Review Duncan W Wright
The site of Yeavering, Northumberland, identified in 1949 and excavated with some precision by Brian Hope-Taylor, remains the most comprehensively excavated great hall complex in Britain, and justifiably takes pride of place in any research on the subject. Yet the importance of this site and its research history has somewhat dominated the subsequent investigations on early medieval palatial complexes, sometimes to the detriment of understanding other sites and landscapes.
Adam McBride seeks to rectify the imbalance in this study, which draws in a wide range of evidence for great halls and explores their role in the establishment and evolution of 6th- and 7th-century kingdoms. McBride is keen to show us the breadth and quality of the evidence available beyond the celebrated type-site, but also highlights how few detailed studies have been attempted, and as a result how some fundamental questions around great halls have yet to be answered. What were they for? Why were they built? And why were they abandoned? This book goes some way to providing solutions to all of these issues, built on a foundation of thorough and impressive research at a range of scales. After establishing a research agenda, the author guides the reader through the character and context of great halls and then explores their emergence and potential influences.
In the second part of the book, the Thames Valley is offered as a case-study of early kingdom formation, where the evidence from burial and settlements is dexterously interwoven to explore the growth of power structures over time. Given that this book is the product of a doctoral thesis there are some data-heavy sections, but the content is clearly and coherently articulated, and McBride reaches a number of interesting conclusions.
In summary, this is a most-welcome study for early medieval settlement research, painting a fascinating picture of the role of great hall complexes in kingdom formation. It shows the value of combining the evidence from both sites and wider landscapes, and demonstrates the importance of great halls in understanding social and political power from the early 6th century.