Tuesday 21 April 2015

Thanet, Tanit and the Phoenicians: Place-Names, Archaeology and Pre-Roman Trading Settlements in Eastern Kent?

Recent work suggests that the name of the easternmost part of Kent, the Isle of Thanet, is one that is of considerable potential interest, being indicative of a major pre-Roman trading settlement founded by Phoenician merchants from Cadiz and Carthage. The following post offers some details and thoughts on this intriguing possibility.

The Isle of Thanet in the Roman Period; click for a larger view (image copyright © Gerald Mood/Trust for Thanet Archaeology, 2011, used with permission).

Although no longer an island, Thanet was one right through to the end of the medieval period (until the Wantsum Channel finally silted up) and its name is recorded in a variety of sources from the second century AD onwards. Early and significant forms of the name include Ptolemy's Tonatis (c. AD 150; the TON- of this form was misread as TOΛI-, hence it appears as Toliatis in the surviving manuscripts of Ptolemy); Solinus's Tanatus (3rdC AD); Bede's Tanatos (AD 731); Old English Tenid and Tenet, evidenced in charters and other documents (e.g. charters of AD 679, 689 and thereafter); and the Old Welsh forms Tanet and Danet, found in the Historia Brittonum (c. AD 829/30) and Armes Prydein (c. AD 930).(1) The usual explanation of this name is that it derives from one of two well-known Celtic roots, either *tan-, 'fire', or *tann-, 'oak', so that it would mean 'fire island, place of fire' (perhaps in reference to an unrecorded Roman lighthouse or fire beacon) or 'oak-wood'. However, as Richard Coates has observed, there are notable linguistic issues with the proposed etymologies and the suggested early forms, with the result that a Celtic root for the name cannot, in fact, be confidently asserted. Indeed, Coates excludes the name Thanet from his "Gazetteer of Celtic names in England" and instead assigns it to his "Ancient" category, the description of which states that it 'covers both Old European [names] and anything else not fully explicable which must have been named before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, for instance Thanet and Haughmond'.(2)

So, the question becomes: what might be the origin of the name Thanet, if a Celtic etymology is seen as potentially too linguistically problematic to support? With regard to this, there is really only one credible alternative proposal that has been published, first by Rudolf Hennig in the 1920s and then with considerable elaboration by Theo Vennemann in 2006.(3) Vennemann argues at length that an acceptable and plausible root for the original British form of the name Thanet—*Tanitā, *Tanetā or *Tanetos/-is, according to Coates (4)—is actually available in the Punic language via a name 'Y TNT, meaning the 'Isle (of) Tanit', the chief goddess of the great, ancient Phoenician mercantile power of Carthage. He contends that an identical name originally applied to the island on which the Phoenician Atlantic colony of Cadiz was built—said by Pliny (Natural History, IV.36) to have been called by the natives the 'Isle of Juno', which Vennemann plausibly sees as reflecting an original Punic 'Y TNT, the 'Isle (of) Tanit', that had been subject to a clear interpretatio Romana, as Juno correspond to Tanit under this—and that this name was then also applied to a secondary trading colony established in Britain from Cadiz in a similar geographic location and as a result of Carthage's mercantile, colonial activities in the Atlantic.(5)

Needless to say, this is a fascinating possibility, and it is arguably nowhere near as incredible as it might seem to be at first glance. On the linguistic side of the equation, it is worth noting that Richard Coates has briefly returned to the name Thanet since Vennemann wrote, and comments as follows:
Vennemann (2006) explores the possibility of a PrSem [Proto-Semitic] origin for Thanet. I myself mentioned that such a possibility had been suggested in the past, but did not pursue it, in a paper whose main topic was the alternative recorded name Ruoihin or the like (2000: 32–9); Vennemann’s more sophisticated work on this persuades me that I may have missed an opportunity. He concludes, arraying a great deal of evidence which I have no space to repeat here, that the name enshrines that of the Phoenician goddess Tanit.(6)
Such a positive reaction to the linguistic case on offer from a leading English place-name specialist is, of course, interesting. Moreover, recent work on British place-names suggests that Thanet may not, in fact, stand alone, and is instead one of a small number of obscure and difficult names from Britain that could potentially have Proto-Semitic/Punic roots. So, for example, Rame Head in Cornwall is an Iron Age promontory fort that guards the entrance to the large, natural deep water harbour of Plymouth Sound and the associated 'Tamar Estuary Iron Age coastal node'. This name—Rame in 1086 and thereafter—is, according to Oliver Padel, 'completely obscure' and 'unexplained', with no convincing explanation possible in either Cornish or English; however, it has been pointed out that there may well be such a potential and appropriate explanation available in Proto-Semitic, via the Semitic height-word *rām, as found in the modern place-names Ramat Gan, Israel, and Ramallah, Palestine (Proto-Semitic root *rwm), which would fit this imposing, conical headland well.(7)

Rame Head, Cornwall, as seen from the sea (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly, it has recently been argued that a handful of British island-names may derive from various Proto-Semitic roots that seem to be both topographically or otherwise appropriate to the sites in question and elucidate previously inexplicable names. Thus the island-name Sark refers to the easternmost and outermost island of the Guernsey geological group of islands, and while its source has been considered unknown and left unexplained in the past, a potential explanation is, in fact, available in the Proto-Semitic word *śrq, 'redden; rise (as of the sun); east'—compare Arabic šarq, 'east'. Needless to say, such an origin would not only explain the form of the name, but would also be topographically and semantically appropriate. Other instances of British islands bearing names that could likewise derive from Proto-Semitic include the difficult Welsh island-name Echri in the Severn Estuary (English Flat Holm, the last inhabitable island met as one journeys up the Severn, which has a potential Proto-Semitic origin in a name meaning the rearmost island), the unexplained name of the Isles of Scilly (which could reflect Proto-Semitic *s-l-, cf. Hebrew sela, 'rock', and thus be a name meaning 'The Rocks'; note, the -c- in the modern name is a post-medieval innovation), and several islands off the west coast of Britain including the collective name Hebrides, which either means the 'sheep islands' in Proto-Semitic or is impossible to satisfactorily explain.(8)

Obviously the suggested Proto-Semitic etymologies for these other coastal names are themselves open to debate and potential alternative explanations might be advanced for them, with a greater or lesser degree of plausibility. However, what matters is not any individual name, but rather their collective weight and the fact that a Proto-Semitic/Punic origin both appears to be at least possible and appropriate for a small but significant number of otherwise very difficult British coastal names. In other words, when taken together, these names would seem to offer an important potential linguistic context for a derivation of the island-name Thanet from Punic 'Y TNT, the 'Isle (of) Tanit'.

If there is therefore a credible linguistic case and possible context for a Punic origin for Thanet, what then of the historical and archaeological context? Certainly, there is a small amount of well-known textual evidence that might have some bearing on this, not least the classical references to a Carthaginian explorer named Himilco. Himilco undertook a maritime expedition—with 'hints of colonization'—north from Cadiz and the Pillars of Herakles (Straits of Gibraltar) sometime just after 500 BC or thereabouts, and it is thought that he visited Britain and Ireland as part of this.(9) Similarly, Strabo (Geography, 3.5.11) mentions the important ancient tin trade with the Kassiterides, the 'Tin Islands', which have often been credibly identified with either the Isles of Scilly or Cornwall, and goes on to state that 'in former times it was the Phoenicians alone', from Cadiz, 'who carried on this commerce'.(10)

The distribution of Carthaginian coins found in Britain (drawn by C. R. Green). This is image is based primarily on the data recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme; Historic England's Pastscape database; J. Laing & L. Laing, 'A Mediterranean trade with Wirral in the Iron Age', Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin, 9 (1983), 7–9; D. Holman, 'Iron Age Coinage and Settlement in East Kent', Britannia, 36 (2005), 1–54; J. G. Milne, Finds of Greek Coins in the British Isles (Oxford, 1948); and R. D. Penhallurick, Ancient and Early Medieval Coins from Cornwall & Scilly (London, 2010).

Such historical hints of a degree of contact between the pre-Roman Britons and Phoenician traders and adventurers from Cadiz and Carthage are obviously few and far between, but they cannot be dismissed entirely and they undoubtedly provide a potential historical context for the suggested derivation of a number of British coastal names from Proto-Semitic/Punic, as Vennemann, Coates and Broderick have all observed.(11) However, they do not stand alone in this. In this light, it need to be remembered that a significant number of Carthaginian coins of the fourth and third centuries BC are, in fact, now known from Britain. In the past, these have been sometimes dismissed as chance losses by modern collectors, but this no longer seems like a credible solution, given the number of coins involved, the long period over which they have been found, and their distribution within Britain, amongst other factors. Instead, it is now usually thought that while some of these coins may have arrived in Britain during the Roman period or the modern era, a great number of them are actually likely to have arrived during the pre-Roman Iron Age.(12)

The above is obviously a point of considerable importance in the present context, and matters become even more suggestive when one turns to look at the distribution of these coins on the map included here. There is, for example, a clear concentration of Carthaginian coinage along the south coast of England, and especially around the major Iron Age port of Poole Harbour, the site of the only excavated Iron Age harbour piers or moles in Britain. These two apparently monumental structures date from the third century BC and were clearly well-built and substantial: up to 160 metres long, 8 metres wide, and with paved stone surfaces of creamy-white Purbeck marble, the piers together extended out into the deep-water channel, narrowing its entrance and thus enabling the control of access to the harbour within.(13) Similarly, other significant concentrations of Carthaginian coins are easily discernible in and around the Severn Estuary; in the north-west, at the important pre-Roman trading site of Meols on the Wirral (Cheshire); and in the Thames Valley—all plausible sites for early maritime traders to have visited. However, the most impressive concentration of Carthaginian coins in Britain is undoubtedly that found in east Kent, including the Isle of Thanet, where far more of these Mediterranean coins have been found (on multiple sites) than is the case anywhere else in Britain.(14) Needless to say, such a coincidence of evidence is astonishing. By far the greatest concentration of Carthaginian coinage in Britain occurs in just that area of the country where a linguistic case has been independently made for the possible presence of a trading settlement in Britain that was used and named by Carthaginian merchants. In such circumstances, it is hard not to see the coin finds as offering a substantial degree of support for Vennemann's etymology and interpretation of the name Thanet.

In conclusion, although at first glance it might seem to be rather incredible, there does in fact appear to be a reasonable outline case to be made for Thanet having been the site of a pre-Roman coastal trading settlement that was used by Phoenician traders from Cadiz and Carthage and named by them after their home island at Cadiz, 'Y TNT, the 'Isle (of) Tanit', as Vennemann suggests. The linguistic case for a derivation of the place-name Thanet from 'Y TNT appears to be credible; there is a linguistic context for the derivation in terms of a small number of other difficult and inexplicable coastal names from around Britain that similarly might be appropriately explained via Proto-Semitic/Punic roots; there are hints in the literary sources of Phoenician/Carthaginian contact with pre-Roman Britain, involving trade and exploration; and there is now a substantial corpus of Carthaginian coins known from Britain that seem to be largely focussed around key coastal and riverine sites, with by far the greatest concentration of this material being found in the vicinity of Thanet itself. Needless to say, no-one would wish to claim that the case is certain, and further archaeological evidence would be very welcome, but the coincidence of evidence is arresting and the case is at the very least worthy of some serious consideration.


1    V. Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge, 2004), p. 606; A. L. F. Rivet & C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 468–9.
2    Watts, Cambridge Dictionary, p, 606; E. Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, 4th edn. (Oxford, 1960), p. 464; Rivet & Smith, Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 468–9; B. Cox, ‘The place-names of the earliest English records’, Journal of the English Place-Name Society, 8 (1976), 12–66 at p. 27; R. Coates, A. Breeze and D. Horovitz, Celtic Voices, English Places: Studies of the Celtic Impact on Place-Names in England (Stamford, 2000), pp. 32–9, 267 (quotation); T. Vennemann, 'The name of the Isle of Thanet', in A. J. Johnstone et al (edd.), Language and Text: Current Perspectives on English and Germanic Historical Linguistics and Philology (Heidelberg, 2006), pp. 345–74, especially pp. 345–8, 357–9. Note, the notion that the name Thanet derives from Greek thanatos, 'death', is a learned folk-etymology, see Watts, Cambridge Dictionary, p. 606; Coates in Coates et al, Celtic Voices, p. 32; and Rivet & Smith, Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp. 70, 469.
3    See Vennemann, 'Name of the Isle of Thanet', especially pp. 357–8, where he translates and summarizes Hennig's earlier argument, which was published in his Terrae Incognitae, 4 vols., 2nd edn. (Leiden, 1925), I.87.
4    Coates in Coates et al, Celtic Voices, p. 33; he goes on to say that '[i]ts Brittonic form was *Taned, whichever of the above possibilities was its source'.
5    Vennemann, 'Name of the Isle of Thanet', especially pp. 352–6, 362, 364–5, 370.
6    R. Coates, 'A Glimpse through a Dirty Window into an Unlit House: Names of Some North-West European Islands', in W. Ahrens et al (edd.), Names in Multi-Lingual, Multi-Cultural and Multi-Ethnic Contact: Proceedings of the 23rd International Congress of Onomastic Sciences, August 17-22, 2008 (Toronto, 2009), pp. 228–42 at pp. 234–5.
7    O. J. Padel, Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names (Penzance, 1988), p. 147; Coates, 'Some North-West European Islands', p. 237. Rame Head Iron Age promontory fort is Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record PRN 6000; on the 'Tamar Estuary Iron Age coastal node', see E. Wilkes, Iron Age Maritime Nodes on the English Channel Coast: An Investigation into the Location, Nature and Context of Early Ports and Harbours, 2 vols. (Bournemouth University PhD Thesis, 2004), I.141–2, II.466–7, and A. Firth et al, Tamar Estuaries Historic Environment: A Review of Marine and Coastal Archaeology (Plymouth, 1998).
8     See Coates, 'Some North-West European Islands', especially pp. 234, 235; G. Broderick, 'Some island names in the former "Kingdom of the Isles": a reappraisal', Journal of Scottish Name Studies, 7 (2013), 1–28, especially pp. 4–5; Watts, Cambridge Dictionary, p. 531 (on the name Scilly being unexplained); T. Vennemann, 'Remarks on some British Place-Names', in G. F. Carr et al (edd.), Interdigitations: Essays  for Irmengard Rauch (New York, 1999), pp. 25–62 at pp. 40–2, 46.
9    D. W. Roller, Through the Pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman Exploration of the Atlantic (London, 2006), pp. 27–9; D. W. Roller, 'Himilco the Navigator', in E. K. Akyeampong & H. L. Gates Jnr. (edd.), Dictionary of African Biography, 6 vols. (Oxford, 2012), III.70.
10    Roller, Through the Pillars of Herakles, pp. 12–14; Vennemann, 'Name of the Isle of Thanet', p. 356 and fn. 40. In this context, it may be worth at least noting that Pytheas, writing c. 320 BC, is thought to have visited the tin mines of Cornwall (Belerion) and reported that the inhabitants were 'especially friendly to strangers and have adopted a civilized way of life because of their interaction with traders and other people': B. Cunliffe, Britain Begins (Oxford, 2013), pp. 319–20, citing Diodorus Siculus, 5.1–5, who is generally believed to be repeating Pytheas's account. Note, the idea that people from south-west Iberia and/or north Africa could have directly visited Britain in the pre-Roman era has recently received some very significant support from the isotopic analysis of teeth from a Late Bronze Age to Middle Iron Age cemetery at Cliffs End Farm, Thanet, Kent. This analysis indicates that around 20% of those who were buried in that cemetery had actually been brought up in south-west Iberia or north Africa before moving to Kent. Needless to say, this is a conclusion of considerable interest, both in terms of the support it offers for the reality of long-distance direct maritime movement between Britain and Iberia/Africa in the first millennium BC and, potentially, for the importance of Thanet in this regard. See further J. I. McKinley et al, 'Dead-sea connections: a Bronze Age and Iron Age ritual site on the Isle of Thanet', in J. T. Koch & B. Cunliffe (eds.), Celtic from the West 2. Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe (Oxford, 2013), pp. 157–83 at pp. 166–8, and now J. I. McKinley et alCliffs 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).
11    Vennemann, 'Name of the Isle of Thanet', p. 356; Coates, 'Some North-West European Islands', p. 230; Broderick, 'Some island names', passim.
12    For example, P. de Jersey, Celtic Coinage in Britain (Princes Risborough, 1996), p. 15; J. Laing & L. Laing, 'A Mediterranean trade with Wirral in the Iron Age', Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin, 9 (1983), 7–9; J. G. Milne, Finds of Greek Coins in the British Isles (Oxford, 1948); B. W. Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland, and Wales from the Seventh Century BC Until the Roman Conquest, 3rd edn (London, 1991), p. 431; and D. Holman, 'Iron Age Coinage and Settlement in East Kent', Britannia, 36 (2005), 1–54 at pp. 39–41. See also R. G. Goodchild & J. G. Milne, 'The Greek Coins from Exeter Reconsidered', Numismatic Chronicle, 17 (1937), 124–34; S. Applebaum, 'Were There Jews in Roman Britain?', Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 17 (1951–2), 189–205 at pp. 189–90; and M. Todd, The South West to 1000 AD (London, 1987), pp. 214–16. Compare also M. Biddle, 'Ptolemaic coins from Winchester', Antiquity, 49 (1975), 213–15, on the Ptolemaic coins found in Britain.
13    M. Markey, E. Wilkes & T. Darvill, 'Poole Harbour: an Iron Age port', Current Archaeology, 181 (2002), 7–11. See also Historic England's Pastscape Database, Monument No. 457510 ('Poole Iron Age Port'); Wilkes, Iron Age Maritime Nodes on the English Channel Coast, I.169215, II.316–17, 3217; and E. Wilkes, 'Prehistoric sea journeys and port approaches: the south coast and Poole Harbour', in V. Cummings & R. Johnston (eds.), Prehistoric Journeys (Oxford, 2007), pp. 12130. Interestingly, Wilkes notes not only that the two harbour piers would have been 'visually impressive' and monumental, but also that the harbour design might be potentially compared with a number of Mediterranean harbours, including that of Motya, Sicily, a Phoenician and Carthaginian colony (Wilkes, Iron Age Maritime Nodes, I.212, and 'The south coast and Poole Harbour', p. 128).
14    See especially Holman, 'Iron Age Coinage and Settlement in East Kent', who records at least 22 Carthaginian coins from East Kent (p. 40, fn. 183).

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