Sunday 24 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 11 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–9, 82–3 (based on my PhD thesis), and Green, 'The British kingdom of Lindsey', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 56 (2008), 1–43 at pp. 18–23, supported recently by J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550.
2.     See, for example, K. Steane, The Archaeology of the Upper City and Adjacent Suburbs (Oxford, 2006), especially p. 192; M. J. Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', in K. Painter (ed.), Churches Built in Ancient Times: Recent Studies in Early Christian Archaeology (London, 1994), pp. 325–47 at pp. 328–30 and fig. 5; M. J. Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), City  by the Pool (Oxford, 2003), at pp. 127–9, 137; M. J. Jones, Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony and Capital (Stroud, 2002), p. 127; Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 18–23; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–9, 82–3; pace B. Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon, pagan or Christian: who was buried in the early cemetery at St-Paul-in-the Bail, Lincoln?', in L. Gilmour (ed.), Pagans and Christians – from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2007), pp. 229–56.
3.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 65; Steane, The Archaeology of the Upper City and Adjacent Suburbs, especially pp. 160–1; Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', pp. 249, 252.
4.     See especially Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire (Lincoln, 1998), pp. 226–30, for a championing of this theory, but beware his use of the radiocarbon data, which stretches it to the very utmost limits and beyond; this dating is also supported, far more tentatively, in A. G. Vince, 'Lincoln in the early medieval era, between the 5th and 9th centuries: the archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), The City by the Pool. Assessing the Archaeology of the City of Lincoln (Oxford, 2003), pp. 147-151.
5.     For criticisms of Sawyer's theory, see further Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', especially pp. 19–20 at fn. 85; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–9, 82. It should be noted that Alan Vince acknowledges that the theory of a seventh-century origin for the apsidal church requires both a degree of special pleading and doesn't account for the first building on the site, which Vince would (somewhat bizarrely given that the alternative interpretation of the whole site) have as a late Roman or post-Roman British church: Vince, 'Lincoln in the early medieval era', pp. 149, 150–1, and see further below.
6.     Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 19–20; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 65; M. J. Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', in K. Painter (ed.), Churches Built in Ancient Times: Recent Studies in Early Christian Archaeology (London, 1994), pp. 325–47; K. Steane, 'St Paul-in-the-Bail – a dated sequence?', Lincoln Archaeology, 3 (1990–1), 28–31; M. J. Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), City  by the Pool (Oxford, 2003), pp. 127–9, 137; M. J. Jones, Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony and Capital (Stroud, 2002), pp. 127–9; B. Eagles, 'Lindsey', in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London, 1989), p. 207.
7.     Sample number 34, see B. Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', in L. Gilmour (ed.), Pagans and Christians (Oxford, 2007), pp. 229–56 at pp. 247–9, 252; Steane, Archaeology of the Upper City, pp. 157, 210; Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', pp. 332–3, 344; Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', p. 129.
8.     Sample numbers 30, 29 and 26, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–6; Steane, Archaeology of the Upper City, especially pp. 160–1, 210; Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', pp. 248–50, 252–3. See also Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln', pp. 332, 344; Steane, ‘St Paul-in-the-Bail – a Dated Sequence?’, pp. 30–1.
9.     On the results of the Bayesian modelling, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–7, 83 (fn. 37), supported recently by J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550; as I note in Britons and Anglo-Saxons, my thanks are due here to Alex Bayliss, the Head of Scientific Dating at English Heritage, both for constructing a Bayesian model and for her analysis and advice with regard to the radiocarbon dates and chronology of this site.
10.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–9, 82–3; J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550. Incidentally, it should be noted here that Gilmour's variant theory on St Paul-in-the-Bail (outlined in his 2007 paper 'Sub-Roman or Saxon'), which posits a mid-sixth-century de novo start for the church-stage of the site, is not discussed in the present post, as it both does not seem to have been widely adopted and—as was noted in Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 82, and Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', p. 20, fn. 86—can be considered significantly less plausible than the scenario outlined here, lacking an obvious context and, moreover, seeming to be largely contradicted by the Bayesian modelling of the site.
11.     Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', p. 21; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 25, 67; and see further Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?'; Jones, 'Colonia era: archaeological account', pp. 127–9, 137; A. C. Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (London, 1981), p. 197; K. Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey (Stroud, 2007), p. 117.
12.     For eccles names, see for example K. Cameron, 'Eccles in English place-names', in K. Cameron (ed.), Place-Name Evidence for the Anglo-Saxon Invasion and Scandinavian Settlements (Nottingham, 1987), pp. 1–7; P. Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, 600–800 (Cambridge, 1990), p. 80; C. Hough, 'Eccles in English and Scottish place-names', in E. Quinton (ed.), The Church in English Place-Names (Nottingham, 2009), pp. 109–24. For St Augustine and the British St Sixtus, see N. P. Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (London, 1984), p. 20; P. Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume XIII Gregory the Great, Ephraim Syrus, Aphrahat (Edinburgh, 1898), p. 77. On British bishops, see for example S. Bassett, 'Church and diocese in the West Midlands', in J. Blair and R. Sharpe (eds.), Pastoral Care Before the Parish (London, 1992), pp. 13–40; S. Bassett, 'Medieval ecclesiastical organisation in the vicinity of Wroxeter and its British antecedents', Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 145 (1992), 1–28; B. Yorke, 'Lindsey: the lost kingdom found?', in A. Vince (ed.), Pre-Viking Lindsey (Lincoln 1993), pp. 141–50 at p. 145; Jones, ‘Colonia era: archaeological account’, p. 137. See also S. Bangert, 'Menas ampullae: a case study of long-distance contacts', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalization? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 27–33.
13.     On late fourth- and fifth-century Lincoln, see, for example, K. Dobney et al, Of Butchers and Breeds: Report on vertebrate remains from various sites in the City of Lincoln (Lincoln, 1996), pp. 2–4, 57–61; K. Dobney et al, ‘Down, but not out: biological evidence for complex economic organization in Lincoln in the late 4th century’, Antiquity, 72 (1998), 417–24; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 25–7. On the evidence for a degree of continuity in the pottery industry here into the fifth-century and possibly even slightly beyond, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 111–12, and Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 23–4, and the expanded discussion in Green, 'Romano-British pottery in the fifth- to sixth-century Lincoln region', blog post, 12 June 2016, online at
14.     The case is fully developed in Green, 'The British kingdom of Lindsey', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 56 (2008), 1–43, and Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012).

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

Wednesday 8 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Saturday 7 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Thursday 31 August 2017

Missing Lincs? Some lost islands along the Lincolnshire coast

The following post offers a quick survey of some of the lost islands off the medieval and earlier Lincolnshire coast. As has been discussed in a number of previous posts, the coastline of Lincolnshire has changed considerably in both the historic and prehistoric eras, and part of this change has involved the creation and subsequent loss of a number of coastal islands to both the sea and the land.

The coastline of Lincolnshire in the thirteenth century, drawn by C. R. Green after S. Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages and the Sea c. 1300–1600: Economy and Society (University of Leicester PhD thesis, 1984), with slight modifications. This map includes one depiction of the possible number and extent of both the offshore barrier islands that are often thought to have protected the coast of Lincolnshire through until the thirteenth century and the calmer, lagoonal conditions that they are suggested to have created to their west, protecting the Lincolnshire coast from the full erosive force of the North Sea.

The offshore barrier islands

The melting of the ice-sheets after the last glaciation saw the North Sea basin—a landscape now usually termed Doggerlandgradually, and occasionally not-so-gradually, inundated by the rising tide. Over the course of several thousand years, the steadily advancing coastline moved towards that of modern-day Lincolnshire until it reached something close to it in around 6000 BC (approximately the same time that the glacial-era land-bridge between Britain and the Continent was finally severed). For the Lincolnshire coast, one major effect of this was the drowning of the Mesolithic forests that once covered the region—the remains of the submerged forest are still visible along the coast at very low tides and its inundation has been dated to 6174–5961 cal BC at Theddlethorpe, for example. Even more significantly from the present perspective, the marine flooding also created offshore islands from the slightly higher ground that once lay to the east and north of the modern Lincolnshire and Norfolk coastlines (probably originally part of a glacial moraine left by the retreating ice-sheets on what was then the land surface). These islands extended south-eastwards from Spurn Point and are believed to have shielded the Lincolnshire seaboard from the full ferocity of the storms and tides of the North Sea, creating a sheltered tidal lagoon between themselves and the main coastline that was characterised in part by saltmarsh, wide sand and mud flats, and tidal creeks and estuaries.(1) As was discussed in a previous post, this protection appears to have finally failed during the 1200s when the offshore islands were finally destroyed by an unprecedented series of storms and floods in that century. The debris that resulted from their destruction is usually thought to have been cast up along the foreshore of the Lincolnshire Outmarsh as broad 'storm beaches' and sand dunes, as at North Somercotes.

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; note, the extensive areas of sand, silts and channels shown on the previous map are not depicted here but would have been present. 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.

The geology of Stain Hill and the surrounding area, set against a present-day streetmap, showing the island of Stain Hill surrounded by marine alluvium; 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.

Stain Hill and other 'islands' in the pre-Viking coastal zone

The post-glacial marine inundation did not simply cease when it reached the area of the modern coastline of eastern Lincolnshire in around 6000 BC, but rather continued to press inland for millennia to come. The Mesolithic land surface that it encountered was comprised of a thick undulating layer of glacial till that had been deposited as the ice sheets retreated northwards at the end of the last 'Ice Age', around 15,000 years ago. This glacial till still forms the surface of the Middle Marsh of Lincolnshire, between the Wolds and the present-day flat coastal plain, but it is buried by marine deposits up to 17 metres or so thick on the coastal Outmarsh. As this undulating landscape underneath the present-day flat Outmarsh was gradually flooded by the sea, some former high points and minor hills were eventually surrounded and became 'islands' and peninsulas of dry land in this new coastal zone. Many of these were subsequently drowned in turn by the rising tide, but some were sufficiently elevated to have remained dry right through until the maximum extent of the inland penetration of the sea was reached in around the fourth- to sixth-centuries AD, when land up to 4.22 to 4.52m above present-day sea-level was flooded in southern Lincolnshire and Romano-British sites on the coastal marshes of the eastern Lincolnshire were buried under two to three metres of marine silt.

One of these coastal zone 'islands' surrounded by the upper levels of the marine silts was Stain Hill near Mablethorpe (depicted on the British Geological Society map included above). This small island of glacial till and gravel rises from the surrounding marine alluvium to reach a maximum height of 9m above sea-level and has been the site of a number of interesting finds, not least a large group of Late Roman coins and a locally notable grouping of Anglo-Saxon material that is perhaps indicative of the presence of some sort of significant settlement or estate centre located on this elevated point in the coastal marshes. Further south are found other small islands of higher glacial till standing above the marine alluvium of the flat Outmarsh, which can probably be identified as the original locations for Sutton-in-the-Marsh/Sutton-on-Sea (given that this is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning the 'southern farm' or similar, perhaps named in relation to the possible central place at Stain Hill and part of its estate?) and Hannah (another Anglo-Saxon name which involves Old English ēg, 'island', plus hana, here either 'a cock, rooster' or a related personal name).

To the east of Alford there is another, much larger island of glacial till surrounded by the marine deposits of the Outmarsh according to the British Geological Survey, now occupied by the villages of Thurlby, Mumby, Anderby, Huttoft and Cumberworth. Once again there is evidence for Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon-era activity here, not only from the names Huttoft and Cumberworth (which are Old English in origin, with the first element of the latter being potentially OE Cumbre, 'the Britons, Welsh'), but also from metal-detected finds and archaeological excavations too. Thus chance finds from Cumberworth parish include part of a Late Roman crossbow brooch, indicative of the presence of the Late Roman military in the very late fourth or early fifth centuries; a Late Roman clipped silver siliqua of Arcadius, struck at Milan in c. 395–402; and an Anglo-Saxon silver coin of c. 680–710. At the same time, excavations at St Helen's Church in the village of Cumberworth itself have seen the recovery of 26 burials from a mid- to late Anglo-Saxon cemetery that was in turn overlain by a timber church that was probably demolished by the end of the tenth century. Finally, to the south-east of this large island were a scattering of smaller dry glacial till islands in the coastal marshes heading out towards the open sea, including one now occupied by the village of Hogsthorpe. Again, these seem to have seen activity in the Anglo-Saxon period, with finds of metalwork and even high-status gold pieces.

The former islands east of Alford; click here for a larger version of this image. The green and purple colours represent glacial deposits standing above the surrounding marine alluvium, coloured yellow. The main former island is presently home to the villages of Thurlby, Mumby, Anderby, Huttoft and Cumberworth, with a scatter of lesser islands in the old coastal marshes (that is, former high points in the underlying post-glacial landscape that were never inundated by the sea) then strung out eastwards towards the open sea. Image taken from the BGS Geology of Britain Viewer, licensed under an Open Government Licence 2.0: contains British Geological Survey materials © NERC 2017.

An Early Anglo-Saxon gold disc pendant of the  seventh-century, decorated with applied filigree beading. Found on an island in the coastal marsh in the 'Skegness area' of Lincolnshire (image: PAS).

A 1541 map of the Humber estuary, which seems to show dry islands around Spurn Head and in the middle of the Humber; click here for a larger, zoomable version of this map (image: British Library). It seems that the islands depicted are intended to be read as dry islands, rather than low-water sand banks and other features; certainly, this is the impression that their colouration gives, which is that of the land rather than the sand (a large area of sand is shown and labelled on the southern bank of the Humber, opposite Spurn Head). Moreover, if this map were a purely low water map showing sand banks and the like, then we would expect it to show considerably more features in the Humber estuary than it does—a comparison of this map with the only slightly later 1595 Cecil map supports this contention, as this is a low water map and shows the Humber estuary full of such features. 

Ravenserodd, Burcom, the Bull, and Sunk Island: former islands at the mouth of the Humber

Looking northwards to the mouth of the Humber, a number of islands are recorded, some more ephemeral than the others. Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of these is the medieval pirate island of Ravenserodd, which thirteenth-century witnesses describe being thrown up by the waves in the mid-thirteenth century somewhere in the vicinity of Spurn Point:
By the casting up of the sea, a certain small island was born, which is called Ravenserodd, which is distant from the town of Grimsby by the space of one tide. And afterwards fishers dried their nets there, and men little by little first began to dwell and stay there, and afterwards ships laden with divers kinds of merchandise began to unload and sell there...
By 1251, a charter for a market and a fair at Ravenserodd had been obtained, and by 1290 the town and port of Ravenserodd had begun to seriously threaten the trade of nearby Grimsby, with contemporary Grimsby folk declaring it a pirate island at the mouth of Humber, preying on passing shipping. Indeed, the demise of this town (which received its borough charter in 1299) during the following century was widely attributed to its evil character—as one fourteenth-century chronicler put it, 'by its wicked works and piracies, it provoked the wrath of God against its self beyond measure' and was consequently swallowed by the sea. This reclamation of the island and town of Ravenserodd by the waves seems to have begun in the 1330s, with over 200 buildings and properties lost by the mid-1340s, and by 1362 the once-prosperous town was 'destroyed to its foundations' and lay derelict, with its exact former location nowadays being uncertain.

The 1595 Cecil map of the Humber and the east coast of Yorkshire, showing all the sand banks and 'dry sands' then within the estuary; 'The Bull' is described as a 'dry sand' on this map and Burcom appears simply as a sand bank. Click here for a larger version of this section of the image or here for a zoomable version of the entire map (image: British Library).

Another, less dramatic case is that of Burcom, which now exists as a sand bank close to the south shore of the Humber near Grimsby. The name itself may be old and has been thought likely to reflect OE *burg-cyme or *burg-cuma, meaning either 'arrival at the town' or 'arriver at the town''—the latter involving the personification of the sand or island—in reference to its close proximity to the medieval borough (burgh) of Grimsby. Its exact status is open to some question, as whilst it is presently a sand bank and is described as such on the 1595 Cecil map of the Humber, on some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century maps and charts it seems to be shown as a dry sand or even an island, suggesting that its character may well have fluctuated over the centuries.

Similarly worthy of note is 'The Bull' or Bull Sand, a sand bank in the middle of the Humber mouth. This is shown as an island and labelled on the 1541 map of the Humber included above and is described as a 'dry sand' on the 1595 map, but it conversely isn't plotted on those nineteenth-century maps that show Burcom as an island or dry sand and the Bull isn't shown as a dry sand in 1707 either; it is currently the site of Bull Sand Fort, a four storey steel and concrete fortification originally armed with four 6-inch guns and built 1915–1919. Finally, mention ought to be made of Sunk Island, a parish on the north bank of the Humber. This initially developed as another dry sandbank in the middle of the estuary before it was embanked and reclaimed from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, becoming first an island before the channel between it and the mainland silted up in the eighteenth century and was also subsequently reclaimed. Sunk Island became a parish in 1831 and further reclamations extended the land here through until 1970.

Samuel Thornton's 1702-1707 chart of the Humber, showing Sunk Island when it was still an island and Burcom as what appears to be a partially dry sand, or nearly so; conversely, Bull Sand appears to have ceased to be a dry sand by this point. Click here for a larger version of this chart (image: New York Public Library).

An Ottoman Turkish map of the Humber, dated 1803/04, showing Sunk Island joined to the north bank and what seems to be Burcom shown as a semi-island. Click here for a larger version of this map (image: Library of Congress).

Map of the Humber in Élisée Reclus's Universal Geography IV: The British Isles (London, 1876), p. 235. This shows Burcom as an island in the Humber to the north of Grimsby and Sunk Island attached to the north bank.  Click here for a larger version of this map (image: Internet Archive).

Marshchapel, Conisholme and Somercotes: salt making and sand islands on the north-eastern Lincolnshire coast

The final set of lost islands are located in north-eastern Lincolnshire, in the Outmarsh around Marshchapel and Somercotes, and perhaps the most recent and interesting of these are the saltern mounds of this area. By the tenth century AD, the edge of the coastal zone had clearly moved eastwards from its earlier inland maximum to somewhere in the vicinity of Marshchapel, given that a Late Saxon saltern has been excavated a little to the south-west of the church that was processing sea-water brought to the site by an artificial channel. Over the medieval period, salt making continued in this area and gradually moved eastwards, as saltern mounds were created from the waste products of the process and the land in between them was reclaimed, pushing the coastline and its salt-making industry eastwards. These saltern mounds, some 6m high and 20m across, initially acted as dry islands in the coastal marshes, and as each generation of mounds were reclaimed they became part of an odd, hilly landscape on the landward edge of the coastal zone, although over time the majority have been reduced by ploughing and remain visible only from the air. The industry here was still in operation in 1595, when William Haiwarde's drew a detailed map of Fulstow and Marshchapel, reproduced below, and described the eastwards movement of the mounds as follows:
The round groundes at the Easte end of Marshchappell are called mavres and are firste framed by layinge together of great quantities of moulde for the making of Salte. When the mavres grow greate the Salt makers remove more easte and come nearer to the Sea and then the former mavres become in some fewe years good pasture groundes. Those that have the Cottages nowe upon them are at the presente in use for salt.
Extract from  William Haiwarde's 1595 map of Marshchapel, showing the saltern mounds still operational in the east at that time and being gradually reclaimed as one moved further from the sea; click here for a larger version of this map.

Lidar map of the same area of Marshchapel, showing the surviving saltern mounds, which matches up remarkably well with the 1595 mapping of Haiwarde. Click here for a larger version of this picture (image: Lidar data © Environment Agency, provided under Open Government Licence; rendering by lab, CC BY 4.0).

Looking south of the Marshchapel area, several more 'islands' can be noted. The first of these relates to the village of Conisholme, to the south-east of Grainthorpe. The name itself makes reference to its origins as an island in the Late Saxon coastal marshes, reflecting Scandinavian kunung + holmr, 'the king's island', and it lies between two branches of the River Lud (the northern outfall being the medieval port of 'Swine' and the southern one being 'Somercotes Haven'). There was clearly some sort of significant settlement activity at Conisholme by the late tenth or early eleventh century, as the head of an Anglo-Scandinavian standing cross of this date depicting Christ in low relief has been found in the churchyard here. Interestingly, Conisholme is still shown as located on a large island between the river outfalls on the Saxton map of 1576 and this situation is made even clearer on the John Speed map of 1611/12 and especially John Cowley's map of c. 1743–5, reproduced below. Both of the latter maps actually show two islands between the two outfalls of the Lud, the larger of which is Conisholme and the smaller, seaward island is probably the area of thirteenth-century storm beach and associated medieval to early modern saltern mounds visible on Lidar and geological maps of the area.

The Outmarsh 'island' of Conisholme on Christopher Saxton's 1576 map of Lincolnshire, showing a large 'island' of land between the northern and southern outfalls of the River Lud (image: British Library).

John Cowley's eighteenth-century map of Lincolnshire, dating from c. 1743–5,  showing a significant estuary for the Lud with two islands in it; the larger of the two is Conisholme and the smaller is probably a raised storm beach with salterns on it, with this still being partly visible on Lidar. 

Finally, there is an intriguing ancient sand island in this area running from North Somercotes to Saltfleet. As was discussed in a previous post, the land in this part of Lincolnshire began to be inundated by the sea from c. 6000 BC, and whereas the flooded landscape of glacial till further south had hills and larger islands of higher ground that remained above high tide right through into the post-Roman era, this was not the case here. Instead, the Mesolithic land surface in this part of Lincolnshire appears to have been completely flooded by c. 3000 BC, aside from one small short-lived island of glacial till at Grainthorpe (which was itself flooded during the following millennium). However, two persistent sand bodies did form here which were of some significance. The most important of these ran from Saltfleet to North Somercotes and seems to have formed during the original flooding of the region, as its base lies directly on the Mesolithic land surface. By c. 3000 BC it would appear to have been entirely surrounded by coastal marshes and the sea, forming an sandy island in the coastal zone that continued to build up and persist into the Anglo-Saxon period. By the medieval period, the areas to the west of this 'island' had largely ceased to be coastal marshes and the ancient sand body was itself subsequently covered by medieval storm beach deposits, thought to be made up of the remains of the offshore coastal barrier islands that were destroyed in the thirteenth century (see further above).

The coastline of north-eastern Lincolnshire and south-eastern Holderness at the start of the first century AD, showing the ancient, persistent sand body between North Somecotes and  Saltfleet and another stretching down from Cleethorpes to the Marshchapel area. The Somercotes body is thought to have remained in place through the Late Roman and Anglo-Saxon eras as a sand 'island' in the coastal zone before being largely buried under storm beaches in the medieval period; the Cleethorpes to Marshchapel sand body looks to have been largely swamped by the Late/post-Roman marine transgression, which covered it over with a thin layer of marine silt (around a metre thick at North Cotes and rather less than this at Marshchapel), to judge from borehole records, with only a few sections of the former sand bank probably being left exposed to the east of Marshchapel (image drawn by C. R. Green, after a map in Berridge & Pattison, 1994, with some modifications). The present-day coastline from approximately Saltfleet in Lincolnshire to Easington in the East Riding of Yorkshire is shown in grey. Note, this map shows the approximate position of the coastline in this period; however, there would also have been an extensive zone of coastal marshes, inter-tidal flats and the like too on the seaward side of this coastline; these are not mapped here, but they clearly saw a significant degree activity in the Roman period.

Geological map of the Conisholme and North Somercotes area, showing the storm beach deposits in purple, thought to be formed from the remains of the offshore barrier islands destroyed in the thirteenth century, surrounded by deposits of marine alluvium in yellow; the Somercotes to Saltfleet sand body largely lies below the medieval storm beach. Note, the separate area of storm beach to the north of Somercotes probably represents the second island between the River Lud outfalls shown on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maps. Image taken from the BGS Geology of Britain Viewer, licensed under an Open Government Licence 2.0: contains British Geological Survey materials © NERC 2017.


1.     These coastal barrier islands were first suggested by H. H. Swinnerton in 'The post-glacial deposits of the Lincolnshire coast', Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 87 (1931), 360–75. See also D. N. Robinson, The Book of the Lincolnshire Seaside (Buckingham, 1981), pp. 13, 17 (map), 20; S. Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages and the Sea c. 1300–1600: Economy and Society (University of Leicester PhD thesis, 1984), pp. 69–70, 73–5, 80; S. Bennett & N. Bennett (edd.), An Historical Atlas of Lincolnshire (Hull, 1993), p. 8; Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, Humber Estuary & Coast (Hull, 1994), p. 33; H. Fenwick, The Lincolnshire Marsh: Landscape Evolution, Settlement Development and the Salt Industry (University of Hull PhD Thesis, 2007), pp. 54, 160, 174, 181–2, 189, 199, 202, 267, 304; and Natural England, NA 101: Bridlington to Skegness Maritime Natural Area Profile (Sheffield, 2013), pp. 11, 21.

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