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).

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