Just a bit of fun... Reconstructed Anglo-Saxon face from a skull excavated in Sussex V myself.
Just a bit of fun... Reconstructed Anglo-Saxon face from a skull excavated in Sussex V myself.
I really don't write this blog for anyone but myself. I don't think that many people other than myself bother to read it. When I launched this blog a few years ago, I launched it with that intention. Somewhere to place my thoughts and interests, and just lately, with my hikes through the East Anglian countryside, I've had plenty of time to clear the cobwebs, and think.
This morning, I felt like making a post, and felt inspired to put down my latest thoughts on the recent paper "The Beaker Phenomenon and the genomic transformation of Northwest Europe" by Olalde etal (link). I was thinking of comparing it's conclusion of a massive replacement of human genomes across the British Isles at the end of the Neolithic, with the much later Anglo-Saxon immigration event across Southeast Britain. Then while cooking breakfast, I had a little look across Youtube for inspiration. I found it, which then lead onto another video. However, the Tuber was using the evidence to subtly make a case for his Englishness, his embrace of Anglo-Saxon culture, belief systems, and heritage, his link to a patriarchal warrior based Indo-European society. It had an undertone. He was selectively using evidence to support his underlying narrative. At one point, a grin when he quoted a paper as promoting a particularly "healthy" genome. References to a "Liberal Left Media" and a hostile Left Wing cemented the bias.
There's nothing wrong with being passionate about your ancestry, your roots. Nothing wrong with celebrating your identity. It all goes tits up, when people start to regard their identity as somehow any better than anyone else's. Nothing wrong with being white, black, green or purple polka dot. But supremacy, a belief in that "what you are" makes you better than others. There's plenty that's unsavoury about that illness. Paranoia that Lefties and the political correctness are out to get you, All of these attacks on the "Liberal Lefties". What's all that about?
I'm pretty clearly very, very interested in ancestry, and in the past. I've got no problem with anyone else being interested in their past, or our collective past. My ancestry is no more important than that of another time traveller that for example, might have a mixture of ancestries from Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Poland. Yeah, my politics are liberal left. I look for bridges in population genetics, rather than trying to create narratives that build walls to fight over - that's my bias, and we all have bias. When will some dudes, those that usually need to look for some sort of uniform, and a golden past, stop putting words into the mouths of us "left wingers". There is nothing wrong with celebrating your heritage and culture - what ever it is. Plenty wrong with thinking that it makes you better than others.
A recent purchase in a Norwich shop, was a used book: The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries of Caistor-by-Norwich and Markshall Norfolk by J.N.L Myres and Barbara Green. The Society of Antiquities. 1973. Caistor-by-Norwich, or as it is also known, Caistor-St Edmund, is located close to the confluence of the River Tas with the River Yare, in East Norfolk. The Anglo-Saxon cremation urn cemetery there, was built outside of the walls of Venta Icenorum, a Romano-British town. The book's authors suggest that the cemetery belonged to Anglo-Saxon mercenary soldiers, that were employed to defend the town, and their families that they brought over. This fits the context of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, as proposed by traditionalist historians that support the accounts made in later centuries by Gildas and by Bede. In this context, these finds could be suggested to have belonged to the very first East Anglians
I could wax on about it's extensive finds catalogue, and illustrations:
But instead, I'm going to copy here, a passage from the above book that I read this morning, after recieving an email from Stephen Arbon, concerning the Anglo-Saxon settlement of East Anglia.
"The suggested reorganization of the town defences in the third century implies a community still sufficiently large and viable to warrant such an expense. The enclosure of some 35 acres must indicate that this area was thought worth defending. Until the whole system is securely dated uncertainty must remain. But the existence of external bastions does indicate that the defences were probably improved in the later part of the fourth century. Further evidence for the existence of an adequate defensive system at the time comes from the forum and Building 4. Five pieces of military equipment of the type associated with barbarian troops of this period have been found on these two sites, while a sixth was included in a nineteenth century collection. All are late fourth - or early fifth century types and indicate the presence of a military force stationed in or near the town at this time. A bone sword guard was picked up after ploughing in 1969 in the area of the Baths. This too can perhaps be associated with the users of the metal objects. By this time also, if the dating here suggested for the earliest barbarian burials in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery is correct, Germanic folk were already cremating their dead only some 400 yards outside the east gate of Venta.
It may also be significant in this context to note that a number of pieces of so-called 'Romano-Saxon' pottery have been recorded from the Roman town. One such, unstratified, has already been published; three others are here illustrated on fig. 70. Pottery of this kind has been held to indicate the impact of Germanic decorative taste on ceramic fashions in the later days of Roman Britain. It certainly displays motifs that were popular beyond the Roman frontiers at this time; where datable, it occurs mostly in late fourth-century contexts, and its distribution lies mainly in those eastern parts of Britain where the barbarian influence was likely to be felt at the earliest date. The presence of this hybrid pottery is another piece of evidence for the cultural conditions prevailing at Venta in its final phase.
Caistor is in fact one of the few Roman towns in Britain where Romano-Saxon pottery, late Roman military equipment, and early Germanic cremation cemeteries have all been found in close association. The relationship between the soldiery to whom the military equipment found in the town belonged and the folk whose cremated remains were buried outside the walls is difficult to determine. It is most natural to suppose that these finds represent two aspects of the same phenomenon, a body of Germanic mercenaries who in life defended the walls in their final form and in death were buried, in accordance with continuing Roman practice, outside. If as is suggested by the presence of beads in some of the earliest urns, they had their families with them, they too would have been settled somewhere close at hand. It may be objected that barbarian irregulars in Roman, or sub-Roman employment would be unlikely to cremate their dead with such persistence as the earliest users of the cemetery appear to have done. It is true that most cemeteries of Germanic troops that have been recognized in Roman frontier areas on the Continent consist of inhumations, and the well known Dorchester burials are a similar instance in this country. But it has to be remembered that most of the continental laeti in northern Gaul came of Frankish stock or from related German tribes beyond the Rhine who had long been familiar with Roman ways, while the Angles and Saxons who first settled at Caistor came from regions much further afield in north Germany and southern Scandinavia on which Roman civilization had made little cultural impact. And, while it is true that no objects of Roman uniform equipment have been recognized in our cremation urns, such instances have been recorded in north German cremation cemeteries, indicating no doubt that individual Saxons who had served in Roman irregular units did sometimes return home to die and be cremated in accordance with their own ancestral customs. At Caistor and elsewhere in eastern England such folk had fewer opportunities to return home to the Continent: they had come here to stay, and they continued to cremate their dead in their new homeland, unaffected by Romano-British habits, for which, in any case, they probably had some contempt.The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries of Caistor-by-Norwich and Markshall Norfolk by J.N.L Myres and Barbara Green. The Society of Antiquities. 1973.
A surviving stretch of Venta's wall at Caistor St Edmund.
An information board at the site of the old Roman town.
Drawing of Romano-British potsherds from a site that I recorded in Thetford Forest many years ago. The bottom left sherd is of the type known as Romano-Saxon pottery.
In conclusion, I'm not prepared to take sides on this one. we know that some very early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries surround the old Roman town of Venta Icenorum in Norfolk. We still don't know with any degree of certainty what was the relationship between the town and these cemeteries. Another Anglo-Saxon cemetery has been found close to the walls of the Roman shore fort nearby at Burgh Castle. Did they arrive as Gildas indicated, as invited guests and mercenaries?
I recently visited Sutton Hoo, the ship-burial ground of early East Anglian kings. However, Sutton Hoo, in south-east Suffolk, isn't the only known focus for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Another exists closer to me, in mid-Norfolk. Today I took a local field/road trip!
This blurry poor quality photo of a field was taken by myself earlier today. I had to endure hunting around with grid references, and thorn scratches in order to take that. I'm pleased. I know what the legendary Spong Hill looks like now. It doesn't look much does it? However, this field has had the hell dug out of it over the past 250 years. Why? Because it yielded thousands of finds. It is the site of a large and important Anglo-Saxon cemetery. It is thought that around 3,000 people ended up here, the majority cremated. That's a significant cemetery - 2,200 cremations dated to between 410 AD and 550 AD have been recorded here. Many accompanied by stamped Anglo-Saxon urns, including some displayed in the Norwich Castle Museum exhibit below:
Cremations appear to have been the favoured method of disposing the dead in this cemetery, although later burials do exist on the site. However, many of the early cremations here must have included the first wave immigrants from the Anglo-Saxon homelands on the Continent. The most famous single artifact find in this field must be "Spong Hill Man". The ceramic figure from an urn lid in the image at the top of this page.
My field trip today didn't end there. Next stop had to be in the same parish. A premium Late Anglo-Saxon site. Again, it's appearance disguises it's former importance. A low level ruin of a Norman chapel. It is however believed that previous to being used as a norman chapel, and later as a medieval castle, it was the site of the very first Cathedral of East Anglia.
Today North Elmham is a village in Norfolk. However, Spong Hill, and later, the Cathedral site, suggest that to the early East Anglians, this parish held far more importance. North Elmham in mid-Norfolk was the first known ecclesiastical centre of East Anglia. After the Conquest, the mantle was passed to Thetford briefly, before moving to Bury St Edmunds. If you were not informed otherwise, today, you would have no idea that this village had once played such an important part in East Anglian, and English history. An early base of the Anglo-Saxons perhaps? Spong Hill had indeed been used by a significant local community.
Indeed, another site has recently been excavated - a Middle Saxon (AD 650 - AD 850) cemetery, only a few miles north of North Elmham, at Great Ryburgh. This newly recorded site has hit the archaeological headlines for it's water logged timber coffins.
I love archaeology and all sorts of heritage. However, I'm primarily a genealogist. I'm of the school that 1) we should tell a story, and 2) we should embrace local history, archaeology and population genetics in order to tell a deeper story. So how can I link the above sites to my family history? Quite easily. You see, I have lot's of recorded ancestors from my father's side - just a few miles to the south of Spong Hill. Not all of their ancestry would have likely originated with the customers of the Spong Hill cemetery, or have venerated the timber cathedral at North Elmham. However, in all likelihood - some of them would have.
So on this field-road trip, I venture only a couple of miles from Spong Hill, to a 19th century site of my ancestry that has a story worth telling.
Gressenhall Workhouse. Built in 1779 to house the poor of the local hundred. It transformed into a less friendly place with the Poor Law Union Act. I have joked that this is the family estate, as a number of my father's ancestors were associated with it. As inmates unfortunately. My 2xgreat grandfather William Bennett Baxter was born here in 1846:
His birth was illegitimate, and his mother, Eliza would have been a Jacket Woman:
He was not listed in the workhouse during the 1851 census. He did later, on in a marriage register, claim William Bennett (who was a young but married local miller) to be his father. His known ancestry was all local to the Dereham and mid-Norfolk area:
Could this be his initials that I today saw there on a wall in what use to be the boy's courtyard?
He married Harriet Barber who had also been born in Gressenhall Workhouse! She was born there in 1847. Harriet was also of a local family - and one with a history of illegitimacy. The below pedigree chart is of her mother, also Harriet Barber, born at nearby Swanton Morley in 1826:
Her family were mainly in Swanton Morley - and with that high level of illegitimacy, I have tongue-in-cheek, suggested that as Abraham Lincoln's paternal line were in that same village, that we could be related there. The point that I'm making is that these were local, rural, poor people, with most likely, local ancestry in that area. The people inhumed at Anglo-Saxon cemeteries nearby most likely did count within at least a part of their ancestry.
So both William and Harriet were born illegitimate in the workhouse at Gressenhall. The surprise that follows is that so were their first two children some years later. Then they settled down in the Swanton Morley and Northall Green area near to Dereham.
I'll finish off this photo-blog of today's journey through ancestry with a simple photo, of a local lane in the area:
A day off from work, and I had promised myself that I was going to get out and tick off a job that's been waiting some time. A visit to the Anglo-Saxon ship burial site at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Maybe I should have checked the weather forecast first. I would have seen that Storm Doris was going to hit East Anglia. Never mind, I got there and back in one piece, having circumnavigated a number of fallen trees. Luckily, I arrived before the centre shut it's gates. I was advised not to walk to the mounds, for fear of windfall - but only mad dogs and Englishman. At least it was quiet.
The nature of these mounds was revealed back in 1938, when the land owner, Mrs Edith Pretty, commissioned an investigative excavation. The burials have included whole ships, warriors, swords, grave goods from all over AD 7th Century Europe, and a horse. The interpretation is that it was the burial site of the Kings of East Anglia during the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
The 1938 excavation revealed the soil marks and iron rivets of a burial ship. Built in a clinker design, it appears similar in many respects to ship burials in Sweden, only at least two hundred years before the classic Viking examples. Initially Mrs Petty and her team thought that they had found a Viking ship burial, but at it's centre - although there were no surviving human remains, they found a treasure of grave goods that suggested an Anglo-Saxon origin. Nothing like it had been found before.
Excavations of the mounds have also revealed that treasure hunters and grave robbers had removed many artifacts during previous centuries, and caused much damage. One reported dig in another mound here, during the mid 19th Century reported that they found no treasure, just lots of iron rivets - that they sold to the local iron smith to produce horse shoes! This suggests at least one other ship burial at this site.
Mrs Pretty lived in a house close to the mounds, that is partly open to visitors. Artifacts, letters, photos of the 1938 dig are displayed in the house.
The original Sutton Hoo Treasure is held in the British Museum in London. I've seen it several times, but this was my first ever visit to the dig site itself.
Above, a proposed reconstruction of what the chamber in the ship may have looked like at the time of burial. Although no human remains survived, it is speculated that this was the burial of King Raedwald, who ruled as King of the East Anglians AD 599 to AD 624. Raedwald is considered the most powerful early 7th Century Anglo-Saxon king in the British Isles. He belonged to the Wuffinga Dynasty of early East Anglian royals. Below is a replica reconstruction of the famous ceremonial helmet found in the 1938 ship burial.
The helmet appears styled on ceremonial helmets worn by Roman generals in the late Western Roman Empire. It has been suggested that the craftsmanship appears Swedish. The Swedish links have led some to speculate that the Wuffing Dynasty may have had links to Sweden.
More replica reconstructions from the treasure that can be seen at the Sutton Hoo visitor centre.
Grave goods appear to have came from all over contemporary Europe - from Ireland, France, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Scandinavia. This demonstrates the ability of the East Angle elites to trade goods from far away.
By Edgar "Bill" Wilson Nye (1850–1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It's true, I'll swear it. You go on any online genetics, ancestry, or history forum, every other American, Canadian, or Australian of mainly European heritage, wants to have Irish ancestors. Failing Irish, Scottish or maybe "Welch" will do. People just don't want to be of English ancestry. If a DNA test suggests British & Irish ancestry, then they pray that it's Irish or Scottish. If it turns out to be English, well.... Let's keep that one locked in the wardrobe shall we?
We are just so out of favour, so misunderstood. No wonder the English have a long running identity crisis. I blame Hollywood for it, particularly that nameless Australian (now American) film maker with a chip on his shoulder about us. Always portraying the English either as cruel, arrogant, evil upper class tyrants, or as bumbling, stupid peasants. It's not completely true you know. well, not about the latter.
Recent genetic studies suggest we are actually pretty admixed, and may actually have more "Celtic" British ancestry than we have Anglo-Saxon. Sort of watered down Celts. The POBI (Peopling of the British Isles) Study 2015, using quantitative sampling, suggested that the present day ethnic English have only 10% to 40% Anglo-Saxon ancestry, with the majority of our ancient heritage being in the British Isles much longer. The Haak etal Study 2016 using qualitative evidence from ancient cemeteries in the Cambridge area, suggested that there indeed was admixture, and that the present day English are only around 38% Anglo Saxon in their ancestry. A correlation.
Don't take this one serious, but my DNA tests for ancestry are always atypical for a Brit, even an extreme for an Englishman. I usually get only around 34% British on autosome tests. Yet my genealogy is all South East English, and heavily rural local in East Anglia. My DNA flavour is heavily Continental in it's flavour, with pulls towards Northern France, Germany, Scandinavia, and for some reason, Southern Europe. I swear, I really am English! My DNA confounds these tests. The most logical answer is that it is population background, heavily localised in East Anglia. Here is my mother's recorded ancestry:
Disgustingly local. The last admixture was probably when the Danes beached at nearby Flegg. On top of that, a fluke of genetic recombination. Phasing suggests that I inherited from my mother, almost all of her DNA that 23andMe identifies as like French & German. On top of that, a heap from my late father. I might be sort of an accidental biologically reconstructed Anglo Saxon, with an embarrassingly low percentage of British Celtic ancestry! I don't think that I'd make a good Anglo Saxon. Crap at woodwork and farming. Maybe I should grow back my beard?
Nah! I look more like I'm homeless than a sword swinging warrior.
Anyway, it has put me into an Anglo-Saxon sort of mood of recent, and I feel like defending my humble immigrant ancestors. As I've said before, I'm quite a fan of the perspective, that the Anglo Saxons were a real and significant migration event to Southern and Eastern Britain, but rather than the traditionalist view that they were a murderous army of invasion and genocide, that they were as often as not, simply farmers from around the North Sea, that were looking for opportunity. They wanted land to farm. They wanted to be free of their fealties on the Continent. The collapse of Roman administration in Britain, gave them the opportunity. The British elites were in disarray, and running in all sorts of directions. British society was in crisis, a free fall.
I'm not saying that there was no violent conflict! At times it would have been like this:
By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But alternatively, there could have been much more to their success. They appear to have been incredibly successful farmers, with a culture that had adapted outside of the Roman Empire, in a very rural, illiterate, and non-monetary economy. With the collapse of the state, they could have been incredibly successful in South East Britain. Not because they had bigger swords to wave (something that I didn't inherit), but because they could sustain themselves well and prosper.
These guys could grow food, and pay their rent. They knew how to work. They provided the basis to Early English Culture and identity.
Now some photos that I took several years ago at the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village in nearby Suffolk:
My Global 10 Genetic Map coordinates: PC1,PC2,PC3,PC4,PC5,PC6,PC7,PC8,PC9,PC10 ,0.019,0.0272,0.0002,-0.0275,-0.0055,0.0242,0.0241,-0.0033,-0.0029,0.0015
This is my position on the latest genetic map by David Wesolowski, of the Eurogenes Blog. One point of interest that has been picked up on the Anthrogenica Forums, is my consistent closeness in ancestral results, to a Normand member! Our Basal-rich K7 results were almost identical. On 23andMe Ancestry Composition (spec mode), I just get a bit more French & German, while he gets just a bit more British & Irish. We are close!
Another forum member argued though that it's my results that are skewed away from British, and towards North French. He generated this map, plotting myself (marked as Norfolk in red), and my Norman Ancestral DNA twin Helge in yellow:
I had to point out though, that I've rarely seen other SE English with a record of local ancestry, test - and that the red circles representing British & Irish include many people with some Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Western, or Northern ancestry. The map suggests a pull to Northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
As I commented towards the end of my last post, I initially expected a pull to Denmark, Northern Germany, and perhaps to the Netherlands. This is because so many of my 17th-20th century ancestors lived on what was the frontier of Anglo-Saxon and Danish immigration during the 4th to 11th centuries.
But instead, autosomal DNA tests for ancestry all seem to be suggesting more shared ancestry from a more southerly direction - Northern France and Belgium particularly. Although there has so far been a dearth of local testers from local families, the POBI survey seems to find this common among the English. We appear to be a halfway house between Old British, and the French, more than the ancestors of Anglo-Saxons and Danes. This contradicts the historical and archaeological records. POBI suggested that this was due to waves of unrecorded immigration from the South during late prehistory. Others have pointed the finger at Norman and French admixture in medieval Southern Britain. It could be both!
Can I apply for French citizenship?