Sarah Semple, Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England: Religion, Ritual, and Rulership in the Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Perceptions of the Prehistoric is a book I waited a long time for. Even the partial Google Preview which emerged in concert with its publication (and I used as much as I could in the writing of one thing I posted not long after) did not entirely subdue my anticipation. Now I have, I am happy to report it delivers on its promise in many areas – but unfortunately not all. The following paragraphs make up a hybrid review-response to the book, with my usual Surrey gloss, which I hope will explain my excitement and disappointment over the book in its present form.

Perceptions cover

As may be obvious to those with prior knowledge of Semple’s published research, Perceptions of the Prehistoric is avowedly interdisciplinary (taking in archaeology, language, history, etc.) in a way that is more or less the norm nowadays. Semple is due no little credit for this present state of affairs. Indeed, in the book’s opening chapter she highlights how her essay ‘A fear of the past’, published in 1998 in the journal World Archaeology, more or less instigated the characterisation of “emotions and thoughts in relation to place and landscape” in Anglo-Saxon archaeological scholarship (page 3). It’s fair to say my own research would be of a different character without Semple’s work, and that this book is a synthesis and extension of her achievements to date.

I won’t summarise each and every chapter (Ethan Doyle White was considerate enough to have done this already elsewhere on t’interweb). It is worth observing, however, that some passages in different chapters go over the same ground, e.g. theophoric place-names get outings in chapters 3 and 5, and the connections between prehistoric monuments and assembly places are discussed in chapter 3 and again in chapter 6. It could be argued that such duplication – or at least overlapping – of themes is perhaps a little unnecessary, but overall such repetitiveness is not noticeable to the same extent as detracted from Della Hooke’s otherwise brilliant Trees in Anglo-Saxon England. Moreover, the sheer breadth of material brought to bear by Semple is what really shines through, from canonical sites (Yeavering) and texts (Vita Sancti Guthlaci) to ones I had little or no idea about (most arrestingly the illustrations from ‘Marvels of the East’, one of which features on the front of the dust jacket reproduced above).

The book is not the definitive word on its subject matter in the same way as John Blair’s 2005 The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, and Semple is open and honest about this fact. Her intention is that it should act as “a first overview” of its subject matter and thence a catalyst for future research (page 12). On the first count it must be considered a success; time will surely vindicate it on the second count, too.


Seeing as how we’re talking successes, I rate the book’s biggest triumph to be the message recurrent throughout the book that phenomena need not always be pre-historically early in origin. I think it’s a truism for medieval studies – I’ve encountered it in my postgraduate-level research in architectural history and names studies, two very different beasts – that there’s a default approach to determining the date of something of “How early can it be?”, rather than the opposite; often harder to prove but often the more appropriate question to ask.

On the place-names side, Semple moves to liberate those containing names supposed Germanic pagan deities from the murky recesses of Early Anglo-Saxon pagan religious practice and instead floats the idea of understanding them as formations “reflecting a late Anglo-Saxon curiosity and popular interest” in supernatural things such as pagan deities (page 176). The advancing of this contention in relation to place-names which stand a good chance of deriving from the gods Thunor and Tiw is striking, even shocking. It merits further consideration. From the point of view of Thursley, probably from Thunor albeit mediated through confusion or updating with his Scandinavian equivalent Thor, the recovery of an apparently non-funerary ceramic urn of sixth- or seventh-century date hints at the earlier religious significance of the location to which the theophoric name was attached (although no direct evidence of contemporaneity). Nearby Tuesley, most likely a name from Tiw, was the site of a minster which was understood in the thirteenth century to be earlier than the church at Godalming, near to which inhumation burials which could be late Anglo-Saxon in date have recently been found. Whether this is enough to push the ecclesiastical foundation at Tuesley back into the Middle Anglo-Saxon period, and hence the name of Tuesley even further back in time, is a matter of opinion; until such time as credible dating evidence is recovered from the presumed minster site or its environs, the chronology remains uncertain.

The eastern slope/scramble of St Catherine's Hill near Guildford, first recorded as Drakehull,

The eastern slope/scramble of St Catherine’s Hill near Guildford, first recorded as Drakehull, “dragon hill”, in 1318

Rather more convincing on first reading is the strong case she makes for understanding most or all of the (mainly ex-Danelaw toponyms) containing Grim – a personal name which could be that of “the masked alter ego of Woden” (page 173) – as coinages belonging to later centuries, possibly post-medieval in some cases. This would be compatible with the circumstances of the records of the two Surrey instances (Grimesditch 13th in Mickleham and Grymesditch ?17th in Worplesdon: Copley 1958, page 295, 297). Neither is noted by Semple in her table of “Grim’s ditch” place-names (page 175 Table 5.1), although this is most probably an oversight rather than a negative judgement of their derivation (a trio of OE Grimes dic charter-boundary points are calendared on page 262 of Appendix 4). She makes a similar case for ones believed to contain OE draca, ‘dragon’; if not male ducks, then fire-breathing, treasure-guarding monsters conjured up in Middle English minds (which potentially alters the terms of the debate about Drakebergh/Dragberry in Merstham, unknown before 1384).

I knew I had at least one photo of a male duck on my computer...

I knew I had at least one photo of a male duck on my computer…

Another thought-provoking aspect of the same focus on possible later origins for supposedly earlier features surrounds earthen mounds. In her pioneering 1998 article, Semple repeated the earlier suggestion made by Andrew Reynolds of the Guildown cemetery above Guildford that a primary barrow formerly covered grave 139, a sixth-century inhumation (Semple 1998, page 117). In her new book, Semple refers to several “purpose-built monuments created by the late Anglo-Saxons as necessary embellishment for late execution sites” (page 197). Might the postulated mound over the sparsely-furnished grave 139 in fact belong to the Guildown cemetery’s later lease of life as a place of execution, perhaps the steading for the gallows structure? Stockbridge Down in Hampshire is a possible regional correlate, although there the mound is at a remove from cemetery (see Reynolds 2009, page 120 Fig. 22). All the same, we should not expect the same spatial arrangements to prevail at all execution places, so the central position of the mound at Guildown need not cause it to be dismissed.

The very day I wrote the paragraph mentioning Kirk Hammerton, a good friend posted a photo of the church which shows the mound on which it stands better than any other photo I could find online. Instagram has its uses!

The very day I wrote the paragraph below mentioning Kirk Hammerton, a good friend of mine posted this photo of the church showing the mound/hillock on which it stands better than any other photo I could find online. Instagram has its uses!

Another class of mound identified and appraised by Semple consists of ones in close physical association with churches. Some have churches built upon them (unmentioned but clearly relevant here is Kirk Hammerton in Yorkshire, which I took a small, slow train out of Leeds to visit once upon a time), others are sited a matter of metres from ecclesiastical buildings. The mounds are mostly unexcavated and thus unexplained; they constitute an grouping ripe for investigation through a multi-modal research project (and it’s not the only one to present itself over the course of reading the book). Some of Semple’s examples are in counties adjacent to Surrey: Hinton Ampner in Hampshire – which I’ve visited – and Berwick in Sussex (photo on page 125 Fig. 4.9). Puttenham church is not so far west of Bury Hill, possibly capped by the denuded remnants of a round barrow (as noted on page 2 of my 2013 summary of research on early settlement and land-use in Puttenham parish). With no Surrey entry but eight for Sussex in the appendix listing medieval English churches “situated with reference to prehistoric monuments” (pages 253-60), it may be a worthwhile exercise to draw upon people’s local knowledge to discover whether there are any Surrey churches which stand in much closer proximity to extant or lost mounds.


Having trumpeted some of the book’s best aspects, I’m beholden to those who read this and have the intention to buy/read the book to flag up its shortcomings. It’s hard to be too critical because of the author’s stated intentions for how the book should be used, so to do otherwise would be plain unfair. One thing which did occur to me as I read through the chapters was that more or less everything seems to be viewed through a pagan/non-Christian:Christian binary. A major conclusion drawn by Semple, in a remarkable fusion of contemporary archaeological and literary evidence, is the change of attitude towards prehistoric monuments which took place in or around the eighth century and which was brokered by the newly-established Church (see the book’s fifth chapter, ‘Changing meanings’). I wonder if this pagan-then-Christian linear process, and the interpretation of so many things in purely religious terms, perhaps underplays the nuance and plurality of certain types of evidence? There’s little mention of secular heroes, as I have been exploring in recent weeks and months in connection to riverine metalwork deposition and the perambulation and textual representation of boundaries. Belief in figures like King Offa of the Angeln need not be to the exclusion of the Christian god and saints. A forthcoming paper by John Baker takes this in a slightly different direction, examining the extent to which the names of historical royal personages were used in hundred names (my thanks to Dr Baker for giving me sight of a pre-publication draft).

Shortcoming number 2 is poor copy editing. I was going to perform a public service by collecting and identifying the references which appear in parentheses in the text but not in full in the bibliography. But I lost count somewhere around where the running total was knocking on the door of double figures. Stuart Brookes, reviewing the book for the latest volume of the journal Medieval Archaeology, mentions textual errors and omissions from the bibliography, but is happy to let them slide. I’m afraid I can’t, no matter how much I enjoyed reading in a footnote on page 162 that name-formations which look to contain the personal name Wibba in fact “could indicate a ‘worm or beatle'” – would that be John, George, Paul, or Ringo? Joking aside, there’s no way to dress up the number of errors other than as a serious editorial failing, one which blights the book and the text as it stands. A work which strives to go beyond the well-troden paths and bring new research and type-sites into the fray has to provide all relevant references for its readers to find and consult. Leaving it to guesswork simply won’t do. Believe me, I’ve tried!

Surrey doesn’t feature prominently at any stage of the book, which is no great surprise and no great shame. Researchers wishing to use the book to study Surrey evidence will nevertheless have plenty of correlate data from other counties to draw upon (e.g. the regional study of the fifth- to eighth-century funerary landscape of a chunk of West Sussex – pages 16-26 – which supports the conclusions I drew about the barrow burials on Farthing Downs). When names and sites in Surrey are mentioned, the result is not always acceptable. Thus we find a perplexing reference to “Tishoe” in Surrey (page 70) – I had to double-check to be absolutely certain, but can confirm it’s a ghost place-name, presumably arising from confusion over the location of Tysoe in Oxfordshire. Tuesley, meanwhile, is cited as a lost place-name (page 178), despite being very much still in existence. Otherwise things are pretty solid from a Surrey point of view.


Read this book, but don’t buy it. Okay, buy it if you really want – who am I to tell you otherwise? – but if you’re wishing to get value for money, you might want to invest in something else. Its cover price is a very hefty £85, and even by shopping around you won’t see much change out of £70. How it is meant to have the impact it deserves when most non-institutional readers will surely be dissuaded by the price tag? Reader and author alike might have been better served if the book had been published as part of the Duckworth Debates in Archaeology series, which seems to be a platform for getting progressive monographs about defined topics out at a reasonable price (when in paperback at least – Susan Oosthuizen’s Tradition and Transformation in Anglo-Saxon England cost me a pretty penny in hardback but, when I finally got around to reading it properly, it proved very good value for money). Still, there may be a silver lining to its appearance as part of OUP’s Medieval History and Archaeology series. An increasing number of the titles in this series are now being republished in paperback at much more affordable prices (around the £20-25 mark). The combination of an exorbitant cover price and seriously poor copy-editing makes Perceptions of the Prehistoric a needlessly-frustrating proposition. Hopefully, some rigorous re-editing as part of a quick turnaround into a paperback volume will see the book become the benchmark account it deserves to be.


Baker, John, ‘Meeting in the Shadow of Heroes? Personal Names and the Socio-Political Background of Assembly Places’ in Power and Place in Later Roman and Early Medieval Europe, ed. by J. Carroll, A. Reynolds & B. Yorke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

Brookes, Stuart, ‘Review’, Medieval Archaeology, 58 (2014), 392-93

Copley, Gordon, An Archaeology of South-East England: A Study in Continuity (London: Phoenix House, 1958)

Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Semple, Sarah, ‘A fear of the past: The place of the burial mound in the ideology of middle and later Anglo-Saxon England’, World Archaeology, 30.1 (1998), 109-126

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s