New Light on the Anglo-Saxon Succession: Two Cemeteries and Their Dates

By Hills, C. M.; O'Connell, T. C. | Antiquity, December 2009 | Go to article overview

New Light on the Anglo-Saxon Succession: Two Cemeteries and Their Dates


Hills, C. M., O'Connell, T. C., Antiquity


Introduction

Archaeologists in every country have problems arguing for and against cultural and demographic continuity. Key questions relating to migrations reflect on the past and present identities of peoples and nations, and can be answered differently according to current ideological perspectives and theories about the meaning of cultural variation. In Europe, this has been especially important in the interpretation of the character and impact of the transition from the Roman Empire to the early medieval 'barbarian' successor states, including Anglo-Saxon England (Hills 2003). The debate has fluctuated between the traditional scenario of large-scale population replacement (significant immigration or invasion) to explanations constructed in terms of changes in the material representation of identities driven by social, economic and political change (Hakenbeck 2007; Harke 2007; Hills 2003, 2007).

The chronology of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries is still largely based on artefact typology supported by small-scale radiocarbon dating. These provide loose frameworks which give social models much room for manoeuvre. There is a large-scale project now in hand to provide radiocarbon dates for burials of the sixth century onwards (Scull & Bayliss 1999) and other kinds of scientific evidence is increasingly deployed in these debates, such as genetics and isotopic variation, in the belief that these will provide some much needed objectivity. However, reliance on limited samples, sometimes analysed during early stages of the development of new techniques, can introduce misleading conclusions, sometimes with very wide implications for interpretation.

This paper illustrates the problem by means of a re-assessment of the chronology of two cemeteries in the Thames Valley, Queenford Farm and Wally Corner, Berinsfield, which both lie to the north of Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, UK. Both were partially excavated in advance of gravel quarrying, respectively in 1972 and 1981, and in 1974 and 1975 (Chambers 1987; Boyle et al. 1995). Initially the cemeteries were designated as belonging to two different cultural traditions, Queenford Farm to the Romano-British tradition and Berinsfield to the Anglo-Saxon, according to burial practices which are usually seen as chronologically consecutive, and possibly representing ethnically distinct populations.

However, based on radiocarbon dating from Queenford Farm, and artefact chronology from Berinsfield, it was subsequently argued that both cemeteries were in use during the fifth and sixth centuries AD and were therefore at least partially contemporary. The possibility that Britons and Anglo-Saxons existed as neighbouring and contemporary communities has attracted considerable attention and has been used to support an argument that 'apartheid' existed in early Anglo-Saxon England (Booth et al. 2007: 226; Harke 2007: 16).

As in all attempts at the explanation of culture change, the structure of the debate is affected by the quality of the evidence. These two cemeteries have the potential to provide key evidence about replacement/interaction strategies between British and Anglo-Saxon populations, but the arguments that can be deployed depend directly on the precision with which they can be dated. In other words, it is essential first to examine how far these cemeteries really could have been contemporary.

The sites

The Thames Valley is an area with significant evidence for early Anglo-Saxon contact, with a number of cemeteries producing grave-goods of fifth-century type. This region has long been the subject of archaeological fieldwork and research relating to the early Anglo-Saxon period (Hawkes 1986; Booth et al. 2007). Around Dorchester a series of late Roman cemeteries have been partially investigated (Booth 2001) and to the south of Dorchester, the well known early fifth-century burials from Dyke Hills were found with both late Roman belt equipment and early Germanic brooches (Kirk & Leeds 1952-53).

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