Friday, May 05, 2006

The 5th Century Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England


When I was in England recently, I was surprised by a change in thought about the Saxon invasion (or should I now say immigration?) of Britain during the fall of the Roman Empire. A tour guide made it sound as if the Saxons were well settled in Britain by then and indicated they just "rose to prominence" after the Romans left. This is in stark contrast to tales of Saxon "Sea Wolves" fascinatingly rendered by such authors as Rosemary Sutcliff. So I became curious about what the archaeological record had to say about it. I found this interesting article by William Bakken about the subject.


The 5th Century Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England: "An increasing amount of new information about the transition period is being supplied by archaeology. The evidence from first-hand archaeology is free of errors induced by copyists and editor, but is susceptible to improper interpretation and must be used carefully. The chronology of English artifacts requires correlation of evidence in England and on the continent with coins or other materials that can be accurately dated. From this a rough chronological sequence has been developed primarily based on changes in the styles of pottery and jewelry.20 In general, the recovered artifacts are grave goods many of which tend to be durable. It is necessary to look at all of the grave goods for chronological indications as heirlooms and plunder may be included in graves. Sequences of pottery, brooches, buckles and spear heads are now reasonably well established for dating.21 In addition to chronology, pottery and brooches particularly can be used as evidence of continental homelands of immigrant groups.

There was a gradual transition from cremation early in the settlement period to inhumation as the English were influenced by British customs and particularly as they were introduced to Christianity. This happened both in England and on the continent. Therefore, cremation indicates an early grave. Pagan inhumation burials were generally supplied with grave goods which makes them excellent sources of information.

Archaeological artifacts of the sub-Roman Britons are difficult to find. They appear to have continued to use the durable goods produced in the Roman period as long as possible and then replaced them with goods of less durable leather and wood construction. In addition, on sites that were abandoned, the latest levels are the least well preserved. It requires specialized techniques to recover the upper remains of wood construction. However, when allowances are made, the archaeological record still shows a drastic reduction in population and standard of living of the British remaining in southeastern and central England.22

Archaeological evidence indicates there were Germanic troops in what became England well before the fifth century.23 The Romans used auxiliary troops from all over the world to provide garrisons for their military installations. Thus from Roman records, we know that German troops were stationed on Hadrians wall. These troops did not leave identifiable artifacts because they were issued Roman equipment. By the fourth century, the Romans were enlisting Germanic troops under their own leaders with their own equipment. Artifacts show that Germanic troops were guarding towns and roads in England from the fourth century on. Much of the pottery that identifies Germanic people has been found along the Saxon Shore where it appears auxiliary troops were stationed. Cremation cemeteries have been found that date from before the end of Roman rule in Britain. These early cemeteries are generally concentrated near Roman towns, forts or transportation routes. Their location pattern is similar to that of a wheel made pottery decorated in Saxon styles called Romano-Saxon ware. This pottery was apparently made by British potterers for the Germanic trade.24

Brooches, commonly used as clothing fasteners provide a valuable indication of date and origin. The shape and type of decoration varied between tribal groups. Round and equal arm brooches were common among Saxons, while the Angles and Jutes preferred cruciform brooches. In addition, wrist clasps were common among the Angles.25

Pottery fashions have about the same division as brooches. The Angles and Jutes favored rectangular decoration while the Saxons used more curvilinear styles. In addition, stamped decoration was common on Saxon pottery and was not used by the Angles and Jutes.26

Weapon ownership was almost essential in the settlement period and, therefore, weapons were commonly placed in graves. Spears were the most common, typically an iron tip riveted to an ash shaft. Shields of lime wood with a leather cover and an iron boss at the center have also been found. Knives and swords were too valuable to be placed in the graves of ordinary soldiers and farmers and are thus an indication of aristocracy. The swords used by many of the German nobility were heirlooms passed down from generation to generation.27 Helmets and arrows were also rarly found."

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