Monday, 23 May 2016

A note on the evidence for African migrants in Britain from the Bronze Age to the medieval period

The degree to which pre-modern Britain included people of African origin within its population continues to be a topic of considerable interest and some controversy. Previous posts on this site have discussed a variety of textual, linguistic, archaeological and isotopic evidence for people from the Mediterranean and/or Africa in the British Isles from the Late Bronze Age through to the eleventh century AD. However, the focus in these posts has been on individual sites, events or periods, rather than the question of the potential proportion of people from Africa present in pre-modern Britain per se and how this may have varied over time. The aim of the following post is thus to briefly ponder whether an overview of the increasingly substantial British corpus of oxygen isotope evidence drawn from pre-modern archaeological human teeth has anything interesting to tell us with regard to this question.

Map of the British Isles, showing drinking-water oxygen isotope values and the 16 British archaeological sites, including three in York, with evidence for pre-modern people whose results are consistent with an early life spent in North Africa (image: C. R. Green, using a base-map image © BGS/NERC, reproduced under their non-commercial licence, as detailed on the BGS website).

Proportion of investigated sites from each period with at least one oxygen isotope result consistent with an origin in North Africa (image: C. R. Green).

The rationale for using oxygen isotope evidence as a tool for identifying people from Africa in pre-modern Britain was set out at some length in a previous post—essentially, tooth enamel oxygen isotope values reflect those of the water that was drunk by an individual in childhood, with drinking-water values varying markedly with climate and related factors. As such, it should be possible to identify first-generation migrants to Britain in the archaeological record by measuring their tooth enamel oxygen isotope levels, so long as they grew up in a region with significantly different drinking-water values to those found in Britain, a criteria North Africa fits comfortably, with many parts of it possessing levels notably higher than those found anywhere in Britain or, indeed, Europe.

In order to make a first pass at trying to assess whether isotopic data can help answer the question of the potential number of African people in medieval and earlier Britain and the variations in this number over time, I pulled together a rough corpus of 908 oxygen isotopes results taken from individuals buried at 79 Bronze Age–Medieval sites across Britain published up to the start of 2016, and then sorted these into four broad chronological periods: Bronze Age–Iron Age (22 sites), Roman (15 sites), Early Medieval (29 sites) and Medieval (14 sites), with one site in use across two of the periods.(1) I then went through this material to identify individuals whose results are sufficiently elevated so as to be both clearly indicative of a non-local origin and most consistent with a childhood spent in North Africa, rather than anywhere in Britain or Europe.(2) Needless to say, taking such an overview of the entire period from the Bronze Age to the Medieval era via a single dataset produces some interesting results, as well as some pitfalls. The former can be summarized as follows:
  • 20.3% of the 79 surveyed Bronze Age–Medieval sites contained at least one person who has results consistent with a childhood spent in Africa (n=16). As can be seen from the map included above, these sites are spread across Britain, with the majority coming from what is now England, although not exclusively so. Note, some of the 'gaps' in the resultant distribution may well be more apparent than real, stemming from a lack of published sites in some areas, such as north-western England and Norfolk. 
  • Sites possessing isotopic evidence consistent with the presence of first-generation immigrants from North Africa are found in all periods looked at, although there is a clear peak in the Roman era. The Roman era—the mid-first to early fifth centuries AD—has the greatest number of sites with such evidence, namely seven, these being Winchester (Lankhills), Gloucester, York (three sites: Trentholme Drive, The Railway & Driffield Terrace), Scorton near Catterick, and Wasperton. Furthermore, nearly 47% of all Roman sites where isotopic analysis has occurred have produced evidence suggestive of the presence of people who grew up in North Africa, a significantly higher proportion than is found for any other era. The next highest raw totals of sites with such isotopic evidence belong jointly to the 'Early Medieval' and 'Medieval' eras (four sites each), although it is important to note that the Early Medieval total results from over twice as many sites being isotopically investigated than is the case for the Medieval era—as such, whilst 28.6% of the Medieval-era sites in the corpus have isotopic evidence consistent with the presence of North African migrants, only 13.8% of the Early Medieval sites do. Finally, the Bronze Age–Iron Age is represented by only a single qualifying site on the Isle of Thanet, Kent, equivalent to 4.5% of all Bronze Age–Iron Age sites where isotopic analysis has taken place, although this Late Bronze Age–Middle Iron Age cemetery has multiple people with such results buried within it.
  • In total, 3.6% of the 908 Bronze Age–Medieval individuals surveyed from these 79 sites have results consistent with a childhood spent in Africa (n=33). This percentage reflects the fact that the majority of the sites looked at here only contain one or two individuals with values high enough for inclusion in the present study.
  • A small number of results are elevated to such a degree that they strongly indicate a childhood spent in the Nile Valley or Delta. Around 9% of the individual oxygen isotope results that were highlighted here were exceptionally elevated to above 21.0‰ δ¹⁸Op (n=3), a level that is probably indicative of a childhood spent in or around the Nile Valley, where equivalent values have been recorded from the ancient burial site at Mendes in the Nile Delta, Egypt, and other sites up to the third Nile cataract at Tombos. Interestingly, these results come from individuals spread across the chronological range: one from a Late Bronze Age burial at Thanet, Kent (ninth century BC), one from a Middle Iron Age grave at the same site (fourth century BC), and another from the medieval cemetery at Whithorn, Scotland (late twelfth to thirteenth century AD).
With regard to explanations for such a potential presence of people who grew up in North Africa in Britain from the Late Bronze Age through to the medieval period, several possibilities can be identified. For example, the peak in sites with isotopic evidence consistent with the presence of such people in the Roman era is perhaps unsurprising, given the significant epigraphic, textual and archaeological evidence for people from Africa and/or of African descent in Britain at that time, and a major research project has, in fact, recently been completed on the topic of diaspora communities in Roman Britain. Indeed, at York around 11–12% of the individuals buried in two of the large Roman-era cemeteries there are considered to be very likely of 'African descent' on the basis of anthroposcopic/craniometric analysis, whilst yet more are thought to have potential 'mixed' or 'black' ancestry, up to a possible maximum of 51% of the population in the higher-status 'The Railway' cemetery. Similarly, there is documentary and archaeological evidence for contacts between the Byzantine Empire, North Africa and post-Roman western Britain and England in the early medieval period which may well offer a potential explanation for some of the results retrieved—significant quantities of fifth- to sixth-century Byzantine imported pottery have, for example, been found along the west coast of Britain, including some produced in the Carthage region, and Middle Saxon England included churchmen such as Hadrian, the later seventh and early eighth-century Abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury, who was 'a man of African race' (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, IV.1) and is thought to have grown up in Libya Cyrenaica before moving to Italy following the mid-seventh-century Arab conquest of North Africa. For the Medieval period, the Crusades and the evidence for trade and contacts between England and the Mediterranean/Spain have been suggested as obvious potential reasons for the presence of people from Africa here then, whilst the Late Bronze Age to Middle Iron Age evidence from Thanet can perhaps be seen in the context of both the well-evidenced Bronze Age trading along the Atlantic coast between the Mediterranean, Iberia, Britain and Scandinavia, and the increasing body of linguistic, numismatic and archaeological evidence for Mediterranean/Punic contacts with Britain during the Iron Age.

Of course, whilst the above isotopic evidence is certainly intriguing, there are undoubtedly pitfalls to be aware of. On the one hand, we need to be wary of overestimating the proportion of any North African migrants in pre-modern Britain using isotopic evidence. For example, sites are sometimes chosen for isotopic analysis because they look potentially 'interesting', as was arguably the case with the cemeteries at York, Winchester and Thanet, and such a situation might well lead to a greater proportion of positive 'hits' in any corpus aiming to look for potential evidence of long-distance migration. Similarly, it is not totally impossible that a few of the people with the more marginal results discussed here could just have had their origins in a small area of southernmost Iberia rather than North Africa, although the bar for inclusion in the present corpus was set at such a level as to hopefully significantly reduce the possibility of this, and a substantial proportion of the results included here are, moreover, well above any plausible southern Iberian range.(3) On the other hand, the corpus could well underestimate both the number of individuals who may have had their origins in North Africa and their chronological spread. So, for example, whilst over 900 results were surveyed here, we still end up with a situation whereby none of the individuals with elevated values date from the Late Saxon/Anglo-Scandinavian period (later ninth to eleventh centuries). Taking this as a reflection of a lack of people from Africa in Britain at that time would, however, be a mistake: not only do we have good textual evidence for the presence of such people in the British Isles, but there are three burials of people of African descent known from tenth- and eleventh-century Gloucestershire and East Anglia—the problem is simply that none of them have been subjected to isotopic analysis and so they haven't been included here. Likewise, there are at least four burials of people who appear to be of African descent in the medieval cemetery at Ipswich, but only one has been isotopically tested (interestingly, five of the post-medieval/sixteenth-century burials there also appear to be those of people of African descent). Finally, by adopting a fairly high bar to inclusion in the corpus so as to avoid—as much as possible—the risk of 'false positives', we actually end up excluding a significant number of individuals who are generally accepted as being of African origin. So, only three members of a group of thirteen burials from Lankhills (Winchester) have results high enough to be included in the current corpus, despite the fact that all thirteen are considered to form a sub-group that is probably of African origin within the cemetery. All told, therefore, it might well be wondered whether the above tendencies to both overestimate and underestimate don't, in fact, cancel each other out.

North African unguentaria found in a grave from the Late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester, that is part of the sub-group with elevated oxygen isotope results mentioned above, but which has values just a little below the cut-off for inclusion in the corpus used in this post (image: Oxford Archaeology, reused under their CC BY-SA 3.0 license).


1     This corpus is based primarily upon J. A. Evans, C. A. Chenery & J. Montgomery, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation in archaeological human tooth enamel excavated from Britain', Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, 27 (2012), 754–64 and 'Supplementary Material I' (14 pp.), to which have been added studies published after that paper or missing from it, using a Google Scholar search to catch any publications that weren't already known. Note, the periods assigned to the results taken from Evans et al, 'Supplementary Material I', have been checked and revised by me for this corpus, as they were occasionally idiosyncratic: 'Roman' is here used as a catch-all term for results from the first to early fifth centuries AD, 'Early Medieval' for those results from the period between the early fifth and late eleventh centuries AD, and 'Medieval' for those from the twelfth through to the fifteenth centuries. The additional studies used in creating this corpus are as follows, arranged by date of publication: S. Lucy et al, 'The burial of a princess? The later seventh-­century cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely', Antiquity, 89 (2009), 81–141; J. Montgomery, 'Isotope analysis of bone collagen and tooth enamel', in C. Lowe (ed.), The P.R. Ritchie Excavations at Whithorn Priory, 1957–67: Medieval Bishops' Graves and Other Discoveries (Edinburgh, 2010), pp. 65–82; A. M. Pollard et al, '"Sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat": The St Brice's Day Massacre and the isotopic analysis of human bones from St John's College, Oxford', Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 31 (2012), 83–102; S. E. Groves et al, 'Mobility histories of 7th–9th century AD people buried at early medieval Bamburgh, Northumberland, England', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 151 (2013), 462–76; 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; M. Jay et al, 'British Iron Age burials of the Arras culture: a multi-isotope approach to investigating mobility levels and subsistence practices', World Archaeology, 45 (2013), 473–91; E. Kendall et al, 'Mobility, mortality, and the middle ages: identification of migrant individuals in a 14th century black death cemetery population', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 150 (2013), 210–22; C. A. Roberts et al, 'Isotopic tracing of the impact of mobility on infectious disease: the origin of people with treponematosis buried in Hull, England, in the Late Medieval period', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 150 (2013), 273–85; 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; J. I. McKinley et al, Cliffs End Farm, Isle of Thanet, Kent. A Mortuary and Ritual Site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Period with Evidence for Long-Distance Maritime Mobility (Salisbury, 2014); J. Montgomery et al, 'Finding Vikings with isotope analysis: the view from wet and windy islands', Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 7 (2014), 54–70; H. Eckardt et al, 'The Late Roman field army in northern Britain? Mobility, material culture and multi-isotope analysis at Scorton (N. Yorks)', Britannia, 46 (2015), 191–223; S. A. Inskip et al, 'Osteological, biomolecular and geochemical examination of an early Anglo-Saxon case of lepromatous leprosy', PLoS ONE, 10.5 (2015), pp. 1–22, online at I also include 'Ipswich Man' in the corpus, a man of African descent who was buried in the thirteenth century in Ipswich, as he was isotopically investigated and consequently determined to probably have his origins in North Africa, although the results are still as yet unpublished: BBC, History Cold Case: Series 1, Episode 1—Ipswich Man (broadcast 27 July 2010); 'Medieval African found buried in England', Discovery News, 11 February 2013, online at; K. Wade, Ipswich Archive Summaries: Franciscan Way, IAS 5003 (2014), online at; and Xanthé Mallett, pers. comm..
2     The following footnote outlines the methodology adopted here. The conventional upper cut-off for phosphate oxygen isotope values for people who grew up in the British Isles is 18.6‰ δ¹⁸Op, although it has been suggested that people brought up on the far western margins of Britain and Ireland—where drinking-water oxygen isotope values are at their highest, between -5.0‰ and -4.5‰ δ¹⁸Odw (see map)—could theoretically have values up to 19.2‰ δ¹⁸Op (see 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; C. Chenery et al, 'Strontium and stable isotope evidence for diet and mobility in Roman Gloucester, UK', Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (2010), 150–63; and especially J. A. Evans et al, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation in archaeological human tooth enamel excavated from Britain', Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, 27 (2012), 754–64). As such, and in order to avoid as much doubt as possible, I decided only to look at people with tooth enamel phosphate oxygen isotope results of 19.2‰+ for this post. This reflects, across the entire resulting corpus, the childhood consumption of drinking-water with values from -3.5‰ δ¹⁸Odw up to +1.3‰ δ¹⁸Odw on the 2010 revised Levinson equation or -4.0‰ δ¹⁸Odw to -0.2‰ δ¹⁸Odw on the 2008 Daux et al equation—needless to say, whichever equation is used, these values are notably higher than the maximum British drinking-water value of c. -4.5‰ δ¹⁸Odw (found only in a few spots in the far west of the Outer Hebrides and Cornwall), but in line with results from North Africa, whilst the highest of the recorded results in the corpus can only be matched in the Nile Valley, as was discussed in a previous post. Indeed, over 50% of the individuals studied in this post have results of at least 19.5‰ δ¹⁸Op, equivalent to a drinking-water value of -2.8‰ δ¹⁸Odw (-3.5‰ δ¹⁸Odw) or more, significantly above any credible British range and only really paralleled in some areas of North Africa. Moreover, it is worth noting from the map attached to this post that none of the individuals who are included in the study corpus were actually found in the areas with the highest drinking-water values in Britain, removing any lingering potential doubt as to their non-local origin. In fact, only a single individual of the 33 discussed here was found in an area with a local drinking-water value below -6.0‰ δ¹⁸Odw, whilst the vast majority (79%) come from areas where drinking water values are between -7.0‰ and -8.5‰. As such, not only do they largely come from areas where the theoretical maximum for tooth enamel phosphate oxygen isotope values is closer to c. 18.5‰, according to Evans et al (2012, p. 759), not 19.2‰, but their results actually reflect the childhood consumption of water with values at least 3.0‰ higher than the local level right up to potentially as much as 8.4‰ higher (at the Cliffs End, Thanet, site)—in all cases, this is significantly above any plausible variations around the local range and is massively so in the case of many results. Finally, it is worth noting that the adoption of this relatively conservative approach may mean that the number of individuals of in Britain who grew up in North Africa is underestimated, rather than overestimated. For example, even a small drop of the bar to include all those with results of 19.0‰ δ¹⁸Op or above more more than doubles the number to be taken into the current corpus from our main source (the 2012 Evans et al corpus), and it is worth noting that many of the people with results at this level are indeed usually accepted as being probable migrants from North Africa, as are a significant number of people with slightly lower results too (see, for example, Evans et al, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation', pp. 760–2; K. A. Hemer et al, 'Evidence of early medieval trade and migration between Wales and the Mediterranean Sea region'; and the discussion in a previous post, '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 Nonetheless, it was felt worthwhile to set the bar higher in the present study in order to minimize as fully as possible the risk of false positives, and also to avoid as much as possible increasing the chance of some of the people studied here could have their origins in the one other area of Europe with very high drinking-water oxygen isotope values, southernmost Iberia, see note 3.
3     The map included in Evans et al, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation', p. 761, indicates that the only part of Europe other than Britain with water oxygen isotope values above -5.0‰ is a small area of the south-eastern Iberian peninsula. L. J. Araguas-Araguas & M. F. Diaz Teijeiro, 'Isotope composition of precipitation and water vapour in the Iberian Peninsula', in IAEA, Isotopic composition of precipitation in the Mediterranean Basin in relation to air circulation patterns and climate (Vienna, 2005), pp. 173–90 at p. 178, state that values in this area range down to -4.3‰ δ¹⁸O, which is slightly enriched over the upper end of the British range (c. -4.5‰ δ¹⁸O); they also indicate that similar values above -5.0‰ δ¹⁸O are found in limited areas of the south-western coast of Iberia too, contrary to Evans et al, with groundwater results of c. 4.0‰ or even slightly higher reported from a very small zone around Cádiz (Araguas-Araguas & Diaz Teijeiro, fig. 3 at p. 180). In consequence, the bar for consideration in the present post was set relatively high to reduce the chance of including people from southernmost Iberia in the corpus—as was mentioned in note 2, above, only people with tooth enamel phosphate oxygen isotope results of 19.2‰+ were considered here, which on the 2010 revised Levinson equation (as used in 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, and other recent studies) equates to the consumption of drinking-water with values of -3.5‰ δ¹⁸O or above, with the majority of the results included here moreover reflecting the consumption of drinking-water with even higher values than this, ranging from -2.8‰ δ¹⁸O right up to +1.3‰ δ¹⁸O, well above the southern Iberian range.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Sinister omens & idle traditions: a twelfth-century superstition that the king of England must not enter Lincoln

The following note discusses a rather intriguing medieval superstition which states that the king of England must not enter the city of Lincoln for fear of calamity. Some of the key witnesses to this superstition are noted below, the earliest of them dating from the mid-1140s and the last from around 1201.

John Speed's proof plan of Lincoln, created at some point between 1603 and 1611, with east at the top of the plan. The former Roman walled city (Lincoln proper) lies on the left side of this plan, separated by the River Witham from on its Wigford suburb; according to Roger of Hoveden and William of Newburgh, it was in the latter suburb beyond the walls that Henry II was crowned, due to the superstition that a king of England may not enter the city of Lincoln. Click the image for a larger view of Speed's plan (image: Cambridge University). 

The first reference to a belief that the king of England ought not to enter the city of Lincoln comes from the fourth version of Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum (X.25), probably written in 1147, shortly after the event it relates. Henry describes the event as follows:
In the twelfth year, at Christmas [25 December 1146], King Stephen showed himself in the kingly regalia in the city of Lincoln, where no other king—deterred by superstitious persons—had dared to do so. This shows King Stephen possessed great boldness and a spirit that was not fearful of danger.
Needless to say, this is an intriguing statement, particularly given that Henry of Huntingdon was not only a contemporary source, but also a canon of Lincoln cathedral and clearly very familiar with the city and its clergy. As such, it would seem that this must have been a genuine superstition current in mid-twelfth-century Lincoln, and one that previous kings had, in fact, respected. Unfortunately, Henry offers no further details of this superstition, but two late twelfth-century historians from Yorkshire, William of Newburgh and Roger of Howden, pick up the tale and offer some relevant details and incidents. So, William of Newburgh—whose abbey had significant lands in north Lincolnshire—wrote the following expansion of Henry of Huntingdon's passage in 1196–7:
In the twelfth year of his reign, king Stephen having (as before-mentioned) wrested the city of Lincoln from the earl of Chester, was desirous of being solemnly crowned there on Christmas-day, wisely disregarding an ancient superstition, which forbade the kings of England from entering that city. On his proceeding into the town, without the least hesitation, he encountered no sinister omen, as that idle tradition had portended would be the case; but after having solemnized his coronation, he retired from it, after a few days, with joy, and contempt at this superstitious vanity.
This section is best understood as largely derivative of Henry's account and adds little of substance, aside from an apparent clarification of the nature of the superstition, indicating that it did not simply relate to the wearing of a crown in Lincoln, but rather the king of England's entry into the city at all. Perhaps more important, however, is the evidence offered by both William of Newburgh and Roger of Howden for the continuing existence of this superstition at Lincoln into the reigns of Henry II and John. With regard to the former reign, Roger of Howden—who wrote and revised his work between the early 1170s and 1201—offers the following account:
In the year of grace 1158, being the fourth year of the reign of king Henry, son of the empress Matilda, the said king Henry caused himself to be crowned a second time at Lincoln without the walls of the city, at Wikeford.
William of Newburgh relates the same event and suggests that the reason for Henry's crown-wearing outside of Lincoln's walls was the previously mentioned 'ancient superstition':
In the fifth year of his reign, Henry, the illustrious king of England, was solemnly crowned at Lincoln on Christmas-day, not within the walls, indeed, on account, I suppose, of that ancient superstition which king Stephen (as before related) laudably condemned and ridiculed, but in a village adjoining the suburbs.
There are two particular points of interest here. First and foremost, if William is correct, then this would indicate that the superstition not only survived into Henry II's reign, but that Henry II actually indulged it, unlike his immediate predecessor. Second, the place where Henry was crowned outside the walls of the city is named as Wikeford. This name is that of the medieval Lincoln suburb of Wigford, which lies just to the south of both the Witham and the walled town and seems to have seen a notable degree of activity during the Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval periods. As to where in Wigford the crown-wearing took place, it was suggested in the nineteenth century that the church of St Mary-le-Wigford—possibly founded in the second half of the tenth century by the mercantile elite of Lincoln—may have been the site in question. Alternatively, it has been more recently argued that Henry II actually had a royal town-house (hospicium) constructed in the 1150s a little further to the south and away from the city, at St Mary's Guildhall next to St Peter-at-Gowts, and that it was at this newly built and interestingly extramural royal residence that the crown-wearing ceremony took place.

The eleventh-century tower of St Mary-le-Wigford church, Lincoln (photo: C. R. Green)

St Mary's Guildhall & St Peter-at-Gowts in 1784, by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (image: Wikimedia Commons).

The final probable reference to this superstition comes from Roger of Howden, writing in 1201, who appears to allude to it when describing King John's visit to Lincoln in 1200 to receive the homage of William, king of Scotland:
On the tenth day before the calends of December, being the fourth day of the week, John, king of England, fearlessly, and contrary to the advice of many of his followers, entered the cathedral church of Lincoln, and offered on the altar of St John the Baptist, in the new buildings there, a gold chalice. After this, on the same day, he and William, king of the Scots, met for a conference, outside the city of Lincoln, upon a lofty hill.
Although Roger doesn't mention the 'ancient superstition' explicitly, the fact that John is said to have entered the cathedral—located in the walled Upper City—'fearlessly' and 'contrary to the advice of many of his followers' strongly suggests that the superstition survived to this point and was a matter of concern to some of John's entourage. Moreover, as W. A. B. Coolidge points out, it may also be noteworthy that John subsequently retreated 'outside the city of Lincoln' to a 'lofty hill' to receive the homage of William.

We thus have a rather interesting trail of evidence, suggesting that there was a genuine superstition warning against the king of England entering Lincoln wearing his crown, or perhaps even entering it at all, which was current in at least the 1140s and perhaps continued to carry weight through to the reign of John. As to its origins, these are likely to remain mysterious, although one could speculate whether the story might have something to do with the stories of independent kings of Lincoln and Lindesi that appear in the twelfth-century Havelok tale and other medieval Lincolnshire sources, arguably reflecting a continuing memory in Lincolnshire folklore of the genuine pre-Viking kingdom of Lindissi/Lindsey. Interestingly, two other cities—Leicester and Oxford—are also said to be the subject of similar superstitions, although as these superstitions are only recorded by authors of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, it might be wondered whether they are not somehow derivative of the Lincoln tradition recorded by Henry of Huntingdon and William of Newburgh.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations unless otherwise stated, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Anglo-Saxons abroad? Some early Anglo-Saxon finds from France and East Africa

The following post picks up from the previous one and offers a brief look at Anglo-Saxon objects found outside of the British Isles, primarily in France and Africa. From France, there are now over 300 Anglo-Saxon artefacts recorded, these being mainly distributed along the coast and considered to be at least partly indicative of the settlement of Anglo-Saxons from Britain there in the later fifth to sixth centuries, something supported by documentary references. In contrast, there are only a small number of finds known from other areas such as Switzerland and East Africa, but these are nonetheless intriguing too, not least as they may well come from contemporary contexts.

The distribution of sites producing late fifth- to sixth-century Anglo-Saxon brooches in France, after Soulat, 2009, and Soulat, 2011, plotted against a topographic base-map from Wikimedia Commons (image: C. R. Green).

A sixth-century, square-headed brooch of Kentish type, found in the early medieval cemetery at Herpes-en-Charente, France, see further K. R. Brown et al (eds.), From Attila to Charlemagne: Arts of the Early Medieval Period in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 2000), pp. 284–8 (image: The Met).

The existence of a substantial body of early Anglo-Saxon finds from the coast of France has been known for some time but only occasionally finds mention in works concerned with the early Anglo-Saxon period. This material is mainly distributed along the Channel coast and in Charente-Maritime, on the south-western coast, and recent studies have identified over 300 'Anglo-Saxon' artefacts from these areas, a total that suggests a significant degree of contact and activity. In general, this insular-style 'Anglo-Saxon' material, similar to items found from Kent across to the Isle of Wight, appears to date from the latter part of the fifth century and into the sixth, and has been considered to reflect a mixture of trade, an early medieval 'Channel/Maritime culture', and probably a degree of settlement by insular 'Anglo-Saxons' on the Gallic coast in that era.(1) Certainly, the latter suggestion is one that finds support in the available early textual evidence. So, for example, the mid-sixth-century Byzantine writer Procopius of Caesarea reports that a Frankish embassy to Constantinople in around 548 included 'Angles' amongst the party and that the Merovingian kings claimed jurisdiction over Britain on the basis that Angles from Britain had settled within the Frankish kingdom, bringing with them title to their previous insular homeland:
The island of Brittia is inhabited by three very numerous nations, each having one king over it. And the names of these nations are Angili, Frissones, and Brittones, the last being named from the island itself. And so great appears to be the population of these nations that every year they emigrate thence in large companies with their women and children and go the land of the Franks. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land that appears to be most deserted, and by this means they say that they are winning over the island. Thus it actually happened that not long ago the king of the Franks, in sending some of his intimates on an embassy to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angili, thus seeking to establish his claim that this island was ruled by him.(2)
Similarly, the Gallo-Roman aristocrat and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris makes reference in a letter of around 480 to Saxon raiders on the south-western Gallic coast who, after their raids, set their sails 'for the voyage home from the continent', which suggests that they too could have been based in Britain. The letter in question was addressed to his friend Namatius, who was serving as a naval and army officer on the coast of Visigothic Aquitaine and tasked with dealing with these Saxon raiders. and Sidonius Apollinaris warns him there to be on his guard, as the Saxons are not only skilled brigands and brutal enemies, but on taking their leave of the continent are
accustomed on the eve of departure to kill one in ten of their prisoners by drowning or crucifixion... distributing to the collected band of doomed men the iniquity of death by the equity of the lot.(3
Needless to say, Anglo-Saxon finds of this era are not simply confined to the modern French coast. Anglo-Saxon brooches and pottery of similar types and date are, for example, found in significant numbers in Belgium as well, with brooches recorded from sites such as Tournai and Broechem (Ranst), indicating that the above 'Channel culture' and Anglo-Saxon influence was present in this part of coastal Merovingian Gaul too.(4) Away from the Channel and Atlantic coast, the number of finds of insular Anglo-Saxon material culture declines markedly, but there are nonetheless still some intriguing finds and findspots. Within Europe, two are of particular interest, namely an intriguing lead great square-headed brooch found at Geneva, Switzerland,(5) and an Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooch of the first half of the sixth century discovered in the nineteenth century in south-eastern France near to Castelnaudary, Aude.

No details are recorded of the exact circumstances of the latter find, but other 'barbarian' material of the same era is recorded from the area around Castelnaudary, which may well be significant. Also of potential interest are the stylistic affinities of this cruciform brooch, with only three other examples of this specific type—Toby Martin's type 3.1.2—known, from Suffolk and Lincolnshire, and the general distribution of cruciform brooches with similar terminals being concentrated in the Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire area.(6) As to quite how such a brooch found its way to south-eastern France, this must remain a matter of speculation, but it is worth noting that there is some other evidence for Anglo-Saxons in the Mediterranean area during Late Antiquity. There were, after all, Angles amongst the c. 548 delegation to Constantinople that was mentioned above, and Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica, II.1) furthermore reports that Gregory the Great encountered Angles from the Northumbrian kingdom of Deira—roughly the area of modern Yorkshire—in the slave market at Rome during the second half of the sixth century. As such, the Castelnaudary brooch is not wholly without a context, particularly given that it too dates from the sixth-century; has clear stylistic links to items found in the traditionally 'Anglian' areas of Suffolk, Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire; and was recovered from a site that lies in the Carcassonne Gap, one of the chief ancient overland routes between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

An Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooch of the first half of the sixth century, found at Castelnaudary, Aude, south-eastern France (image: Barrière-Flavy, 1893)

Two apparently early Anglo-Saxon or Frankish beads found at Kisiju and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; original shaded image converted to colour using key provided (original image: J. R. Harding/ADS, used under their non-commercial license, colourized by C. R. Green). 

Looking even further afield, there have been somewhat later finds of Anglo-Saxon coins made from Italy and Spain, and a Late Saxon strap-end has been excavated from an early to mid-tenth-century level at Riurikovo Gorodishche, near Novgorod, Russia, which is virtually identical to examples from Whitby Abbey and has been considered indicative of the presence of an Anglo-Saxon travelling to the Byzantine Empire along the 'way from the Greeks to the Varangians'.(7) The most far-flung potentially Anglo-Saxon finds were not discovered in Europe, however, but instead in Africa. In particular, a small number of beads have been found in Sudan and on the coast of Tanzania, at Dar es Salaam and Kisiju, which appear to be identical in both form and manufacture to early Anglo-Saxon or Frankish beads and are closely comparable to examples of these in the British Museum. Of course, the very close resemblance of these items to early Anglo-Saxon or Frankish beads could be put down to a notable coincidence, but Harding, Chami and other researchers studying East Africa concur with D. M. Wilson, D. B. Harden and Richard Hodges that these beads aren't local products but rather Anglo-Saxon or Frankish in origin, and furthermore consider it credible that they arrived on the Tanzanian coast in or around the era that they were manufactured. Certainly, the sites from which these beads were recovered are believed to be early trading areas on the Tanzanian coast, occupied from perhaps the first century AD and centered in a region where other trade-goods of the fifth- to sixth-century are found, and Graeco-Roman sources moreover indicate that the central coast of East Africa was the location for settlements connected to the ongoing Indian Ocean trade. In fact, Rhapta, the most southerly emporium visited by Graeco-Roman traders and mentioned by both the Roman-era Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Ptolemy's Geography, is often considered to have been located in just this area, which is arguably a point of some considerable significance, particularly as the Graeco-Roman trade down the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean seems to have continued into the sixth century AD on the basis of the testimony of the Byzantine traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes, who apparently travelled to Ethiopia and possibly India too in that era.(8)

In considering quite how these early Anglo-Saxon or Frankish beads might have found there way to trading sites in East Africa, it is worth recalling that early Anglo-Saxon England and Merovingian Gaul both saw imports via the eastern Mediterranean of a number of materials that ultimately originated in Africa and India, including cowrie shell (from the Red Sea or Indian Ocean), amethyst (probably India or possibly Egypt/Ethiopia?), garnet (India), sapphire (Sri Lanka), elephant ivory (Africa or India), and also pepper (India) and incense (Horn of Africa/Arabia) by the time of Aldhelm and Bede.(9) As such, it certainly doesn't seem impossible that these beads could have travelled back along the same trade routes that brought these items to north-western Europe from the eastern Mediterranean and that they were subsequently carried into East Africa via the routes linking the Graeco-Roman world and East Africa/India. Furthermore, Joan Harding has suggested that, given their comparative rarity, these beads might even have been personal possessions carried by a small number of individuals from Anglo-Saxon England or Gaul who chose to travel back along this same trade route, which is a most intriguing conclusion in the present context.(10)

Map of the Roman-era Periplus of the Erythraean Sea with the three locations producing Anglo-Saxon/Frankish beads marked with stars; the location of Rhapta has been updated from the original map as per Chami, 1994; for a larger version of this map, click here (image: C. R. Green, modified from a map on Wikimedia Commons by George Tsiagalakis, CC-BY-SA-4).

The distribution of imported amethyst (stars) and cowrie shell (circles) in early Anglo-Saxon England; the former probably originated in India and the latter either in the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean (image: C. R. Green).


1     See, for example, M. Welch, 'An early entente cordiale? Cross-Channel connections in the Anglo-Saxon period', Archaeology International, 4 (2000), 28–30; J. Soulat, Le Matériel de Type Saxon et Anglo-Saxon en Gaule Mérovingienne (Paris, 2009); S. Fischer & J. Soulat, 'Runic Swords and Raw Materials – Anglo-Saxon Interaction with Northern Gaul', Vitark, 7 (2009), 72–9; J. Soulat, 'La présence Saxonne et Anglo-Saxonne sur le littoral de la Manche', in S. Lebecq et al (eds.), Quentovic: Environnement, Archéologie, Histoire (Lille, 2010), pp. 147–63; J. Soulat, 'Trois fibules de type Anglo-Saxon datant du VIe siècle provenant de la collection Diergardt du musée d'Archéologie nationale', Antiquités Nationales, 42 (2011), 101–09; J. Soulat et al, 'Hand-made pottery along the Channel coast and parallels with the Scheldt valley', in R. Annaert et al (eds.), ACE Conference Brussels: The Very Beginning of Europe? Early-Medieval Migration and Colonisation (Bruxelles, 2012), pp. 215–24; S. Harrington & M. Welch, The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain AD 450650: Beneath the Tribal Hidage (Oxford, 2014), p. 179.
2     Procopius, History of the Wars, VIII.xx.7–10, trans. H. B. Dewing, Procopius, Vol. V: History of the Wars, Books VII and VIII (London, 1962), pp. 252–5.
3     Sidonius Apollinaris, Letters, VIII.6, trans W. B. Anderson, Sidonius, Vol. II: Letters 3–9 (London, 1965), p. 431. See, for example, N. J. Higham & M. J. Ryan, The Anglo-Saxon World (New Haven & London, 2013), p. 76, for the view that these Saxons were potentially based in Britain.
4     Soulat et al, 'Hand-made pottery along the Channel coast and parallels with the Scheldt valley'; Fischer & Soulat, 'Runic Swords and Raw Materials – Anglo-Saxon Interaction with Northern Gaul', pp. 72, 76; H. Hamerow et al, 'Migration period settlements and “Anglo-Saxon” pottery from Flanders', Medieval Archaeology, 38 (1994), 1–18.
5     Discussed recently by John Hines, in A New Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Great Square-Headed Brooches (Woodbridge, 1997), p. 206, and Kevin Leahy in 'Medieval Britain and Ireland in 2004', Medieval Archaeology, 49 (2005), 323–473 at pp.337–41.
6     C. Barrière-Flavy, Étude sur les sépultures barbares du Midi et de l'ouest de la France (Tolouse/Paris, 1893), pp. 52, 131, and pl. IV.2; J. P. Gil, 'A crossroads of cultures in a mosaic of regions? The early Visigothic regnum from the perspective of small finds', Archaeologia Baltica, 18 (2012), 109–23 at p. 119; and T. Martin, pers. comm.. For the three other examples of cruciform brooch type 3.1.2, see T. Martin, A Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Cruciform Brooches, Archaeology Data Service (2015), online at, and the following records: British Museum 1927,1212.21; British Museum 1971,0901.1; and Portable Antiquities Scheme NLM-58E945. See further T. Martin, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 2015), p. 47; T. Martin, Identity and the Cruciform Brooch in Early Anglo-Saxon England: An Investigation of Style, Mortuary Context, and Use, 4 vols. (University of Sheffield PhD Thesis, 2011), I.57, 135, 149.
7     J. Shepard, 'From the Bosporus to the British Isles: the way from the Greeks to the Varangians', Drevnejshie Gosudarstva Vostochnoi Evropy, 2009 (Moscow, 2010), pp. 15–42 at pp. 24–5.
8     O. G. S. Crawford et alThe Welcome Excavations in the Sudan, volume III: Abu Geili and Saqadi & Dar el Mek (London, 1951), p. 72; J. R. Harding, 'Two Frankish beads from the coast of Tanganyika', Medieval Archaeology, 4 (1960), 126–7; J. R. Harding, 'On some crucible and associated finds from the coast of Tanganyika', Man, 60 (1960), 136–9 at p. 138; J. R. Harding, 'Glass beads and early trading posts on the east coast of Africa', South African Archaeological Bulletin, 33 (1978), 3–4; F. Chami, The Tanzanian Coast in the First Millennium AD (Uppsala, 1994), pp. 25–6, 32, 95–8; F. Chami and E. T. Kessy, 'Archaeological Work at Kisiju, Tanzania, 1994', Nyame Akuma, 43 (1995), 38–45. Note, the beads were examined and identified by both D. B. Harden, an ancient glass specialist and director of the London Museum/Museum of London, and D. M. Wilson, Anglo-Saxon archaeologist and subsequently director of the British Museum, who are cited by Harding, Chami and Crawford; the identification is also supported by Richard Hodges, who considers them Anglo-Saxon, as does Barbara Green: R. Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: Archaeology & the Beginnings of English Society (London, 1989), p. 9; B. Green, cited in P. Wade-Martins, Excavations in North Elmham Park, 1967–1972, East Anglian Archaeology Report no. 9, 2 vols. (Gressenhall, 1980), vol. II, p. 262. On Cosmas Indicopleustes and mid-sixth-century Graeco-Roman contacts with Africa and India, see for example S. Faller, 'The world according to Cosmas Indicopleustes – concepts and illustrations of an Alexandrian merchant and monk', Transcultural Studies, 1 (2011), 193–232.
9     See, for example, J. Drauschke, 'Byzantine Jewellery? Amethyst beads in East and West during the early Byzantine period', in C. Entwistle & N. Adams (eds.), 'Intelligible Beauty': Recent Research on Byzantine Jewellery (London, 2010), pp. 50–60 at pp. 51–2, and also J. Huggett, 'Imported grave goods and the early Anglo-Saxon economy', Medieval Archaeology, 32 (1988), 63–96; Higham and Ryan, The Anglo-Saxon World, p. 147; K. S. Beckett, Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 60–8; and L. Webster, 'Bone and ivory carving', in M. Lapidge et al (eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 2014).
10     Harding, 'Two Frankish beads from the coast of Tanganyika', p. 127. Another suggestion, tentatively raised in Crawford et alThe Welcome Excavations in the Sudan, volume III, p. 72, is that Anglo-Saxon and Frankish beads could have been made in Egypt and the Sudanese and Tanzanian examples could therefore represent the same products exported southwards. This seems implausible, however, given the rarity of such finds in Africa, and recent research on Anglo-Saxon glass beads furthermore strongly indicates that whilst raw glass for bead-making was imported from the Near East in the post-Roman period, fifth- and sixth-century Anglo-Saxon beads were themselves manufactured in England: see J. R. N. Peake, Early Anglo-Saxon Glass Beads: Composition and Origins Based on the Finds from RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, 2 volumes (Cardiff University D.Phil Thesis, 2013).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations unless otherwise stated, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Some Romano-British objects found in Europe & North Africa

Previous posts on this site have discussed a variety of material found in Britain that is suggestive of long-distance trade and movement in the past. For this post and the next, however, I thought it might be interesting to look briefly at some recent research into artefactual evidence pointing in the opposite direction instead—that is to say, at finds of British-made items from areas outside of the British Isles. What follows looks at Romano-British brooches and other objects found in Europe and North Africa, and the subsequent post will do the same for Anglo-Saxon items.

The distribution of Romano-British objects in Europe and North Africa, primarily brooches, after Ivleva, 2011, p. 135, and Ivleva, 2012, with minor additions and modifications and plotted on a base map from Wikimedia Commons (image: C.R. Green). 

Romano-British brooches found outside of the British Isles have recently been the subject of considerable research by Tatiana Ivleva, who completed her PhD on this topic in 2012. All told, she has identified 242 British-made brooches of the first to third centuries AD found on 102 sites in continental Europe or North Africa, along with a number of inscriptions in which the people mentioned are either identified or identifiable as Britons. The vast majority of these finds have been made in the north-western Roman Empire, from the provinces of Germania Inferior, Germania Superior and Gallia Belgica, but smaller numbers are found in Pannonia and even across to the northern Black Sea coast, with two coming from urban sites in Morocco. Needless to say, such finds form an intriguing body of evidence and Tatiana Ivleva suggests that their findspots can be explained in a number of ways. For example, 17 of the 103 sites that produced these brooches are in places or areas where we otherwise know that Roman military units raised in Britain were present in the era that the brooches were made, such as Cohors VI Brittonum in what is now the Netherlands, the Ala I Britannica and cohors I Britannica in Hungary, and British numeri units on the German limes. Equally, other brooches come from sites where there is surviving epigraphic evidence for the presence of Britons in the Roman era, as at Cologne, or where there is evidence for returning veterans whose units were once stationed in Britain, whilst yet others come from sites that are likely to have seen the presence of craftsmen and/or traders who could have been either Britons themselves or have visited Britain.(1)

The most distant examples of British objects identified overseas by Ivlev consist of two brooches from what is now Morocco, a fitting from Egypt, and a number of British items from two sites on the northern Black Sea coast. The two items from Morocco are a trumpet brooch found either in or close to the administrative centre of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana, Volubilis, a city that is believed to have had a vexillatio Brittonum posted in one of its five surrounding forts in the second century AD, and a headstud brooch from the civilian quarter of Thamusida (insula G5), a town inhabited by retired veterans. It has been argued that both brooches are most credibly interpreted as items brought to Mauretania Tingitana by members of British military units or their detachments, perhaps as heirloom pieces worn over several generations given that they are corroded, extremely worn, and date from the later first century AD rather than the second century, when the presence of British detachments in North Africa is attested.(2) A similar interpretation might be applied to the Egyptian find too. This is a British enamelled terret ring from a horse harness, which was found at Fayum (ancient Crocodilopolis/Arsinoë) and is of a type that was very common in Britain, with a virtually identical example having been excavated from the Romano-British 'small town' at Wanborough, Wiltshire, in 1969. Although it is impossible to be entirely certain how it came to be in Fayum, it has been noted that detachments of legion III Augusta were sent from Numidia to Britain in the second century AD and that the cohors I Ulpia Afrorum equitata, a cavalry unit, was stationed in Britain in the 120s and then in Egypt during the 130s, which is potentially suggestive.(3)

Finally, the finds of British items from the northern Black Sea coast come from ancient Gorgippia (Anapa, Russia) and Chersonesos Taurica (near Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula) and consist of Romano-British enamelled oil scrapers/strigils, an enamelled hexagonal alabastron or incense burner, and a number of British-made belt buckles. Both cities were within the Bosporan Kingdom, a client kingdom of the Roman Empire, and Chersonesos—where the buckles were found—certainly saw a number of Roman military units posted there, something that Ivleva suggests may account for the presence of the British finds at both sites, via soldiers who had previously served with other units from the region that had been to Britain, such as the legio I Italica. On the other hand, Jane Petersen has noted that the Gorgippia finds, at least, come from an exceptionally high status grave context, perhaps even belonging to the ruling family, and are luxury items imbued with Romanitas, which suggests these might be better seen as exotic imports from Romano-British workshops that were being used by the Bosporan elite as a means of signalling their familiarity with, and connection to, Roman culture.(4)

A probably British enamelled terret ring from a horse harness, found at Fayum—ancient Crocodilopolis/Arsinoë—in Egypt (image: British Museum). A virtually identical example was excavated from the Romano-British 'small town' at Wanborough, Wiltshire, in 1969, see A. S. Anderson et al, The Romano-British 'small town' at Wanborough, Wiltshire: Excavations, 1966-1976 (London, 2001), p. 96.


1     T. Ivleva, 'British emigrants in the Roman Empire: complexities and symbols of ethnic identities', in D. Mladenovič & B. Russel (eds.) TRAC 2010: Proceedings of the 20th Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Oxford 2010 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 132–53. Slightly different figures are reported in her 2011 article compared to her PhD thesis of 2012 (see fn. 2); the latter are adopted here.
2     T. Ivleva, Britons Abroad: the Mobility of Britons and the Circulation of British-made Objects in the Roman Empire (University of Leiden PhD Thesis), pp. 329–31.
3     A. S. Anderson et al, The Romano-British 'Small Town' at Wanborough, Wiltshire: Excavations, 1966–1976 (London, 2001), p. 96; Ivleva, Britons Abroad, pp. 329, 331.
4     Ivleva, Britons Abroad, pp. 323–4; J. H. Petersen, 'Communicating identities from beyond? Assessing expressions of identity in funerary material from the Black Sea region', HEROM, 2.1 (2013), 45–73, especially pp. 55, 57–60, 67 and fig. 6; M. Treister, 'The date and significance of tomb II at Gorgippia (1975 Excavations)', Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia, 9 (2003), 43–85 at p. 59. On the incense burner/alabastron and its British origins, see also H. Cool, 'Panelled Enamel Vessels', Roman Finds Group Newsletter, 13 (1997), pp. 2–3.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Monday, 18 April 2016

A tenth-century Anglo-Saxon standing cross discovered at Louth, Lincolnshire

This aim of this post is simply to report the rather exciting discovery of two joining pieces from a Anglo-Saxon standing cross in the rectory garden at Louth, Lincolnshire, which David Stocker and Paul Everson have dated to the tenth century. Both of these pieces depict the body of the crucified Christ and the original ring-headed cross was probably a very substantial monument, several metres high, that must have been of considerable importance in the local area.

The two joining pieces of the Anglo-Saxon cross-head found at Louth, shown shortly after the discovery of the second piece; the surviving parts of the cross-head together measure around 0.4m top to bottom (image copyright © C. R. Green).

Needless to say, this new pre-Conquest cross is a very significant find indeed, and its discovery in Louth is of especial interest. The current parish church—which possesses the tallest parish spire in England—dates largely from the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and whilst it contains within it the fabric of earlier churches dating back to the later twelfth century, this is by far the earliest Christian artefact yet found in the town. As such, it provides something of a 'missing link' between the medieval structural evidence of the parish church and the important documentary evidence for both a significant Middle Saxon minster at Louth which produced Offa of Mercia's last Archbishop of Canterbury, St Æthelheard (792–805), and a tenth-century shrine to Louth's own Anglo-Saxon saint, St Herefrith, who is thought to have been potentially the last ninth-century Bishop of Lindsey (c. 870 or thereabouts) and perhaps martyred by the Vikings.

For further details of the finding of the cross and commentary on its significance, see the press release from St James's Church and The Louth Cross sub-committee and the Lincolnshire Echo article on the Louth Cross, published this morning.

The largest piece of the cross-head, photographed shortly after its discovery during routine maintenance work (image copyright © Richard Gurnham, St James's Church, Louth, and The Louth Cross sub-committee). 

Compilation of views of the different sides of the cross-head; click the image for a larger view (image copyright © Chris Marshall, St James's Church, Louth, and The Louth Cross sub-committee).

St James's Church, Louth, from Westgate; the church possesses the tallest parish church spire in England, completed 1515 (image copyright © C. R. Green).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Britain, the Byzantine Empire, and the concept of an Anglo-Saxon 'Heptarchy': Harun ibn Yahya's ninth-century Arabic description of Britain

The aim of the following post is to offer a draft look at an interesting Arabic account of early medieval Britain that appears to have its origins in the late ninth century. Despite being rarely mentioned by British historians concerned with this era, this account has a number of points of interest, most especially the fact that it may contain the earliest reference yet encountered to there having been seven kingdoms (the 'Heptarchy') in pre-Viking England and the fact that its text implies that Britain was still considered to be somehow under Byzantine lordship at that time.

Al-Idrisi's mid-twelfth-century Arabic map of southern Britain and northern Frances, from the copy preserved in the sixteenth-century Oxford MS Pococke 375, fol. 281b–282a. Note, north is at the bottom of this map (image: Bodleian Library).

The author of the account discussed here is Harun ibn Yahya, a Syrian who was probably captured at Ascalon (Ashkelon, Israel) sometime around AD 886 by Byzantine pirates and kept prisoner at Constantinople for a period, before being released and subsequently travelling to Rome.(1) His account survives in fragments preserved by Ibn Rustah in his early tenth-century Book of Precious Records and includes the following passage on Britain:
From this city (sc. Rome) you sail the sea and journey for three months, till you reach the land of the king of the Burjān (here Burgundians). You journey hence through mountains and ravines for a month, till you reach the land of the Franks. From here you go forth and journey for four months, till you reach the city (capital) of Bartīniyah (Britain). It is a great city on the shore of the Western Ocean, ruled by seven kings. At the gate of its city (capital) is an idol (șanam). When the stranger wishes to enter it, he sleeps and cannot enter it, until the people of the city take him, to examine his intention and purpose in entering the city. They are Christians. They are the last of the lands of the Greeks, and there is no civilization beyond them.(2)
Needless to say, there are several points of interest in this account. Perhaps the most important of these is the statement that 'the city (capital) of Bartīniyah (Britain)' is 'ruled by seven kings'. The notion that Anglo-Saxon England was divided into seven kingdoms—the 'Heptarchy'—in the pre-Viking era is one that was common in English historiography from the sixteenth century through to the twentieth, despite it arguably never having been strictly the case, as David Dumville, Simon Keynes and others have pointed out.(3) The term 'Heptarchy' for the pre-Viking kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England appears to have been first used by William Lambarde in a handwritten explanation of his map of the 'seven kingdoms' of Saxon England, dated 1570, but the historiographical idea that pre-Viking England was made up of seven kingdoms is generally believed to have arisen rather earlier than this, in the early twelfth century with Henry of Huntingdon.(4) Henry is, for example, said by James Campbell to have 'introduced the idea of the Heptarchy' to English historical writing in his Historia Anglorum of 1129, stating in that text that 'when the Saxons subjected the land to themselves, they established seven kings, and imposed names of their own choice on the kingdoms', before listing these kingdoms as Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria.(5) However, the account under discussion here would seem to offer a fundamental challenge to this consensus. In particular, unless it is the result of a somewhat bizarre coincidence—which seems rather unlikely—then the late ninth-century reference by Harun ibn Yahya to there being 'seven kings' in Britain would appear to strongly indicate that the concept of a 'Heptarchy' in Anglo-Saxon England actually had a significantly earlier currency than Henry of Huntingdon and the early twelfth century. Furthermore, it would imply that this concept of the political situation in pre-Viking England was sufficiently well-known to have reached at least Rome, if not Constantinople, by the end of the ninth century, which is itself a point of some considerable significance.(6)

William Lambarde's 1568 woodcut map of the seven kingdoms of England in 'the Saxones time', as printed by John Foxe in 1576 (image via 

The second point of interest is the description of Britain as 'the last of the lands of the Greeks', that is the most oceanward land of the Rūm or Byzantines. Dunlop considered this to be a statement deriving from Harun ibn Yahya's time in Constantinople, and it might simply be interpreted as reflecting the fact that Britain was once a part of the Roman Empire, nearly 500 years earlier—that is to say, Britain is 'the last of the [former] lands of the Rūm'. However, this is not what he says in the extract preserved by Ibn Rustah, which was written in the present tense and implies that Harun ibn Yahya believed Britain actually still lay 'at the outer fringes of the Byzantine Empire', or at least that the Byzantines considered it to be potentially still within their sway.(7) In this context, it is worth recalling that Procopius, writing in the mid-sixth century—around a century and a half after Britain is usually considered to have ceased to be part of the Roman Empire—mentions both that the emperor Justinian was then making large payments of subsidies to Britain (Secret History, XIX.13) and that Justinian's leading imperial general, Belisarius, offered Britain to the Ostrogoths in exchange for Sicily (Wars, Whilst both suggestions could have been a fantasy or meant flippantly, it is equally possible that they might be a genuine reflection of an early Byzantine imperial ideology that continued to consider Britain to be somehow part of Byzantium's holdings, albeit a distant one, as a number of commentators including Eurydice Georganteli, J. O. Ward and Ian Wood have pointed out.(8)

Certainly, with regard to the latter possibility, it has to be admitted that there is now considerable archaeological evidence for Byzantine trading and interaction with southern and western Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, focussed especially on Tintagel but also more widely, and that the coin evidence from sites in western Britain and along the south coast has been recently interpreted as reflecting continuing relations into the seventh century too.(9) Likewise, a recent isotopic analysis of burials in western Britain suggests that people who had probably grown up in Byzantine North Africa were actually being buried here in the post-Roman period, with one of these individuals being radiocarbon-dated to the late seventh century at the earliest—although it cannot be established with certainty, this might well be seen as the burial of someone brought up during the last days of Byzantine Carthage before the Arab conquest of the city in 697/8, and the Byzantine coin evidence from the seventh-century in Britain is certainly dominated by Carthaginian issues.(10) We should also note here the seventh-century Life of St John the Almsgiver, which tells of a ship from Alexandria that visited Britain around AD 610–620 and exchanged a cargo of corn for one of tin, a tale that is undoubtedly suggestive as to seventh-century contacts and continued familiarity, and the Byzantine text of the 630s known as the Doctrina Iacobi nuper baptizati, which offers a very similar concept to Harun ibn Yahya, claiming that 'Roman lands' then extended from Britain (βρεττανίας) to Africa.(11)

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the early medieval 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'. This has often been thought to refer to the consulship of Justinus in AD 540, which would itself be a point of considerable significance, but it has recently been powerfully argued that the consul in question is actually more probably the Emperor Justin II himself, who was consul successively from 567–79. Such a situation would, of course, be extremely noteworthy in the present context, and the stone's erection and use of consular dating has consequently been considered by Thomas Charles-Edwards to reflect 'British loyalty to the Emperor Justin' and 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'.(12)

A copper-alloy Byzantine follis of Heraclius, minted in Nicomedia in 611–12 and found near to Tamworth in the West Midlands; Sam Moorhead considers this coin to be potentially a genuine early medieval import, rather than a modern-era loss (image: PAS).

Needless to say, given all of the above, the idea that early Byzantine imperial ideology might have envisaged Britain as being still somehow part of their sphere long after the supposed end of 'Roman Britain' in c. AD 410, with this then underlying the statements made and recorded by Procopius in the mid-sixth century, is clearly worthy of some serious consideration. Moreover, in this light, Harun ibn Yahya's belief that Britain was 'the last of the lands of the Greeks' would appear to be rather more interesting than might be at first thought too—indeed, it could be taken to suggest that any potential sixth-century sense of Britain as still part of the Byzantine world continued to somehow persist in Byzantine thinking into the ninth century. In support of such a contention, another rarely mentioned eastern account of early medieval Britain can be cited here, as it too seems to share this idea of Britain as a continuing element within the Byzantine Empire. This is the tenth-century Persian Hudud al-'Alam, 'The Regions of the World', written in 982 for a prince in north-western Afghanistan. In addition to a general statement that 'there are twelve islands called Briṭāniya, of which some are cultivated and some desolate. On them are found numerous mountains, rivers, villages, and different mines', the author of the Hudud al-'Alam also comments as follows:
Britannia (Bariṭīniya), the last land (shahr) of Rūm on the coast of the Ocean. It is an emporium (bārgāh) of Rūm and Spain.(13)
Whilst the first part of this statement might well be seen as derivative of Harun ibn Yahya and Ibn Rustah, the second part clearly is not. It is found nowhere else, according to V. V. Barthold, but it clearly fits with the suggestions made above, namely that, from an eastern perspective, Britain was a place that continued to have some sort of relationship with the Byzantine Empire.(14) Indeed, it is worth pointing out here that there is again no necessity to treat the statement that Britain 'is an emporium of Rūm' as a primarily historical statement transposed into the tenth century, referring perhaps to the fifth- to seventh-century activity mentioned above—there are, after all, a number of ninth- to eleventh-century Byzantine coins and seals known from Britain, not least from Winchester and London, and there is moreover documentary evidence for both the presence of Byzantine churchmen in tenth-century England and the use of the Byzantine title basileus at that time, which must be seen as suggestive.(15) As to the mention of Spain in this passage, this again suggests that the author of the Hudud al-'Alam had sources additional to those available to us. As to its origins, it may be referring to the possibility of some sort of trading relationship between the the Islamic world and the British Isles in the eighth and ninth centuries, for which there is certainly some archaeological, numismatic and documentary evidence, or possibly to Spanish–English contacts in the tenth century. Indeed, Patricia Nightingale, for example, considers that this reference to Spain 'might hint at Anglo-Saxon participation in the slave trade to the Muslim kingdoms' in the tenth century, which again would be a point of some interest.(16)

The Penmachno stone in North Wales, which includes a consular dating most probably referring to the successive consulships of the Emperor Justin II, 567–79 (image: Richard Hoare/Geograph, CC BY-SA 2.0).


1     N. E. Hermes, The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture: Ninth–Twelfth Century AD (New York, 2012), pp. 72–80; A. Classen, 'East meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: many untold stories about connections and contacts, understanding and misunderstanding', in A. Classen (ed.), East Meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: Transcultural Experiences in the Premodern World (Berlin/Boston, 2013), pp. 1–222 at p. 26.
2     D. N. Dunlop, 'The British Isles according to medieval Arabic authors', Islamic Quarterly, 4 (1957), 11–28 at p. 16.
3     D. N. Dumville, 'Essex, Middle Anglia and the expansion of Mercia, in S. Bassett (ed.) The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London, 1989), pp. 123–40 at p. 126; S. Keynes, 'Heptarchy', in M. Lapidge et al (eds.), Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 2001), p. 233.
4     On the word Heptarchy and William Lambarde, see W. Goffart, 'The first venture in 'medieval geography': Lambarde's map of the Saxon Heptarchy (1568)', in J. Roberts et al (eds.), Alfred the Wise: Studies in Honour of Janet Bately on the Occasion of Her Sixty-fifth Birthday (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 53–60; Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. Heptarchy. On Henry of Huntingdon and the seven kingdoms of England, see Keynes, 'Heptarchy', p. 233; J. Campbell, 'Some twelfth-century views of the Anglo-Saxon past', in J. Campbell, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London, 1986), pp. 209–28 at p. 213; Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum: the History of the English People, ed. & trans. D. Greenway (Oxford, 1996), pp. lx–lxi.
5     Campbell, 'Some twelfth-century views of the Anglo-Saxon past', p. 213; Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, i.4, ed. & trans. Greenway, p. 17.
6     It is worth noting here that Harun ibn Yahya's statement that the unnamed capital city of Britain was ruled by the seven kings is most credibly seen as a confusion deriving from a source that mentioned both the political situation in pre-Viking Britain and this city. However, if it is indeed London—as Dunlop suggests ('British Isles according to medieval Arabic authors', p. 16) and seems plausible, given that Lundenwic (London) was actually the largest of the major wics or towns of pre-Viking England, with a core zone of c. 55–60 hectares—then it is interesting to note in this context that Middle Saxon London (Lundenwic) was actually sited in a marginal position to several pre-Viking kingdoms and was variously under the control of the kingdoms of Mercia, Kent, Wessex and Essex at different points between the mid-seventh and the mid-ninth centuries. On pre-Viking London/Lundenwic, see, for example, A. G. Vince, Saxon London: An Archaeological Investigation (London, 1990); L. Blackmore, 'The origins and growth of Lundenwic, a mart of many nations', in B. Hårdh & L. Larsson (eds), Central Places in the Migration and Merovingian Periods (Stockholm, 2002), pp. 273–301; and L. Blackmore, 'London in the Not-So-Dark Ages', lecture given at Gresham College, 13 October 2014, available online at
7     Dunlop, 'British Isles according to medieval Arabic authors', p. 16; D. G. König, Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe, (Oxford, 2015), pp. 109, 277.
8     E. S. Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', in M. Biddle (ed.), The Winchester Mint and Coins and Related Finds from the Excavations of 1961-71, Winchester Studies 8 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 669–78 at p. 673; J. O. Ward, 'Procopius's Bellum Gothicum II.6.28: the problem of contacts between Justinian and Britain', Byzantion, 38 (1968), 460–71; and I. N. Wood, 'Before and after the migration to Britain', in J. Hines (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons From the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: an Ethnographic Perspective (Woodbridge, 1997), pp. 41–64 at p. 48. See also, for example, P. Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford, 2011), p. 200, and J. Campbell, 'The impact of the Sutton Hoo discovery on the study of Anglo-Saxon history', in J. Campbell, The Anglo-Saxon State (Hambledon, 2000), pp. 55–83 at p. 76. For more sceptical views, see A. Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (London, 1985), pp. 217–18, and C. A. Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400–600 (Stroud, 1998), pp. 34–5.
9     See, for example, Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', pp. 672–6, 678. See also M. Fulford, 'Byzantium and Britain: a Mediterranean perspective on post-Roman Mediterranean imports in western Britain and Ireland', Medieval Archaeology, 33 (1989), 1–6; E. Campbell, Continental and Mediterranean Imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, AD 400–800, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 157 (York, 2007); 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; and 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.
10     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; 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 Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain', p. 265, notes that the majority of the seventh-century Byzantine coins from Britain that he surveyed were minted at Carthage and suggests that they are indicative of 'continued maritime activity with people from the Mediterranean in the 7th century'.
11     Leontius, Life of St John the Almsgiver, chapter 10; Snyder, Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400–600, 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 Mango (ed.),&nbsp Byzantine Trade, 4th–12th Centuries, pp. 221–36 at p. 223. For the Doctrina Iacobi nuper baptizati, III.9, reference I am indebted to Sihong Lin; see O. Heilo, Seeing Eye to Eye: Islamic Universalism in the Roman and Byzantine Worlds, 7th to 10th Centuries (Wein University PhD dissertation, 2010), pp. 28–9, and D. Thomas & B. Roggema, Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, volume 1 (600-900) (Leiden, 2009), pp. 117–9.
12     T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 234–8, quotations at p. 235 and 238; the other identification mentioned is that of V. E. Nash-Williams, The Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff, 1950), pp. 14, 93. It may be additionally worth noting here that another, less certain although still intriguing, source of evidence is the recent suggestion that some of the apparently obscure 'local' saints of western Britain are not actually otherwise unknown 'Celtic' saints, as they were portrayed to be in much later medieval hagiographies, but rather Byzantine cults transplanted to Britain in the early medieval period whose origins were subsequently forgotten. With regard to this, perhaps the most convincing instance is provided by St Ia of St Ives, Cornwall. Although she is claimed by very much later sources to be an otherwise unknown Irish saint, she actually bears a name identical to that of a martyred Greek saint, St Ia of Persia, whose important church in Constantinople—located next to the Golden Gate—was restored by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century: see further K. Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire (Stroud, 2000), p. 163.
13     V. V. Minorsky (ed. & trans.), Ḥudūd al-'Ālam, 'The Regions of the World'  A Persian Geography 372 A.H. – 982 A.D., ed. C. E. Bosworth with a preface by V. V. Barthold (London, 1970), pp. 59 and 158.
14     V. V. Barthold in Ḥudūd al-'Ālam, 'The Regions of the World', p. 8.
15     Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', pp. 676–9; J. Shepard, 'From the Bosporus to the British Isles: the way from the Greeks to the Varangians', Drevnejshie Gosudarstva Vostochnoi Evropy, 2009 (Moscow, 2010), pp. 15–42 at pp. 22–38.
16     On a 'Late Saxon' Spanish connection, see P. Nightingale, 'The London Pepperers' Guild and some twelfth-century English trading links with Spain', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 58 (1985), 123–32 at p. 128. On the possibility of a degree of trading activity between the Islamic world and the British Isles in the eighth and ninth centuries, see C. R. Green, 'Some imitation Islamic coins minted in early medieval Europe', 1 March 2015, blog post, online at; L. Webster & J. Backhouse, The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600–900 (London, 1991), p. 190; A. O'Sullivan et al, Early Medieval Ireland: Archaeological Excavations 1930-2009 (Dublin, 2010), pp. 179–80; T. O'Hagan, 'In the name of Allah? Broaching Carolingian connections at Ballycottin, Co. Cork', 9 April 2013, blog post, online at

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