The First East Anglians Part I

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?

Roman Colchester

Another of my day trips. Another day off. As a Norfolk bloke, I almost felt as though I was following in the footsteps of the Iceni during the Boudiccan Uprising. I had a good day. One to one tour of the Roman vaults of the old Claudian temple. Here are my photos.



Colchester Castle. Norman medieval, but built directly onto the foundations of the old Roman temple, and recycling much of it's old building material. When the Romans invaded the British Isles in AD 43, they quickly headed for this site. It was an area of importance for the Trinovante tribe. The Romans considered it as the nearest that the South East British had to a Capital City. Claudius followed the crossing with a herd of armoured elephants. He accepted submission here.



Here I'm in the vaults. These were Roman laid foundations for an enormous temple, built for the late emperor Claudius, who had been deified. A monument to the Roman dominance of Britannia.



A Roman tile, with finger prints where it was handled still soft.



The Colchester "Sphinx".



Romano-British smiley on a crematory jar.



The Colchester Hercules.



Hunting scenes in ceramic.



Gladiators at Colchester, Essex.



I'm becoming increasingly interested in shipping and vessels. The North Sea and Channel were bridges rather than walls.



I learned about this one on an archaeology course years ago. The Colchester Roman Doctor's grave. Complete with surgery kit and ... games!



Claudius. Found in a local river. Far too small to have been from the huge bronze effigy that was housed in the temple when Boudicca attacked.



Reconstruction of the Boudiccan siege of the Claudian temple - where the castle was later built, now a museum. Having been beaten, while her daughters were raped, the widow of King Prasutagus of the Iceni (the Iron Age tribe of what is now Norfolk), rose against Rome. Her army stormed down to Colchester. The citizens hid in the temple, which was laid siege for two days, before her warriors broke through and murdered every Roman citizen before burning the town down.



Finds, including molten glass, from the burning of the Roman town by the Iceni led rebels.



More finds from this burning event.



Tombstone of a Roman Legionnaire at Colchester. This one was Thracian, born in what is now Bulgaria. His figure stomping down on a local Briton. This sort of arrogance may have inflamed the rebellion.



Another soldier's tombstone at Colchester. The town was created as a reward to retiring soldiers, that were granted land in reward for their service to Rome. Colchester today is still a Garrison town.

The Colchester Roman Circus

I then walked a mile to the site of a Roman circus.



Model reconstruction.



A little exposed archaeology. The circus was discovered close to the modern garrison in recent years, and excavations are ongoing. The only Roman circus so far discovered in the British Isles. A centre of chariot racing. The stands would have held up to 8,000 spectators:



Today, nothing stands above the surface, other than a few reconstructed foundations.



These reconstructions, along with a glass viewing pane invite us to time travel:



In summary, Colchester was indeed an impressive, large town on the edge of the Western Roman Empire. My personal opinion is that population geneticists that dismiss the contribution of RB haplogroups and DNA to the Southern British population should beware.

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.

What have the Romans done for us?

I can feel Spring in the air.  So, day off from work, I decided to take a field trip.  Wasn't sure where to when I hit the road, but I ended up at Burgh Castle, the ruin of a Roman Fort of the Saxon Shore.

Information board at Burgh Castle.

Traditionally, the Roman Shore Forts of South-East Britain were seen as Late Roman defensive structures, to protect Roman Britain from attack from barbarians from the other side of the North Sea, outside of the Empire.  This remains a valid view, although I remember attending a lecture by a local archaeologist many years ago, that argued that these shore forts, were a little odd.  With civilian activity inside the forts, and not particularly very defensive.  He was arguing that rather than protect Roman Britain from invasion by Anglo Saxon pirates, they were intended to control and tax heavy commerce across the North Sea.  No I'm not going to take sides, perhaps there was an element of both intentions.

I personally also like to see this fort as a sort of 4th Century AD immigration control.  My mother's 18th and 19th Century ancestors are so strongly clustered nearby at the Reedham area, that I can't help but imagine that at least some of her ancestors lived in East Norfolk way back into the medieval, and perhaps some of them rowed passed this recently decommissioned shore fort during the early 5th century AD.  I imagine them jeering at the now abandoned post of the Empire, as they rowed past.  Arriving into Britain, with fealty free land just for the grabbing, a land of opportunity for rural self sustaining farmers from the Continent.

The view down on the Yare and Breydon Water from Burgh Castle.  Much of this would have been flooded during the 4th Century by higher sea levels and the absence of drainage.

From a population genetics point of view, we are usually told that the 360 year long period of Roman Britain contributed little to our present day DNA.  More important was the contribution of the Early Bronze Age, that carried DNA from the Eurasian Steppes, followed perhaps by the Anglo-Saxon / Danish / Norman Medieval immigration events that followed the collapse of shore forts such as this one.  It is usually suggested that because actual migration from Rome was sparse, and troops were scattered from all over the Empire, that there was little impact on the late prehistoric British genome.

However, whenever an odd haplotype turns up in an old British family, including for example, my own Y-DNA that appears to have originated from the area of present day Iran or Iraq, someone will suggest that it could have arrived during the Roman Empire.  Indeed, in some cases they may well have made their way into North west Europe, even to the British Isles during that time.  Trade and exchange across Western Eurasia was thriving.

I give you Burgh Castle, Norfolk.  They may have built it in order to keep some of my ancestors out.

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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