Rethinking the ‘migration period’

Did ‘the Anglo-Saxon migrations’ take place, and were Romano-British leaders replaced by those of Germanic descent? Susan Oosthuizen’s new book, The Emergence of the English, is a call to rethink our interpretations of the 5th and 6th centuries AD, reflecting on whether many of the assumptions we make about the period are actually supported by evidence. Interpretations that cannot be upheld should be discarded, she says, and all viable alternative interpretations should be explored for the strongest arguments to be identified. Chris Catling reports.

A circular pendant and gold and glass beads, coming from Grave 70 at Street House - a 7th-century cemetery near Loftus
Who were the Anglo-Saxons? This circular pendant and gold and glass beads come from Grave 70 at Street House – a 7th-century cemetery near Loftus (see CA 281). [Image: Steve Sherlock]

In the early 1970s, cherished ideas about the character of Roman Britain were systematically challenged by a generation of archaeologists who rejected the simple story they had inherited of armed conquest, rule from Rome, and the conversion of primitive Celts – dressed in nothing but woad and a torque – into Latin-speaking, bath-addicted, villa-dwelling Roman citizens who dined off Samian platters, drank watered-down wine, and ate food flavoured with fish sauce. Instead, they insisted that Romanisation began long before the Claudian invasion of AD 43, that it had many regional variations, and that it took many different forms over the 350-year period of Roman occupation. But they also argued that much of Britain lay outside the main sphere of Roman influence, and that life for many people in Roman Britain changed little from what they had known before – and, yes, they continued to drink beer.

The young Turks who set about challenging old paradigms did not, on the whole, follow this thinking through to the post-Roman period, however. A deep fault-line divides the study of Roman and early medieval archaeology, which is reflected in books on Roman Britain that frequently stop at AD 410 (with a ritual nod to a few outlying beacons of Romanitas, such as Wroxeter and Birdoswald). Judged by the norms of Romano-British archaeology, the post-Roman period looks like a catastrophe from which it took centuries to recover, and whose study is made frustratingly difficult because of this so-called ‘cliff edge’, after which we lack dateable mass-produced pottery and coinage.

Elaborate mosaics were added to Brading Roman villa on the Isle of Wight in the 4th century – but shortly afterwards, the complex appears to have been repurposed  as a place for drying and malting grain
Elaborate mosaics were added to Brading Roman villa on the Isle of Wight in the 4th century [Image: Barry Cunliffe]
Elaborate mosaics were added to Brading Roman villa on the Isle of Wight in the 4th century – but shortly afterwards, the complex appears to have been repurposed  as a place for drying and malting grain
The complex at Brading Roman villa appears to have been repurposed as a place for drying and malting grain shortly after the mosaics were added (CA 280). [Image: Barry Cunliffe]

The fact that so many of the fine mosaic-floored villa buildings are subdivided for multiple occupation or adapted for use as forges, barns, industrial workshops, and corn-dryers could be seen as evidence of the constructive reuse of redundant buildings. Instead, it is usually cited to show the depths to which post-Roman culture had declined by comparison with the ‘golden years’ when Britain shared in the Hellenic-influenced culture of the Roman world. Reviewing events across the Empire during this period, one recently published book summed up Britain in the post-Roman period in a sentence: invaded by Anglo-Saxons who slowly conquered more and more of Britain, displacing the native British population who retreated, defeated, into Wales.

Little by little, though, evidence has begun to accumulate to demonstrate that this is far from adequate as an account of the complexities of the period. Nobody who saw the outstanding Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library earlier this year (see CA 346) could continue to believe that Britain was cut off and isolated from mainstream late antique culture. Indeed, John Blair’s review of the abundance of new evidence from metal-detectorist finds and developer-funded archaeology in his book Building Anglo-Saxon England (CA 343) found no evidence for economic decline. Instead, he showed that eastern England had a thriving economy based on mass-produced commodities and trade with neighbours around the North Sea basin. He also teased out different regional patterns of agriculture, settlement, building type, and trade.

In the same vein, Susan Oosthuizen’s study The Anglo-Saxon Fenland (CA 332) argued that the carefully balanced systems of Fenland agriculture and the traditions of common-land management that are recorded in later medieval documents must represent continuity, evolution, and adaptation rather than upheaval, with no environmental evidence for the rewilding of the Fens from scrub and tree growth or from the neglect of drainage systems.

She went further and suggested that there is little evidence for the idea that Britain was a land of warring gang leaders, with proto-kings fighting each other for territory and supported by loyal kin and retainers. Although territorial names from the period do sometimes include personal names, most are based on topography and suggest that people identified not so much with a leader as with the land they inherited, inhabited, and cultivated, and over which they exercised individual and collective property rights. It looked to her as if most of Britain’s population, descended from earlier inhabitants, continued to farm the same landscapes in much the same ways as their ancestors had done over preceding centuries.

A rectangular post-built hall under excavation by Oxford Archaeology at Horcott Pit, Fairford, Gloucestershire. Early medieval buildings may have been more ephemeral than Roman ones, but they were not necessarily any less elaborate (CA 343). [Image: John Blair]

EVALUATING THE EVIDENCE

Susan Oosthuizen has now returned to the topic with a short but punchy polemic (The Emergence of the English), arguing that much of what we think we know about the Anglo-Saxon period is based on too many unfounded assumptions about the period – in particular that there was substantive north-west European immigration, that Germanic leaders replaced the late Romano-British elite, and that material culture and linguistic changes are necessarily evidence of either. To make progress in understanding this period, she argues, we need to re-evaluate these premises in order to establish their solidity. If they cannot be substantiated, they should be rejected. And if more than one interpretation of the evidence is possible, all should be tested in order to find the one that most robustly fits the available data.

Her alternative proposition is that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that 5th- and 6th-century Britain evolved through a process of adaptation and innovation from a late Roman base, not as a result of imported cultural practices imposed by Germanic elites on a subject people. Echoing ideas put forward by Neil Faulkner and James Gerrard, Susan argues that the withdrawal of Roman administration might initially have increased stability and have had beneficial effects, for instance, because of a reduction in the demand for tax. The widespread conversion of arable land into pasture that characterises this period is evidence of a shift from high-intensity to lower-intensity forms of agricultural production, with lower labour and capital costs – as well as a response to climate change. Farmers were able to retain a greater proportion of their own produce, and the elite were able to retain a greater proportion of the peasants’ surpluses because they themselves no longer had to render a share to the state.

There is evidence from documentary sources, too, for stability and continuity. St Patrick, born and brought up in Cumbria but kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a 16-year-old slave c.AD 406, describes his Latin-named father, Calpurnius, as a Roman citizen, owner of a villa estate, and a local aristocrat of some standing – in particular, as a decurion (a member of a Roman city council with important public responsibilities) and a deacon in the Christian church. Patrick was brought up speaking vernacular Latin, and identified Britain and Christianity as Roman; in contrast with the Irish, whom he deemed barbarians and pagans. His life does not suggest that he felt insecure or that his family needed to defend themselves or the region from attack. Indeed, his reminiscences took for granted the continuity of Romanised rural life in north-west Britain in the early to mid-5th century.

The supposed gravestone of St Patrick in Downpatrick, Ireland. He was born in Cumbria in the 5th century and his reminiscences of his upbringing took for granted the continuity of Romanised rural life in north-west Britain at this time [Image: August Schwerdfeger]

St Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, visited Britain in 429 and reported that ‘this very opulent island enjoyed peace with security on several fronts’, confirming St Patrick’s account. There is no hint of chaos or instability, no evidence for substantive invasion by Germanic warriors, nor for conquest from north-west Europe. Gildas, often quoted as the key source for the idea of a Britain in chaos, in fact describes the early 6th century as having a functioning legal system with courts and jails, an ecclesiastical hierarchy with clergy and bishops, and monastic houses with abbots and monks. Military command structures remained intact, and administration was still organised along Roman lines. What Gildas most disliked was the evidence he saw for new administrative, legal, social, religious, and political structures emerging and diverging from Roman norms, not the lack of such structures.

What these various narrative sources appear to show is that Romano-British institutions survived but were evolving, that the agricultural sector remained peaceful and productive, and that trade with the North Sea was growing in volume and importance. But there was also continuing close contact with the Mediterranean world and with the Church in Rome.

This reconstruction of a 10th-century house at the Weald and Downland Museum, Singleton, West Sussex, is based on timbers recovered from waterlogged deposits in London. The use of removal pegs to hold the structure together suggests these buildings were designed to be erected and disassembled for  ease of movement and transport: a sophisticated design.
This reconstruction of a 10th-century house at the Weald and Downland Museum, Singleton, West Sussex, is based on timbers recovered from waterlogged deposits in London. The use of removal pegs to hold the structure together suggests these buildings were designed to be erected and disassembled for ease of movement and transport: a sophisticated design. [Images: John Blair]

Susan reminds us, too, that ‘it would be surprising had there not been migration into (and out of) Britain at this period, since there has been a constant flow of people into and out of the islands since the last Ice Age.’ What remains unknown is whether more or fewer people moved to Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries, and whether the proportions of those arriving from north-west Europe changed. Ambiguous as the data can be, there is a growing archaeological consensus that the evidence from isotopic analysis and ancient and modern DNA is inconsistent with what one would expect from models of large-scale invasion or conquest. Additionally, assimilation of immigrants among existing communities is suggested by studies of isotopes in dental enamel from burials of the period. Incomers are only identifiable by these means: they are otherwise invisible – having been buried in the same orientation, with the same rites, and with the same kinds of grave goods as their neighbours, among whom they are intermingled.

ALTERNATIVES TO THE ANGLO-SAXONS

In light of this evidence, Susan suggests that the premise underlying many interpretations of the period – in particular that cultural change in post-Roman Britain was the consequence of Germanic immigration – now seems untenable, and she argues forcefully against the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to describe the period. First, because it lumps together the millions of people already living in Britain with the very much lower numbers of immigrants of diverse backgrounds – who came from North Africa, the Mediterranean, and all parts of Europe (not least from Ireland), and who cannot have brought with them one common culture or language. And second, because the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ unthinkingly imposes an interpretation on the data by assuming the dominant role of Germanic migration in the emergence of post-Roman Britain, contrasting native British populations with Germanic incomers. Instead of the period’s current tripartite division into early, middle, and late Anglo-Saxon, she suggests the adoption of such terms as ‘late antique’ (AD 400-650), ‘early medieval’ (AD 650-850), and ‘pre-Conquest’ (AD 850-1100).

Susan offers an alternative analysis based on the proposition that the stability of the agricultural economy depended on each household’s rights of private property over its farmland and its rights in shared natural resources (held in common and governed by a defined number of other households), such as open pasture and woodland. If there had been a hostile or violent transformative change in land ownership between the late 4th and late 8th centuries, you might expect that to be reflected in changes to the agricultural landscape, such as the overwriting of existing field layouts with new fieldscapes, cutting across the grain of the older systems. Without assimilation or integration, old and new might appear as two different morphological forms side by side. Could incomers simply take over from existing owners, adopting their homesteads and field systems wholesale? That would require an almost instantaneous transfer to strangers – who probably spoke a different language – of boundaries defining property rights and the subtle knowledge of the locality necessary to manage soils, topography, drainage, and access for successful pastoral or arable farming.

Map - the rights of common in the medieval East Anglian fenland preserve 5th- and 6th-century territories of communities or ‘folk’, in which a number of contiguous ‘vills’ shared an exclusive area of fen grazing. The head of each pin shows the location of a settlement, and the sharp end marks the fens in which its men could graze their animals. The names of these polities were recorded by the mid- to late 7th century.
Rights of common in the medieval East Anglian fenland preserve 5th- and 6th-century territories of communities or ‘folk’, in which a number of contiguous ‘vills’ shared an exclusive area of fen grazing. The head of each pin shows the location of a settlement, and the sharp end marks the fens in which its men could graze their animals. The names of these polities were recorded by the mid- to late 7th century. [Image: Susan Oosthuizen]

In fact, although there was some abandonment of land, the persistence of prehistoric and Romano-British field layouts and boundaries into and beyond the 5th century was the norm rather than the exception. The remarkable continuity in many places between the 5th and the 17th centuries in ecology and in patterns of common rights suggests that most political change across the post-Roman centuries was either short-lived or adaptive and evolutionary, not revolutionary or transformative. There is little evidence of landscape restructuring or of Romano-British communities being reduced to servile status by a new Germanic elite. Instead, most households lived in the same kind of houses as their neighbours, used the same kind of goods, and farmed the same patterns of fields in the same sorts of ways.

No matter what the political conditions, the day-to-day preoccupation of most people throughout history has had to be focused on generating a sufficient volume of food and other goods to support their households from one day to the next. Leaders and territorial names come and go, but farming and food production depend on persistence and repetition as well as the ability to reproduce the same crops over and over again. Interruption could be catastrophic – a household that neglects to plough, sow, and harvest, as well as manage its flocks and herds, might not survive to try again next year. Life depended on stability and long-term maintenance of the environment.

Over 1,500 fragments from the Staffordshire Hoard come from a 7th-century helmet, which was recently reconstructed (CA 349). the original is thought to have been inspired by roman military headgear. [Image: David Rowan/ Birmingham Museums Trust

BROOCHES AND BROKEN ENGLISH

The material culture of the period is often described as northern European, in contrast to the Mediterranean influence evident in Roman Britain. Yet brooches that we describe as ‘Germanic’ can be seen in museums all over the former Roman Empire – indeed, even in Rome itself. The style has a much wider distribution than the term implies. Recent research – for example, by Toby Martin – has demonstrated that brooches that look Germanic may have been imported initially, but became increasingly popular and were then reproduced by local craftsmen, evolving over the 6th and 7th centuries into better designed and more complicated insular forms that were worn across England: an index of regional taste and fashion, not of immigrant ethnicity.

Also frequently quoted as evidence of domination by migrants rather than assimilation is the emergence of the English language. Models to explain this have so far depended on the idea that Old English was imposed by ruling Germanic elites, that speaking Old English was a basic requirement for career progression, and that Old English speakers enjoyed a privileged position under the law. Not only is there no evidence to support such models, but there was no group of people – dominant or otherwise – who brought English to Britain as a ready-formed language. Unlike the close-knit group of Normans who conquered England in 1066 and who all spoke the same language, the 5th- to 7th- century migrants spoke many different languages and dialects.

Anglo-Saxon’ artistry from a 7th-century bed burial. This shield-shaped garnet pendant is from the Street House cemetery
Anglo-Saxon’ artistry from a 7th-century bed burial. This shield-shaped garnet pendant is from the Street House cemetery (CA 281) [Image: Steve Sherlock]

Bede lists the languages spoken in early 8th-century Britain as Old English, British Celtic, Irish, Pictish, classical Church Latin, and vernacular spoken Latin. He assumes that many people could speak two or three languages, and notes that almost everyone could speak vernacular Latin (something that is borne out by the fact that there are more Latin elements in English place-names and more Latin loanwords in English than from any other source). English may have developed as an insular language through an amalgam of several languages and dialects with a syntax that is partly Germanic, partly British, and a vocabulary that readily borrows words from all the languages spoken by the people of Britain at this time. Increasingly, linguists are characterising English as a contact language – emerging from the interaction of different languages – rather than the imposed language of a dominant class.

INTERPRETING IKEA

To understand this period better, Susan Oosthuizen argues for an approach that distinguishes between historical processes that took place over the short-, medium-, and long-term, and the complex intersections between the three (see the figure below).

This image depicts C. S. Holling’s model of environmental resilience adapted for interpreting change in post-Roman England. It shows how the interaction of continuities and long-term changes with faster events is seen as new social and cultural expressions
This image depicts C. S. Holling’s model of environmental resilience adapted for interpreting change in post-Roman England. It shows how the interaction of continuities and long-term changes with faster events is seen as new social and cultural expressions

Fast changes – some with temporary effects, others with medium- or longer-term consequences – might include the withdrawal of the Roman administration and army, the Justinian plagues, and attacks from Picts, Scots, and ‘Saxons’. Meanwhile, change across the medium term is most visible in the evolution of Romano-British institutions (such as the judiciary, army, and church), in the languages of Roman Britain, and in the conversion of arable land into pasture in the face of climatic decline and changing economic demand.

Slow adaptation to new conditions might be represented by the agricultural economy, by traditions of common property rights in woodland, pasture, and other natural resources, by their collective governance, and by the social relations both imply. Assumptions of what it meant to be ‘Roman’, and traditions of craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibility, may also have been transformed slowly.

This map demonstrates how the North Sea and the rivers that flow into it form a region encouraging water-borne contact between Scandinavia, Germany, Denmark, and the Low Countries. The dots represent the locations of IKEA stores in England in 2018. Without documentary evidence, the distribution of the stores, and the dissemination around them of their goods, might be interpreted as evidence of Swedish colonisation of late 20th- and early 21st-century Britain; and the concentration of goods in the stores as central places designed to state and preserve the immigrants’ Swedish identity.

In this, Susan’s book offers the possibility of rethinking the history of the post-Roman period and our understanding of the emergence of the English – an approach that is not based on the assumption that change comes from outside and is imposed. One image in the publication sums up the weakness of the contrary argument with wry humour. A map of the distribution of IKEA stores close to English rivers with access to the North Sea could lead future archaeologists to conclude that Britain was colonised by Sweden during the late 20th century. Will they see the popularity of IKEA goods in British homes as evidence of colonisation, and will they conclude that the 100,000 Swedes living in London in 2018 arrived as a consequence of their employment by IKEA?

Further reading
Susan Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English, Arc Humanities Press, ISBN 978-1641891271, £16.95.

This article appeared in issue 355 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

One Comment

  1. Jonathan Dore
    September 27, 2019 @ 10:37 pm

    IKEA: hmm. Well, if in two thousand years time people are able to say that the emergence of IKEA stores in England coincided with the beginning of a two-hundred year period at the end of which the entire population of lowland Britain was speaking Swedish, with English speakers pushed into the western highlands, they might actually have a point. If they could further show that there was almost no linguistic interchange of vocabulary between the two groups, that might seem to reinforce it. And if those Swedish speakers had left a literary legacy that described their migration from Scandinavia and their struggles to establish kingdoms in Britain, that would pretty much clinch it. But if in two thousand years time everyone was still speaking English, they’d probably conclude that the English had simply developed a taste for Swedish furniture, i.e. they’d probably have enough sense to interpret the evidence correctly.

    What makes me more than a little suspicious of all variants of the language-adoption-by-acculturation thesis is the absence of a single historically confirmed example (i.e. one that took place in a period with adequate historical records to judge). In every other case, language replacement happens only in two situations: 1) Where an incoming group establishes a language community themselves by arriving in sufficient numbers that they eventually overwhelm the previous language groups (i.e. either push them away, kill them deliberately, or introduce environmental factors that cause their deaths); some of the rump original population end up speaking the new language, but it’s essentially a population replacement. Examples: the English in New England, the British in Australia and New Zealand, the French in New France. 2) Where an incoming group is smaller in number but decisively more powerful, and is able to impose a framework of administration and control that allows them to impose their language, whether through an education system or through language laws that prohibit use of the native language. Examples: the English at various times in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Note that even in the most extreme and long-lasting example of mode 2, that of Ireland, replacement was not fully achieved even after 750 years of trying. And note also that where the imbalance of numbers between the incomers and natives is sufficiently great, the incomers don’t even try, e.g. the Romans in Britain, the Normans in England, the British in India and West Africa etc. Instead, the incomers’ language simply becomes a lingua franca that sits alongside the original language without ever replacing it because, while there is vocabulary interchange, the rulers’ language is never adopted as a native language. Only a vanishingly tiny proportion of the hundreds of millions of speakers of English today in India, for instance, could be said to be speaking it as a native language. For the rest, it is not what their parents spoke to them at home as a child, and it’s not what they speak at home to their children.

    In Britain in the 5th-7th centuries the paucity of historical sources doesn’t allow us to be so clear, but what’s very obvious is that the emergent English kingdoms had nothing like the kind of organizational infrastructure in that period to impose their language on a native population through an education system or the workings of a government administration — even to state the condition is to realize how far-fetched it is. Yet nothing short of that would have achieved the job. So what we’re left with is something that is clearly much swifter and more fundamental — some variant of mode 1.

    The various attempts that have been made, in the face of this conclusion, to imagine that most of lowland Britain was *already* speaking some form of Germanic language, long before any historical reference to such a migration, is clearly a post-hoc rationalization in a desperate attempt to preserve a theory that, in any other circumstances, would be considered wildly fanciful.

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