Update – the problems with (and benefits of) ahistorical archaeology

Having swapped my medieval reading from crowded London buses to sunny lunchtimes sat in the square outside my office (so that was what a proper summer feels like), I finished Richard Hodges’ Dark Age Economics: A New Audit, an important book I’ve made reference to in one or two previous posts/pages. In time I will get around to offering a full assessment of the book under my neglected Reviews tab. For now, having been especially quick in devouring the penultimate chapter on the maritime emporia of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, there are a couple of significant observations I would like to make.

Letting the archaeology speak for itself

At the heart of the original Dark Age Economics (which I’ve started going through) was a pioneering reading of the emporia as a homogenous class of urban centres sitting at the top of the economic tree and dominating trade and exchange within kingdoms/regions. In the years since 1982, when DAE was first published, scholarship has directly or indirectly challenged this interpretation and Hodges is admirably willing to concede where he was wrong and modify his models accordingly. Certainly, A New Audit embodies his recognition that there was a much greater degree of complexity than admitted originally, both between the emporia and beyond them. But Hodges does more than just dwell upon past mistakes. He ends the chapter by looking to the future and outlining a sort of research agenda for the study of the emporia (or perhaps their place “in dendritically arranged regional economies”) which culminates with the following contention (Hodges 2012, 115):

“A more detailed appreciation of the combined archaeological chronologies, free of any historical determinism, is now needed.”

What struck me about the above was how it stands in sharp contrast to the situation in regards to “productive sites”, whose prodigious material archaeology and the leveraging of some very refined art-historical and numismatic knowledge to date and interpret them has yet to be matched by concomitant attempts to analyse their historical (or crypto-historical) and onomastic contexts.

This is exemplified by the approach of Gareth Davies, who, in an excellent article published in 2010, appraised a number of what had been/could be dubbed “productive sites” in west Norfolk. It builds upon the good work to be found in A. R. J. Hutcheson’s 2006 article that I’ve linked to more than once before, and more to the point the contributions of Andrew Rogerson and Tim Pestell to 2003’s Markets in Early Medieval Europe. Davies provides a valuable corrective to the notion, found in or else inferred by many of the early works on the subject of “productive sites”, that they all represent market/fair sites of uncertain ownership and relationship to contemporary settlements – more often than not, he finds that they were settlements. Equally, it also mollifies the objections raised by Julian D. Richards in an oft-cited 1999 essay, especially memorable for the following parting shot (Richards 1999, 79):

“So, in conclusion, there is nothing special about ‘productive sites’, other than the way in which they have been discovered. The term is meaningless and should be abandoned.”

(I’ll admit to deriving a modicum of schadenfreude from Richards’ more recent appearance as the co-author of a paper in which the term “productive site” is used without qualification in both the title and textplus ça change etc…). Davies may not be the first to make the case for seeing “productive sites” as a rather limiting catch-all term that serves to mask a diverse collection of settlements and other foci of activity, but he does so in a particularly compelling fashion. His reading of the various forms of archaeological evidence is sharp and often innovative, proving the worth of taking a much broader chronological view of the material evidence as a means of constructing biographies of the sites in question – and that’s before adding things like geophysics to the equation. To take one of his quintet of case studies, Sedgeford (subject of an enviably well-organised archaeological research project which puts what I have done thus far in Puttenham to shame), he postulates from a combination of excavation data and the profile of its portable antiquities that it went from being a middle Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical centre to a later secular centre (Davies 2010, 114-16).

Reconsidering a Surrey site – Henley Park

This much more hands-on approach is certainly something that would be worth doing in regards to a number of Surrey’s “productive places”, such as Milton Court and Ewell. In fact, it’s made me contemplate in such terms another Chertsey-linked site, Henley Park (whose later incarnation as a royal manor is at the heart of an excellent new book – I hope to find the time to write a review-cum-response to this in the coming months). I had it pegged as being “productive” in the mid-Anglo-Saxon period – in a decidedly modest Surrey way, I should stress – on the basis of the PAS database showing it to have yielded one “proto-penny” (SUR-0DEAF6) and three pins (SUR-E5D8F1, SUR-84CA90 x 2). However, add three eleventh-century stirrup-strap mounts (SUR-2CCB37, SUR-E5C1E7, SUR-454785) and a strap end of the same date (SUR-852125) into the mix and arguably we have the material with which to sketch out a narrative stretching through to the late 1000s, one that can then be compared with the limited historical material available.

The coin and pins are in the grand scheme of things a fairly humdrum collection that are not diagnostic of a particular function – it could even be said that it’s asking a lot of them to interpret them as testifiers to an eighth/ninth-century settlement (though if you ask me that’s the most credible explanation – cf. Davies 2010, 104, for comment on coins as a minority component of metal artefact assemblages from settlement sites). They could, however, be contemporary with Henley’s early possession by Chertsey; it is a fixture in the run of usual suspect charters, the earliest of which by purported date is of 727 (though objectively speaking this dating is more or less meaningless). Chertsey-owned or reputedly-owned estates do account for a proportionally greater percentage of “proto-penny” losses/finds from Surrey than they ought, even when Lambeth is taken out of the equation but ultimately there is no hard and fast rule that can be advanced here.

Bird-on-cross "proto-penny" from Henley, Surrey (PAS Unique ID SUR-0DEAF6)

Bird-on-cross “proto-penny” from Henley Park, Surrey (PAS Unique ID SUR-0DEAF6)

Following Davies and his analysis of Sedgeford, the assemblage of horse equipment is best read as representing the vestiges of a late Anglo-Saxon secular elite. Here, when we turn to the documentary sources for a possible explanation, we are on firmer ground. The later, independent (I hesitate to lay my cards on the table and say reliable) voice of Domesday Book records a recently-changed situation whereby its Conquest-spanning owner, the reasonably-important Azur of Slindon (who I discussed briefly in my essay on land tenure types in Woking Hundred), promised it to Chertsey upon his death. If Azur is anything to go by, those who owned the estate prior to its acquisition by Chertsey were of sufficient social status as to engage in horse-based hunting activity (cf. Davies 2010, 116). However, in a short article on a small collection of mid to late Anglo-Saxon metal items from Hamsey in Sussex, Gabor Thomas observed the two pieces of horse furniture may stem from equine ownership among “lesser thegns and perhaps the ‘economically superior’ members of the peasant aristocracy” (Thomas 2001, 126-27), in other words men of lower social status than Azur. One further piece of relevance is the meaning of the place-name, the “high open woodland”, which connotes good hunting ground. Thus it is a small leap to make to suppose that those who held Henley may have pursued hunting (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) as activity hereabouts.

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf/dog/bear? Zoomorphic stirrup-strap mount from Henley Park, Surrey (PAS Unique ID SUR-454785)

No place for place-names?

This, then, leads sweetly into my main reservation about Davies’ study and for that matter the other key studies on western Norfolk. While I do not deny for a second that it is important demonstration of what is possible – indeed, how “productive sites” should be assessed and conceptualised in archaeological terms – it does vex me how little historical and place-name evidence is cited in conjunction with the archaeological data. I fully appreciate that Davies wanted the material evidence to speak for itself (much as Hodges wants to happen for the emporia) but to fail to so much as mention factors such as the meaning of the place-names in question – especially those where there is a very close relationship between the early medieval and present settlements – does seem to be a needlessly limiting decision (compare with Thomas 2001, 127, for a paragraph-length consideration of the place-name Hamsey). I believe there is mileage in looking more carefully at the names of examples of some of the “productive sites” in Norfolk which have been appraised in the above-mentioned pieces over the past decade as a way of improving comprehension of them.

Burnham, Congham, Rudham, and Old English hām

According to the place-name dictionary I have to hand, three of the five places examined by Davies (and the others before him) are known by names containing Old English hām: Burnham, Congham, Rudham (CDEPN, 101-102, 155 and 512 respectively). Names with such an ending are not uncommon in Norfolk (I choose to follow the opinion of the CDEPN editors here rather than raise the spectre of one or all of the names containing Old English hamm), but for over half of places under discussion to be among them suggests a possible shared characteristic worthy of investigation. Neither Hutcheson or Rogerson refers to place-name composition/meaning; Pestell (2003, 127) at least notes of Burnham that “its name includes the early -ham place-name ending” and contends that this may correlate with other indices of its “early importance”. Curiously, he does not advance the same suggestion for Congham or Rudham (nor Hindringham and Walsingham, other places he pegs as “productive”), intimating that he attaches comparatively little weight to the onomastic evidence.

It’s informative to compare the interpretations of the hām-named “productive sites” proffered in 2003 with those advanced by Davies several years later. Rogerson calls Rudham and Congham “permanent settlements” (2003, 121) but refrains from speculating on their function. Pestell goes further; he sees ecclesiastical roots to Burnham and perhaps Rudham but not Congham (2003, 135). Davies, by contrast, does not posit an ecclesiastical interpretation of any element of the three places’ respective artefactual assemblages, which might invite the cautious postulation that the term had a secular application. However, reference to John Newman’s paper on the extraordinarily rich East Anglian “productive sites” of Barham and Coddenham in Suffolk (both considered hām-names in CDEPN, 35 and 148 respectively) reveals the former “may have belonged to the Church or a powerful local family in the Mid Anglo-Saxon period” while the latter would certainly make sense as a minster site (Newman 2003, 106-108). Unfortunately, the diversity of their archaeological profiles cautions against making a suggestion that hām = a particular sort of settlement. How should we handle this? As an inevitable product of non-comprehensive bodies of evidence assembled in divergent fashions? The consequence of the biased, personalised interpretative frameworks through which the above-mentioned authors have analysed the material? Or proof that hām is neither contemporary with nor later than the material archaeology, but earlier?

Wormengay and Old English ēg

The situation when it comes to Wormengay is more clear-cut. The name contains the personal-name Wyrm (or *Wyrma) and the topographical ēg, most simply translated as “island” (CDEPN, 701). This fits perfectly with Wormengay’s characterisation as an island by Rogerson (2003, 119) and Davies (2010, 109). It reminds me of an email discussion I had with someone a few years back regarding the meaning of ēg and whether the element was used solely in a topographical sense or if it had an applied meaning of “(ecclesiastical) island (community)”. There are no shortage of instances that could be used to support the hypothesis: Bawsey in Norfolk, Muchelney in Somerset, Chertsey and Bermondsey in Surrey – I could go on. However, not every landscape feature designated as an ēg in Old English was the site of a monastery or other Church-linked foundation (such as St Cuthbert’s retreat on Inner Farne Island) and the numerous coincides seem to embody the preference for island or island-like locations, but not to the total exclusion of other types of setting.

West Walton – sea wall or slaves?

The final place-name I wish to assess here is West Walton, a site discussed by Rogerson (2003, 118-19) and Pestell (2003, 124) but not by Davies. Archaeologically, one of its most interesting facets is that, as of circa 2003, no early Anglo-Saxon material was known from the site. The name is interpreted in place-name dictionaries as meaning “west wall-tūn“, supposedly in reference to “the Roman sea-wall here” (CDEPN, 649). However, if this is equivalent to The Sea Bank, the later Anglo-Saxon sea defence earthwork noted by Rogerson (2003, 118), then it post-dates the period in which substantial amounts of coinage and other material were being brought to West Walton. Furthermore, thirteenth-century philological evidence for West Walton and its eastern namesake (Westwaletone 1254, Est Waleton 1252) exhibit the medial -e- necessary for the qualifying term to be w(e)ala as an alternative to Old English wall, “wall”.

One solution to this would be to focus on the Middle Anglo-Saxon centuries as a means of explaining the place-name. The metalwork would suggest an economic zenith in the eighth century and a movement towards dispersed settlement in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Pestell (2003, 124) highlights the proximity of West Walton to Wisbech, a valuable property that was given to the monastery at Ely circa 1016. This made me think of S 1481e, the still little-known list of slaves associated with the major Ely estate of Hatfield, several of whom lived and worked at Wealadene, what is now St Paul’s Walden in Hertfordshire (see CDEPN, 644). I have argued in my essay on weala place-names in Surrey that the combination of evidence in this case supports the translation of weala as “slaves” in the case of St Paul’s Walden, and extend this to most place-names in Surrey containing the term. Even without any evidence for association with Ely, West Walton may be a further example of a “slave(s) tūn“, seemingly (and one might say appropriately) without metallic material testimony, perhaps connected to a ninth/tenth-century estate centre at Wisbech and established to abet the drainage of the land to open it up for settlement and agriculture. This is not incompatible with the previous, more esteemed function of the main settlement focus in the eighth century (possibly linked to livestock production and distribution – see Rogerson 2003, 121), rather it points to a subsequent major reordering of the wider settlement hierarchy and associated land uses along the lower Nene valley – note Pestell’s (2003, 137) suggestion that mercantile activity ceased because of the silting or redirection of the river channel. On the other hand, this hypothesis does require the eighth-century trade-linked settlement to have been known by a different name.

So, what was a “productive site”?

Recently-published essays by Ulmschneider (2010) and Pestell (2011) have used the term “productive site” but, beyond a mutual acceptance that there is no one-size-fits-all explanation, neither sought to go into any great depth as to what such a thing might have actually been, let alone seek to codify the possibilities in the manner of Hodges’ ABC typology for emporia (see Pestell 2011, 560). It is for this reason that Davies’ study is to be commended for going beyond the superficial and really striking at the heart of what “productive sites” represent. Pestell’s 2003 essay, meanwhile, concludes in a fashion that on one level ties in very nicely with my Mercian market model. Add them together and it certainly suggests that we should be looking at ecclesiastical institutions as the primary agents or at least key components of the archaeological patterning but not that “productive sites” are (all) market sites – in many cases we could be looking instead at hitherto-elusive estate centres of various statuses and tenures. Combined, the studies can act as something greater than the sum of their parts. However, were they to give due consideration to the relevant place-name evidence as being capable of shedding further light on the circumstances of the “productive sites”, then they would truly realise their potential…

The key lesson I have learnt from this recent batch of (re)reading is that the “productive sites” of the sort found so far in Surrey are much more likely to represent settlements serving a particular purpose or purposes than uninhabited places where markets or fairs were held periodically. This idea is not new, rather something I should have taken on board and accorded parity with the mercantile explanations for the masses of coins and other contemporary artefacts from the likes of “near Royston” and “near Carisbrooke” (for a market-heavy appraisal of the latter, see Ulmschneider 2003). I am happy to admit that, as I feared at the time, my title of ‘Mercian markets at minor minsters’ study is a tad too prescriptive and that the most regular function of Surrey’s later eighth-century “productive places” was probably as toll/tax collection centres which need not have taken place at the time of associated markets/fairs (see the excellent discussion of this theme in Naylor 2004).

Lambeth and its fellow Thames-side hyths of Putney and Rotherhithe by their very names had a riparian aspect not shared by the likes of their downland contemporaries (e.g. West Clandon, East Ewell, Stratton/Godstone) but this should not immediately blind us to the idea that they were engaged in similar “rural” activities, as has been suggested for the excavated settlement at Battersea. In a recent post, I once again highlighted Lambeth’s richness in coinage, something at-present unmatched in Surrey (though the combined assemblage of coins found in the two programmes of excavations on the site of Bermondsey Abbey is likely to run it close – more about this as and when I receive the information). The corollary to this is its lack of any recorded metal or non-metal objects contemporary with the numismatics, in contrast to Putney (e.g. LON-1F1122) and Rotherhithe (LON-A1A407). This may be no more than a quirk in what has been found and/or recorded at Lambeth and the greater number of characteristics it shares with its semi-namesakes still sustain contemplation of whether each was the trading outlet of an important (monastic) institution.

The “inland” sites listed in parentheses above do not share comparable topographical situations or (so far as we can tell) place-name elements. By taking a broader view of the early medieval archaeology of the sites and their environs – another excellent aspect of Davies’ article but something I have been guilty of not doing in my own research thus far – we can begin to discern that they were places of above-average material wealth, which leads to the conclusion that they must have been of local centrality (for an overview of Ewell’s particularly rich evidence, see here). Although the interpretation of the material evidence as attesting to settlements should be given primacy, this is not to dismiss completely the notion that transactions could have been made in or close by them, maybe even in the context of occasional fairs or market-like events. In turn, a hierarchy of “productive places” might be suggested, with the likes of Henley Park as lesser centres of proto-manorial status, linked to long-distance trade but less likely to be the site of concentrated mercantile activity.

One of the key issues for the Anglo-Saxon period identified in the Surrey Archaeological Research Framework was the dearth of evidence for Middle Anglo-Saxon settlements (Bird 2006, 51). With the material reported through the Portable Antiquities Scheme and recorded in other sources, we may be starting to identify the approximate locations of a few such settlements. The next step will be to devise carefully-designed, site-specific research strategies to provide the requisite confirmation, adopting an approach that lets the archaeology speak for itself in the first instance but can then be integrated with the relevant historical and onomastic data to provide a more rounded evaluation of the evidence.

REFERENCES (hyperlinked if available for free online)

Bird, David, Surrey Archaeological Research Framework 2006 (Kingston upon Thames & Guildford: Surrey County Council & Surrey Archaeological Society, 2006)

Davies, Gareth, ‘Early Medieval “Rural Centres” and West Norfolk: A Growing Picture of Diversity, Complexity and Changing Lifestyles’, Medieval Archaeology, 54 (2010), 89-121

Hodges, Richard, Dark Age Economics: A New Audit (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012)

Naylor, John, An Archaeology of Trade in Middle Saxon England, BAR British Series, 376 (Oxford: BAR, 2004)

Newman, John, ‘Exceptional Finds, Exceptional Sites? Barham and Coddenham, Suffolk’ in Markets in Early Medieval Europe: Trading and ‘Productive’ Sites, 650-850, ed. by Tim Pestell & Katharina Ulmschneider (Macclesfield: Windgather, 2003), 97-109

Pestell, Tim, ‘The Afterlife of “Productive” Sites in East Anglia’ in Pestell & Ulmschneider 2003, 122-37

Pestell, Tim, ‘Markets, Emporia, Wics, and “Productive” Sites: Pre-Viking Trade Centres in Anglo-Saxon England’ in The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, ed. by Helena Hamerow, David A. Hinton & Sally Crawford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 556-79

Richards, Julian D., ‘What’s so special about “productive sites”? Middle Saxon settlements in Northumbria’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 10 (1999), 71-80

Rogerson, Andrew, ‘Six Middle Anglo-Saxon Sites in West Norfolk’ in Pestell & Ulmschneider 2003, 110-21

Thomas, Gabor, ‘Hamsey near Lewes, East Sussex: the implications of recent finds of Late Anglo-Saxon metalwork for its importance in the pre-Conquest period’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 139 (2001), 121-32

Ulmschneider, Katharina, ‘Markets Around the Solent: Unravelling a “Productive” Site on the Isle of Wight’ in in Pestell & Ulmschneider 2003, 73-83

Ulmschneider, Katharina, ‘More Markets, Minsters, and Metal-Detector Finds: Middle Saxon Hampshire a Decade On’ in Intersections: The Archaeology and History of Christianity in England, 400-1200. Papers in Honour of Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjbye-Biddle, BAR British Series, 505 (Oxford: BAR, 2010), 87-98

Watts, Victor, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names [CDEPN] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

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