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date: 08 April 2020

(p. xxi) Preface

(p. xxi) Preface

The term ‘Anglo‐Saxon’—a ninth‐century construction in origin—has come to be used as a convenient label for a characteristic material culture, the geographical area within which it is found (broadly corresponding to modern‐day England), and a chronological period defined by historical events, namely c.410–1066. The purpose of this volume is to review the role of archaeology in creating an understanding of the seven Anglo‐Saxon centuries.

The very long tradition of scholarly study of surviving Anglo‐Saxon texts, which offer a compelling picture of the chronology, history, and significant social, political, economic, and religious events of the period, has now been augmented by systematic excavation and analysis of physical evidence—settlements, cemeteries, artefacts, environmental data, and standing buildings. Antiquarian recognition of Anglo‐Saxon remains, surviving either as churches or as features in the landscape such as embankments or barrows, were traditionally interpreted in the light of written sources and culturally‐defined assumptions about the Anglo‐Saxon past; the florid portrayals of noble but ignorant barbarian ancestors by Victorian novelists represent the popular, and to some extent enduring, public face of such interpretations.

Analysis of artefacts, followed by systematic excavations in the 1920s and 1930s, at first of cemeteries and then of settlements, began to show that archaeology confirmed some readings of the Anglo‐Saxon literary and documentary sources and challenged others. In the second half of the twentieth century, large‐scale open‐area excavations both in towns and in the countryside put archaeology onto a new footing. The application of computer methods to large bodies of data, new techniques for site identification such as magnetometry and ground‐penetrating radar, new dating methods such as dendrochronology, and new means of metallurgical, geochemical, x‐ray, and mineral investigation, have affected archaeology in general, including that of the Anglo‐Saxon period.

This volume demonstrates how the study of Anglo‐Saxon society through its material remains provides new insights, as well as contextualization, support, and qualification of our readings of the written sources. The archaeology of Anglo‐Saxon England has also provided an important testing ground for new theoretical approaches, notably those that seek to bridge the gap between archaeology and history. The Anglo‐Saxon world's position at the interface between the historic and (p. xxii) prehistoric provides a fruitful body of evidence for evaluating new approaches within the archaeological discipline.

Many studies of Anglo‐Saxon England have of course been made, but it is over thirty years since the last multi‐author compendium of its archaeology appeared (Wilson 1976); we are grateful to several of the contributors to that book for their enthusiastic support for the production of this one. Many of the chapters in this Handbook pay tribute to this predecessor, using it as a starting‐point for their discussions. A key difference is that we have asked for discussions as much as for syntheses of current knowledge. Authors were encouraged to highlight current approaches and debates in order to stimulate and support further research, while the writers of ‘Overviews’ were asked to explore key themes and arguments running through individual parts. Like others in the same series, this volume is not intended to be a practical handbook or an encyclopaedic compendium but rather to concentrate on those aspects of Anglo‐Saxon life and culture which archaeology has fundamentally illuminated. Topics at the forefront of research in the 1970s, such as ceramics, sculpture, and manuscript art, are here not presented as separate chapters, but are embedded within thematic considerations of style, identity, craft, economy, and the broader world of Anglo‐Saxon material culture. Constraints on space (the volume in its present form contains over fifty contributions), as well as principle, have determined the structure and contents of the volume; in particular, the wider European—notably Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Scandinavian—context would ideally have received more extended treatment (for which see Graham‐Campbell 2007). It is a testament to the flourishing state of Anglo‐Saxon archaeology that even a volume of this size cannot cover every aspect of the subject.

That flourishing state stems partly from discoveries made in the last thirty years. Remarkably, the location of the trading sites at both London and York, attested in documents, had not been revealed archaeologically by 1976 (Pestell, Hall, this volume). Interest in the redevelopment of urbanism has been greatly stimulated by such work, most of it caused by modern pressures and much of it on a large scale—Planning Policy Guidance 16 has been fundamental in changing access to and financing for excavations. The quantity and scope of the archaeological evidence emerging as a result of PPG16, for example through excavation of sites where gravel extraction is practised, have changed the scale of our observations, as larger slices of the Anglo‐Saxon landscape are revealed. Research excavations have been less prominent over recent years, however, as the cost of excavation and conservation, particularly of early cemetery sites, have soared: the emphasis is on preservation in situ unless a site is threatened.

The growth of the metal‐detecting hobby has also transformed the range and quantity of evidence coming to light. Some doubts may remain about the reliability of reporting and the number of unreported objects, but the recording of objects found has immeasurably improved as a result of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. (p. xxiii) The quantity of finds emerging from sites which do not fall within the previously recognized distributions of settlements and cemeteries are demanding significant reinterpretations (e.g. Loveluck and Laing, this volume), and will continue to do so as the numbers of metal‐detected artefacts increase. In regard to this subject and others, this volume presents current questions and ideas about Anglo‐Saxon archaeology, not definitive answers.

The term ‘Anglo‐Saxon’ has the disadvantage of hinting at ethnic specificity, as though excluding from consideration other constituents such as indigenous Britons. Its convenience and common usage, however, give it more currency in defining much of the archaeology of this period than, for example, terms such as ‘post‐Roman’ or ‘Dark Age’, or even ‘early medieval’. The creation of an Anglo‐Saxon identity, and the problems in using the term ‘Anglo‐Saxon’ to define the groups of people who used a particular material culture in particular places and times, has generated much recent interest; these issues are addressed by the contributors to Part 1 of this volume.

Part 2 considers the changing nature of rural settlement, including the extent to which the settlements of Anglo‐Saxon England were the forerunners of later medieval villages. It might be thought that a section on ‘landscape’ would form an obvious corollary to the section on rural settlement. What is striking, however, as evidenced in the contributions to this volume, is that landscape—considered a new and distinct area of study in the 1970s (Rowley 1974)— is now integral to the study not only of settlements, but also of burials, the geography of belief, and economic systems.

The graves of the dead provided antiquarians with the first evidence of a distinct Anglo‐Saxon material culture, and grave‐goods still yield the most abundant source of information about the early Anglo‐Saxons. New approaches to understanding mortuary ritual and religion—both pre‐ and post‐Conversion—as well as to the body and life course are presented in Parts 3, 7, and 8. The abundant evidence which excavation has yielded for food and craft production forms the subject of Parts 4 and 5, while Part 6, on trade, exchange, and urbanization, emphasizes the sophistication of the Anglo‐Saxon economy, something which has only recently—thanks in part to metal‐detector use—been fully appreciated. The use of archaeology to reveal mentalities of power and changing expressions of authority is an important new research trajectory, the potential of which is explored in Part 9.

One of the most important developments in Anglo‐Saxon archaeology since 1976 has been the exploration and application of theory (Gilchrist 2009). The contributors to Wilson (1976) did not think it necessary to define their theoretical positions. Since then, however, the application of theory (largely derived from anthropology and sociology) to the interpretation of Anglo‐Saxon archaeology has become widespread, and many of the papers in this volume reflect the influence of theoretical approaches on the discipline.

(p. xxiv) Since 1976, the progress made by science‐based archaeology has been little short of revolutionary, notably in biological and botanical research (O'Connor, Sykes, Moffett, Hedges, this volume). Dating of the Anglo‐Saxon period has traditionally been dependent on documentary sources of variable reliability, in part because other methods, such as radiocarbon dating, have been notoriously difficult to apply to the Anglo‐Saxon period with close precision. Recent developments in radiocarbon dating, Optically Stimulated Luminescence, dendrochronology, and other science‐based dating methods are allowing us to date new kinds of materials, and to date with greater precision, thereby providing new and more nuanced readings of the Anglo‐Saxon past.

Archaeology has fundamentally altered our view of Anglo‐Saxon England, in some cases revealing entirely new aspects of its society and economy, in others radically altering long‐held views based entirely on written sources. Because the period effectively began in prehistory, passed into what could be described as proto‐history, and ended within a fully historic period, it lends itself to interdisciplinarity. In practice, however, research has tended to reflect a divide between ‘archaeological’ and other approaches. The final part of this volume therefore explores the complex, potentially fruitful, yet sometimes still uneasy relationship between archaeological, historical, anthropological, and literary approaches, as well as the importance of public engagement with the past in ensuring that the next thirty years of research into Anglo‐Saxon archaeology will be as fruitful as the last.

* * * * 

At almost the same time in July 2009 as the editors met for the final time before submitting the papers for this volume to the Press, a metal‐detectorist in a field in Staffordshire was unearthing the first pieces of what has turned out to be an extraordinary hoard of Anglo‐Saxon gold and silver, indeed the largest ever found. It will be many years before all the implications of the hoard can be discussed; it certainly demonstrates that there was as much wealth in Mercia as in Kent or East Anglia, at least at one moment in time, for whether it represents the spoils of battle, the payment of a ransom, or a wergild compensation, it signifies the transitory nature of success in the early Anglo‐Saxon world, with the accumulated treasure staying ‘useless to men’ in the ground, like the dragon's hoard in Beowulf.

Sally Crawford, Helena Hamerow, David A. Hinton