The World is Not in Your Maps and Books…Posted: July 20, 2013
…but they’re pretty good places to start. Like the best stories, most archaeology begins with maps. This is a map of early Anglo-Saxon England. It’s a pretty comprehensive survey of most recorded metalwork finds datable to the 5th or 6th century and it’s based on more than 4,000 find-spots. As far as I know it’s among the most comprehensive datasets yet compiled for the period, though I’m sure it’s still missing quite a bit.
A little detail on the data. It includes all non-ferrous 5th- and 6th-century objects (largely brooches) from the PAS and all stray finds of the same type from Heritage Environment Records. Additionally, I only included burials that could be dated by non-ferrous or ferrous metalwork. Consequently, it excludes a large number of potentially 5th- or 6th-century unfurnished burials. The find-spots have been subjected to a simple kernel density analysis to create those contours, so the darker patches show particularly concentrated areas of activity. The blank areas don’t indicate a complete absence of finds, just a very low frequency. Regardless of the site yielding one brooch or 1,000 cremations, it was scored as only one point on the map. This is work in progress, so I’m sure there’s the odd find-spot here and there that’s a bit out. The data for Norfolk, given the fact I have not yet got round to dealing thoroughly with its gargantuan mass, is a bit patchy, but that’s why it’s in progress.
The map was the result of somewhat overzealous data gathering during my PhD. Essentially I was using it to measure the distribution of cruciform brooches against a background early Anglo-Saxon activity. But obtaining a background map of early Anglo-Saxon activity kind of spiralled out of control when I found nobody had really done this in recent years. Though it was a pretty impressive map that took many months to create, the results proved fairly peripheral to my PhD. It was a lot of work for a pragraph or two! So, a good lesson there in the benefits of sampling (which, as a self-confessed compulsive putter-of-things-in-boxes, I still haven’t fully absorbed). Still, the data has more potential, which is why I’ve uploaded it here.
The map provides a good idea of what we mean when we say “early Anglo-Saxon England”. This is pretty much it. I suppose more accurately, this map represents regions of furnished burial, which constitute the vast majority of our material evidence for the period. It doesn’t tell us anything remarkably new, as these regions of particularly intense activity have been known about for a long time, but it does provide more detail than has previously been possible.¹ Oddly, I believe that its most important aspects are actually all the gaps. When we talk about most of the archaeology of early Anglo-Saxon England, we’re really only talking about a few select areas. Kent, for instance, comprises a surprisingly isolated little island of sites, which may help to explain why its material has such a characteristic appearance. Of course, the whole of the northwest is also missing, with the Derbyshire peaks comprising another little island.
It’s this really basic stuff that I love about distribution maps. They’re a great democratic force in archaeology, because pretty much anyone can understand them. They either show something or they don’t. If you end up having to justify or over-analyse what a distribution map shows, it probably doesn’t show much at all. You have to remember, of course, that even the distribution map, when you think about it, is a pretty abstract thing.
I’m probably going to return to this map in future blogs, but for now I’m just going to present it as it is for you to draw your own conclusions. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even finish it. So next time someone asks you what early Anglo-Saxon England looked like, a map like this would be a good place to start.
¹ There are, however, a few notable differences between this one and Christopher Arnold’s comparable map from 1988. See Arnold, C. 1988. An Archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, p.165, fig.5.3.