The origins of Surrey: two scholars’ work and my two pennies’ worth

Urban discontinuity in London and Southwark

To begin with, drawing parallels between Lindum Colonia/Lincoln and Londinium/London isn’t all that advisable, because there’s precious little evidence for continuity of significant levels of permanent activity within the Roman walls continuing long into the fifth century – or really at any point before the closing years of the ninth. Archaeology has shown London as an urban place seems to have been more or less dead by the second decade of the fifth century (this superb-sounding hoard from a presumably extra-mural cemetery at Bishopsgate, ‘deposited perhaps around AD 410’, may speak of its final days). In fact, the objects cited most often in relation to its post-Roman afterlife – a cruciform brooch from Tower Hill and a saucer brooch from Lower Thames Street – are of clearly Anglo-Saxon type (indeed, on this, see Dark 2000, 99).

There are, however, hints of foci of late Roman activity – very possibly military in nature – in the vicinity of the Tower of London and now by the Walbrook at the Bloomberg site (Blackmore 2014, 1). Moreover, the past decade or so has introduced an important new element to the story of London at the turn of the fifth century. Much as Dark (2000, 99) predicted, excavations at St Martin-in-the-Fields have produced signs of very interesting Roman-type activity west of the walled city in the first half of the fifth century, including tile production, but a late fifth-century pottery jar characterised as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suggests this did not endure for long in the way Green posits of Lincoln (Telfer 2010; also Blackmore 2014, 3-4).

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Bone needle-holder with ring-and-dot decoration from the Southwark foreshore. Believed to be of fourth or (more likely) fifth-century date, the item has been described as a very rare find for England, let alone Surrey. (Photograph and information from Portable Antiquities Scheme, Unique ID LON-E3F661 – click through on link in text below for full details.)

It’s much the same situation across the Thames at Southwark. We may not know the name of the Roman bridgehead settlement (if it had one), but a few little bits of evidence show it was still the site of activity in very early fifth-century: inhumation burials from Lant Street, that there bone needle holder potentially of continental manufacture, plus a hoard of 297 worn coins found at nearby Bermondsey for which the initial ascribed deposition date of circa 450 has been scaled back to circa 400 (Mattingly 1946; Grierson and Mays 1992, 22). Early Anglo-Saxon pottery, some of which has been ascribed to the fifth to early-sixth century, has been found at Lant Street and Trinity Street in Southwark, and Bermondsey Square and the Abbey site in Bermondsey, and has been characterised as the vestiges of ‘small-scale, temporary activity’ (Jarrett 2013).

None of this screams vibrant urban culture, and by the same token there’s nothing from Southwark that indicates continued activity in the erstwhile urban area into the sixth century, other than a solitary gold tremissis of Justinian I (527-65) found at King’s Head Yard (e.g. Vince 1990, 110; I find his assertion that this coin represents a much later lost pilgrim trinket to be an overly cautious interpretation in view of the number of single finds now known). Unless there’s a major post-Roman institution à la St Paul-in-the-Bail awaiting discovery, we can be fairly certain Southwark was not a centre which retained either the population or status to be the centre of a wider territory in the fifth and sixth centuries.

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, Brittonic, Language, London, Old English, PhD, Place-Names, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Roman, Surrey, Thames, Topography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The origins of Surrey: two scholars’ work and my two pennies’ worth

  1. Pingback: Early Anglo-Saxon burials in historic North-East Surrey: bodies in the Thames? | Surrey Medieval

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  3. Pingback: Trying to be a better medievalist | Surrey Medieval

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