Where did people bury the dead with spears? Where did people live? Can Britain’s physical landscape tell us anything about society in the early middle ages?
I say that I study ‘Anglo-Saxon England’, but really there was no such thing in the fifth and sixth centuries. Britain was briefly united under the Roman Empire, but that unity ended when Rome left, and post-Roman Britain was made of many smaller kingdoms – ‘small worlds’, James Gerrard calls them – each with the potential to develop its own history and habits. But, and here’s the catch: no written sources survive to tell us where these kingdoms were, who ruled them, what they called themselves, nor how they changed and evolved during the crucial 200 years following Roman Britain’s collapse c. 410 CE. We have to piece it together from fragments of archaeology, unreliable memories recorded hundreds of years later, and traces left on Britain’s landscape.
So how do I, studying something as naively broad as ‘spears in early medieval English society’, begin to make sense of Britain’s regional fragmentation?
Let’s make some maps!
First off, here’s a map of all the sites I’ve studied in detail (that’s about 70 cemeteries, and 800 spearheads).
Notice where they are – almost entirely in modern day England, that is the south and east of Britain. But there are still a lot of gaps in the map between those dots. Let’s add more data and see how the picture changes.
The pattern’s even clearer now: spears are definitely clustered in southeast Britain, a region roughly (but not perfectly) corresponding to modern day England.
Why aren’t there any spears in Wales?
Naturally, I’m not the first person to notice this pattern. Since the nineteenth century, English archaeologists have noted that burial practices look very different in post-Roman England and Wales. In England, many people were buried with grave goods: weapons with men, jewelry with women (and occasionally the reverse). Almost every single spear we’ve ever found from early medieval Britain has been in one of these burials. In English settlements, Welsh hill forts, smiths’ workshops: no weapons, beyond a literal handful of broken scraps for recycling.
Now, we know that the people living in post-Roman Wales had weapons. We’ve excavated monumental fortifications that fifth-century Romano-British chieftains remodeled on Welsh hilltops, and the earliest poems that survive from early medieval Wales describe the spears of the Welsh warlords. But, unfortunately, none of these weapons have survived for us to study.
So the pattern on the map is real, and it outlines the difference between places where people were buried with grave goods, and those in which they were not.
This begs the question: why were these people buried with spears, while their neighbors – who also fought – weren’t?
English antiquarians long suspected that this had something to do with race/ethnicity, immigration, and politics, and in 1913 archaeologist T.E. Leeds published a now famous map explaining his interpretation of the patterns we see:
To Leeds, the divisions visible in the archaeological material indicated the boundaries of political kingdoms, specifically the kingdoms of the Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic peoples who (a preacher named Gildas, and later historians like Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, claimed) invaded Britain and drove its Roman inhabitants to hide in the Welsh hills. The differences in archaeology, Leeds and others argued, highlighted differences in culture between the war-loving Germanic immigrants and their largely peaceful Romano-British neighbors / victims.
In the following century, many wiser heads than mine have questioned whether these burials do, in fact, contain the bodies of foreign invaders. Recent studies suggest that while the answer is complicated, the evidence overwhelmingly points toward a multi-ethnic background for the people living in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ territory: many were clearly locals, and some were actually immigrants from the west, that is from Wales. Some communities show clear continuity from the Roman period through the early ‘Anglo-Saxon’, indicating no significant disturbance of the population or violent upheaval / invasin, and the parts of England which were reorganized were peopled by a mixture of old Roman elites, peasant farmers, and newcomers. Spear burials aren’t the bodies of German outsiders.
That raises a question, however, for understanding our map. If the areas where spears were buried weren’t inhabited by a different cultural/ethnic group from the inhabitants of Wales – why did they bury their dead so differently from their neighbors?
Let’s play with our maps by adding more features, and see if any further patterns emerge.
One of the first patterns I noticed when I began making these maps is the large number of sites located near rivers. Here’s a map highlighting the sites (red) within a 20 minute walk of a major river:
Now, what happens if we add elevation to the mix?
Chris Green recently blogged about his projects’ work to understand settlement patterns in England through time, and he shared a map of Britain’s coastal (blue), lowland (yellow), and highland (purple) regions:
Let’s overlay our findspots onto this map:
Spears aren’t just clustered along rivers – they’re clustered in river valleys.
But this is just a map of find spots. Some of these dots are single spearheads, while others are cemeteries with dozens of spears. Let’s adjust our map to show the areas of highest concentration (red) of spear finds, instead of the individual find spots:
The relationship between spearheads and river valleys is even more apparent, now.
We can add one more piece of data to the puzzle: the agricultural potential of the soil. Natural England has conducted detailed studies of the soil types and agricultural potential of modern England, and has published a map of five rough ‘grades’ cataloging the agricultural versatility of England’s soil. These grades are based on water tables and soil types (which, excepting several drainage projects, have maintained general continuity over the past 1500 hears), and hence provide a very rough approximation of England’s historical (as well as its modern) agricultural potential.
Here is the map again, with the find spots added back on top of the clusters. The sites with green dots are on soil that is suited for growing wheat; the yellow dots are poor agricultural land.
Spears are concentrated in low river valleys, and there are few spears buried on higher ground away from waterways. More specifically, they’re concentrated on fertile farmland ideally suited for growing grain. This tallies nicely with Harrington and Welch’s recent argument for the close relationship between new fifth century settlement sites and the best agricultural land.
Where are they not located? In the uplands, the parts of Britain better suited for pastoral farming (sheep, not grain).
And indeed, if we look at agricultural production in Late Roman Britain, we see that most of Britain’s intensive grain production was located in the parts of England where, a century later, spears were being buried (see Gerrard 2013 for a discussion). The uplands to the north and west – the places with no spears – were always more heavily dependent upon herding and smaller, more isolated farmsteads.
So: the people who buried spears were those who controlled fertile river valleys of Britain’s bread basket.
But, why spears? Did farmers have to fight to keep control of the richest farmland? Did land ownership necessitate a more hierarchical social structure than the looser pastoral societies that grew in the west (but: remember those Welsh hill forts)? Did the military men of the frontiers bring their weapons, and their martial identity (the so-called habitus barbarus), down into the heartland to fill the power vacuum left by Roman withdrawal? And what is the role of exchange across the English Channel and the North Sea with people in France and Germany who also, during these centuries, began burying their dead with weapons?
The picture is complex, and I’m only exploring the very tip of my work over the past two months, here.
But before I end this post, let me share one more map:
This map cuts up England into separate regions, each centred on a cluster of spearheads. As we’ve seen, these regions are shaped by geography: each is a pocket of fertile land nestled in a river valley. But are they also social groups? Some of these regions – like the Upper Thames valley where I’m staying right now – would form the centres of kingdoms described in our earliest written sources. But did these nascent kingdoms share a unifying martial spear culture, or did each develop its own? Stay tuned.