An Anglo-Saxon Bias Confirmed

We want to understand the past, our past, but how we interpret that past always depends on our own personal bias.  Our culture, our class, our political and religious stance.  Doing history is about writing a story, and you do it from a perspective, rarely as an objective.

My perspective is that of a 21st Century rural working class guy in his fifties.  My bias is that I am an atheist and a liberal that grew up in a Post Fordist society, during the Arms Race, followed by 911, and the War on Terror.  That sounds ridiculous, but the truth is that how we see the distant past, is tempered by our life time experiences.

During the early parts of the 20th Century, British antiquarians and archaeologists would proudly raise different shaped skulls, bronze axe heads, and pottery shards at conferences, announcing that they represented the "collared urn people", or the "pond barrow culture" the "La Tene" or what not.  These time travellers had grown up and experienced times of imperialism, colonisation, international upheaval, world war, and genocide.  They were as often as not, politically conservative, middle class, men, and yeah, if it matters, white.  They saw every trench level of artefact changes as evidence of population displacement, invasion, genocide.

Then following years of relative world peace, anti-war protests, and social reforms, the universities and colleges started to churn out a new breed of professional archaeologist - from a variety of backgrounds.  They argued that "pots were not people", they argued for "continuity, admixture, and cultural exchange".  As they saw it, a change in artefacts, cultures, even perhaps of languages, did not always prove displacement.  They grew up in a time of peace.  They saw peace.

That age recently ended.  The past six or seven years has seen a resurrection of ideas of invasion, displacement, Indo-European expansion, and maybe even of ancient genocides.  It is as though we have returned to those antiquarian conferences, only the actors are no longer middle class historians, but online enthusiasts, and it is no longer bronze weapons or pots that they hold up as their artefacts, but haplogroups, DNA, and PIE (proto Indo-European language).  A popular revolution with a conservative theme.  Pots might not always be people, but SNPs (snips) may well be, they jeer.

So in this post 911 World, here I am acknowledging my prejudice, my bias.  I am not opposed to the new popularist wave of displacement hypothesis.  Some of it does sound dangerously nationalist, even xenophobic.  A struggle for survival, as one Y chromosome replaces a less fit haplogroup, almost as if proposed by a perverted social take on Darwinism.  The online bulletin boards on the front line of this debate are full of posts by banned members.  I actually welcome the new ideas, the revival, the challenge of acceptance.  That so many online enthusiasts are involved, rather than the merely elitist professionalised academics has to be a good, more democratic thing.  However, I also tend to look for a concession.  I think yes, the revisionist archaeologists out of the post-war universities went too far.  But as do many of the new genetic warriors today.

With that in mind, I'm going to share my own prejudiced view of the origins of Anglo-Saxon England with this post.

The humble Dutch immigrant

People have been building boats and travelling out of sight of the coast, for a very long time.  More than 8,000 years ago, Neolithic farmers were doing it, to colonise places like Cyprus and Crete.  Britain had long been an island, when the first Neolithic farmers arrived here.

Britain has two main spheres of influence.  1) The West (or if you prefer "Celtic West", looks to the Irish and Atlantic seaboards that connect the West of Britain to Ireland, Brittany, the Highlands and perhaps even Northern Iberia.  2) The East (or if you prefer the English south-east), that is a part of the "the North Sea World", looks to the low countries, the north German coast, and even to Scandinavia for trade, influence, and exchange.  How far back do these two spheres go?  I'd say all of the way back.  People didn't simply wait until AD 410 to hop onto a boat, I cannot accept that.

My first confession of bias, is that I do not believe that Anglo-Saxon England was born in AD 410.  I think that it had a North Sea influence much earlier than that.  Perhaps that is what the POBI 2015 study (people of the British Isles) found when they assessed the English to be a very homogeneous population, but with a mystery shared ancestry with the French, that appeared to date back long before AD 410.  Perhaps we should take more notice of Caesar's assertion, that the British Isles had recently been colonised by the Belgae.  Perhaps we shouldn't dismiss all of the suggestions by Stephen Oppenheimer, that there was an ancient Saxon presence in south-east Britain, and that the Belgae were a part of their story.

That is my first confession.  I think that the English have been around Britain longer than from AD 410.

My second confession.  I don't see an Anglo Saxon invasion, simply followed a few centuries later by a Viking army.  I see instead, immigrant farmers from what is now Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Denmark, arriving in South-east Britain in drips and waves between perhaps late prehistory, and the 12th century.  Immigrants more than invaders.  Fitting in where they could.  Grabbing what was available.  Perhaps they were fleeing fealties and bonds in their own countries.  Late Roman Britain suffered from uprisings, disputes, insecurity, and political weaknesses.  The economy collapsed, administration collapsed, society was in tatters.  It was easy to row past immigration control in the forms of the deserted Roman shore fort at Burgh, evade paying a tax, and to land at Reedham.

I can imagine that when they landed, they would have been met by others, already familiar with their dialects, eager to trade, and to sell services.  Guide them to the best cut of new land, or land that could be drained.  The economy was in collapse, local elites would have been ready to break with tradition, make deals with hard working immigrants.  Allocate land to work.  Who cares if it had bypassed the Imperial authorities, it was cheap and flexible.

So what I am suggesting is that the Anglo-Saxon invasion in places like the coastline and river valleys of East Anglia may not have been such a big hitter.  Instead of helmeted Angles and Saxons roaring up the beaches waving their swords, that the change could have been a little gentler, less confrontational.  Gildas and Bede, with their stories of Hengist and Horsa, could have been the outraged Daily Mail Editorial of their day "invading immigrants, raping our women, nicking our land!!".  Recent studies of cemeteries in the Cambridge area, have supported this hypothesis, with evidence that a) locals mimicked the culture of the immigrants, b) they inter-married, and c) the poorest were actually recent immigrants.  Source.

I'm not saying that it happened this way, it's just an alternative perspective.  Poor Dutch and German farmers looking for a better life in Britannia.  That might have been the scene in 5th Century East Anglia.  Of course, the good times couldn't roll forever.  New elites emerged, and started to exploit the fealties again.  Once again, the poor got poorer.  Feudalism established....

The trickle of immigrants probably continued.  The trade and contact across the North Sea didn't just go away.  Perhaps there was a secondary wave during the 9th Century AD, that which we associate with the Dane-Law.  Perhaps they were from the area of Denmark, but were they raging horned helmeted Vikings?  Sea levels had recently dropped ever so slightly, making new land at Flegg in Norfolk, actually of use, with just a little bit of drainage - as other new land would have been.  No wonder places like that are dotted with Anglo-Danish place-names.

Was this period though, just a continuation of what had preceded?  We could extend this in a way.  Norwich and Great Yarmouth became host to a number of Dutch protestants during the early 15th Century.  Later it was the Huguenots.  There always was a Dutch influence in East Norfolk.  During the early 20th Century, Anglo-Dutch sugar beet consortiums even carved up the landscape of the area.  Was this nothing new?

But I'm biased...

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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.