last year’s Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD, a work of such formidable academic – and physical – weight that I am only able to tackle a few pages at a time before my brain starts to initiate meltdown sequence. Dr Harrington made this point with regard to her book in the course of her presentation, and I know that the issue is one faced by others working in the same field (btw, cheers to Toby Martin for recent advice rendered on material culture matters).

In the spirit of every scholarly book reviewer, I suppose it is contingent on me at this point to air a couple of gripes with the published work. There are discrepancies between the two county maps (Fig. 1.31 on page 38 and 2.40 on page 87) which would probably pass the reader by unless, like me, they have an interest in the Hog’s Back and so are left a little perplexed by the depiction of the inhumation burial from “Wen Barrow” as variously a Roman inhumation and an Early Saxon barrow burial (expect a lot more about this complex site from me in the coming weeks). The font chosen to render the Domesday spellings of the estate names around the Hawk’s Hill site (page 86 Fig. 2.39) is horrible, even if it bears a modish resemblance to the script of the inscribed cross from the Staffordshire Hoard.

The above shortcomings are trivialities and I find pointing them out here more irksome than encountering them in the book. Over all, it is a highly commendable production, not least because it took fewer than four years to go from trench to print, constituting an impressively quick turnaround which has brought the results of two significant excavations into the public domain unlike so many other sites of at least equal interest and importance. If there can be said to be such a thing as an archaeological scene in Surrey (and I’m probably the first to ever give voice to such a notion), then the folks at SpoilHeap are the ascendant stars, and Tom Munnery and his colleagues deserve to have praise heaped – sorry, I couldn’t help myself – upon them for producing a stream of consistently excellent volumes.

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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, Books, Dating, Landscape, News, Publishing, Surrey, Talk, Topography and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Books on Anglo-Saxon Surrey are a lot like buses…

  1. Pingback: Three new books on aspects of medieval Surrey | Surrey Medieval

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