Trading Places: Richard Hodges Says the Rubbish Tips of Anglo-Saxon London and Southampton Contain Intriguing Evidence of England's First Businessmen

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PROFESSOR MIDDLETON, the principal character of Angus Wilson's novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), disarmingly states: 'I know nothing whatsoever about Dark Age Trade, or at any rate no more than befits a gentleman.'

Half a century ago, the economy of the Anglo-Saxons was simply not a subject for consideration: emphasis, instead, was placed on their art and culture. But in the year that Wilson's fictional account of an Anglo-Saxon excavation appeared, the archaeologist G. C. Dunning published an essay that changed our perception of Dark Age commerce. Entitled 'Trade Relations between England and the Continent in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period', it was a revolutionary step towards recognizing the economy of England after the so-called pagan period (the fifth to late seventh century).

Dunning, the first serious student of Anglo-Saxon and medieval pottery, had identified the continental origins of a miscellany of imported potsherds found on small-scale digs in Hamwic, Anglo-Saxon Southampton, and from building sites in London, and used them as indices of commerce to reconstruct the earliest English long-distance trade with the Frankish kingdoms between the Rhine and Seine. This was the first building block towards discovering the origins of England's towns and charting England's embryonic mercantile history from the seventh century to the Viking era in the ninth century.

Up until this point the trade relations of Anglo-Saxon England were defined by incidental remarks made by writers such as Bede (c.673-735), who mentions a Frisian merchant at London in 679; we also know that St Boniface crossed the sea from London to the Frisian emporium of Dorestad in 716 and that St Willibald crossed from Southampton to the emporium (market-place, or urban settlement involved in trade) of Rouen in 720. Then, in a letter that survives from Charlemagne to King Offa of Mercia, there is a reference to the trade in cloth and 'black stones'.

As evidence of trade, Dunning's identification of some broken pieces of ceramics imported from northern France and the Rhineland is perhaps as episodic as that of the contemporary written sources. But his study paved the way for fifty years of research centred on huge excavations in Southampton, London, Ipswich and York. The results have transformed our knowledge of England's earliest businessmen.

Perhaps the most unlikely sponsor of this significant new chapter in the story of English trade is Southampton Football Club, known locally as the Saints. Their new stadium at St Mary's lies in the heart of the emporium of Hamwic, the precursor of medieval Southampton, beside the River Itchen. Hamwic was first investigated in the 1950s, but large-scale excavations were not possible until the site for the new football ground was made available in 1998-2000. In an excavation site covering nearly a hectare, a team from Wessex Archaeology discovered a major Anglo-Saxon cemetery that pre-dated the earliest traces of the emporium, belonging to the late seventh century. As the first cemetery of any note to be found in Hamwic, it has particular importance. The grave goods associated with the cremations and inhumations consist of distinctive carinated jars, jewellery and unimpressive weapons that probably date to the mid seventh century, towards the end of the pagan age when burial demanded the internment of objects with the dead.

Some of the pottery vessels and jewellery show strong affinities with continental examples, in some cases from as far north as Jutland, suggesting that the cemetery belonged to a local Jutish community, one of several that, according to Bede, had occupied the region around the Solent and the New Forest. Similar cemeteries have been noted over the years around beaching-points on the Isle of Wight and along the central south coast of England. They suggest the presence of communities who engaged with Frankish or other continental traders in the small-scale and periodic exchange of valuables that lent prestige to individuals in life and death. …