East Anglian Ancestry for far-away genealogists

User:Ras52, OpenStreetMap, Amitchell125 [CC BY-SA 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This guide is really aimed at distant cousins with ancestry from the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. It's the perspective of a present day East Anglian from the ground.  My ancestors were the ones that usually stayed in East Anglia.

First - definitions of what constitutes East Anglia.  One modern governmental definition: "the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire".  Estate Agents, trying to sell properties in idyllic East Anglia, often go even further, also including Huntingdonshire, Rutland, parts of Lincolnshire, and Essex.  The ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia (see above image), didn't really include these add-ons.  I go with that, but include parts of northern-most Essex.  Why?  Because on the ground, those areas still feel (and sound) East Anglian.  Norfolk, Suffolk, eastern Cambridgeshire, and northern most Essex.  That feels East Anglian.  But it's heart remains the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.

East Anglia is situated on the North Sea coast of South-East England.  It is lowland.  A chalk bed lazily slopes down from west to east, with a layer of  boulder clay on top running through mid Norfolk and high Suffolk.  I say high, nowhere in East Anglia is high.  This is Low Country.  Our hills are in the main, very gradual, slight affairs.  To the west of the chalk bed, lays even lower country - the ultra-flat landscape of the East Anglian Fens.  Wetlands that have been drained for agriculture in rich peat and silt soils.

East Anglia is rural.  It is agricultural.  Largely arable, with favoured crops of wheat, barley, sugar beet, and oil seed rape.  Medium size agri-business fields of crops across a very gently rolling lowland landscape, with parish church towers around every corner, and a buzzard in every copse of trees.  Ancient narrow roads with bordering hedgerows, twist around long forgotten open fields and farmsteads.  Mixed farming enters the river valleys, where cattle are fattened on rich grasses.  Intensive pig and poultry broiler units also dot the landscape.

What about the East Anglians?  That is one of the subjects of this post.

East Anglia isn't on the road to anywhere, but East Anglia.  You don't pass through East Anglia on the way to the Industrial North, Scotland, Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham, or London.  It's far out on the periphery of Hub.co.uk.  It's main urban centres are the small City of Norwich, and the towns of Ipswich, Kings Lynn and Bury St Edmunds.  They are all, 'small'. Norwich comes in at a lowly 48th in English town by population size.  You see, small.  Far more medieval towers than modern high rise towers.

After the urban centres, most modern East Anglians probably live in or near the market-towns.  These are really tiny "towns" some little more than villages.  Some are lovely, ancient, with unspoiled centres and market places.  Places such as Wymondham, Holt, Diss, Woodbridge, Swaffham, Beccles, Pulham Market, Laxfield, Long Melford, etc.  There must be dozens scattered across East Anglia.

Wymondham market-town centre.

The rest of the East Anglians live in the countryside, outside of the market-towns.  Trying to explain this to American genealogists where the old Roman ideal of planned city prevails, is difficult.  We have villages.  We have lots of them.  Most are early Medieval in origin.  They are set in ancient divisions known as parishes.  Many East Anglians now live in suburbs on the edges of towns - but until a century or two ago, most of them lived further out in the countryside, in these villages.

How many villages have we got in East Anglia?  Would you believe, somewhere around 1,300, with over 700 in the county of Norfolk alone.  They absolutely dot the East Anglian countryside.  Living in the countryside, in farmsteads and villages - that really is the Anglo-Saxon way of Life.  Look at the below snip of a part of south Norfolk.  See all of those red circles.  Villages.  The Blue circle is a market town on the old Roman road (A140).

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Until a few centuries ago, most East Anglians lived in the countryside.  Most of these villages will have a medieval church.  There are more than 600 of them in Norfolk.  They'll also often have a later non-conformist chapel as well.  Over 600 medieval religious buildings in Norfolk!  Possibly the highest density of medieval churches anywhere in the World.  This is because Medieval Norfolk was central.  It wasn't so peripheral before the Industrial Revolution.  The medieval City of Norwich was the second or third largest city in England after London.  All of those empty medieval churches.  Where did the populace go?  Some of them may have been your ancestors.

How about the origins of the East Anglians themselves?  Who are they?

There are very few "Celtic" place-names in East Anglia, other than the Ouse river system.  Most of the villages and place-names in East Anglia are of Anglo-Saxon origin, dating to between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, around 1,200 years ago.  In addition there are a number of place-names that are Anglo-Danish in origin, dating to the 9th - 11th centuries AD, with a cluster of them in eastern Norfolk.  See the map below, of the area called Flegg, an Anglo-Danish place-name in itself.  All of those -by place-names - they were most likely settled by "Viking" Danish immigrants during the 9th to 11th centuries.

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Previous to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th century AD, the region that we know call East Anglia had for centuries,  been a part of the Western Roman Empire.  Even further back than that, at the turn of prehistory to written history, the northern parts of the region were the home of the Iceni tribal federation, and the southern part to the Trinovante.  These Late Iron Age peoples were descended from an immigration event from the Continent into the British Isles that took place some 2,000 years earlier.  Call their ancestors Bell Beaker, Celt, British Celt, or Ancient Briton - their DNA is still the most dominant aspect of the modern British, and even English gene pool.  The Roman occupation appears to have had little impact on their genetic make up.

Then the Anglo-Saxons arrived.  They came from what is now Northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.  Early Anglo-Saxon artifacts found in East Anglia, have their closest correlation on the Continent with artifacts in Northern Germany, south of the Danish border.  This was the origin of the Angles - which the early kings of East Anglia clearly identified with.  Saxo-Frisians in what is now the Netherlands were well placed to migrate to the region, and contributed to this migrant community.

The most recent genetic studies suggest that rather than displace the Britons in the lowlands, that the Anglo-Saxons admixed with them in marriage.  Indeed, as I said, genetically, the DNA of the earlier Britons is still the majority component, even in England.  There was no genocide.  However, an Anglo Saxon identity, culture, and language was adopted by all during following centuries.

West Stow reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village in Suffolk.  The birth of the East Anglian village.

Not all of the Continental DNA in East Anglia arrived here during the 5th or 6th centuries AD.  Some may have already been here from the Empire, or earlier.  Some arrived during the 9th to 11th century settlement of Danes in the region.  Then the Normans.  The Medieval saw Angevins from Aquitaine, and other French arrive.  Then during the 16th century, there was a significant settlement of Elizabethan Strangers (protestant refugees) from what is now the Netherlands.  Huguenots followed.  Asides from these noteable immigration events, there would have been a drip-drip feed of foreigners into the region.  Dutch herring fishermen and engineers, Lithuanian timber and fur traders.  Drovers from the Midlands.  Indeed surname studies suggest that during the late medieval and following Tudor periods, there were a number of people moving into the Norfolk countryside - from the Continent, but also from other parts of England such as for example, Yorkshire.  East Anglia isn't on the way to any where, but neither is it totally isolated from ingress of new settlers.

The consequence of the location of East Anglia in the North Sea World, is that Genetic Genealogists looking at their DNA "Ethnicity Estimates" or "Ancestry Composition" results might see high levels of DNA matching the panels for the Continent, rather than for the British Isles.

How did the East Anglians live?

Many genealogists proudly brag of documented descent from early medieval kings and emperors (usually Charlemagne).  The lines that they trace in order to claim this must be those of the minority of the medieval European population - the titled and landed nobles, with their heraldic records.  This elite weren't really representative of the entire population.

East Anglians were mainly rural, untitled, and really didn't have a lot of wealth.  During the feudal Medieval, most East Anglians would have been within the ranks of the common peasantry, owing a range of fealties to their lords, in return for protection.  Not all were particularly free, although there were high percentages of freemen peasants in eastern Norfolk.  Others were tied in levels of servitude to their manors.  They tilled their strips in the communal open field systems.  They grazed their meagre livestock on the commons.  They also worked the lord's land, supplied him with sheep fencing, ale, fuel, and grains.  When called on, the men would have served the lord in wars against the Scottish, French or other houses.  Life was hard, brutal, and often too short.  However, the abundance of medieval churches across the region testify to the wealth that their labour actually created.  It testifies to the success of their medieval economy here in East Anglia.

Two men threshing sheaf - Luttrell Psalter c1325-1335 f74v - BL Add MS 42130

Two men threshing sheaf - Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335), f.74v  See page for author [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.  Originally published/produced in England [East Anglia].

Most peasant families didn't even adopt hereditary surnames until around the 13th to 15th centuries AD.  Except for brief mentions in manorial records, tithes, and polls, most don't even enter the records until 1538, when parish registers were introduced with the English Reformation.  So unless you tie into an aristocratic line - you are not going to trace your East Anglian ancestry much further back than 1550.  Indeed, many parish registers are damaged, lost, or destroyed.  Many records are illegible.  There is no guarantee of making it back that far.  I find it difficult to trace back rural East Anglian roots with a high degree of certainty much earlier than 1720, for the lack of correlative evidence from censuses, transcripts, etc.
Hoard of 12th century (Henry III) hammered silver coins recovered in Norfolk, and recorded by my late father.

Not all East Anglians worked the soil.  There were skilled crafts people such as the cordwainers, potters, smiths, and weavers.  Some based in villages, others in the towns.  Protestant beliefs and practices spread across Eastern England following the Reformation, particularly in urban areas.  This was re-enforced during the late 16th century AD, when protestant refugees from the Roman-Catholic crown, in the Netherlands, were invited to settle in Norwich, Ipswich, and elsewhere across East Anglia and south east England.  One poll of Norwich at this time suggested that as much as one third of the City population consisted of these Dutch and French protestants.  They were invited not only as allies against Roman Catholic Europe, but to bring their valuable crafts and skills to East Anglia.

Their protestant vigour was infectious.  East Anglia became a hot bed of Protestantism.  As the Crown and Establishment turned down the Reformation, opting for keeping Conservative values in their Anglican Church, so the Protestants ... protested.  Some hopped back over the North Sea to the Netherlands, which had for the time being, repelled the Catholic powers.  However, some of these most puritan protestants then asked the English king for permission to set up their own colonies in New England.  Permission was readily granted.  The Puritans left Eastern England en mass.  The point though is that this particular chapter of East Anglians migrating away, was centred in main, on urban classes, skilled workers, and  those that could actually afford the voyage.

Norfolk saw little bloodshed during the 17th century English Civil War, as it was safely Parliamentarian. Except for a riot and explosion in Norwich when the Puritans tried banning Christmas. 

Back to the countryside...

Between the 16th and 19th centuries AD, the descendants of the old East Anglian peasantry had to adapt to a number of economic changes that were not in their interest.  The great land owning families were enclosing and renting out their lands to free tenant farmers, breaking up the old manorial estates.  Some fields were enclosed, and the peasants found themselves replaced by more profitable sheep.  Even the commons were enclosed and privatised.  While the more entrepreneurial freemen rented out land to farm themselves, as tenant farmers, many others found themselves surplus to requirement, and alienated from the soils that had fed their ancestors for generations.  They became farm hands, the great army of "ag labs" (agricultural labourers) of the 19th century censuses.  Not all  labourers were equal.  The more fortunate, loyal, and skilled might find themselves almost in full employment, with a regular wage and a tied cottage.  The less fortunate were the paupers.  Seasonal workers that had to constantly look for work, or beg for parish relief.  The rural poor didn't always accept these changes without resistance.  In 1381, Norfolk and Suffolk peasants joined in a rebellion that threatened London.  In 1549, Norfolk peasants rose into an army that captured the City of Norwich.  In 1830, East Anglia was a centre of the Swing Riots.

Many agricultural labourers and their families still married and baptised as Anglican at the Church of England, but although much of the puritanical fervour had by now swept away from East Anglia, many were increasingly turning to non-conformist chapels of the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists.  The Primitive Methodists were particularly successful in East Anglia during the 19th Century.

If you had rural working class East Anglian ancestors during the 16th to 19th centuries, imagine them very poor.  Following the Agricultural Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, new machines and technologies replaced much seasonal and manual labour on the fields.  The commons, where the poor had grazed their animals had been taken away.  Poor relief was ceased, and the desperate were forced to enter prison-like workhouses, in order to be fed - families split into separate dormitories, the poor harshly penalised, and discouraged from asking for relief.

How the land owners, farmers, and parsons saw it - the East Anglian countryside simply had a large surplus of unwanted labour.  They were encouraged to leave.  Some to far away colonies - Australia and Canada.  Others to feed the factories and mills of the Industrial Revolution in places like Newcastle, Yorkshire, or London.  For many - the railways arrived just in time to escort them away.

Example of East Anglian Accent.

Researching rural East Anglian ancestry

Understand that:

  1. Most East Anglians were not titled, nor recorded in heraldic records.
  2. Parish registers online are incomplete.  Not all parishes or registers have even been digitally photographed.
  3. Some parish registers have been lost, destroyed, or are badly damaged.
  4. The transcriptions of the registers on some online genealogical services are sometimes incorrect.  Always if you can, try to see scans of the original registers online.  Because of these frequent errors, the databases often fail on searches.
  5. If your ancestor was rural, use OpenStreetMap.org and magnify down to get to really know the area that they lived in.  Appreciate distances by foot.  People did sometimes move more than several miles - but very often in East Anglia, didn't!  It's not unusual to see one family in the same small parish for several generations.  Sometimes marrying cousins.  It was the arrival of the railways, that sometimes allowed families to finally escape the rural poverty.
  6. You find Harry X marries Mary Z in a village.  You search the online databases for his baptism (and parentage).  You find a baptism of a Harry X in the same county.  You add him and his parents to your tree.  Problem is ... the baptism was 23 miles away, and you don't realise it, but there were a number of Harry X at the same time, several closer to the place of marriage - you have made an error.  You just saw the one on the database.  More research might have uncovered a more likely candidate, with siblings named like his children, in the village next to that in which he married Mary Z.  Getting to know the area really well may have made you search harder.
  7. Illegitimacy is a surprise to some.  You will see plenty of it in 18th and 19th century East Anglia.  It was generated by poverty, poor housing, poor education, and desperation.
  8. Most of your rural working class ancestors will be illiterate, and sign with an X.  Education of the labourers was discouraged.  However, now and then, you will find one that served as the parish clerk.  Some could read.
  9. Widows and widowers, with children in tow, would frequently remarry quickly.  Support for the children was vital to keep them out of the workhouse.
  10. Infant mortality can be very depressing or sobering.  Expect some high rates.
  11. Don't be surprised to find ancestors listed as paupers, or as inmates in workhouses, gaols, or even the asylum.
  12. Check non-conformist church records, as well as the Anglican.  The Methodists operated by "circuits".

My Drover Ancestors - walking in footsteps

I've recently, through DNA matching, reinvestigated my Peach ancestors of the Maxey area of Northamptonshire.  The men of this family were usually recorded as drovers or shepherds.  Below for example, are some of my Peach drovers as they stayed for the night at an inn in Hoe, Norfolk during 1851. Young James there, walking livestock from the other side of the Fens, was the 20 year old younger brother of my 3rd great grandfather, David Peach.

The family lived for a number of generations, in the area of Stamford, Maxey, and Eye, in what was then the County of Northants, close to Peterborough.  It was the perfect base for the transportation of Welsh cattle, sheep, and other livestock, from the North and West, across the Fen droves, and down to the rich meadows, pastures, and marsh grasses of East Anglia, where livestock could be fattened, before then being driven down to markets including Smithfields in London. Before the railways, this livestock had to be transported the hard way - by foot along a number of trails and droves, that took in watering points, grazing, and were secure from gangs of rustlers.

Many drovers were young men, that later settled as shepherds and labourers.  They were travellers outside of their home areas.  Visitors to far away inns, markets, fairs, and parishes.  Maybe that was an attraction for some local girls, such as my 3rd great grandmother, Sarah Ann Riches, of the South West Norfolk parish of Great Hockham.  These lads from far away, with strange accents.  Did she walk back with my 3rd great grandfather David Peach, all the way back to Northamptonshire?  They married at Holywell Lincolnshire, in 1835.  Sarah must have been heavily pregnant, because she gave birth to their daughter Ann Peach a few months later at Etton, Northants.

The livestock that these drovers were paid to walk many miles were often highly valuable, their monetary value far in excess of the personal value of a poor drover.  They had to be trusted to take care of them, and to behave with honesty.  It would be so easy to sell an animal on the journey, and to claim that it had died of natural causes.  Some drovers broke that trust.  In 1837, my 3rd great grandfather, David Peach, was convicted at Lincoln Assizes of stealing two cattle.  He was taken to a prison hulk ship moored into the Thames.  A few months later, he was transported for Life.  His convict ship stopped off at Norfolk Island, before then moving him to Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) in 1838.  He was sent to the notorious hard labour Port Arthur convict settlement.  Some years later he was pardoned, but he was not granted licence to return to Britain.

Meanwhile, his young family suffered.  His wife Sarah Ann, with their young daughter, Ann Peach, returned to her family in Norfolk.  A wife of a convict, even if transported for Life, could not remarry.  She had to find means to survive and to raise Ann on her own.  She lived many years in the Norfolk market town of Attleborough, where she scraped a livelihood as a charwoman.  She had two further children.  One, she named David Wilson Peach.  Wilson, most likely the biological father - but she gave him her husband's first name.  Did she still harbour strong feelings for her far away husband?

Other male Peach's in the family continued to drove, as the above 1851 census reveals.  David was literally in another world.  Two of Sarah's siblings, Henry Riches and Maria Hudson (nee Riches), also migrated to Tasmania, albeit during the 1850s as volunteer settlers to the north of the Island.

Walking in footsteps

I had one of those time-traveller moments today.  It occurred to me, as I found a DNA match supporting my descent from these drovers, when I visited a website about them, how I on a personal level, have always been a long distance walker.  From sponsored long distance walks as a kid, until walking the Marriot's Way, and Boudicca Way in Norfolk only this year.  I absolutely love walking through the countryside.  Testing my endurance.  With a dog or two even better.  I've walked the Peddars Way twice, the Fen Rivers Way, the North Norfolk Coast Path, and the Weavers Way.  In 2016, I walked a part of the Pennine Way.  But all of those walks, some of them would have even crossed where my drover ancestors crossed.  With their dogs.  It's almost as though we have that hereditary link.  I'm the descendant of drovers and I walk.  Without knowing it, I have walked in their footsteps.

Here are some of my photos from my 2017 walks.  Perhaps some of these landscapes may not have been too dissimilar to the green lanes and landscapes that they knew (albeit without the huge open fields).

So maybe, just maybe, there is a link there.  The guy that just loves to walk through the East Anglian countryside all day, and those drovers of the Nineteenth Century.  The desire to walk and to explore.

Living DNA - June 2017 updates

Living DNA produced their first update.  An update by a "DNA for Ancestry" business can sound like an admission of failure.  To some, it could sound like a recall due to product failure.  "Your previous ancestry was a mistake".  This only applies if you have bought into some marketing campaigns, that autosomal DNA tests for ancestry actually work even close to 100%.  Surprise, they don't!  They are cutting edge, in development, and far from accurate below a Continental level. They are still somewhere in the twilight between being nothing more than a genetic lottery, and actually becoming a tool that is useful.  Therefore "updates" are to be welcomed.  They are a sign that the business wants to improve the test accuracy.  That is to the credit of Living DNA.

My latest results?  First of all, a quick recap on my actual ancestry, as supported by family history, local history, ethnicity, and by a traditionally researched record based family tree that includes over 270 direct ancestors over the past 380 years.  I'm English.  Indeed, all of my direct ancestors, appear to have been South East English.  More precise, I'm East Anglian.  On family history and recorded genealogy, I'd suggest that between 75% and 85% of my direct ancestors over the past three centuries were East Anglian, almost all from the County of Norfolk.  Others on my father's side, if not in East Anglia, still in Southern England.

That I feel, makes me an interesting subject for ancestral auDNA testing.  You see, my ancestry is very localised here in South East England.  DNA tests such as 23andMe that claim to accurately plot ancestry over the past 300 - 500 years should get me.  But they don't.  This is because their algorythms, and reference data set designs fail over different ages.  They also (although they sometimes deny it), fail to discriminate against older population background.  We East Anglians and South East English have been heavily admixed with non-British populations on the European Continent.  Not so much over the past 500 years, so much as over the past few thousand years.

The new Results.

Below are my Living DNA regional ancestry, based on Standard Mode.

Below are my Standard Mode results broken down into sub regions.

Below is a table, comparing my recorded ancestry, with my early Living DNA results in Standard, now my revised results.

Living DNA has now introduced two new modes of confidence called complete and cautious modes.  First the Complete results:

Below are my Complete Mode results in regional:

Below are my Complete Mode results for sub-regional:

Now the Cautious results:

Below are my Cautious Mode results in regional:

Finally, below are my Cautious Mode results for sub-regional:


No auDNA test, by any DNA-for-ancestry company has yet come close to assigning me 100% English or even British.  They don't get me.  23andMe gives me 32-37% "British & Irish".  FT-DNA gives me "36% British".  Therefore, to be fair, Living DNA, giving me 70% "Great Britain or Ireland", give me the best result.  However, Living DNA has started out with the largest, best quality British data-set of any DNA-for-ancestry company, and is often accused of a bias towards Britain in it's results.  If so, then my 70% still looks weak.  They are planning on producing similar quality data sets soon for Ireland, Germany, then France. Therefore any results, will as I started out saying at the beginning of this post, be perpetually progressive.  Businesses that do not improve data sets or algorithms, will not get any better.  They are not progressive.

I get Southern European in other tests besides this one.  Living DNA points to Tuscany.  FT-DNA before a recent update gave me 32% Southern European, although they have revised this down to a little noise from South-East Europe!  23andMe gives me 2% Southern European - but this appears nothing unusual for an English tester.  None-the-less, I am interested in trying to better understand, why some of these tests give me this "Southern European" admixture, for which my family history, local history, and recorded genealogy has absolutely no account.  It equally reflects in ancient calculators that give me a little bit more Neolithic Farmer than for other English, which on average, already have a little more Neolithic Farmer than other British or Irish populations do.

The New Complete and Cautious Modes

How do I feel about these?  At Sub-Regional level, the Complete mode starts to get silly.  For the first time, Living DNA at this level, starts to even suggest some ancestry from Wales, SW Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Only small percentages - but I just don't buy them.

However, the Cautious Mode, I start to like.  My British ancestry doesn't increase, but it looks more realistic, although with strange enigmatic suggestions still of Italian ancestry in the mix.  At Sub-Regional level, Cautious Mode also looks a little more likely.  My East Anglian remains at 37%, I however, lose Lincolnshire (which does exist in my record), but retain Cornwall.  I think Cornwall unlikely - however, there is just a small hint that something could be there, in surname evidence of a brick-walled great great great grandparent.  So maybe, just maybe.

East Anglia

I seriously doubt that my East Anglian ancestry over the past 300 years genuinely falls much below 75%.  Living DNA only appears to recognise a half of it at 37% - but they claim to be easily able to identify East Anglian DNA.  They call it "Distinct" because of it's high levels of Continental admixture.  They have admitted that based on their early data sets, that it was hard to separate from Germanic.  I don't know why it isn't stronger in my results.  I honestly do believe that the test underplays it on my results, even though it is the strongest of any population in my test results.  My East Anglian ancestors lived mainly in Eastern, Central, and Southern Norfolk.

Living DNA also provide a chart of the Continental "contributing regions" to East Anglian ancestry:

Finally, a chart breaking down their proposal of my British ancestry at Cautious mode:

I'm not disappointed with Living DNA.  That it does identify me as 37% East Anglian is I believe, incredibly good, and far advanced over any other DNA-for-ancestry test.  I'm looking forward to more updates in the future.  Well done Living DNA.

The First East Anglians Part II

Above image modified from NordNordWest [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the previous post (The First Anglians Part I), I referred to excavation reports from Caistor St Edmund, as published in 1973.  Here, I mainly refer to a book that was recommended to the landscape history, The Origins of Norfolk by Tom Williamson, MUP 1993.

Williamson refers to local Pagan Saxon cemeteries, that largely date to the 5th to 7th centuries AD. He tells us that a large number of these cemeteries have been found in Norfolk, with many of the earlier cemeteries containing decorated urns of the cremated dead.

I recently visited one of these cemeteries, the infamous Spong Hill, near to North Elmham, Norfolk:

The book reports that:

Catherine Hills, moreover, has shown that the burial practices employed at the largest Norfolk cemetery yet excavated, at Spong Hill near North Elmham, are so close to those practised in parts of northern Europe that they surely must represent the graves of people of Continental origin or descent.  More than this, she has demonstrated that the cemetery's closest parallels are with the Anglian, rather than with the Saxon, areas of the Continent.  Hills compared the burials at Spong Hill with those at Suderbrarup and Bordesholm in Schleswig-Holstein, and at Westerwanna in Lower Saxony.  The range of grave-goods found at all the sites was similar, but the closest similarities were consistently between Spong and the Schleswig sites.  Thus for example 'The most characteristic late fourth to fifth century burials at Suderbrarup seem to be those which contain sets of miniatures with combs, in pots which either have no decoration or a horizontal/vertical bossed and grooved design.  Very similar burials occur at Spong Hill' (Hills, forthcoming).

The Anglian affinities were not entirely clear-cut.  In particular, the Spong pottery urns, with their use of stamped ornament, showed closest affinities with those from the Westerwanna cemetery.

It's not clear cut is it?  I think that what we see in East Anglia, is a general migration from the area of northern Germany and Jutland.  Perhaps even further afield, from Frisia, and from tribes further to the south - a Norfolk inhumation suggests Allemani, a place name (Swaffham) suggests Suevvi.  However, culturally, that area of what is now Northern Germany, including Schleswig-Holstein, appears to have given lead in identity.

I currently feel that late 5th / early 6th century AD East Anglia, although with this Anglian bias, was a pretty multicultural area, with many people the descendants of Angles, but also from other tribes scattered from Frisia to Jutland - and also often sharing local Romano-British ancestry.  During the 6th Century, as new elites emerged, they claimed heroic ancestry from the Angles of Schleswig-Holstein.  It may, or may not have been true.  The East Anglian Royal family actually claimed dual ancestry - to be descended both from Woden, and from Julius Caesar! (That might suggest some lingering Romano-British identity in the emerging kingdom).  However, it was 7th century cool to be associated with Beowulf adventurers of the North Sea.

The Spong Hill Man.  Norwich Castle Museum.

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?

Arminghall Henge, Norwich, Norfolk

This afternoon, I decided to visit Arminghall Henge. Only 55 minutes cycle ride from my home, it sits just outside of the Norwich southern bypass, near to County Hall. It was not in any way sign posted. Not as much as an information sign. Even though the "Boadicea Way" trail runs right past it:

Indeed, the only way that I found it was through online resources and my GPS:

It was first spotted in 1929 - a first in the history of aerial photography for archaeology. It was excavated in 1935:

The ambiance can only detected by the imaginative. As a seasoned time traveller, it gave me the kick, despite it being in a horse field, with overhead HV power cables, right next to a major power sub station for the City of Norwich:

Not really an attraction for tourists. No standing stones. this is East Anglia, we don't have boulder-stones. The Neolithic creators of this site erected earthworks and massive timbers - the post-holes that sometimes be seen from above. Incidentally, in archaeology, a "Henge" is not a stone circle. Stone circles were sometimes erected inside a henge, often later. It's a circular bank and ditch earthwork, with the ditch on the inside - as though keeping something in - a defensive rampart has the ditch on the outside. A henge keeps something "in". Interesting is that the most famous henge - Stonehenge, breaks that convention.

Looking up at the site of the Henge from the nearby water course at the bottom of the valley.

and the modern water course itself.

If you've seen my posts in this section before, you know that I like to do a little mole hill archaeology:

Yes, that's a flint flake in the mole hill. Displaying it's dorsal surface, showing the scars of previously removed flakes.

An inspection before returning it to it's topsoil context. I'm here showing you the striking platform, point of impact, and conchoidal fracture bulb. On the right, I can tell you it has wear from being used as a "notched flake", maybe to clean a bone, or an arrow-shaft or similar.

Another flint flake, dorsal surface, showing the scars of previously struck flakes from the core.

Finally, more recent archaeology. A lens cap circa AD 2010?

I hope that someone out there gets some enjoyment from these third person explores of East Anglian sites.

Spong Hill Anglo-Saxon Cemetery to Gressenhall Workhouse

I recently visited Sutton Hoo, the ship-burial ground of early East Anglian kings.  However, Sutton Hoo, in south-east Suffolk, isn't the only known focus for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.  Another exists closer to me, in mid-Norfolk.  Today I took a local field/road trip!

This blurry poor quality photo of a field was taken by myself earlier today.  I had to endure hunting around with grid references, and thorn scratches in order to take that.  I'm pleased.  I know what the legendary Spong Hill looks like now.  It doesn't look much does it?  However, this field has had the hell dug out of it over the past 250 years.  Why?  Because it yielded thousands of finds.  It is the site of a large and important Anglo-Saxon cemetery.  It is thought that around 3,000 people ended up here, the majority cremated.  That's a significant cemetery - 2,200 cremations dated to between 410 AD and 550 AD have been recorded here.  Many accompanied by stamped Anglo-Saxon urns, including some displayed in the Norwich Castle Museum exhibit below:

Cremations appear to have been the favoured method of disposing the dead in this cemetery, although later burials do exist on the site.  However, many of the early cremations here must have included the first wave immigrants from the Anglo-Saxon homelands on the Continent.  The most famous single artifact find in this field must be "Spong Hill Man".  The ceramic figure from an urn lid in the image at the top of this page.

My field trip today didn't end there.  Next stop had to be in the same parish.  A premium Late Anglo-Saxon site.  Again, it's appearance disguises it's former importance.  A low level ruin of a Norman chapel.  It is however believed that previous to being used as a norman chapel, and later as a medieval castle, it was the site of the very first Cathedral of East Anglia.

Today North Elmham is a village in Norfolk.  However, Spong Hill, and later, the Cathedral site, suggest that to the early East Anglians, this parish held far more importance.  North Elmham in mid-Norfolk was the first known ecclesiastical centre of East Anglia.  After the Conquest, the mantle was passed to Thetford briefly, before moving to Bury St Edmunds.  If you were not informed otherwise, today, you would have no idea that this village had once played such an important part in East Anglian, and English history.  An early base of the Anglo-Saxons perhaps?  Spong Hill had indeed been used by a significant local community.

Indeed, another site has recently been excavated - a Middle Saxon (AD 650 - AD 850) cemetery, only a few miles north of North Elmham, at Great Ryburgh.  This newly recorded site has hit the archaeological headlines for it's water logged timber coffins.

I love archaeology and all sorts of heritage.  However, I'm primarily a genealogist.  I'm of the school that 1) we should tell a story, and 2) we should embrace local history, archaeology and population genetics in order to tell a deeper story.  So how can I link the above sites to my family history?  Quite easily.  You see, I have lot's of recorded ancestors from my father's side - just a few miles to the south of Spong Hill.  Not all of their ancestry would have likely originated with the customers of the Spong Hill cemetery, or have venerated the timber cathedral at North Elmham.  However, in all likelihood - some of them would have.

So on this field-road trip, I venture only a couple of miles from Spong Hill, to a 19th century site of my ancestry that has a story worth telling.

Gressenhall Workhouse.  Built in 1779 to house the poor of the local hundred.  It transformed into a less friendly place with the Poor Law Union Act.  I have joked that this is the family estate, as a number of my father's ancestors were associated with it.  As inmates unfortunately.  My 2xgreat grandfather William Bennett Baxter was born here in 1846:

His birth was illegitimate, and his mother, Eliza would have been a Jacket Woman:

He was not listed in the workhouse during the 1851 census.  He did later, on in a marriage register, claim William Bennett (who was a young but married local miller) to be his father.  His known ancestry was all local to the Dereham and mid-Norfolk area:

Could this be his initials that I today saw there on a wall in what use to be the boy's courtyard?

He married Harriet Barber who had also been born in Gressenhall Workhouse!  She was born there in 1847.  Harriet was also of a local family - and one with a history of illegitimacy.  The below pedigree chart is of her mother, also Harriet Barber, born at nearby Swanton Morley in 1826:

Her family were mainly in Swanton Morley - and with that high level of illegitimacy, I have tongue-in-cheek, suggested that as Abraham Lincoln's paternal line were in that same village, that we could be related there.  The point that I'm making is that these were local, rural, poor people, with most likely, local ancestry in that area.  The people inhumed at Anglo-Saxon cemeteries nearby most likely did count within at least a part of their ancestry.

So both William and Harriet were born illegitimate in the workhouse at Gressenhall.  The surprise that follows is that so were their first two children some years later.  Then they settled down in the Swanton Morley and Northall Green area near to Dereham.

I'll finish off this photo-blog of today's journey through ancestry with a simple photo, of a local lane in the area: