Wednesday, 17 January 2018

St Ia of St Ives: a Byzantine saint in early medieval Cornwall?

The origins and identity of St Ia, the patron saint of St Ives, Cornwall (Porthye/Sancta Ya in 1284, Porthia in 1291), has rarely been seriously investigated, beyond noting the existence of late medieval legends that claim she arrived in Cornwall c. 500 AD from Ireland on a leaf.(1) However, recent work suggests that St Ia may be rather more interesting than she at first appears, perhaps having been originally a Byzantine saint whose cult arrived in south-western Britain in the fifth or sixth century, at the same time as the exceptional quantities of imported eastern Mediterranean goods known from sites such as Tintagel and Gwithian (St Ives Bay).

The fifteenth-century church of St Ia at St Ives, Cornwall, looking across the roofs from the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, with the opposite side of St Ives Bay visible in the background, an area that has seen notable finds of imported eastern Mediterranean pottery of the fifth to sixth centuries (image: C. R. Green).

The earliest known traditions about St Ia are found in the Life of Gwinear, written in around 1300 by Anselm, who tells how St Ia—supposedly an Irish virgin of noble birth living over 800 years or so earlier in c. 500 AD—failed to make it to the coast on time to catch the boat from Ireland to Cornwall with St Gwinear and his 777(!) companions, but was able to follow after them on a leaf that miraculously enlarged itself to the size of a boat. William of Worcester in the fifteenth century and John Leland in the sixteenth add further details, including the rather dubious claims that she was the sister of two other obscure Cornish saints, St Euny and St Erch, and that she landed at Pendinas, the rocky peninsula next to St Ives, where a great lord in Cornwall with the name Dinan (a transparent case of a person invented out of a local place-name) built her a church. Needless to say, none of this inspires great confidence, being both late and clearly fantastical. Indeed, even the bare suggestion of an Irish origin for St Ia probably cannot be relied upon; as Nicholas Orme has emphasised, such an origin was routinely claimed in the late medieval era for Cornish saints and carries little weight.(2)

In light of all this, St Ia could easily be considered simply an obscure saint about whom little to nothing solid can be said. However, it is worth noting that in her case at least, this may not be the end of the matter. The reason for this is that the name St Ia is not, in fact, 'otherwise unknown', but rather also belonged to a Late Roman/Early Byzantine female saint too, as Ken Dark has pointed out.(3) This eastern St Ia is said to have been a woman who was martyred in the fourth century by the Sasanian emperor Shapur II (d. 379) as part of his long and bloody persecution of the Christians from c. 339. Furthermore, not only was a Greek version of her life circulating along with other Passions of the Persian martyrs in the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, but her cult was also clearly an established one in Early Byzantine Constantinople, given both that her shrine was located right by the main imperial ceremonial entrance to the city, the Golden Gate, and that it was apparently extensively and lavishly renovated by the Emperor Justinian (527–65), as Procopius in the mid-sixth century notes:
And on the left as one enters the gate which is known as the Golden Gate, this Emperor found a martyr's shrine of St. Ia, fallen in ruins, which he restored with all sumptuousness. Such were the labours accomplished by the Emperor Justinian in connection with the holy places in Byzantium... (4)
Such a situation is, of course, most intriguing. On the one hand we have an obscure female saint in Cornwall named Ia about whom only very late, untrustworthy legends survive, and on the other hand we have a female St Ia who was martyred in fourth-century Persia and venerated in the eastern Mediterranean, with her shrine being next to the Golden Gate at the imperial capital and renovated with care by the Emperor Justinian himself in the sixth century. In this light, it certainly seems permissible to wonder whether the enigmatic Cornish St Ia and the Early Byzantine St Ia might not, in fact, be one and the same, especially given that they are both female saints. So, how credible is it that a Late Antique eastern Mediterranean cult of a female St Ia might have been transferred to south-western Britain?

Two sherds of fifth- to sixth-century eastern Mediterranean Phocaean Red Slip Ware with impressed crosses found at Tintagel, Cornwall (image: C. R. Green)

A fragment of an Early Byzantine wine amphora from southern Greece, found at the important fifth- to sixth-century site of Tintagel, Cornwall (image: C. R. Green).

With regard to this, it is worth pointing out once again that there is now solid evidence for a substantial degree of contact between western Britain and the Byzantine Empire in the 'post-Roman' period. For example, there have been significant finds of fifth- to sixth-century eastern Mediterranean and North African pottery from a range of sites in western Britain and Ireland, with around half of the total coming from the probable royal site of Tintagel, Cornwall, as well as discoveries of early Byzantine coins and other items such as Late Antique eastern Mediterranean pilgrim flasks associated with St Menas.(5) Moreover, a recent isotopic analysis of burial sites in South Wales suggests that people who had probably grown up in Byzantine North Africa or further afield were actually being buried in western/Atlantic Britain in the post-Roman period, something that is undoubtedly of considerable interest in the present context.(6) In this light, we might also note here the seventh-century Life of St John the Almsgiver, which tells of a ship from Alexandria, Egypt, that visited Britain around AD 610–620 and exchanged a cargo of corn for one of tin (a tale that is clearly suggestive as to continuing seventh-century contacts with the tin-producing Cornish peninsula), and the probably late sixth-century memorial stone at Penmachno, North Wales, which dates itself with reference to a Byzantine consulship, stating that it was erected 'in the time of the consul Justin', probably meaning here the Emperor Justin II (d. 578). Indeed, the latter may be of especial interest, given that Thomas Charles-Edwards has recently argued that this inscription probably reflects 'British loyalty to the Emperor Justin' and functioned as an affirmation that the erectors of the stone believed that they 'still belonged to the far-flung and loose-knit community of citizens of which he was the head'.(7)

Looking specifically at the immediate vicinity of St Ives, the available evidence would certainly seem to accord well with the above general portrait of close links between western Britain and the eastern Mediterranean in the fifth and sixth centuries. Thus whilst there have been no relevant and reliable modern excavations in St Ives itself, two other sites in St Ives Bay have produced imported fifth- to sixth-century pottery from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. The first is an important 'post-Roman' specialised industrial complex at Gwithian, across the bay from St Ives, which has produced both North African and eastern Mediterranean finewares—African Red Slip Ware from modern Tunisia and Phocaean Red Slip Ware from what is now western Turkey—along with a substantial quantity (82 sherds) of eastern Mediterranean transport amphorae.(8) The second is a find of Phocaean Red Slip Ware made just around the bay from St Ives in the churchyard of Phillack (aka Egloshayle), Hayle, a site that also houses a probably fifth-century Chi-Rho stone and is the focus for a large number of early east–west cist burials. This site has been recently interpreted by Charles Thomas and others as the location for a significant and very early Christian centre, and it has moreover been reasonably suggested that St Ives Bay was home to an important secondary centre of power within the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia too, perhaps located at an as-yet-unexcavated spot within the Hayle Estuary (around 2.5 miles or so directly across the bay from the church of St Ia at St Ives), with this centre potentially being responsible for distributing Mediterranean imports within western Cornwall.(9)

St Ives Bay, Cornwall. St Ives lies at the western end of the bay, with the Hayle Estuary at its centre (Phillack or Egloshayle is located just north of the eastern branch of the estuary) and Gwithian on the Red River at its eastern end; click here for a larger version of this image or here for a zoomable version (image: OpenStreetMap and its contributors, CC BY-SA 2.0).

The entrance to the Hayle Estuary, with Porthkidney Sands, Lelant, on the left and Hayle beach on the right (image: C. R. Green).

In addition to such archaeological and textual evidence for fifth- to seventh-century contacts with the Byzantine world, it is also worth noting that St Ia may well not stand entirely alone either. There are, in fact, a handful of other possible imported cults in early medieval Cornwall and South Wales which might offer further support and context for the transference of a female St Ia to western Cornwall in the fifth or sixth century. So, for example, Ken Dark has recently directed attention to the dedication of a chapel near St David's, Wales, to an otherwise unknown and obscure 'St Stinian', noting the intriguing fact that this saint's name is a form of the Byzantine imperial name Justinian, who was coincidentally both the ruler responsible for restoring St Ia's shrine at Constantinople and the ruler in whose reign a significant proportion of the Byzantine imports to western Britain arrived. Likewise, Andrea Harris has argued that St Just of St Just-in-Penwith, western Cornwall, may be a post-Roman dedication to the fourth-century St Justus, who served as the 13th bishop of Lyon before retiring to Egypt as a hermit, and in this context it is perhaps worth recalling that a fifth- or sixth-century Chi-Rho stone has been found in the church here, confirming a post-Roman Christian presence.(10)

All told, then, it would thus seem clear that there is at least a case to be made for identifying the obscure St Ia of St Ives, Cornwall, with the Byzantine St Ia of Persia (a martyr whose shrine by the Golden Gate at Constantinople was sumptuously restored by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century), rather than seeing her as an otherwise unknown female saint with a coincidentally identical name, with this cult of St Ia perhaps having been introduced to western Cornwall in the later fifth or sixth centuries. Certainly the shared name, the fact that they are both female saints, and the sheer quantity of the evidence now available for contact between Cornwall/western Britain and the eastern Mediterranean in the fifth and sixth centuries—including from what appears to be an important Christian site in St Ives Bay itself—are all at the very least suggestive, as is the potential for there having been other imported cults elsewhere in Cornwall and western Britain. Whilst a coincidence cannot, of course, be ruled out, the possibility of an origin for the Cornish St Ia in the Byzantine eastern Mediterranean would consequently seem to deserve at least some serious consideration.

Drawing of the probably fifth-century AD small Chi-Rho stone from the porch gable of the church at Phillack (or Egloshayle), Hayle, which has been compared to early Chi-Rhos from the continent, e.g. S. M. Pearce, South-Western Britain in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, 2004), p. 244; a photograph of the stone can be seen here (photo: C. R. Green, from an original drawing in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro).

Hayle Beach seen across St Ives Bay from Porthminster beach, St Ives; for a larger version of this image click here. Interestingly, a report from the late nineteenth century notes that a potential early medieval chapel and two stone cist burials were exposed at Porthminster, St Ives, by the shifting sands in c. 1870, but were then buried again; certainly the presence of a chapel and burials might help explain the 'minster' element in the name here, which is first recorded in 1301 (image: C. R. Green).

1.     N. Orme, The Saints of Cornwall (Oxford, 2000), p. 144; O. J. Padel, Cornish Place-Names (Penzance, 1988), p. 100. Note, the correct form of the saint's name is Ia, not Ive or similar, as found in the modern English form of the place-name: the intrusive -v- is non-original and probably emerged under the influence of the unrelated place-names St Ive in eastern Cornwall (Sanctus Ivo in 1201) and/or St Ives in Cambridgeshire (Sancto Ivo de Slepe in 1110), both of which reference a distinct male saint named St Ivo; see further Padel, Cornish Place-Names, p. 100, and D. Mills, A Dictionary of British Place-Names (Oxford, 2011), p. 401; V. Watts, Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge, 2004), p. 520..
2.     See especially N. Orme, The Saints of Cornwall (Oxford, 2000), generally on the claimed 'Irish' origins of Cornish saints; he discusses St Ia on pp. 144–5 and St Gwinear on pp. 136–8; see also P. C. Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary (Cardiff, 1993), pp. 426–7, on St Ia.
3.     K. R. Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire (Stroud, 2000), p. 163; K. R. Dark, 'Globalizing late antiquity: models, metaphors and the realities of long-distance trade and diplomacy', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalisation? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 3–14 at p. 7.
4.     Procopius, BuildingsI.ix.16–17; the text of St Ia's passion is printed in H. Delehaye, Les versions grecques des actes des martyrs Persans sous Sapor II (Paris, 1907), vol. II, pp. 453–73.
5.     See, for example, M. Fulford, 'Byzantium and Britain: a Mediterranean perspective on post-Roman Mediterranean imports in western Britain and Ireland', Medieval Archaeology, 33 (1989), 1–6; A. Harris, Byzantium, Britain and the West: the Archaeology of Cultural Identity, AD 400650 (Stroud, 2003); E. Campbell, Continental and Mediterranean Imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, AD 400–800, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 157 (York, 2007); A. Harris, 'Britain and China at opposite ends of the world? Archaeological methodology and long-distance contacts in the sixth century', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalisation? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 91–104; E. Campbell & C. Bowles, 'Byzantine trade to the edge of the world: Mediterranean pottery imports to Atlantic Britain in the 6th century', in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange (Farnham, 2009), pp. 297–314; T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 222–3; M. Duggan, 'Ceramic imports to Britain and the Atlantic Seaboard in the fifth century and beyond', Internet Archaeology, 41 (2016), online at; S. Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain – a review in light of new finds recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme', in O. Tekin (ed.), Ancient History, Numismatics and Epigraphy in the Mediterranean World (Istanbul, 2009), pp. 263–74; and W. Anderson, 'Menas flasks in the West: pilgrimage and trade at the end of antiquity', Ancient West and East, 6 (2007), 221–43.
6.     K. A. Hemer et al, 'Evidence of early medieval trade and migration between Wales and the Mediterranean Sea region', Journal of Archaeological Science, 40 (2013), 2352–59. See further C. R. Green, 'Some oxygen isotope evidence for long-distance migration to Britain from North Africa & southern Iberia, c. 1100 BC–AD 800', 24 October 2015, blog post, online at, and K. A. Hemer et al, 'No Man is an island: evidence of pre-Viking Age migration to the Isle of Man', Journal of Archaeological Science, 52 (2014), 242–9.
7.     For the reference to an early seventh-century ship visiting Britain, see Leontius, Life of St John the Almsgiver, chapter 10; C. Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400–600 (Stroud, 1998), p. 152; C. J. Salter, 'Early tin extraction in the south-west of England: a resource for Mediterranean metalworkers of late antiquity', in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th–12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange (Farnham, 2009), pp. 315–22 at p. 320; M. M. Mango, 'Tracking Byzantine silver and copper metalware, 4th–12th centuries', in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange (Farnham, 2009), pp. 221–36 at p. 223. For the Penmachno stone, see T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 234–8, quotations at p. 235 and 238.
8.     For the Gwithian site, see now J. A. Nowakowski et al, 'Return to Gwithian: shifting the sands of time', Cornish Archaeology, 46 (2007), 13–76, and I. Tompsett, Social Dynamics in South-West England AD 350–1150: An Exploration of Maritime Oriented Identity in the Atlantic Approaches and Western Channel Region (University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 2012), pp. 360–82. Note, there are confused reports of Mediterranean imports from just to the south of St Ives proper at Hellesvean, St Ives; however, the circumstances of the excavations, first undertaken in the 1920s, mean that they need to be treated with caution and Ewan Campbell rejects them on the grounds that they we cannot be certain that the finds ascribed to Hellesvean don't come from other sites: E. Campbell, Imported Material in Atlantic Britain and Ireland c.AD 400–800, 2007, project archive, online at, sites database. For what it is worth, claimed post-Roman imports from Hellesvean, St Ives, include "5 sherds of Aii imported Mediterranean ware [i.e. African Red Slip Ware from the Carthage region]" (G. Hutchinson, 'The bar-lug pottery of Cornwall', Cornish Archaeology, 18 (1979), 81–103 at p. 96) and a possible sherd from a Biii amphora (Cornwall and Scilly Historic Environment Record, PRN 31135.02).
9.     C. Thomas, A Provisional List of Imported Pottery in Post-Roman Western Britain and Ireland, Institute of Cornish Studies Special Report No. 7 (Redruth 1981), p. 6; C. Thomas, 'The context of Tintagel. A new model for the diffusion of post-Roman Mediterranean imports', Cornish Archaeology, 27 (1988), 7–25 at p. 22; C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff 1994), pp. 197–201; E. Okasha, Corpus of Early Christian Inscribed Stones of South-west Britain (Leicester, 2003), pp. 205–07; S. M. Pearce, South-Western Britain in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, 2004), pp. 12, 149–51; S. Turner, 'Making a Christian landscape: early medieval Cornwall', in M. Carver (ed.), The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, 300–1300 (Woodbridge, 2003), pp. 171–94 at pp. 175–6; S. Turner, Making a Christian Landscape: How Christianity Shaped the Countryside in Early-Medieval Cornwall, Devon and Wessex (Exeter, 2006), pp. 35–6; and I. Tompsett, Social Dynamics in South-West England AD 350–1150: An Exploration of Maritime Oriented Identity in the Atlantic Approaches and Western Channel Region (University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 2012), pp. 39, 132, 378–81. On the potential important secondary centre of power for the Dumnonian kingdom located in the Hayle Estuary, see C. Thomas, 'The context of Tintagel. A new model for the diffusion of post-Roman Mediterranean imports', Cornish Archaeology, 27 (1988), 7–25, especially p. 16 and fig. 3 (p. 17); Thomas suggests this secular focus was located at the 'small coastal fort of Carnsew commanding the Hayle inlet,' which is 'unexplored, hardly recorded but suggestively placed' (p. 16); in this context, it is worth noting that Carnsew, Hayle, was the site of an antiquarian find of an early post-Roman inscribed memorial stone and cist grave that Thomas dates to the fifth century ('The context of Tintagel', p. 21; And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, pp. 191–3), and moreover occupies a strategically significant controlling position on a low but prominent small hill overlooking the Hayle Estuary.
10.     K. R. Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire (Stroud, 2000), p. 163; K. R. Dark, 'Globalizing late antiquity: models, metaphors and the realities of long-distance trade and diplomacy', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalisation? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 3–14 at p. 7; A. Harris, Byzantium, Britain and the West: the Archaeology of Cultural Identity, AD 400650 (Stroud, 2003), pp. 159–60; S. M. Pearce, South-Western Britain in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, 2004), p. 244. On St Just, it is worth noting that he, like St Ia, is often described as 'obscure' and a saint about whom 'nothing is known' (N. Orme, The Saints of Cornwall (Oxford, 2000), p. 155; V. Watts, Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge, 2004), p. 520).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2018, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

A Christmas visitor: the Byzantine emperor's trip to London in the winter of 1400–01

The aim of following post is to share an interesting fifteenth-century image of the meeting between King Henry IV and the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos in 1400 at London. The emperor was touring western Europe trying to solicit help for the Byzatine Empire against the Ottoman Turks and visited England for two months over the winter of 1400–01, staying with king for Christmas and being lavished by him with presents and entertainments.

The meeting between King Henry IV of England and the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos at London in 1400, from a late fifteenth-century manuscript of the St Alban's Chronicle (image: Lambeth Palace Library MS 6, f. 240r).

The trip to England by the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, emperor Manuel II Palaiologos in 1400 was the first such visit to these islands by a Roman emperor since Emperor Constans arrived in Britannia in AD 343, more than 1,000 years before. Emperor Manuel had been urging the rulers of western Europe to send men or money to the aid of Constantinople against the Ottoman Turks, who were close to a final conquest of the Byzantine Empire, and it was eventually decided that the emperor should travel to the west himself to put his case personally, which he did in 1400. Arriving initially in Italy and France, the emperor brought with him a large retinue of his own priests and dignitaries, alongside a collection of relics and treasures to offer as gifts to his hosts, as he sought to enlist their aide in his cause.

It appears that the emperor at first intended to cross over to England to visit Henry IV in the September of 1400, but was forced to wait whilst the new king dealt with the Scots in the north of the island. Emperor Manuel finally set sail from Calais to Dover on 11 December 1400, suffering a rough sea crossing, and was greeted by the Prior of Christ Church at Canterbury on 13 December, where he visited Thomas Becket's shrine. He then travelled on to London with an English noble escort and met King Henry at Blackheath on 21 December, subsequently staying with the king for nearly two whole months. Needless to say, this visit by the Emperor of Constantinople excited considerable interest in England at the time, with Thomas Walsingham's Chronicle observing his arrival as follows:
At the same time the Emperor of Constantinople visited England to ask for help against the Turks. The king with an imposing retinue, met him at Blackheath on the feast of St Thomas [21 December], gave so great a hero an appropriate welcome and escorted him to London. He entertained him there royally for many days, paying the expenses of the emperor's stay, and by grand presents showing respect for a person of such eminence. (Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, s.a. 1400)
An apparent eyewitness account to his arrival is also offered by Adam Usk, who comments on the emperor's retinue of priests, the unusual dress of the visitors, and his feelings about the emperor's plight that drove him to tour western Europe:
On the feast of St Thomas the apostle [21 December], the emperor of the Greeks visited the king of England in London to seek help against the Saracens, and was honourably received by him, staying with him for two whole months at enormous expense to the king, and being showered with gifts at his departure. This emperor and his men always went about dressed uniformly in long robes cut like tabards which were all of one colour, namely white, and disapproved greatly of the fashions and varieties of dress worn by the English, declaring that they signified inconstancy and fickleness of heart. No razor ever touched the heads or beards of his priests. These Greeks were extremely devout in their religious services, having them chanted variously by knights or by clerics, for they were sung in their native tongue. I thought to myself how sad it was that this great Christian leader from the remote east had been driven by the power of the infidels to visit distant islands in the west in order to seek help against them. (The Chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377-1421, pp. 119-21)
The surviving late fifteenth-century Great Hall of Eltham Palace, London (image: Dun.can/Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

Whilst at London, the emperor stayed with Henry at his favourite palace of Eltham (now within the Royal Borough of Greenwich, south-east London), where he was treated to a grand Christmas party, with a great tournament being staged in the palace grounds in his honour. The people of London also went out of their way to entertain their exalted guest, with the Chronicle of London recording under 1400 that 'In this year was here the emperor of Constantinople: and the king held his Christmas at Eltham; and men of London made a great mumming to him of 12 aldermen and their sons, for which they had great thanks.'

As for Emperor Manuel, he was clearly highly impressed by the lengths the king had gone to in order to entertain his imperial guest, as a letter written by the emperor whilst in London to his friend Manuel Chrysoloras indicates:
Now what is the reason for the present letter? A large number of letters have come to us from all over bearing excellent and wonderful promises, but most important is the ruler with whom we are now staying, the king of Britain the Great, of a second civilized world, you might say, who abounds in so many good qualities and is adorned with all sorts of virtues. His reputation earns him the admiration of people who have not met him, while for those who have once seen him, he proves brilliantly that Fame is not really a goddess, since she is unable to show the man to be as great as does actual experience.
This ruler, then, is most illustrious because of his position, most illustrious too, because of his intelligence; his might amazes everyone, and his understanding wins him friends; he extends his hand to all and in every way he places himself at the service of those who need help. And now, in accord with his nature, he has made himself a virtual haven for us in the midst of a twofold tempest, that of the season and that of fortune, and we have found refuse in the man himself and his character. His conversation is quite charming; he pleases us in every way; he honours us to the greatest extent and loves us no less. Although he has gone to extremes in all he has done for us, he seems almost to blush in the belief—in this he is alone—that he might have fallen considerably short of what he should have done. This is how magnanimous the man is. (Letters of Manuel II Palaeologus, Jan/Feb 1401, p. 102)
Manuel II Palaiologos finally returned to France in February 1401, with high hopes of the king providing substantial help and funds for Constantinople. On taking his leave, he was apparently showered with gifts by Henry IV and in return he presented the king with a priceless piece of the seamless tunic woven by the Virgin Mary for her son, which is said to have delighted the king—he subsequently divided the piece in two and gave one half to Westminster Abbey and other to Thomas Arundel, who gifted it to the high alter at Canterbury where it was placed in a silver-gilt reliquary alongside a thorn from the crown of thorns and a drop of Becket's blood.

Unfortunately, the emperor's hopes for aid were only partially realised. Whilst Henry provided Emperor Manuel with the huge sum of £2,000 in funds before he departed England, no military help appears to have materialised, despite a subsequent letter from the emperor's nephew in Constantinople, John VII, in June 1402 requesting official military aid and paying tribute to the English noblemen who were apparently then engaged in the defence of Constantinople in a personal capacity. Fortunately for the Byzantine Empire, however, such aid was not in the end required—the Turkish Sultan Bayezid I was defeated and captured by the Turco-Mongol ruler Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, granting Constantinople a reprieve and postponing the final fall of the Byzantine Empire for another 51 years.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The fifth-to sixth-century British church in the forum at Lincoln: a brief discussion

The aim of the following brief note is simply to bring wider attention to the post-Roman British apsidal church in the centre of the Roman forum of the former Late Roman provincial capital of Lincoln. A variety of dates have been proposed over the years, but a recent reconsideration of all the available evidence, including a Bayesian modelling of the radiocarbon data from the cemetery, indicates that the timber apsidal church almost certainly dates from the fifth to sixth centuries and had been demolished to make way for a cemetery by c. AD 600. The following discussion is based primarily on the analyses of the evidence found in my Britons and Anglo-Saxons and an earlier article, with additions and expansion as required.(1)

The sequence of buildings at St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln, showing their relationship to the Roman forum. Image: Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, 2012, fig, 12, copyright English Heritage.

Although the former Romano-British provincial capital of Lincoln (Lindum Colonia, British Lindon,*Lindocolonia) has produced little to no evidence for a pre-seventh-century 'Anglo-Saxon' cultural presence, there are nonetheless strong indications of activity in the city from the post-Roman period. In particular, a complex sequence of east–west orientated burials and two timber buildings were excavated from the St Paul-in-the-Bail site here—at the centre of Lincoln's former Roman forum—in the 1970s. One of these buildings is now generally agreed to have been an apsidal timber church and it cuts the foundations of an earlier structure which belonged to the same building tradition, had the same orientation, and potentially had the same function too.(2) The apsidal church is in turn overlain by complex sequence of inhumation burials, some of which cut the wall-line of the church or cut post-church layers from within its walls.(3)

The question of the date of this timber apsidal church—capable of holding around 100 worshippers—has been the subject of considerable discussion ever since its discovery, with initial reports suggesting that it could be the documented seventh-century church constructed in Lincoln by Paulinus sometime around AD 630.(4) However, there are significant issues with this idea, even before we look at the radiocarbon dating of the post-church cemetery and its implications, not least that the seventh-century church of Paulinus at Lincoln mentioned by Bede in c. 731 is said by him to have been not only still standing in his own day, but also made of stone, not wood! Likewise, the fact that the apsidal church in the forum appears to be the second in a sequence of two buildings is a further significant potential impediment to accepting it as Paulinus's church.(5) An alternative proposition is that we have here a sequence of very late and post-Roman British churches, located in the centre of the forum courtyard and orientated with reasonable precision to follow the alignment of the forum itself, with the proximity of the unexcavated west ends of the churches to the western portico of the forum implying that they were designed to be entered from between its columns. Certainly, this positioning and alignment of the buildings and their apparent relationship with the forum's western portico has been seen as highly suggestive of a late/post-Roman British origin, and it has been moreover argued that such an origin might well be supported by, for example, the building style and plan of the churches and the recovery of a coin of Arcadius (388–402) from beneath a metalled surface within the walls of the structures.(6)

Reconstruction of the fifth- to sixth-century apsidal church at St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln, located in the centre of the Roman forum and entered from the western portico. Image: Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, 2012, fig. 13, by David Vale/SLHA.

Perhaps the most telling evidence for a pre-seventh-century date for the apsidal church, however, comes from the radiocarbon dates of the graves excavated at the St Paul-in-the-Bail site. One of the most important of these appears to be a foundation deposit for the apsidal timber church, and this has a medial date of cal AD 441 within a likely date range from the very late fourth to the mid–late sixth century, which is certainly suggestive.(7) Even more important are the burials from the graveyard stage of the site, which Brian Gilmour has argued almost certainly only began after the demolition of the apsidal church had taken place, with three of the earliest of these moreover either cutting the wall-line of the apsidal church or cutting stratigraphically post-church layers from its interior.(8) Although the radiocarbon results from these graves have often been used individually (and occasionally rather dubiously) in arguments about the dating of the church, recent Bayesian modelling of the radiocarbon dates of these burials has now put things on a much sounder footing. The three burials that cut the walls and interior post-church levels together indicate that there is a very high probability (>85%) that the apsidal church was demolished before AD 600, given their relationship with this structure, and if the graveyard stage as a whole postdates this church, as it is indeed believed to, then an end to the church sequence before c. 600 becomes even more likely on the basis of the Bayesian modelling (c. 95%), although the available evidence would still just allow for a demolition as late as the early seventh century.(9)

All told, then, by far the most credible scenario—strongly supported by the radiocarbon dating and Bayesian modelling—is that we do indeed have here a sequence of two British churches set up in a significant area of the city (in the centre of the Roman forum and probably entered from its western portico), with the earlier structure rebuilt at some point perhaps around the mid–late fifth century into a larger apsidal church capable of holding around 100 worshippers, which then continued in use into the sixth century before being demolished by c. AD 600.(10) Such a sequence of very late and post-Roman churches not only makes best sense of all of the available evidence from the St Paul-in-the-Bail site, including the recent reassessment of the dating evidence, but it would also have a plausible context within late and post-Roman Britain. After all, just about the only sin that Gildas does not accuse his fellow sixth-century Britons of is paganism, indicating that he considered them to be Christians, albeit sinful ones, and Roman Lincoln moreover is known to have had its own bishop from the early fourth century, when Adelphius, Bishop of Lincoln, was sent to the Council of Arles in 314.(11) In this context, it is also worth noting that other evidence does exist for a partial survival of Romano-British Christianity in at least some areas of early medieval lowland Britain, including the numerous eccles place-names that occur right the way across to East Anglia and Kent, the apparent British cult of an unknown St Sixtus encountered by St Augustine in south-eastern England in c. 600, and Steven Bassett's case for there having been post-Roman British bishops in places such as Gloucester and Lichfield before there were Anglo-Saxon ones installed.(12)

A sequence of fifth- to sixth-century British churches in the centre of the Roman forum at Lincoln would likewise seem to have a very good local and regional context too. First, Lincoln itself seems to have remained economically vital into the very late Roman era, with not only good evidence for continuing specialist industry, cohesive central organization, considerable population and a thriving market at Lincoln into the very late fourth century, but also indications of both continued urban activity into the early fifth century and the operation of the Romano-British pottery industry here at least partway through the fifth century, as was discussed in a previous post.(13) Second, and most importantly, there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence to suggest that the former Roman provincial capital at Lincoln actually retained its centrality into the post-Roman period, becoming the focus of a British polity known as *Lindēs (from British-Latin Lindenses), as has been discussed at length elsewhere. This polity would eventually become the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Lindissi/Lindsey (a name which derives from Late British *Lindēs), but as a British political territory it is now thought likely to have survived right through the fifth century and at least some way into the sixth.(14) Needless to say, this is a point of considerable significance in the present context.

The Roman Mint Wall, Lincoln. This is the surviving portion of the basilica wall immediately to the north of the St Paul-in-the-Bail site; it originally stood nine metres high. It has been argued that the forum area must have remained open and maintained, with graves from the post-church inhumation cemetery marked, right through into the tenth century, when a small stone church was then built around what would seem to be one of the most important of the inhumation graves here (a late sixth- or seventh-century cist grave containing the only grave gift recovered from the whole cemetery, a Late Celtic hanging-bowl). In this light, one credible interpretation is that after the apsidal church was demolished, significant activity—be it ecclesiastical or secular—continued in this part of Lincoln, focused on the former large basilica that formed the north of the forum: certainly, this would explain not only the significant surviving elements of the basilica here, but also the presence of the graveyard in the forum (image © copyright Richard Croft, via Geograph, CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Roman well in Lincoln's forum, located immediately to the east of the fifth- to sixth-century apsidal church and possibly used as its baptistery; the well remained in use until the seventeenth century (image © copyright Tiger, via Geograph, CC BY-SA 2.0).


1.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–9, 82–3 (based on my PhD thesis), and Green, 'The British kingdom of Lindsey', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 56 (2008), 1–43 at pp. 18–23, supported recently by J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550.
2.     See, for example, K. Steane, The Archaeology of the Upper City and Adjacent Suburbs (Oxford, 2006), especially p. 192; M. J. Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', in K. Painter (ed.), Churches Built in Ancient Times: Recent Studies in Early Christian Archaeology (London, 1994), pp. 325–47 at pp. 328–30 and fig. 5; M. J. Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), City  by the Pool (Oxford, 2003), at pp. 127–9, 137; M. J. Jones, Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony and Capital (Stroud, 2002), p. 127; Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 18–23; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–9, 82–3; pace B. Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon, pagan or Christian: who was buried in the early cemetery at St-Paul-in-the Bail, Lincoln?', in L. Gilmour (ed.), Pagans and Christians – from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2007), pp. 229–56.
3.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 65; Steane, The Archaeology of the Upper City and Adjacent Suburbs, especially pp. 160–1; Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', pp. 249, 252.
4.     See especially Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire (Lincoln, 1998), pp. 226–30, for a championing of this theory, but beware his use of the radiocarbon data, which stretches it to the very utmost limits and beyond; this dating is also supported, far more tentatively, in A. G. Vince, 'Lincoln in the early medieval era, between the 5th and 9th centuries: the archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), The City by the Pool. Assessing the Archaeology of the City of Lincoln (Oxford, 2003), pp. 147-151.
5.     For criticisms of Sawyer's theory, see further Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', especially pp. 19–20 at fn. 85; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–9, 82. It should be noted that Alan Vince acknowledges that the theory of a seventh-century origin for the apsidal church requires both a degree of special pleading and doesn't account for the first building on the site, which Vince would (somewhat bizarrely given that the alternative interpretation of the whole site) have as a late Roman or post-Roman British church: Vince, 'Lincoln in the early medieval era', pp. 149, 150–1, and see further below.
6.     Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 19–20; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 65; M. J. Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', in K. Painter (ed.), Churches Built in Ancient Times: Recent Studies in Early Christian Archaeology (London, 1994), pp. 325–47; K. Steane, 'St Paul-in-the-Bail – a dated sequence?', Lincoln Archaeology, 3 (1990–1), 28–31; M. J. Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), City  by the Pool (Oxford, 2003), pp. 127–9, 137; M. J. Jones, Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony and Capital (Stroud, 2002), pp. 127–9; B. Eagles, 'Lindsey', in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London, 1989), p. 207.
7.     Sample number 34, see B. Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', in L. Gilmour (ed.), Pagans and Christians (Oxford, 2007), pp. 229–56 at pp. 247–9, 252; Steane, Archaeology of the Upper City, pp. 157, 210; Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', pp. 332–3, 344; Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', p. 129.
8.     Sample numbers 30, 29 and 26, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–6; Steane, Archaeology of the Upper City, especially pp. 160–1, 210; Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', pp. 248–50, 252–3. See also Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln', pp. 332, 344; Steane, ‘St Paul-in-the-Bail – a Dated Sequence?’, pp. 30–1.
9.     On the results of the Bayesian modelling, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–7, 83 (fn. 37), supported recently by J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550; as I note in Britons and Anglo-Saxons, my thanks are due here to Alex Bayliss, the Head of Scientific Dating at English Heritage, both for constructing a Bayesian model and for her analysis and advice with regard to the radiocarbon dates and chronology of this site.
10.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–9, 82–3; J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550. Incidentally, it should be noted here that Gilmour's variant theory on St Paul-in-the-Bail (outlined in his 2007 paper 'Sub-Roman or Saxon'), which posits a mid-sixth-century de novo start for the church-stage of the site, is not discussed in the present post, as it both does not seem to have been widely adopted and—as was noted in Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 82, and Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', p. 20, fn. 86—can be considered significantly less plausible than the scenario outlined here, lacking an obvious context and, moreover, seeming to be largely contradicted by the Bayesian modelling of the site.
11.     Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', p. 21; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 25, 67; and see further Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?'; Jones, 'Colonia era: archaeological account', pp. 127–9, 137; A. C. Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (London, 1981), p. 197; K. Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey (Stroud, 2007), p. 117.
12.     For eccles names, see for example K. Cameron, 'Eccles in English place-names', in K. Cameron (ed.), Place-Name Evidence for the Anglo-Saxon Invasion and Scandinavian Settlements (Nottingham, 1987), pp. 1–7; P. Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, 600–800 (Cambridge, 1990), p. 80; C. Hough, 'Eccles in English and Scottish place-names', in E. Quinton (ed.), The Church in English Place-Names (Nottingham, 2009), pp. 109–24. For St Augustine and the British St Sixtus, see N. P. Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (London, 1984), p. 20; P. Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume XIII Gregory the Great, Ephraim Syrus, Aphrahat (Edinburgh, 1898), p. 77. On British bishops, see for example S. Bassett, 'Church and diocese in the West Midlands', in J. Blair and R. Sharpe (eds.), Pastoral Care Before the Parish (London, 1992), pp. 13–40; S. Bassett, 'Medieval ecclesiastical organisation in the vicinity of Wroxeter and its British antecedents', Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 145 (1992), 1–28; B. Yorke, 'Lindsey: the lost kingdom found?', in A. Vince (ed.), Pre-Viking Lindsey (Lincoln 1993), pp. 141–50 at p. 145; Jones, ‘Colonia era: archaeological account’, p. 137.
13.     On late fourth- and fifth-century Lincoln, see, for example, K. Dobney et al, Of Butchers and Breeds: Report on vertebrate remains from various sites in the City of Lincoln (Lincoln, 1996), pp. 2–4, 57–61; K. Dobney et al, ‘Down, but not out: biological evidence for complex economic organization in Lincoln in the late 4th century’, Antiquity, 72 (1998), 417–24; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 25–7. On the evidence for a degree of continuity in the pottery industry here into the fifth-century and possibly even slightly beyond, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 111–12, and Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 23–4, and the expanded discussion in Green, 'Romano-British pottery in the fifth- to sixth-century Lincoln region', blog post, 12 June 2016, online at
14.     The case is fully developed in Green, 'The British kingdom of Lindsey', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 56 (2008), 1–43, and Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Were there camels in Roman Britain? A brief note on the nature and context of the London camel remains

The following note looks briefly at the question of camels in Roman Britain. Recent work has demonstrated that both dromedaries (or Arabian camels) and Bactrian camels were indeed in use across much of Europe during the Roman era and into the early medieval period, and in this context an early twentieth-century record of Roman camel remains found at Greenwich Park, London, is of considerable interest.

Sites with Roman-era camel remains in Europe. Image: C. R. Green, based on a map of the Roman Empire in the early second century AD by Tataryn/Wikimedia Commons, with the empire depicted in red and its clients during the reign of Trajan in pink; click here for a larger version of this image. The distribution of finds of camel remains in Europe is based on Pigière & Henrotay 2012, Tomczyk 2016, Bartosiewicz & Dirjec 2001, Daróczi-Szabó et al 2014, Albarella et al 1993, Maenchen-Helfen 1973, Moreno-García et al 2007, Vuković-Bogdanović & Blažić 2014, and Vuković & Bogdanović 2013.

There is now a fairly substantial body of archaeological evidence showing that both dromedaries and Bactrian camels were present in modern Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and the Balkans between the first and the fifth centuries AD, with the majority of finds dating from the third century AD or after. Recent surveys by both Pigière & Henrotay and Tomczyk indicate that, where identification is possible, the evidence points to dromedaries or Arabian camels being dominant in the western half of Roman Europe whilst Bactrian camels were mainly found in the east, although the split was not absolute—for example, a near-complete skeleton of a Bactrian camel is known from a Roman urban context at Saintes, France, and dromedary remains have been recovered from Kompolt-Kistér, Hungary.

As to the contexts of these finds, camel remains have been recovered from a wide variety of sites, including military settlements, rural villas, civilian urban sites, and amphitheatres, most of which were on or close to major road routes, and it has consequently been argued that camels were being primarily used as pack animals/beasts of burden for both Roman military and civilian traffic in this era. In addition, it is possible that a few of the finds of camel remains may reflect curiosities in the collections of rich landowners, whilst a small number of sites show evidence for the butchery and consumption of camel meat, and the handful of amphitheatre finds have been sometimes considered suggestive of the use of camels in public shows, although this latter notion is open to question—certainly, an investigation into the fourth-century hybrid camel skeleton from the amphitheatre at Viminacium, Serbia, shows that this dates from after the amphitheatre had ceased to be used in that way.

A large classical fountain-spout in the form of a camel's head, preserved in the Hall of Animals in the Pio Clementino Museum, Vatican City (image: Colin/Wikimedia Commons).

With regard to the camel remains from Roman Britain, Pigière & Henrotay only offer the briefest of comments on their nature, noting simply their Roman date and that they were found in Greenwich Park, London, citing for this a 1987 publication by Shimon Applebaum. Unfortunately, this reference adds no further details in terms of what was actually found at Greenwich, but the Victoria County History of Kent (London, 1932) III, p. 116, is rather more helpful on both the finds and their context:
GREENWICH PARK.—Important remains of Roman occupation have been found in the north of Greenwich Park... They came to light accidentally in 1902, and were examined by Mr. Herbert Jones and others... [M]uch building material [was found]—roof and other tiles, hypocaust pilae, wall-plaster painted (it is said) in as many as twelve patterns, tesserae both rough red cubes of brick and finer specimens in other colours, a piece of green porphyry which may have belonged to a marble wall-lining, nails with burnt wood attached, worked and moulded blocks of oolite, parts of the drums of three diminutive columns, and some window glass. These structural remains were accompanied by numerous smaller movable objects. Several pieces of inscribed and sculptured stone provide a feature unusual on these sites...
     Besides these notable pieces, there came to light much pottery in many varieties, including one cup of Samian ware... There were also bronze fibulae, nail-cleaners, box hinges, iron nails of various sizes (2-6 in. long), key, knife, rings, hooks and the like; bone pins and a carved piece showing a woman holding a shield above her head; bottle glass, and lastly, oyster shells; and many bones of horse, sheep, oxen, deer, and teeth of dogs, rabbits and (it is stated) camels. Coins abounded to the number of about 300, and ranged from Claudius to Honorius...
     To complete the description of the site, we must add that the probable line of Watling Street crosses Greenwich Park, a little to the south...
Three particular points are worthy of note here. First, it seems clear that the camel remains in question came from a high-status site, a conclusion supported by later work here which has identified the Greenwich Park site as a probable Roman temple complex. None of the other findspots studied by Pigière & Henrotay are noted as temples, but given the wide variety of sites that have produced camel remains and their apparent use for both civilian and military transport, this isn't a major issue. Second, the site was located close to a major Roman road route and just to the south-east of the main city of Roman Britain, Londinium; needless to say, such a location fits in well with the other findspots of camel remains in Europe, many of which come from urban locales and almost all were found close by major Roman roads. Third and finally, the camel remains consisted of teeth, not bones, something confirmed by the catalogue of finds contained in A. D. Webster's contemporary book on Greenwich Park: Its History and Associations (London, 1902), p. 74. However, this is again not a major obstacle—the vast majority of finds of camel remains in Europe are, in fact, not of whole or even partial skeletons, but rather 'consist mainly of one isolated bone' (Pigière & Henrotay 2012, p. 1535). As such, the small quantity of the remains is in accord with the general find pattern in Europe, and other excavated sites have likewise only produced teeth, such as Ajdovščina, Solvenia (ancient Castra).

All told, the finds from Greenwich thus seem to fit into the general pattern of Roman-era finds of camel remains across Europe, and there consequently seems little reason not to interpret them in a similar manner, that is to say as evidence of the presence and use of Roman camels, probably primarily as pack animals/beasts of burden. Certainly, if the Romans were willing to transport elephants across the Channel, as they may well have done, then there seems little reason to think that they wouldn't have done the same with camels, particularly given that camels were apparently being fairly widely employed elsewhere in north-western Europe then.(1)

The Adoration of the Magi featuring three rather happy camels, from a fourth-century AD Roman sarcophagus at Rome (image: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons).


1     For the sake of interest, it perhaps worth noting here that the next solid evidence for the presence of camels in Britain comes from the early twelfth century, when written documentation is first encountered for their presence in royal menageries belonging to the kings of England, Scotland and Ireland. Whether there were any in Britain earlier than this is wholly unclear, although camels were certainly present in western Europe through the early medieval period, including in Germany and Poland in the tenth century, and William the Conqueror is said to have owned lions, leopards and camels.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Saharan and trans-Saharan contacts and trade in the Roman era

The following post offers a brief discussion of Saharan and trans-Saharan contacts in the Roman era along with a distribution map of Roman finds made beyond the southern boundary of the empire. Although such Saharan/trans-Saharan contacts have often been assumed to be a primarily medieval and later phenomenon, recent archaeological work in the Sahara and West Africa suggests that there was, in fact, a significant degree of interaction taking place from at least the first century AD through until the seventh century. This interaction is thought to have been primarily driven by a trans-Saharan trade in slaves that was largely organized and controlled by the ancient Garamantes of the Libyan Sahara.

Roman and early Byzantine finds from Saharan and sub-Saharan West Africa, after Wilson (2012), MacDonald (2011), Magnavita (2009 & 2013), and Fenn et al (2009); also shown  are a selection of Saharan trade routes that may well have functioned in antiquity after Wilson (2012), with a possible western addition from Boone et al (1990), and the location of the Garamantian capital of Garama. Click here for a larger version of this image; note, the black dotted line represents the approximate normal southern edge of the Roman Empire in the second century AD. Image drawn by C. R. Green using a public domain basemap from NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Undoubtedly the most significant archaeological evidence for Roman interaction with the regions to their south comes from the Libyan Sahara, in particular the Wadi al-Ajal (Fazzan) area once occupied by the Garamantes, around 1,000 kilometres south of Tripoli. Although the Garamantes are referred to by a number of classical authors from Herodotus onwards, it is only in recent years that the scale and significance of both the Garamantian civilisation and Roman trade and contacts with them has been recognized. In particular, research by the Fazzan Project and the Desert Migrations Project has demonstrated that the Garamantes made use of elaborate underground irrigation systems known as foggaras in the Fazzan area of Libya in order to create a prosperous oasis civilisation in the Sahara desert, with several small planned towns and a capital, Garama (modern Germa/Jarma).

At its height, Garama was home to around 4,000 people, with a further 6,000 living within 5 km in surrounding satellite villages and many more—perhaps up to 100,000 in total—living across the Garamantian territory as a whole, and the archaeological evidence accumulated over the last generation or so from this area indicates that there were, in fact, significant Roman influences on both Garamantian architecture and culture, despite its situation so far to the south of the Roman border. So, for example, monumental public buildings and the grander houses of the Garamantes from the first century AD were built using ashlar stonework, rather than mudbrick, with colonnaded courtyards, Mediterranean-type wine presses, and even hypocaust fragments, marble veneers and hydraulic cement indicative of a Roman-style bath-house all being in evidence. Likewise, significant quantities of Roman imports have been recovered from over 200 sites in the Wadi al-Ajal and southern Fazzan, including Roman finewares such as African Red Slip Ware; amphorae that once contained wine, olive oil and fish products; and lamps, jewellery and glassware. As Andrew Wilson has emphasised in an important survey of the evidence,
The apparent ubiquity of imported pottery (finewares and transport amphorae) suggests that imports from the Roman world were not simply restricted to an elite few, but were fairly widely available in Garamantian society, both in the Wadi al-Ajal and the Murzuq depression.
The peak of this exceptional Roman contact and trade with the Saharan Garamantes, suggested to have required a caravan trade 'numbering in the hundreds of camel loads per year', appears to have come in the late first to early fourth centuries AD, but Late Roman and early Byzantine imports continued to arrive in this region through into the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, albeit in lesser quantities. This relative decline in trading across Late Antiquity is thought to have been mirrored by the failure of the underground irrigation systems that supported the Garamantes' civilisation and its transit trade (due to the water table that the foggaras tapped falling below an economically exploitable level), a process that may well have been completed by the time of the first Arab incursions into the region in the mid-seventh century and which arguably led to the recorded political instability in the northern Sahara and along the Roman frontiers during Late Antiquity.

Kite photograph of the archaeological remains at Germa, Libya, capital of the Garamantes; click for a larger version of this image. The building in the bottom half of the image had stone footings and was excavated in the 1960s; it was fronted by a broad set of steps and incorporated columns in its facade. (Image © Toby Savage, used by kind permission). 

Beyond the probable territory of the Garamantes there have been further finds of Roman material, although the quantities involved are much smaller than those encountered in the Fazzan region of Libya. Within the Saharan desert, there is a scattering of Roman material to the west and south-west of the Garamantes, which have been recently mapped and briefly discussed by Andrew WilsonKevin McDonald and Katia Schörle. For example, a Roman oil lamp, a glass goblet and the imprint of a coin of Constantine on gold leaf were found in the fourth-/fifth-century 'Tomb of Tin Hinan' (Abalessa, Algeria) in the Central Sahara, and a painted Latin inscription and coins have been found in the same area of southern Algeria at Ti-m-Missaou, whilst sporadic Roman finds from sites such as Hassi el-Hadjar and Fort Miribel further north in the Algerian Sahara have been interpreted by Wilson as reflecting the development of a small-scale western route through the desert by around the third century AD.

In addition to these central and northern Sahara finds, a small number of items of Roman manufacture or origin are also known from the southern shore of the Sahara and the semi-arid grasslands of the Sahel. From the far west, in southern Mauritania, there are a handful of coins dating from the first century BC to the third century AD, including two of Severus Alexander from Nouakchott and Tamkarkart. Perhaps more significant, however, are a number of fascinating finds from sites in Burkina Faso and Mali. As was noted in a previous post, a fourth- to seventh-century cemetery site at Kissi, Burkina Faso has produced cowrie shells from the Red Sea or further afield, carnelian and glass beads imported from both Egypt/the Levant and the Sasanian Middle East, and copper-alloy items made from metal that was imported from the Eastern Mediterranean and Britain, probably via Carthage. Likewise, there have been finds of amphorae rims which seem to be imitative of North African amphorae of Late Roman/early Byzantine date from three sites in Mali, to the west of Kissi, one from a context dated c. 450–600 AD. Other arguably relevant items include a number of early beads from Djenné-Jeno, Mali; metallurgical debris and ingots from Marandet, Niger, which match with some of the imported metal found at Kissi; and a second-century AD Janus statue from Roman North Africa found at Zangon Dan Makéri, southern Niger.

Brass anklets found in a fifth- to seventh-century AD grave at Kissi, Burkina Faso (West Africa), made with metal probably imported from the Eastern Mediterranean and Britain via Carthage; see further Fenn et al, 2010. (Image: B. Voss/Afriques, CC).

Turning to the question of what all this means, both David Mattingley and Andrew Wilson have argued that the sheer quantity of available evidence indicates that there must have been a very substantial degree of Saharan and trans-Saharan trade taking place in antiquity. This was probably primarily mediated via the Garamantes of Fazzan, given that the vast majority of Roman exports were concentrated in the hands of—and consumed by—the Saharan inhabitants of that region, with only a very small proportion of this rich array of Mediterranean goods being subsequently traded on into sub-Saharan West Africa, and Wilson thus suggests that we are probably dealing with a network of interlocking sub-systems of short-, medium- and long-distance exchange in and across the Sahara rather than a single trans-Saharan trade route. As to just what was being traded northwards and southwards via these networks, natron, cotton, and gemstones were probably minor components in the Saharan trade with the Roman Empire, but these and other local Garamantian products are almost certainly insufficient to explain the substantial quantity and ubiquity of Roman imports now known from the Libyan Sahara. As such, it is generally thought likely that the primary commodity exchanged for Mediterranean products by the Garamantes originated further south and was obtained by them either by trade in return for Saharan salt, alum and perhaps grain, or by force of arms (something hinted at by our textual references to the Garamantes raiding their southern neighbours)—in either case, the primary commodity in question is believed to be enslaved people.

As Wilson notes, such a trans-Saharan trade in enslaved people certainly operated in the medieval and early modern eras, and our available classical textual sources do indeed imply that the Garamantians were engaged in slave-raiding to their south. Needless to say, his consequent argument that the Garamantes were controlling an earlier form of the trans-Saharan slave-trade operating at a similar or greater scale to that of the medieval and early modern periods (c. 5,000–10,000 slaves per year, across all routes) not only makes sense of the otherwise inexplicable and exceptional concentration of Roman imports in the Libyan Sahara, but moreover explains where the necessarily massive workforce required to dig and maintain the hundreds of kilometres of underground foggara irrigation channels that supported the Garamantes' oasis culture originated too. It has also been argued that the evidence for the presence of slaves of 'sub-Saharan' African ancestry in the Mediterranean world, as most recently surveyed by Elizabeth Fentress and Kyle Harper, potentially supports the existence of such a Garamantian-controlled trade—for example, Fentress notes that there are an increasing number of images showing African subjects in servile positions over classical antiquity, most especially involving children, which she associates with the Garamantes, and a third-century AD inscription from Hadrumentum (modern-day Sousse, Tunisia) does, in fact, directly refer to a black slave as faex Garamantarum, the 'dregs of the Garamantes'. In this light, it is perhaps additionally worth pointing out that there is physical evidence for the likely presence of people of 'sub-Saharan' African ancestry (albeit of varying statuses) in both the Garamantian kingdom and the Roman Empire beyond too. For example, Mattingley notes that a skeletal analysis of Garamantian graves in the Fazzan area of Libya indicates that the people buried there included a significant proportion who seem to be of 'sub-Saharan' ancestry, with one woman recently excavated at Taqallit being furthermore found buried with a sub-Saharan-style lip plug. Likewise, recent work at Roman York, London and Leicester has suggested that a notable proportion of the people interred in the second- to early fifth-century AD urban cemeteries there—respectively c. 11%, 24% and 6% of the total examined—are likely of 'sub-Saharan' African descent, as is the famous third-century AD 'Beachy Head Lady' from East Sussex, although it does also need to be observed that there is no evidence that any of these people were themselves enslaved or of Garamantian origin and a number are, in fact, thought to have been of probably high social status and/or born in Britain.(1)

In sum, the available evidence seems to point to a substantial degree of Saharan/trans-Saharan contact and trade in the Roman era, potentially equal to or even greater than the level seen in the medieval and early modern periods, given the quantity and ubiquity of Roman imports now known from the Libyan Sahara. This trade appears to have been primarily mediated via the Garamantes, who had established a prosperous desert oasis civilisation in the Fazzan area around 1,000 kilometres to the south of Tripoli. The peak in this trade came between the first and early fourth centuries AD, although it continued into the sixth and seventh centuries, and it seems probable that the Garamantes were, in the main, exchanging Roman goods and luxuries for enslaved people obtained to their south, either through trading or by raiding, although other goods may well have played a minor role too. Relatively few Roman exports made it across the Sahara into the Sahel, suggesting that unlike in later eras trading was not directly trans-Saharan but conducted through a network of interlocking trading sub-systems.

Unloading camels in Egypt, from the Late Antique (sixth-century?) 'Ashburnham Pentateuch', BnF NAL 2334, f. 21r. (Image: BnF, Public Domain).


1.     Note, the higher proportion at London may reflect the fact that only 17 skeletons were subjected to ancestry analysis, compared to 83 at Leicester and 85 at York. For details of the cemeteries at York, London and Leicester, see S. Leach et al, 'Migration and diversity in Roman Britain: a multidisciplinary approach to the identification of immigrants in Roman York, England', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140 (2009), 546–61, online at; R. C. Redfern et al, 'Going south of the river: a multidisciplinary analysis of ancestry, mobility and diet in a population from Roman Southwark, London', Journal of Archaeological Science, 74 (October 2016), 11–22, online at; and M. Morris, 'Between road and river: investigating a Roman cemetery in Leicester', Current Archaeology, 319 (2016), online at, & 'Leicester's Roman skeletons have "African links"', BBC News, 2 December 2016, online at

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