Sunday 2 November 2014

Stain Hill and the Lincolnshire Marshes in the Anglo-Saxon period

The following post offers both a draft map of the landscape of the Lincolnshire Marshes in the early Anglo-Saxon and Middle Saxon periods and a brief discussion of finds of this period that have been made at Stain Hill, Withern, a site that lies in the heart of the Lincolnshire Outmarsh.

The Lincolnshire Marshes in the pre-Viking period (drawn by C. R. Green, contains British Geological Survey materials © NERC 2014). Louth is marked on the map to aid with location. Light blue represents freshwater wetlands and saltmarsh, whilst dark blue is used for the sea and main creeks/rivers in this region. Key sources of information used in its creation include the British Geological Survey's maps of this region; D. N. Robinson's map of Lincolnshire's 'Saxon Shoreline' from The Book of the Lincolnshire Seaside (Buckingham, 1981); H. Fenwick, The Lincolnshire Marsh: Landscape Evolution, Settlement Development and the Salt Industry (PhD Thesis, University of Hull, 2007); N. G. Berridge and J. Pattison, Geology of the Country Around Grimsby and Patrington (London, 1994); and the 1628 (Mercator) and 1645 (Blaeu) maps of Lincolnshire.

Looking at the above map, several features deserve comment, not least the extensive wetlands that are depicted on the east coast of Lincolnshire and south of the Wolds. That there was a significant late/post-Roman marine transgression in Lincolnshire, which is usually dated to the fourth–sixth centuries AD, is now well-established—indeed, Romano-British sites on Lincolnshire Marshes appear to have been buried under several metres of marine alluvium at this time, with a Romano-British site at Scupholme, to the east of Louth, found beneath more than three metres of alluvium deposited by the sea and Romano-British salterns at Ingoldmells smothered by two to three metres of silt. The modern Outmarsh surface (the light blue area between Grimsby and Skegness) is believed to have its origins in these late/post-Roman deposits and the whole area was probably still largely wetland—primarily saltmarsh, although with peat to the south of the Wolds, see figure below—throughout much of the pre-Viking period, a situation depicted on the above map.

The maximum extent of the late/post-Roman marine transgression; click image for a larger version. Wetlands to the south and east of this line were probably saltmarsh throughout the pre-Viking period; those to the north and west of it were probably freshwater. Drawn by C. R. Green, as above; boundary of the maximum marine transgression after D. S. Brew et al, 'Holocene sedimentary evolution and palaeocoastlines of the Fenland embayment, eastern England', in I. Shennan et al (eds), Holocene land-ocean interaction and environmental change around the North Sea (London, 2000), pp. 253–73 at p. 270 (fig. 27). Note, I. G. Simmons, 'Creating dry land in S.E. Lindsey (Lincolnshire, England) before AD 1550', Water History, 6 (2014), 211–25 at pp. 211–12, suggests that the marine transgression reached up to c. 6.7m OD, a height that would have led to a much more extensive marine incursion than that depicted here. However, this level seems implausibly high given what we know of Holocene sea-level rise and, on checking the referenced works, the evidence for it is weak; as such, it is rejected here.

Also worthy of note are the 'islands' visible within both the coastal wetlands of the Outmarsh and the sea. These 'islands' have several different explanations. Those located in the sea were offshore coastal barrier islands that protected the coast of Lincolnshire until their probable destruction by the sea in the thirteenth century. Those depicted as lying at the edge of the coastal wetlands are raised sand ridges and ancient storm beaches that appear to have been above the maximum height of the late/post-Roman marine transgression. For example, a detailed study of the northern part of the Outmarsh suggests that there were two persistent sand bodies here from prehistory onwards: the southern sand body (in the North Somercotes–Saltfleet area) largely rose above the maximum height of the sea during the post-Roman period, whilst the northern instance was mostly buried by alluvium deposited during the late/post-Roman marine transgression, with the possible exception of some areas of it that lay to the east of Marshchapel. Also shown is a probable sand ridge in the Skegness area, following David Robinson, not least because there now seems to be reasonable evidence for a Roman site of some significance at Skegness or just offshore from it that was probably the origin of Old Skegness, a 'towne waullid having also a castelle' that was destroyed by the sea around 500 years ago.

Finally, those islands that are shown as lying within the Outmarsh were true islands of dry land within the Anglo-Saxon coastal wetlands, being exposed glacial deposits that stood above the surrounding saltmarshes. Several of these islands have evidence indicative of Anglo-Saxon period activity, including an early Anglo-Saxon to Middle Saxon settlement and Middle Saxon to Late Saxon cemetery excavated in the 1990s at Cumberworth. However, perhaps the most interesting example is an unexcavated site located a little further north in the Outmarsh, at Stain Hill in Withern with Stain parish, the site of the Deserted Medieval Village of Stain.

The location of Stain Hill in the Anglo-Saxon Outmarsh (drawn by C. R. Green, as above).

This island of glacial till and gravel rises from the surrounding marine alluvium to reach a maximum height of 9m OD and has been the site of a number of interesting finds. The earliest material known from here consists of prehistoric worked flints, but the interest for us starts in the Romano-British era with a total of 53 late fourth-century Roman coins (Gratian to Valentinian II, 367–92) found at Stain Hill as an artefact scatter (rather than a hoard). Within the local context, this is a very significant quantity. A survey of 314 km² of Lincolnshire Wolds and Marsh around Louth revealed that most recorded Roman coin concentrations in this part of Lincolnshire rarely broke into double figures, with just three sites reporting more than 12 coins and only a single site having more than 40, the latter being the important probable villa and estate centre at Welton le Wold (the topic of a future post on this blog). Such a conclusion is supported by Helen Fenwick's survey of Roman finds from the Outmarsh recorded in the Lincolnshire Historic Environment Record and an examination of the Portable Antiquities Scheme data for the Outmarsh. In both cases, the Stain Hill material stands out as amongst the most significant finds of non-hoarded Roman coins known from the entire Outmarsh, with most coin concentrations again only very rarely entering into double figures. In light of the above, the 53 coins from Stain Hill appear extremely interesting and could well be indicative of the presence of a significant late fourth-century Romano-British site at Stain Hill. Indeed, in this context the name 'Stain' may also be relevant, as Arthur Owen has suggested that place-names involving Old English stān or Scandinavian steinn, 'stone', were given to places where there were once obvious Roman remains, such as standing structures or stone building debris.

The geology of Stain Hill and the surrounding area, set against a present-day streetmap; click image to view a larger version. Yellow represents marine alluvium; green Devensian glacial till, and purple Devensian glaciofluvial deposits. Image taken from the BGS Geology of Britain Viewer, licensed under an Open Government Licence 2.0: contains British Geological Survey materials © NERC 2014.

A detailed image of Stain Hill, showing the island of glacial till surrounded by marine alluvium (from the previous image) set against the 1905 OS map of Stain Hill. Also depicted are cropmarks that seem to be visible on the Google Maps aerial photograph of the area as of November 2014 (in red) and an indication of the approximate area that the 53 Late Roman coins were found (purple, reflecting the general 6 figure grid-reference recorded for these on the HER). Some of the cropmarks clearly reflect pre-modern field boundaries, visible on the 1905 map but since removed; others do not, however. A proportion of the latter relate to the medieval moated site in the bottom left of the image, whilst those in the area where the Roman coins were found might bear comparison with Roman-era settlement cropmarks from elsewhere in eastern Lincolnshire, including one that looks like a form of large rectilinear enclosure with regular internal divisions that is found associated with villas and small Roman 'towns' here, see D. Jones, 'Romano-British Settlements on the Lincolnshire Wolds', in R. H. Bewley (ed.), Lincolnshire's Archaeology from the Air (Lincoln, 1998), pp. 69–80 (my thanks to Adam Daubney for discussing these cropmarks with me).

Moving into the post-Roman period, Stain Hill appears equally interesting. In 1988, the metal detectorist who found the Roman coins also reported a significant quantity of Anglo-Saxon material to the Lincolnshire Historic Environment Record that had been found at Stain Hill, including 17 'Saxon' pin heads and 2 strap-ends. Although no additional reports were received by the Lincolnshire HER, further finds were reported by the same detectorist to Scunthorpe Museum,(1) so that the final record of pre-Viking finds made from the site—which must represent a minimum assemblage, as the site was apparently once regularly detected by multiple people—include 2 early Anglo-Saxon artefacts, 22 Middle Saxon pins, 6 Middle Saxon strap-ends, and 7 Middle Saxon coins (consisting of 3 sceattas, 3 Mercian pennies and an early ninth-century coin of Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury; the sceat recorded by Mark Blackburn as having been found 'near Mablethorpe' may well have come from this site too). There were also apparently finds of a Anglo-Scandinavian Ringerike-style stirrup mount and a Late Saxon penny.

Once again, this is a very notable concentration of material, and one that encompasses the early Anglo-Saxon, Middle Saxon and Late Saxon/Anglo-Scandinavian periods. And, as before, a consideration of the HER and PAS data suggests that the Stain Hill finds are conspicuous within their local landscape context, being both the largest concentration of pre-Viking metal-detected material known from within the Outmarsh and indicative of activity that continued here over a number of centuries. Quite what this activity was is open to debate, however. It could be that there was an occasional trading or market site here, although as there appears to have been a very significant site of this type or similar only a handful of miles away on the edge of Middle Marsh, this may not be the most plausible solution. Alternatively, and perhaps more credibly, these items might indicate the presence of some sort of significant settlement or potential local estate centre which exploited the surrounding saltmarsh and coastal resources of the pre-Viking Outmarsh.

In this context, it is worth noting that just over 3 miles to the south-west of Stain Hill is the modern parish of Sutton on Sea, Sudtone in 1086. This is an Old English place-name that means 'the south farm or village' and it is of a type that is usually believed to imply that the farm or settlement in question was a subordinate part of a complex pre-Viking estate and that it was located to the south of a more important settlement (the estate centre). Needless to say, given the character of the likely pre-Viking landscape in this area; the location of Stain Hill in relation to Sutton on Sea; the nature of the other place-names that lie to the north of Sutton (all ‑thorp names, indicating that they were, in the Anglo-Scandinavian era, secondary settlements and outlying farmsteads); and, of course, the available archaeological evidence, Stain Hill must represent a good candidate for the estate centre/settlement that Sutton was named in relation to and was a subordinate part of the estate of.

An early ninth-century penny of Wulfred, Archbishop of Camterbury, similar to that found at Stain Hill (the example pictured here was found in Oxfordshire; image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Needless to say, if the material found at the Deserted Medieval Village of Stain may thus reflect Stain having been originally some sort of pre-Viking local estate centre, located on an Outmarsh island surrounded by valuable wetland resources, then it has to be wondered whether or not this settlement and its potential local centrality might represent some sort of continuity with the Late Roman past? After all, the Roman finds we have from Stain do suggest that there was a locally important Late Roman settlement here and, as was noted above, it is possible that the name 'Stain' was given in reference to still-obvious Romano-British buildings/materials at this site. Whilst such questions are difficult to answer definitively, the evidence we have certainly appears suggestive in this regard. Indeed, not only has the site produced finds from the Late Roman, early Anglo-Saxon, Middle Saxon and Late Saxon/Anglo-Scandinavian periods, and looks to have been locally significant in both the Late Roman and the pre-Viking eras, but it is also worth noting that such a degree of continuity would be more than plausible within the wider context of post-Roman activity and continuity in Lincolnshire.


1    My thanks are due here to Dr Kevin Leahy, formerly of Scunthorpe Museum and now of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and Mike Hemblade, of the North Lincolnshire Historic Environment Record, for providing me with details of these finds.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2014, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.