Tas Valley - Local Day Trip

Another day off from work. I didn't want to go far today, the weather has turned pretty poor for photography and travel. So a couple of very close sites here in Norfolk. According to current genetic studies of the British Isles, the Roman period doesn't seem to have had any noticeable impact on the population genetics of the British Isles. I think that they are missing something.


Venta Icenorum

First of all, on the Roman front, I visited the site of the Roman town Venta Icenorum, at Caister St Edmund. A display at the site displays this geophysical display, and the following relief:





Entering the field, this is what it looks like:



Heritage groups have preserved the current site by protecting it from cultivation - hence the sheep. The town sat in the valley of a very small river called the Tas. The site is several miles to the south of it's medieval equivalent, Norwich. Questions are being asked, why was it here? The Romans of course were urban people, that controlled from towns, but why here? It was first laid out as a grand plan some decades after the local Boadiccan Rebellion. No sign of significant Iron Age on the site, but some suggestion of a nearby Roman military encampment.



The town has gone, and is best viewed with geophysical maps or by aerial reconnaissance photos. However, it's "defenses" or boundaries are still clearly visible.



The below is a nice feature. A clear perspex panel showing proposed building outlines over the field:



Years ago as I've said before here, I was a very keen voluntary field-walker, or as I'd have preferred "surface collection surveyor". So as I walk across the field, I can't help spotting Roman tile in the mole hills:



The area of Venta Icenorum is very rich in later Anglo-Saxon finds. They do seem to have been attracted to this site, even though the town had long been abandoned before they arrived from the Continent.



As is very common in both prehistoric, and Roman sites, a medieval church stands within the limits of the site. As a sign of continuity, as a scavenge of building material - but also in order to claim dominion over older beliefs, and a return to civilisation:



I hope that you enjoyed Caister St Edmunds. I still had some time to spare, so I decided to visit a site a few miles to the south in the same Norfolk river valley, that I hadn't visited before:


Tasburgh Enclosure

This one is an enigma. An enclosure in Norfolk. I always understood it as an Iron Age Hillfort. The word "hillfort" might not be appropriate in lowland Norfolk, especially as our iron Age enclosures were often in lowland river valleys. Norfolk has a long tradition of "doing different". Excavations have not found Iron Age finds! They have found some evidence of Anglo-Saxon activity, and an opposing hypothesis is that it was a prehistoric enclosure re-used during the wars with the Danes. My personal feeling is that it is late prehistoric, but wait and see - a sign that I found there today seems to suggest some fresh and local based communal research:



A local, rather mucky information board mapping the enclosure:



Outside the northern bank:



Once again, a medieval church sits inside the enclosure. This one, St Mary's, a classic Norfolk round tower job. I can also boast here, that this is one (there are many) of my own personal ancestral churches on my recorded ancestry. Two of my recorded direct ancestors married there in 1794:



I hope that someone out there enjoys my photo-reports.

Flag Fen.

Today... I managed my first visit to the Flag Fen "archaeology park", for maybe nine or ten years. This park was inspired by a number of finds here, lead by Francis Pryor. Pryor and his team excavated prior to cable and pipework laying for a new gas fired power station at Peterborough. They found a large number of well preserved (in the moist peat soils) felled and cut timbers, that using dendrochronological methods, they dated to between 1400 BC and 900 BC, during the mid to late British Bronze Age.




They created this wetland, or recreated it, in order to conserve and preserve the archaeology that the excavation revealed. To keep it wet. The Fens are an area of Wetlands that have been increasingly drained over the centuries. The concern is that timber archaeology like that found on this site, is quickly perishing now.



These shears were found with their preserved wooden case here. Flag Fen was a timber palisade, that crossed a flooded area, with a wooden platform in the middle of the new lake. This platform was surrounded with lots of deposits, many in bronze - swords, axes, blades, etc. Many of these tools had been snapped or damaged. The excavator suggested that this was ritual. Removing sacrifices from the world, to that mirror world below the water. It revokes the Arthurian tale of the Lady and the Sword.



Yamna theorists should love this one. As far as I know, the earliest dated actual wheel found in the British Isles. Okay, we know they were around longer - but this wooden wheel dates to 3,000 years ago.





A reconstructed, and aged ... Bronze Age British roundhouse. I'm not sure though if roundhouses have been dated to the Bronze Age. Certainly a feature of the Iron Age - the roundhouse was strong enough to resist British weather. The lower photo shows it in it's wetland Fennish environment.



Some of the preserved (using constant water sprays) timbers of the palisade leading onto the platform. The opposite wall displays an artist's impression of the timbers above water level. Pryor suggested that with rising sea levels threatening the rich pastures, that Bronze Age farmers here constructed this platform in order to make scarifices and to perform rituals, to try to control the flooding, to turn back the rise in water levels, and maybe at the same time, to celebrate that life above water, and life below water - as in life and death, a mirror.



Artists impression.





Some of the artifact finds.



More artifacts, including bronze axe handles.



A reconstructed Bronze Age axe composite.



Anyone that has ever read archaeologist Francis Pryor's reports, will know that he is very keen to relate prehistoric archaeology to farming. Here, a soay lamb rests in the Sun. They keep a flock here as closest-to-period sheep that the Bronze Age farmers most likely bred here.

When I visited this park many years ago, they were busy trying to preserve the timbers of the Sea Henge, excavated on the North Norfolk Coast. Those timbers have successfully been preserved, and are now locally in Kings Lynn Museum:



Photo taken by myself at Kings Lynn in 2008.



Currently though, they are hosting the preserved timbers of a number of finds from another Cambridgeshire wetland excavation - from Must Hill Farm. The above photos were taken during the excavation that recovered a number of log boats dated to the Bronze Age (from 1,500 BC) through to the Iron Age. These log boats were clearly made using bronze axes like those above. A large number of well preserved eel nets were also excavated, suggesting that fishing was important to this Bronze Age community.



I hope that some of you enjoy sharing my photo tour from today, especially those that share ancestors here, but live far away today.

Norfolk Surnames in the Sixteenth Century

I spent too much money today on reading materials.  I was delighted to find a used copy of The Norfolk Broads A landscape history by Tom Williamson 1997 (Manchester University Press).  I had a copy of this excellent landscape history when it was published, but unfortunately lent it out, and never saw it again.  A brilliant book for tying my mother's East Norfolk ancestors to their ancestral landscape.

The April 2017 edition of Current Archaeology magazine has an interesting article on an excavation of an Iron Age site in Fenland, and is celebrating their 50th anniversary of publication.

The real treasure of today's book shop excavation however, was an old booklet published in 1969 by Leicester University Press in their Department of English Local History Occasional Papers.  It is entitled Norfolk Surnames in the Sixteenth Century by R.A McKinley.  Flicking through it's pages on the way home, sitting on the bus, I was well, almost mind blown - as some of the conclusions knocked down some of my preconceptions of my Norfolk ancestry and heritage.  An old, yellowing booklet that I've never heard of, found on a shelf in a second hand book shop in Norwich.

The book draws on surnames recorded in the County of Norfolk, during the 16th Century AD.  It uses as it's sources several returns, and rolls particularly a military survey, and subsidy roll from between 1522 and 1525.  I want to share at least some of the key points from two chapters of "Norfolk Surnames in the Sixteenth Century": 1) Surnames derived from localities in Norfolk, and 2) Locative surnames originating outside Norfolk.

1) Surnames derived from localities in Norfolk

  • The chapter begins by discussing the problems of using locative surnames in a study.
  • "The two main sources used for this study list 739 persons bearing locative surnames derived from places within Norfolk.  Of these, only 23 were living at the places from which their names were derived.".
  • A table then shows the distances of the persons (still within the County of Norfolk) with these locative surnames from origin.  23 were still at the place of origin, 81 were still within 5 miles of it, 123 were within 6 - 10 miles away, 239 were 11 - 20 miles away, 151 were 21 - 30 miles away, and 122 lived over 30 miles from the locative place of origin.  However, these are the locative surnames that still remain in Norfolk, that appear to have an origin within the County.  Many more would have crossed county boundaries into Suffolk, Lincolnshire, etc.
  • "It seems probable from this evidence, however, that most Norfolk families must have changed their place of residence at least between the period when surnames became hereditary, and the early sixteenth century.".
  • There was no pattern to suggest a large migration from any one part of the County, to another.

2) Locative surnames originating outside Norfolk

  • "In the two main sources, there are 1,260 persons bearing surnames which can be derived with fair certainty from places in England, but outside Norfolk".
  • The author then discusses possible biases, for example, some parts of England appear to have generated more locative surnames than others.  It also suggests that about a third of all English surnames are locative, and proposes a rough approximation, that this could "be about 2,500 persons of outside origin amongst the total of about 18,000 listed in the two main sources, or rather more than 13 per cent".  This suggests quite a few people had been moving from other parts of England, into Norfolk between the 13th and 15th centuries AD.
  • Where were they from?  The two main contributors were the neighbouring counties of Suffolk and Lincolnshire. Some had simply moved from close to the Norfolk county boundary.   
  • Cambridgeshire, another neighbouring county, for some reason contributed far fewer.  The East Midlands was also, surprisingly, not a major contributor of locative surnames in 16th Century Norfolk.  There were no locative surnames from Wales.
  • Here is another surprise, Yorkshire turned our to be a common origin - equally spread through the three ridings.  Each riding of Yorkshire had contributed about 40 persons in Norfolk with locative surnames.  The author does point out that Yorkshire is a big county, and is particularly rich in locative surnames, however: "it is evident that there must have been considerable movement from Yorkshire to Norfolk.  Yorkshire surnames are distributed throughout Norfolk in the early sixteenth century.  They are not particularly concentrated in ports or coastal areas, and indeed, are as widespread in central Norfolk, well away from the sea, as in other parts of the county.".
  • There was also a notable contribution of locative surnames from NW England - Lancashire, Cumbria, and Westmorland.
  • The distribution of these surnames was by no means urban based.  Yamouth and Norwich had lower concentrations than the average.  These migrations look more rural.
  • There were very few surnames of any origin type that could be safely regarded as Welsh.
  • There were very few surnames of any origin type that could be safely regarded as Scottish.
  • The author then moves on to records of other foreign born aliens.  I am aware of the influx of Dutch and Flemish religious refugees, into the City of Norwich during the early 16th Century, however, here I learn something new.
  • "there was certainly a considerable migration of aliens into Norfolk, and foreign immigrants came to reside in many Norfolk villages, not merely in a few ports or large towns.  In 1436, for example, when many aliens took oaths of allegiance, 146 persons who took oath are noted as living in Norfolk.  This was not the whole number of aliens in Norfolk...".  A list in 1440 for example, lists 192 aliens residing in Norfolk at 62 different places.  The author feels that those 15th Century records understate the real percentage of immigrants living in Norfolk at that time.
  • The Continental immigrants did not bring in many new surnames.  Many had no surname listed, or had adopted local surnames.  For example, immigrants listed at Norwich in 1440, included persons by the surnames Rider, Johnson, Forest, Skynner, Couper, Bush, Goldsmyth, and Glasier.  Some surnames marking their nationality did survive in 16th Century Norfolk, such as French, Ducheman, Briton / Brett (Breton) etc.

Brancaster, a North Norfolk village.

In summary, what this book has taught me today:

  1. Many families, despite our ideas of the dying fuedal system, were moving around East Anglia, and even England between the 13th and 16th centuries.
  2. There were relatively few people in 16th century Norfolk, with origins in Scotland, or Wales, and perhaps few from the nearby East Midlands or Cambridgeshire.  However, there was migration down from Northern England, particularly from Yorkshire, but even from NW England.
  3. There were also migrations, from the nearby Continent, and these migrations (and the above Northern English) migrations were not strictly urban.  They reached many villages.

Celebrating my Steppe and Beaker Ancestors

Ecoregion PA0814

The Pontic Steppes, by Terpsichores [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I've previously dealt with my Ice Age hunter-gatherer ancestry, as indicated by DNA test result calculators, and with my Neolithic Farmer ancestry.  That leaves the third major late prehistoric contributor to the Western European Genome.  The most recent, and perhaps the most character defining - the Chalcolithic Steppe pastoralists or Yamnaya element.

My Yamnaya ancestors

Y-DNA haplogroup enthusiasts of European descent absolutely LOVE this one.  This is because the majority of men of Europe have a Y haplogroup that arrived here from the Eurasian Steppes with this immigration wave.  All of those R1a's and R1b's.  My personal Y haplogroup didn't!  But I'm a nonconformist with a nonconforming Y-DNA haplogroup. Populations such as the modern Irish men, on the western edge of Europe, can trace most of their R1b haplogroups to the Steppes!  That some of of the earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic DNA here earlier still survives in most of us, suggests that this long migration consisted mainly of men.  My mtDNA haplogroup though, as usual, is atypical - because H6a1 is one of the few maternal lineages in Europe that DOES also trace back in ancient DNA samples to the Yamnaya pastoralists.  So, I DO have a Steppe haplogroup, only through my motherline.

The Eurasian Steppes have been a super highway of people, goods, culture, and genes, for thousands of years - linking Asia to Europe.  A long, sometimes narrow corridor of natural grasslands.  The wild ancestors of the domestic horse lived there.  They had adapted to life in harsh environments such as this.

The Yamnaya themselves appear to have been admixed between different earlier Ice Age populations, including Caucasus Hunter-Foragers, East European Hunter-Gatherers, and the enigmatic Ancient North Eurasian Siberian ghost population, that were also among the ancestors of Native Americans.

One of the successes of the Steppe pastoralists, was that they embraced the horse.  They rode their horses, enabling them to control larger herds of sheep, goats, horses, and cattle.  That was one element of success.  They also utilised the wheel, and built the first wagons and carts to be pulled by those horses and ox.  This gave them a greater mobility, to move their livestock seasonally to further pastures.  Biologically they were also adapting to a dairy based diet with lactose tolerance.  Finally, they embraced the new metallurgy of copper, and then bronze working.  The raw materials of this new technology shifted along the Steppes, and through their contact with many peoples, including with the new towns and kingdoms south of the Caucasus.

Another factor that needs to be considered, is that according to some scholars, they brought the Indo-European group of languages to Europe, which are ancestral to most European languages today.

Recent evidence has been produced that suggests that some of the pastoralists carried a plague virus, transmitted from a Central Asian origin.  A new hypothesis is that they may have unintentionally passed this plague onto the Neolithic Europeans, weakening their populations and societies.

Whether this hypothesis ever substantiates or not, the archaeological and genetic evidence is that the Second Millennium BC saw many of these Steppe men (and my mtDNA ancestor) spill westwards into Copper Age Europe.  After 2,900 BC, their arrival, and fusion with local populations and traditions may have inspired the Corded Ware Culture of Central and Eastern Europe.  My mtDNA haplogroup H6a1a suddenly appears in Central Europe, associated with this culture.

These horsemen of bronze, or their descendants didn't stop the Westward advance.  Within a few hundred years, they also dominated Western Europe.  There, their arrival may have spawned another fusion culture - the Bell Beaker.

Above image, bell beaker burial exhibited in the British Museum.

My Bell Beaker Ancestors

The Maritime Bell Beaker Culture may have originated when these horsemen arrived in Iberia.  When I was a keen amateur archaeologist and field walker, I'd feel a lot of contact with them.  Many, if not the majority of the struck flints that I recorded in Thetford Forest were considered "bronze age".  I would also survey the surviving round barrows in the forest, and look for unrecorded examples.  I also spent a week with Suffolk archaeology, studying new aerial reconnaissance photographs, and helping to chart the soil and crop marks of long ploughed out barrows.  I had no idea then, that this barrow burial tradition had actually been brought from the Steppes of Eurasia.  Archaeology at the time didn't see the Bell Beaker as the arrival of people.  They saw it as a cultural transference from Iberia.  Genetics is now telling us differently.

A barbed and tanged flint arrowhead from one of my surveys.  A classic Bell Beaker artifact.

The Maritime Bell Beaker Culture of the Early Bronze Age appears to have gradually evolved by the beginning of the Iron Age, into what we traditionally call the Atlantic Seaboard Celtic Culture, so strong in places such as Ireland and Scotland.  Yet, most Irishmen carry the Y haplogroup R1b SNPs such as L21. A recent Irish DNA Study revealed that they found the modern Irish not only a fairly homogeneous population, but that it had its roots, particularly on male haplogroups, firmly in the Pontic and Caspian Steppes of what is now Ukraine and Southern Russia.  They also studied the DNA from remains of Bronze Age, and the earlier Neolithic people that lived in Ireland, and pronounced them to have had different origins.  The earlier, Neolithic Irish largely descended from population that originated in SW Asia.

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/2/368.full

Here in Britain also, the majority of men carry R1b Y-DNA.  I have a Steppe mtDNA haplogroup from my mother.  Additionally autosomal DNA calculators suggest that maybe circa 30% of my Copper Age ancestors were Steppe.  However, where did my Steppe ancestry come in?  The obvious would be from British Celts - but that is an unsafe assumption.  My recorded ancestry is totally SE English, and strongly East Anglian.  My autosomal DNA "flavour" though is atypical for a Brit, and is unusually Continental, with a tertiary pull from Southern Europe, that I can't explain.  If many of my ancestors two thousand years ago actually lived outside of the British Isles, most likely on the Continent, then they could have inherited much of this Steppe there.

Image above. A local round barrow burial mound hidden in Thetford Forest.

Ultimately of course, I know where maybe a third of my ancestors lived 4,000 years ago.  They were pastoralists on the windy Pontic Steppes, looking to the west, and wandering, what opportunities lay there?

My Ancient DNA Calculators

David Wesolowski's K7 Basal-rich test

Ancient North Eurasian

Another Ice Age hunter-gatherer "Ghost" population, but this one has been associated with human remains and an Upper Palaeolithic culture (Mal'ta-Buret') at Lake Baikal, Siberia.  We know that it significantly contributes to modern West Eurasians, through earlier admixture on the Eurasian Steppes.  Copper Age pastoralists then carried it westwards into Europe with their later expansion.

David gives the English average as 16.6%.  My result is 14.0%

Global 10 Test

The recent Global 10 test, run by my friend Helgenes50 of the Anthrogenica board, resulted in:

  • 38% Yamna_Samara (Eurasian Steppe Pastoralist)

FT-DNA My Ancient Origins

  • 9% Metal Age Invader

My MDLP K16 Modern Admixture

  • 22% Steppe (sourced from ancient genome of European Bronze Age pastoralists)
  • 22% Caucasian (derived from genomes of mesolithic Caucasian Hunter-gatherers)

My MDLP Modern K11 Oracle:

Closest Genetic Distances:

Using 1 population approximation:
1 British_Celtic @ 6.948432
2 Bell_Beaker_Germany @ 8.143357
3 Alberstedt_LN @ 8.426399
4 British_IronAge @ 9.027687
5 Halberstadt_LBA @ 10.273615
6 Bell_Beaker_Czech @ 12.190828
7 Hungary_BA @ 12.297826
8 Nordic_MN_B @ 12.959966
9 British_AngloSaxon @ 12.993559
10 Nordic_BA @ 13.170285

A visit to Sutton Hoo - Kings of East Anglia

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.



There Was No British Genocide II

The above image, captured on a Pentax K110D and Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 lens.  Loom weights in the West Stow Anglo-Saxon reconstruction village.

Literally, as soon as I posted my There was no British Genocide article, I come across links to yet a newer study.  Dr Stephan Schiffels of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, sequenced genomes of human remains from Hinxton, Saffron Walden, Linton and Oakington - all close to Cambridge. 

The dates of the remains ranged from the Late Iron Age, until the Middle Saxon.  The team reported that:

"In the cemetery at Oakington we see evidence even in the early Anglo-Saxon period for a genetically mixed but culturally Anglo-Saxon community, in contrast to claims for strong segregation between newcomers and indigenous peoples. The genomes of two sequenced individuals (O1 and O2) are consistent with them being of recent immigrant origin, from a source population close to modern Dutch, one was genetically similar to native Iron Age samples (O4), and the fourth was consistent with being an admixed individual (O3), indicating interbreeding. Despite this, their graves were conspicuously similar, with all four individuals buried in flexed position, and with similar grave furnishing. Interestingly the wealthiest grave, with a large cruciform brooch, belonged to the individual of native British ancestry (O4), and the individual without grave goods was one of the two genetically ‘foreign’ ones (O2), an observation consistent with isotope analysis at West Heslerton which suggests that new immigrants were frequently poorer".

Based on this study, the team proposed that the immigrant portion of English DNA lay around a third, or 20 - 40% of total.  Not so far from the findings of 10% to 40% by the POBA 2015 study.  The newer study though confirms that the populations appear to have mingled closely, and that people of Romano-British ancestry were quickly adopting an Anglo-Saxon identity.  It was a surprise to find that the higher status remains Anglo Saxon dressed remains were actually of local Romano-British heritage, while some of the poorest remains were immigrant Anglo-Saxons.

Based on comparative genetics, the team suggests the origins of the immigrant Anglo-Saxons were Denmark and the Netherlands.

Full story can be found published under Creative Commons in Nature here, and the BBC news release here.

So once again, the genetic analysis suggests that rather than an Anglo-Saxon invasion wiping out the Romano-Britons, that a series of immigrations - not outnumbering the locals, arrived, and apparently mingled in.  Around a third of the population were immigrant Anglo-Saxon from the Continent.  Even the higher status locals, were apparently copying the new Anglo-Saxon culture.

The ethnic English are a surprisingly homogeneous population, with roots here going back several thousand years.  Immigrations arrive, provide admixture, but are then absorbed.  That is who we are.  Bede exaggerated the genocide.


There was no British Genocide


The Anglo-Saxon Invasion according to History

When I was eleven years old, and had just started secondary school, we had this odd lesson that I still recall.  Our headmaster (who we hadn't previously encountered) took our class, but pretended to be the caretaker, taking the class in the absence of a teacher.  Bizarre behaviour, I don't know what he hoping to teach us from this, except perhaps to be careful how we judge people. 

He was a Welshman.  At one point during the session, he told us eleven year olds, that his people, were the real Britons, and that we English kids were the descendants of land thieves.  Our ancestors had invaded the British lowlands following the collapse of Roman Britain, and had slaughtered his people, driving the survivors to the hills of Wales.  It must have made an impact on me.  Sure enough, when my interest in history turned to the making of England, the text books pretty much confirmed his story of genocide.  We English weren't the real British, our ancestors were marauding, barbarians from Northern Germany, the Anglo-Saxons.  The prime sources of this tale were two accounts, one from Gildas, written from the British perspective, during the century that followed this alleged genocide, and the other was Bede, written as from the perspective of an Anglian Christian monk, another century later. 

The Archaeologists revision

I became interested in amateur archaeology from around the late 1980s, and volunteered as an enthusiastic field-walker (surface collection survey).  My read list grew.  I completed a two year extra mural course in landscape archaeology with the UEA.  I encountered more and more interpretations from British archaeologists, writing from the 1970s on, that something didn't seem right about the traditional Gildas/Bede account of genocide.  There was no archaeology of genocide.  There was more evidence of continuity through that period.  The Roman towns started decaying long before hoards of Anglo-Saxons arrived to dismantle them.  The Roman shore forts of the "Saxon Shore" - despite the usual claims that they were erected to fight off Anglo-Saxon raiders into Roman Britain, just didn't seem particularly defensive.  The archaeology suggested that their role might have actually been to control and tax imports and exports across the North Sea to the Germanic lands.  There appeared to be more shifts of settlement patterns a full century and a half after the alleged Anglo Saxon invasion, than directly following it.

The Bede claim is that two Anglo-Saxon chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, conscripted by the Romano-British as mercenaries to protect south-east Britain from attack, mutinied, called over their cousins, and commenced the Anglo-Saxon invasion.  It doesn't sound right.  Their names Hengist and Horsa are sometimes used in Germanic folklore and mythology, associated with a pair of horses.  It's not too far from the Romulus and Remus characters of the Rome origin myth. 

Some archaeologists pointed out that the east and west Britains, had always been different - since prehistory, not just since the Anglo-Saxon period.  They suggested that the West had a maritime influence down the Atlantic seaboard - to Ireland, Brittany, the Bay of Biscay, and Iberia, while the East had a maritime influence from the North Sea World - Belgium, Netherlands, North Germany, Denmark, Norway, etc.  Seas, rather than dividing Britain from external influence, had long provided highways of ideas, culture, and maybe genes from different zones of mainland Europe. The suggestion was that these two maritime influences had brought cultures, beliefs, trade, and even people, differently since prehistory, to either side of Britain. England had long been a part of the North Sea World.  Wales and Cornwall on the other hand, had long been a part of the Atlantic Celtic World.

Archaeologists were also questioning traditional histories of the Celts in Europe, and particularly in Britain.  It was pointed out, that the Romans and Greeks appeared to use that description for a number of tribal peoples that lived outside of their world, in Central Europe.  No-one then had used the word "Celt" to describe the Britons.  It was only much later, with the rise of nationalist movements, that Western Britons started to embrace the identity.  Some archaeologists accepted that there was a grouping of cultures, Gaelic linguistic groups, and art forms, shared along the European Atlantic Seaboard, from Northern Portugal to the Western Highlands of Scotland.  They called it the Western or Atlantic Seaboard Celtic, to distance itself from the Hallstatt, and classical references to the Central European Celtic culture.  It was never proposed though, that this was ever a homogeneous, or self-identifying "people".

More and more archaeologists argued for a revision of Britain's Dark Age histories.  They could not find archaeological evidence of genocide.  They were arguing for a partial displacement - that the Anglo-Saxons were immigrants that settled the British lowlands during the 5th Century AD, but did not "replace" the Romano-Britons, and instead, intermarried with them.  Some suggested that only small numbers of Anglo-Saxon elites may have arrived - and that their culture trickled down to their British subjects.  Some dared even suggest that there was no invasion, nor substantial Anglo-Saxon settlement of Eastern Britain at all.  Cultural influence merely crossed the North Sea in the vacuum of a collapsed Roman administration. 

Not all agreed though.  Many conservative historians, and even some archaeologists, continued to use traditional models of 5th Century invasion hypothesis.  School text books probably didn't change much.  Popular history continued without too much interruption.  Archaeological interpretations of the 5th/6th centuries were often confused concessions. 

Then genetic testing started to arrive.

Stephen Oppenheimmer is a British paediatrician that has developed a career in researching and writing popular science books concerning the genetic evidence for human origins.  After his best seller Out of Eden, in 2007 he published a book examining British roots, titled Origins Of The British .

He argued that 1) there was no Anglo-Saxon invasion. The ethnic British today were descended mainly from people that arrived here at the end of the Ice Age - both East and West British.  There was more admixture from later immigrations in the East, but it was still a minority in the mix. There was a genetic marker difference between east and west, but both populations had descended from the same haplogroup, that he believed had spilled out of the Basque Ice Age refuge at the end of the last Ice Age.  2)  Saxon culture had been in Britain for a longer time than traditionally accepted, that it existed in Roman Britain, perhaps even Iron Age Britain.  He argues that the term Saxon used in Britain referred to ethnicities in Roman SE Britain, that already used a Germanic language.  Not to refer to people from Saxony in modern day Germany.  He proposed genetic markers that he regarded as Angle arriving during the 5th Century, but these were not, he argued, ever a majority even in England.  Indeed, he argued that the later settlement of Danes left a bigger impression.  3) He claimed that the English language appears to date it's divergence from other Germanic dialects, long before the 5th Century AD.  He suggest that is because a form of it had already long existed in SE Roman Britain, perhaps even earlier.

You can imagine that his conclusions and hypothesis made quite a stir.  Some revisionists were ecstatic.  Some conservatives regarded it as crackpot.  He was stating that the English were as British as either the Welsh or Scots.  Just as the old Celtic origin myth had excited Irish and Welsh nationalists over the past few centuries, I saw the leader of the BNP (a British Far Right political group) on TV, citing poor Oppenheimer's book as evidence that the English were an ancient British people, pure and free of immigration.  An unfortunate interpretation of an interesting and provocative book.

Since 2007, genetic studies and understanding of British origins continue to progress, and will do so in the future.  One of Oppenheimer's assertions has been contradicted by studies of European human genes in general.  He believed that something like 60 to 95% of British inheritance had been here since before the Neolithic, descending from hunter-gatherers that arrived before 6,000 years ago.  The European-wide evidence suggest that some of his haplogroups had arrived in Europe later.  At least two significant waves of genes have entered Europe over the past 7,000 years, replacing the vast majority of earlier hunter-gatherer genes.  The first, it is suggested, arrived with the Neolithic - originating in the Middle East, and reaching NW Europe by 6,000 years ago.  The second, only recently discovered, originated it is suggested, on the Eurasian Steppes, and has been associated with the Yamnaya culture of pastoralists.  This has revived the old Indo-European hypothesis.  There is a possibility, that there was a significant expansion westwards from the Steppes and Balkans, and that they carried the Indo-European language, that so many modern European languages descend from.  The genetic data hints that this wave of genes arrived in West Europe around 4,200 years ago.  Some people are also associating it with the arrival of the Bell Beaker assemblage of artifacts and monuments. 

The point is, that these two late prehistoric waves of genes appear to have replaced the vast majority of earlier European genes.  A study published only last week, of Irish origins found particularly strong links to this Late Neolithic wave, from the Steppes.  The modern English may have some genes that originated in the Ice Age refuges of Europe, but they appear to be swamped by later immigrations of farming populations from the Middle East and the Steppes.  It doesn't however, yet appear to disrupt his assertion that their genes had been here long before the 5th Century.

People of the British Isles Study 2015

A newer study of British origins that promises to be the most comprehensive of all, using new improved mathematical models.  It produced a few surprises.

  • There is no homogeneous British Celtic group.  Wales had more genetic diversity than anywhere else in the British Isles.
  • The Cornish are different from the English - but are more like the English than they are like the Welsh.
  • The English are a homogeneous group, although regionalism can be detected, that correlates with the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
  • Anglo-Saxon immigration influence on English genetics is a mere 10 - 40%. Most of our genes were indeed already here much earlier.  The English are mainly British. There was no Anglo Saxon genocide of the British.
  • The Welsh do appear to have a high level of hunter-gatherer inheritance.  Maybe Oppenheimer is vindicated on this one.
  • The Danish are missing.  They could not find a visible genetic marker left by the Danish Vikings in Dane-Law England!
  • "The analyses suggest there was a substantial migration across the channel after the original post-ice-age settlers, but before Roman times. DNA from these migrants spread across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but had little impact in Wales."

So there it is.  Gildas and Bede overplayed the 5th Century Anglo-Saxon Invasion.  Genetic surveys suggest that less than 40% of English genes originated with the Anglo-Saxons, perhaps even as low as 10%.  Most English genes arrived here in Britain much earlier; between 6,100 and 3,800 years ago.  The ethnic English can look at Iron Age, Bronze Age, probably even Neolithic monuments across the British lowlands, and consider them built by our ancestors.  My Welsh headmaster had it wrong.

So what was it like in 5th Century England?

I have recently read Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070. 2011 Robin Fleming.  A well researched history, where the researcher has not only referred to traditional historical sources, but leans heavily onto modern archaeology.  Fleming doesn't use Oppenheimer's suggestion of a Saxon presence in Roman Britain.  However, she does side with the new evidence of partial immigration, with few cases of any immigrant Anglo-Saxons outnumbering locals in any area of Britain.

How I interpret her book, I see the 5th Century Eastern Britain now as a very multicultural place, full of different dialects, languages, traditions and belief systems.  What people believed, and how they talked during the 5th Century, most likely differed from one farmstead to the next farmstead.  The largest ethnic group were the Romano-Britons.  How they dealt with the collapse of Rome varied from one community to another.  Some appear to have tried to revert to pre-Roman ways and even belief systems.  Others tried to preserve the Roman way of Life - the Romanitas .  Some communities preserved a form of Christianity, although in the absence of Rome, it most likely deviated towards the heretical.  Many of them would have embraced the new arrival cultures from across the North Sea - new fashions, dress, status symbols on the markets.  They became Anglo-Saxon.  Of the newcomers - 10% to 40%, there were a multitude of tribal ethnicities.  Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Allemani, Suevvi, Franks, etc.  They most likely arrived from Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, France and maybe as far away as Poland and East Prussia.  The lowlands of Britain were rich and fertile, it's rivers and coastline highly accessible.  The collapse of Roman administration, and a crisis in local society had left Britain open for adventure and investment.  A collapse of import duties, taxation, administration - the land to grow in.  A land of opportunity.

Some of these ethnicities may have had areas of Eastern England where they did dominate, where elites could gather power and identity.  However, genetic studies keep supporting the archaeologists - there was no major invasion.  The Romano-Britons left more of their genes to survive, than did the immigrant Anglo-Saxons.  English people had roots here in Britain since at least the Later Neolithic,  some of our roots may go back much further.  We have Anglo-Saxon roots from the Continent as well, but a minority of the genetic mix.

Fleming goes on to argue that it was in the following century, the 6th Century, that an Anglo-Saxon identity was developed.  Following the collapse of Roman society, and the immigrations from across the North Sea, at first it was sort of a free multicultural grab all.  Then as elites started to emerge, and expand their power into kingdoms during the 6th Century, they started to encourage cultural identities for their subjects.  Some emerging royal households were perhaps keen to claim descent from brave adventuring warriors of the North Sea World.  The "East Saxons", The "East Angles", the "South Saxons" etc.  This identity trickled down to their subjects regardless of the identity of their own ancestors.  The royal house of West-Saxon that survives today as the British Monarchy, claims the Germanic deity Woten (Odin) in their family tree.  It was now that lowland Britain transformed into Anglo-Saxon England.

I'm going to finish this incredibly long boring post with a thought. 

The past twenty years have seen a new wave of immigration, particularly into Eastern England.  EU immigration from Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Portugal, and Bulgaria.  I live near to a town that has seen some of the highest percentages, maybe 20 - 40% of the town population is EU.  The last time that this area saw such immigration levels may have been the 5th century.  Okay, this is different.  We live in a 21st Century Capitalist nation-state with towns, cities, mass media.  I can see that in a generation - the kids of these new adventurers from the Continent will be undistinguishable from the Britons, except for some odd sounding surnames.  When I go down town, I can buy Bulgarian mushrooms, eat in a Lithuanian bistro, buy Polish vodka, etc.  I can't help seeing some similarities between the present and the 5th Century.  It's a cool time to live in England.  Here is my 5th Century England:

Edit:  More recent evidence from the Cambridge Area in 2016 here.