Paul Gething and I are talking Warrior and all things Anglo-Saxon at 1pm on Sunday 7 June @YorkFestofIdeas. It’s an online webinar so anyone can attend (and see what we look like after 10 weeks without haircuts!). Book tickets here: http://yorkfestivalofideas.com/2020-online/calendar/warrior-life/#yorkideas
Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain is out now in paperback. The Bookseller called it ‘enthralling…brilliantly written‘. The Spectator said it ‘reveals the disruptive and imaginative force of archaeology‘. Find out what they mean, and how the bones of an anonymous warrior excavated near Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland can reveal the deep foundations of Britain. Get it from Amazon and other good booksellers.
Few books manage to be simultaneously so fascinating and so eye glazing. The tale of the movements of the successive waves of people that have made and remade Europe is fascinating, and the new science of DNA analysis that allows for the extraction of ancient DNA and its comparison to the modern inhabitants of a country is a salutary corrective to the strong tendency in archaeology and historical studies in the latter half of the 20th century to deny all movements of people in favour of cultural overlay and small groups of elite warriors while the peasants remain, lumpen and unmoved on the land (although these lumpen peasants do, by this view, display a remarkable ability to change languages and cultures at the arrival of a new bunch of guys waving swords). Since all the contemporary accounts of the age of migration talk about the movements of peoples, it’s good to accord the contemporary witnesses some credit for telling what they saw. However, on the eye glazing front, I defy anyone to get through a few pages of Y-DNA haplogroup R1a1a and the like without their head drooping.
Coffee-table book of Biblical archaeology. Beautifully produced, with a great deal of reasonably useful material about the wider historical and archaeological context, but written with a definite although veiled Biblical minimalist view. That’s the view, adopted by some scholars, that there is essentially no, or very little, historical value in the Bible. They see it as a theological, cultural and political document, reflecting purely the realities of the times when the various books of the Bible were written, with an assumption that they were written much after the events that they supposedly record. Thus the stories of David and Solomon and the United Monarchy are not a history of what actually happened but an invented genealogy and hence rationale for much later kings. While a strong strand in Biblical archaeology, it’s by no means the only one, but there’s very little in this book to suggest that there any other interpretations of the evidence beyond those presented here. Somewhat disappointing.
“Medieval tile. Medieval pottery. Another piece of pottery. More tile. Animal bone.” Paul Gething, archaeologist, picked through his finds.
I had, literally, been walking on history, oblivious to its presence beneath my boots.
We were standing on a path down from the great crag of rock upon which Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland squats. Paul had just told me that most people are oblivious to what lies beneath their feet and I had challenged him to prove it. Within ten yards he’d found these remains.
Paul Gething is co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), a multi-disciplinary archaeological dig investigating the history in and around Bamburgh. We’ve known each other for many years, but this was the first time I’d asked him to explain how he sees the world through the eyes of his discipline. I looked at his finds. To my eyes, they still looked like battered old stones.
“People have been here since Neolithic times, so it’s not hard to find things,” said Paul. “People drop litter now, and they threw away their rubbish then; we’ve not fundamentally changed over the centuries.”
In Northumberland, this continuity is visceral, tangible. The ramparts of Bamburgh Castle loomed above us. The fortress, capital of the lost kingdom of Northumbria, sits on top of a great outcrop of basalt, a part of the Great Whin Sill rock formation that stretches from the North Pennines to Northumberland. Out to sea, the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert withdrew from the world and befriended the local eider ducks, are made of the same hard rock. The islands glittered darkly against an unexpectedly blue sky, while a few miles to the north, Holy Island (Lindisfarne) had, until the tide turned, rejoined the mainland.
Paul looked out to sea. “Ten thousand years ago, that was land. I think hunters camped here, watching the herds trailing past on their way to their feeding grounds.”We’d started the day by inspecting the trenches the BRP has dug in the grounds of the castle. Teams of archaeologists on hands and knees were carefully scraping away the earth with trowels, noting and tagging every find. For the really delicate work, they employed toothbrushes. The archaeologists here come in all ages, from pensioner to schoolchild, for one of the key objectives of the Bamburgh Research Project is to make archaeology accessible: anyone, from members of the public to Indiana Jones, can dig after being taught the necessary skills. The site is open in the summer and people can sign up for anywhere between one day and two weeks.
Leaving the archaeologists in the trenches, we set off along a section of the St Oswald’s Way long distance path. It seemed to me that Bamburgh Castle, once the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, was an obvious place to do archaeology, but Paul bet me that archaeology could illuminate any walk.
“Before setting out, look at the map. The names are clues to the past. For instance, -burgh is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘fort’, and -by is Old Norse for a village, so that tells you who settled there and named the features of the landscape. Then look at aerial photographs, or satellite images – Google makes this easy – since things often show up more clearly from above.”
Heading down into the marram grass covered dunes, Paul told me how an old Ordnance Survey map had given them a vital clue when the BRP first started digging here. There were written references to a burial ground in the vicinity of Bamburgh Castle, but they had no idea where to search for it. But then they looked at the very first Ordnance Survey map of the area and there, to the south, were the neatly printed words ‘Danish burial ground’. We made our way through a small wood (“Just regrowth, only a couple of hundred years old”), the air thick with the buzzing of heat-drugged insects, until we came to the burial ground. Paul said they’d found over 100 skeletons here, dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. The remains indicated the people buried here were from the nobility – “They were all well fed” – and some had come from as far away as Western Scotland and Norway, only to meet their end in the service of the kings of Northumbria.
Heading inland, Paul stopped at a pasture. The cows looked up placidly before returning to cropping the grass.
“Ridge and furrow,” Paul said, indicating the undulations that ran across the field. “Or rig and frig in archaeological slang. Medieval, judging by the distance between the ridges. Roman fields have narrower gaps.” Parallel lines, like the ripples that form on beaches as the tide goes out, marked the field in straight lines. In medieval times common land was ploughed or dug in long parallel strips. The soil from the furrow was piled on to the ridge, creating two different microclimates for crops. In a dry season, the seeds down in the water-collecting furrow would be assured enough moisture for growth, but if the year was wet, the crops in the freely-draining ridge would flourish. Thus medieval peasants hedged their bets and their labour to ensure a crop. Where the field has been turned over to pasture rather than cross ploughed, the centuries-old pattern of cultivation can still be clearly visible.
“The rule of thumb is the wider the gap, the nearer it is to our own time. Roman fields have a three-metre gap between the ridges, medieval ones from five to eight metres.”
Paul was winning the argument before we’d gone a mile. I asked him if there were any other archaeological landscape features that an amateur could spot and he pointed to a roughly circular patch of nettles sitting alone in the corner of a nearby field. Nettles love phosphorus, and the excrement of cattle and sheep is rich in the element. Those solitary patches I’d often seen in the past usually marked the site of a medieval sheep or cow pen. Although the enclosure had disappeared, the plants lived on on the bounty left by the long-dead animals.
“My family are always moaning that whenever we go anywhere, I’m always saying that’s rig and frig, or there must have been Roman villa in the vicinity, but I can’t help it. It’s just part of the way I automatically process a landscape. For instance, near where I live in York, a Second World War airfield is reverting to scrub. It’s an archaeological test bed. There’s rig and frig fields, crab apples that aren’t native to Britain – my guess is that pilots flew over from America, ate the apple they’d bought there and then threw away the core – and miles of underground tunnels that I’ll bet future archaeologists will take to be sewers, but are actually communication ducts.”
A couple of miles inland, with the Cheviots looming in the distance, we arrived at another BRP dig. This one cut through the grass, topsoil and subsoil to reveal the limits of a prehistoric lake. One of the archaeologists there told me that in Mesolithic times, that is between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, where we were standing was a large figure-eight-shaped lake, and we were standing at the pinch point of the lake. It was the obvious place for a settlement, but our distant ancestors were proving elusive. The archaeologists had only uncovered the remains of a millennia-old ditch so far.
Walking back to the castle, Paul showed me an arrowhead he’d found at the edge of a field. It was an exquisitely worked, barbed and tanged late Neolithic flint. But what could this solitary find tell us?
“I’m firmly convinced that the key skill archaeologists have to learn is how not to focus on what is in front of them. Five thousand years ago, skilled artisan could produce half a dozen arrowheads like this every hour. They were as disposable as Bic razors. The shafts, on the other hand, were a different matter. Finding and preparing a truly straight length of wood was difficult. Once that was done, the shaft had to be fletched too. For Neolithic man, the valuable part of an arrow was not the arrowhead but the shaft. What would happen, though, if an animal wasn’t killed outright but fled, taking your valuable arrow with it? So they made their arrows in such a way that the arrowhead would break off easily, leaving the shaft to be retrieved.”
Looking at the killing instrument, I was transported back in time to a world of woods and marshes, and a hunter drawing his bow on a deer and loosing his arrow, but the beast, startled, leapt away, the arrow protruding from its haunch. The shaft broke off as the deer careered through the trees and the pursuing hunter spotted the bright feathers of its fletch lying in the moss. The deer escaped, only to die a few days later when the wound became infected. Scavengers cleared the remains, but the indigestible flint of the arrowhead fell to the earth, and was covered over, only to be uncovered centuries later when a sweating medieval peasant piled the spoil from the furrow on to the adjacent ridge. There it remained, alternately exposed and hidden, until a passing archaeologist saw it glittering on the ground and grasped its significance.
Paul had won the bet.
Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.
So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.
Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.
After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):
And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:
Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.
Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:
And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.
It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.
Skimming the other reviews for The Anglo-Saxon World, I see I’m just adding to the consensus but, you know, sometimes a consensus exists because something is true: this really is the best one-volume introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world around. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.
Nick Higham’s writing style has improved immensely since he wrote The Kingdom of Northumbria A.D. 3501100 (my go-to guide when working on Edwin High King of Britain and now Oswald: Return of the King), and he now combines engaging prose with his immense knowledge of the subject. Really, no criticisms; if you want to learn about the history and culture of the Early Medieval Period in Britain, read this book.
This article first appeared in TNT magazine.
Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.
Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.
There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.
“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).
But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.
A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (www.farne-islands.com, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.
But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.
Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (www.neptunefishandchips.co.uk, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (www.copperkettletearooms.com, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.
Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (http://castleinnbamburgh.co.uk/, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (www.victoriahotel.net, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.
Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (www.northumbrianwigwams.com, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (www.stcuthbertshouse.com, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.
This is the third book by Alistair Moffat that I’ve read and, as you’d guess given the fact that I’ve kept reading him, I’ve enjoyed them all. The Sea Kingdoms is an attempt at a history of Celtic Britain and Ireland but, by the nature of the subject and the sources, it’s more a series of impressions and snapshots: places, events, people, all serving to illuminate some aspect of the other history of these islands, the history that has never been written but has been sung, recited, felt.
It’s as much a geography as a history, or a story of how the two interweave in the language and culture of a people acutely aware of the beauty and awe of their land. But, being united by the sea, the sea has also washed much away, leaving traces in the sand but only impressions where there was once much more. It’s unlikely that even the best efforts of archaeologists will retrieve too much else, and the history of the Celts, like the people, is bathed in the westering sun setting in the circle sea.
A lovely, but slightly strange book. Higgins writes of her journies around Britain, in a rather asthmatic VW camper van, in search of the traces of Roman Britain. She writes of the places she visits with a journalist’s gift for telling detail and a botanist’s delight in plants, and sprinkles the text with fascinating anecdotes about the antiquaries of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who first went looking for Roman remains in Britain, as well as the archaeologists who followed them in the 20th century. But, at the end of the book, Higgins remains as elusive as, well, Roman Britain itself. I’ve got very little idea about her, of what she’s like – this may be intentional of course – and the four centuries of Roman rule also seem to dissolve away under close inspection. They’re obviously not so inaccessible as the centuries that precede or follow them, but where the rest of Empire is illuminated by contemporary writings, Britain seems oddly silent, as if still existing in the mists of Oceanus. The letters discovered at Vindolanda go some way to rectifying that, but they are fragments, frustrating; imagine trying to recreate 21st-century society from a random collection of tweets for a flavour. A fine book, nevertheless, that suggests its subject as well as exploring it.