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

Evidence for British material culture in north-east Surrey

Now, I wish to grapple with a further key issue – what evidence there is supporting the idea of a British cultural zone. Indicators of British culture divide into two categories so far as I can see: material and toponomastic. I’ll appraise the archaeology first as I’m not so well versed in it at present.


Hanging bowl(s) on display at The Collection in Lincoln; I think the one that looms largest in the photo (taken by yours truly in April 2014) is from the Loveden Hill cemetery

Distinctively British material culture is notoriously hard to identify. Green cites Class 1 and Type G penannular brooches, and “late Celtic” hanging bowls (like the one(s) above) as the most important artefact types found in Lincolnshire (2012, 69-75). The South Oxfordshire study, meanwhile, focuses on clipped siliquae, Roman military-style belt sets/fittings, and equal-arm brooches (John Naylor in Hamerow, Ferguson and Naylor 2013, 53-54). So far as I have been able to discover, north-east Surrey has not produced instances of most of the types of artefact highlighted above. (This PAS record gives details of a clipped silver siliqua of Julian II as Augustus (360-63) found at West Wickham just outside the historic county in what was Kent and is now London, as well as a handy intro to the question of when coin clipping took place.)

So what do we have? For starters, the sixth-century tremissis from Southwark noted earlier, which dates from the same time as the very early (and very poorly understood) hoard of gold coins from the Thames at Kingston (e.g. Hines 2004, 94). A sixth-century Byzantine lead seal – which as you might imagine is a very rare object in Britain – has been reported from the foreshore at Putney, but the credibility of this provenance has been questioned and so regrettably it is better to exclude it from the debate (Biddle 1989, 20-21, especially footnote 10). Anyway, so far, so sixth century.

It also seems wise to take a dim view of the propinquitous ‘sub-Roman occupation at … the Fulham/Putney settlement’ cited by Dark (1994, 88). The Surrey half of the equation is the site at 18 Felsham Road in Putney, less than 150 metres away from the current south bank of the Thames. One of the finds from a complex of Roman-period features excavated there was a brooch Dark personally identified as Anglo-Saxon, though annoyingly he gave no further information about its form or date (Dark 1994, 88 footnote 86). Several years later, in a different book, he was a little more forthcoming, describing the artefact as ‘a square headed brooch’ (Dark 2000, 99). This would place the date of manufacture in the sixth century (perhaps earlier rather than later).

The Felsham Road excavation has yet to be fully published (one hopes it is not too late), so it is unclear if the brooch was Dark’s sole justification for positing a sub-Roman phase of activity; it does seem certain at least that it was a stray find and not one associated with a burial. A local history book on Putney refers to finds of coins and pottery indicating Roman settlement there ‘continued well into the fifth century’, as well as a seax of seventh- to ninth-century date from Felsham Road (Gerhold 1994, 12-13) – also from the excavations at number 18, or an isolated find from the same street?

You can’t discuss the fifth- and sixth-century archaeology of this part of Surrey without mentioning the wealth of spears dredged from the Thames. The standard published source of data remains Swanton’s 1974 corpus, which includes an illustration of example of a ‘well-known Celtic Dark Age type’ of spear head from the Thames at Battersea (1974, 20, 21 Fig. 7.1a), but also examples which appear to be Anglo-Saxon weapons of the late fifth to early sixth centuries which ‘borrowed’ the basic corrugated form of the aforementioned British prototype (e.g. 1974, 74, for an I2 spearhead from Putney). There’s much scope for fresh study of the corpus, and I was excited to learn recently that work is already being done in this regard by Andrew Welton for a doctoral project entitled ‘Forging Entanglements: The Spear in Early-Medieval English Society’ at the University of Florida.

Post-Roman artefacts from north-east Surrey not found in or beside the Thames are at a premium, and the significance of the few that are known is not easily determined. Here at least we start to get examples of distinctively British objects cited by other studies. As Green makes clear, perhaps the best-known early medieval British-made artefact type is the hanging bowl, though the function(s) of such items remain the subject of some conjecture. Complete or part-complete seventh-century hanging bowls are known from a grave at St Martins-in-the-Fields (Telfer 2010, 55-6), and from the primary barrow burial at Gally Hills, Banstead, on the Surrey Downs (Barfoot & Williams 1976, 66-8). In between these finds, escutcheons again dated to the seventh century are known from Morden and West Wickham (Bruce-Mitford 2005, 125-7).

The presence of Late Roman burials and artefacts in or close to the cemeteries at Croydon and Mitcham has often been remarked upon (e.g. Bird 2004, 171), although need not stand for their unceasing use across the fifth century and beyond – the latest layers of Roman occupation excavated in Croydon have yielded pottery adjudged to belong to the early fifth century, thus falling decades short of the date of the earliest Anglo-Saxon burials (Dark 2000, 99). What is more, we would do well to remember that the metalwork of this period and the contexts in which it is found are incredibly tricky to interpret. The pioneering work by Hawkes and Dunning, demonstrated that Late Roman military-style metalwork is not just found in Late Roman graves, but in clearly Anglo-Saxon ones, too (see Hawkes & Dunning 1961, 65 no. 8, 66 no. 10 (Croydon); 55 no. 21 (Mitcham, see illustration below). Hines revisited the material and observed that several examples derive from demonstrably sixth-century graves, yet cited early buckles of the Quoit-Brooch Style from Croydon and Orpington which may have accompanied much earlier burials (Hines 1990, 22-4; cf. Hines 2004, 92-3).

Screen shot 2016-01-17 at 16.14.58

Crest-less open-loop dolphin buckle, believed to be of British manufacture, from Mitcham cemetery, grave 38 (Hawkes & Dunning Type 2A; drawing from the excellent Late Roman Buckles in Britain website –

The aforementioned examples of metalwork of likely British manufacture may have been prized, exchanged, and long-curated items. Such ambiguities make it hard to know how best to interpret a bronze buckle with plate, corresponding to Hawkes and Dunning’s Type 1A, found in a plough soil horizon in recent excavations at Wallington (see Howe 2004, 218-9, 227). It could be interpreted as a casual loss of a “British” artefact. Then again, as the main author of the excavation report in which it is published suggests, it could just as feasibly be the result of casual loss following medieval grave robbing of an Anglo-Saxon burial, in which the buckle and plate were curated items originally obtained from a native British source. Whatever the reality, once again we find ourselves well within the midst of early Surrey’s core area. The supposed “buffer zone” to the north, extending in the various landward directions south from Southwark, is not just an empty zone for conclusively Anglo-Saxon material culture, but of any testament of a demonstrably British equivalent as well.

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

  2. Pingback: Not in my name or theirs: considering my future in early medieval studies | Surrey Medieval

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

  4. Pingback: 410-1066 CE: What should we call the period? | Surrey Medieval

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