The First Kingdom: Sutton Hoo and the ‘Dark Ages’

Max Adams

The Netflix film, The Dig¸ has prompted renewed interest in Anglo Saxon England.
Basil Brown during the excavation
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The First Kingdom – How the Sutton Hoo dig rescued the ‘Dark Ages’

Before the 1920s, archaeologists excavating the deep past had barely tapped into the potential for their trowels and picks to illuminate the ‘Dark Ages’ – that obscure period in British history between its exclusion from the Roman Empire (around 410AD) and the emergence (around 600) of its historical Early Medieval kingdoms: Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Kent and Wessex.

For one thing, the historical sources few as they were, told an unequivocal story: how Britain spurned Rome’s civilising Christian Empire and became prey to barbarian invasions from Ireland (Scots), Caledonia (Picts) and the Continent (Angles, Saxons and Jutes).  Plague, famine, paganism and anarchy ensued.  Then, in 597 a papal mission reintroduced Christianity, and along with it a rational, literate model for a new unifying, divinely appointed kingship.  The particular skills of the archaeologist were not required when history told the tale.

Should an excavator inadvertently come upon the remains of this period by accident (on their way down to more interesting and soluble evidence for Rome’s monuments and the richly furnished burials of Britain’s prehistoric indigenes) they may well have missed the subtle material evidence for what some derided as the paper-cup culture of those two centuries.  Early Medieval rubbish is conspicuously lacking in diagnostic artefacts such as coins, decorated pottery and solid stone walls.

Reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house from West Stow, Suffolk.

In the 19th century the discovery of ‘warrior’ graves containing weapons and artefacts of barbarian manufacture seemed to reinforce the narratives left to us by Bede, Gildas and the British historian known as ‘Nennius’.  The invaders were real, even if their mead halls – tangible versions of Heorot in the Beowulf poem – had yet to be detected.  In 1922 E.T. Leeds excavated an enigmatic type of partially sunken structure at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire. These relics were reconstructed as grub huts, or Grubenhäuser: evidence of the great folk migration of Germanic peoples into Britain that explained, among other things, why we speak English and not Latin or Welsh.

Basil Brown’s eve-of-war excavation at Sutton Hoo, an apparent indulgence on the part of the site’s owner Edith Pretty, initially snuck very much beneath the radar of the Prehistoric and Roman preoccupations of the Establishment.  But it soon alerted excavators to the idea that the testimonies of Bede and others might not merely be confirmed by archaeology but might perhaps also be challenged.  No historical source has suggested that an Insular site would yield such a wealth of barbarian bling or ship technology before the Viking period.  Archaeologists and historians of the ‘Dark Ages’ began to ask if they might identify the remains of other Anglo-Saxon kings and their mead halls and match them to the biographies of known people.  Sutton Hoo became indissolubly linked with King Rædwald of East Anglia (who died about 627).  Might Bede’s great history of the English, the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, also be brought to life by the digger’s shovel?  Rosemary Cramp’s excavations at Jarrow in subsequent decades proved that Bede’s own monastery, lying on the bank of the River Tyne amid the riverine bustle of its coalfields and shipyards, could set even the historian in a living context.

Oddly, the war did not entirely stop excavation.  A brilliant German archaeologist called Gerhard Bersu, interned on the Isle of Man, uncovered evidence at Balladoole for unexpected continuities between prehistoric and Early Medieval sites.  New techniques were developed for identifying what were often ephemeral organic remains, by the characteristic traces of decayed wood that had taught Basil Brown such a revelatory lesson at Sutton Hoo.  The war revolutionized archaeology in another way also: aerial reconnaissance became a staple of military intelligence and strategic planning for both attack and defence; and for the first time Britain was comprehensively mapped from the skies.  The archaeological yield was astonishing.

In the 1950s Brian Hope-Taylor carried out a stunning campaign of excavations on a site in a remote valley of Northumberland, where aerial photographs revealed the outline of buildings that he believed might be Bede’s Ad Gefrin – Yeavering – the palace of King Edwin, Rædwald’s successor as overlord of all Britain south of the Forth.  Here were great halls and the kitchens where feasts were prepared; tribal totems and burials; a church; a huge cattle corral and even a Roman-style ‘grandstand’.  Hope-Taylor’s much scrutinised reports have often been questioned and critiqued; but no-one has ever seriously doubted that he was right in essence: Yeavering was a royal township of the Bernician kings in the 6th and 7th centuries.  The archaeology of Beowulf’s mead hall, and of Bede’s conversion of the English kings and people to Christianity, had been laid bare.

In the decades since, hundreds of Early Medieval settlements have been excavated across Britain, along with thousands of burials.  Three outstanding sites – at Mucking, in Essex, West Stow in Suffolk and West Heslerton in East Yorkshire – spanning those centuries speak of resilient, stable communities.  The holes in our knowledge are filling up with stuff, and lots of it – if only we knew what to make of it.  The apparently stark discontinuities remain.  In the Britannia of AD400 are thriving villas, metalled roads, iron, lead and silver mines; market towns and walled cities; a civil service and bureaucracy; state government; a literate Latin élite.  In 600, none of that existed.

There is now a stout cable anchoring Rædwald’s and Edwin’s tangible Bedan world to the last decades of Roman occupation in Britain.  The trouble is, the Roman end of that cable, with its hundreds of multi-coloured fibres, leads into a still impenetrable tunnel of interpretation. When it emerges in the early 7th century there are many fewer fibres; several appear to be missing and the colours are faded.  Some of those fibres – notably a very attractive, shiny one from which dangles a round table and a heroic resistance leader – fall apart when you tug at them.  We cannot, absolutely, be sure that we are looking at the same rope.

The Anglo-Saxon mead hall, reborn

A number of apparent certainties that I was taught as an undergraduate in the early 1980s are less solid than they once were; so archaeologists have been busy, for several decades now, trying to construct as independent a material narrative as they can in counterpoint to the increasingly suspect historical sources.  Bede’s, Gildas’s, and ‘Nennius’s’ historical limitations and biases have been exposed to very serious scrutiny; they have been revealed as, partially, political statements that may say more about the times in which they were written than about what was going on inside that tunnel of uncertainty.  Even the previously solid planks of ‘Germanic’ style objects, language, novel building types and warrior graves no longer convince all archaeologists all the time.  Increasingly, one can recognise in historical narratives stretching from Bede and Gildas to Victorian ideas of race and superiority and 20th century ethnic sensibilities, an overriding need to explain great historical events in predominantly nationalistic terms.

In The First Kingdom, while recognising that peoples with distinct tribal identities moved (probably both ways) across the seas that surrounded Britain, during those two centuries (as they had before and as they have ever since), I have decided that there are more fruitful lines of enquiry to pursue – more robust and productive fibres to pull on – if we want to expose the goings-on inside that tunnel.  People adopt all sorts of socially advantageous behaviours, trappings, languages, and identities when they are subject to stresses or new realities.  For whatever reason, sometime in the 5th century, some groups of people, predominantly on the eastern side of Britain, decided to reject Roman language, mores, taxes, and Christianity.  Some clung to those certainties; yet others seem to have got along almost oblivious to great events happening at a distance.

Very well.  I believe that I have identified a fibre of continuity which, when given a hard yank, can be pulled right through from the Roman end of the tunnel into the relatively bright light of Bede’s day.  Taking the institution of territorial lordship, a fundamental unit of power that exists in all sedentary tribal societies as a means of creating stable networks of patronage and social order, I think I can show how it evolved and adapted to cope with the dramatic new realities facing communities in Britain after, say, 430 when there seems to have been a serious political and perhaps social crisis.

The mechanics of lordship are predicated on a simple principle: discrete local communities rendered services and goods (that is, non-cash taxes in kind) to a lord’s residence, for consumption and limited re-distribution.  The Roman market economy did not long survive the withdrawal or dismissal of imperial administrators and their calorie-hungry armies; industrial production shrank; transport networks were maintained only patchily.  Towns no longer functioned as centres for governance or for the concentration of cheap labour and civic administration, but as the estate centres of a privatised élite – former magistrates; bishops; arrivistes of one sort or another.  Many other centres of petty lordship emerged: at Roman forts on Hadrian’s Wall and at existing villa estates.

In Early Medieval society, as witnessed by all our available literary sources, the household (Bede’s familia) was the principal social unit, managing food and craft production, maintaining social relations with collateral family members and spending its surplus on reinforcing advantageous bonds with lords.  Some of that surplus was buried with them when they died – a sort of voluntary render to the spirits of another world.  Lords, in turn, distributed gifts (brooches; swords; rings); feasted their followers, judged and protected – sometimes fought for – their dependents.  They attracted young, unmarried warriors to their comitatus – their retinue.  The society of the warband in its mead hall was modelled as a sort of fictive household, massaging patronage networks through preferment, feasting and song, advantageous marriage, bling, martial exploits and the prospect of enforcing subsidiary lordship rights over weaker lords and their dependents.

Following the fortunes of indigenous lordship through political geographies ‘excavated’ from the living stratigraphy of Britain’s multi-layered landscapes of hill and field, place-name, boundary and inherited ownership, has proved fruitful.  From minor territorial lordship – an early squirearchy, if you will – to kingship and then overlordship, the archaeology and geography of sites like Yeavering, Dunadd in Argyll, Tintagel in Cornwall and Rendlesham in Suffolk – royal township of the East Anglian kings buried at Sutton Hoo – is gradually giving up the story of how the medieval kingdoms of Britain came into being.

British society underwent profound change in those obscure centuries.  It lost functioning towns and state bureaucracy, a market economy and much of the written remembrance of its political fortunes.  But communities who lived on and rendered the surplus of their land got by; found new (or perhaps old) lords to follow.  They practised and sometimes perfected crafts and seasonal ceremonies in the hope of stacking fate’s odds in their favour. They enjoyed, or were intimidated by, a rich alternative consciousness inhabited by capricious spirits.  They honoured poetry, glory in battle, rank and honour; were acutely sensitive to their landscape and to worlds beyond their immediate horizons.  They were curious and they experimented with existing institutions until they found what worked.

In the end, Britain’s great lords – its kings – were persuaded by two very contrasting movements, one from Ireland and the other from Rome. That a new, intellectually demanding, literate, rational form of kingship offered irresistible rewards in legitimising their secular rule by divine right, and in the promise of everlasting companionship in the ultimate fictive household in heaven.  They saw it for what it was; and they found that it was good.  It is a satisfying irony that King Rædwald, buried in pagan splendour beneath the grassy mound at Sutton Hoo, lived on the cusp of that revolution and died firmly believing that he should maintain a foot in both camps.  History and archaeology are both the richer for it.

Max Adams is an archaeologist and author of The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, and Ælfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age. The First Kingdom: Britain in the Age of Arthur is his latest book.

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