Whoever coined the term ‘the Dark Ages’ must have been an archaeologist, because the literary record for the post-Roman period is far from sparse. Stuart Laycock (author of Britannia: the failed state, nominated for the Current Archaeology Book of the Year Award 2009) is one of a growing number of archaeologists who have begun to realise this and have, as a result, been raiding the territory of the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic departments to see what we can learn from Gildas, Beowulf, Bede, the Historia Brittonum, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ancient Welsh poetry and sub-Latin funerary inscriptions.
Largely studied in the past from a literary and linguistic point of view, the works of these writers have not been regarded as reliable enough as an account of the events and people they describe, but by marrying what they have to say about the petty kings of post-Roman Britain with the evidence from weapons, brooches and military belt fittings, Stuart Layock is able to paint a convincing picture of regional styles and territories in 5th and 6th century England, and even to flesh out the biographies of some 16 ‘warlords’ (the term favoured by Stuart comes from the recent conflicts in Bosnia and Kosova, which he witnessed as an aid worker and that have influenced his thinking on what happens when central authority breaks down), from Gerontius and Vortigern to the big one: the mighty Arthur, the archetypal defender of Britain against past and future evils.
Not that Stuart argues for these as historical figures: instead what he deduces from the literary accounts and the archaeology is some sense of the tribal boundaries and centres of power and authority in the post-Roman period: remarkably, he also demonstrates echoes and continuities between pre-Roman, post-Roman and Anglo-Saxon political geographies.
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