The World is Not in Your Maps and Books…

Early Anglo-Saxon England

Early Anglo-Saxon England

…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.


4 Comments on “The World is Not in Your Maps and Books…”

  1. A fabulous updated map Toby, I really like it. Same old concentrations. I would like to know more about the contrasts with Arnold though. What would happen if we didn’t include the barrow-diggers?

    • Toby Martin says:

      Thanks Howard – I’ll have to locate my copy of that Arnold 1988 map from my notes and respond properly in a couple of days when I can compare the two properly and give you some detail.

      As for the barrow diggers – the nice thing about this data is that each site is categorised by its general type, which means I can pull out barrow sites relatively easily (though not all necessarily 19th C excavations – my data isn’t complete enough for that) . I was thinking of doing a series of posts based on this map so maybe I’ll make that a future post. If I were a gambling man, I’d put a few quid on Derbyshire disappearing altogether though, as its PAS finds are very few indeed. East Yorkshire and Sussex might also considerably reduce for the same reason. It would be interesting to see though!

    • Toby Martin says:

      Firstly, the maps are based on slightly different data. While mine is based on single sites identified by any amount of metalwork (from graves or not), Arnold’s is based on numbers of graves per km, so his is probably more subject to excavation bias. The main differences between the maps is that (probably thanks to PAS data) a lot of the gaps in mine are filled in. Perhaps the most noticeable differences in my map are that Derbyshire and the East Midlands are far better represented. There is also an additional minor focal region in the north, just southwest of Middlesborough, which is completely new. The big concentration around Winchester is also substantially increased on my map. East Anglia and Lincs remain pretty much the same though, though the eastward spread into Cambs is more densely represented on my map. Kent and Sussex are pretty much unchanged.

      I believe these are relatively minor differences, which on the national scale are hardly revolutionary! However, I think on the local scale, especially looking at specific districts or even parishes, the new data makes a substantial contribution.

      A fairer and perhaps more interesting exercise to see change in these maps over time might be to compare Meaney’s gazeteer with the PAS (which I think I did at some point, though I can’t currently locate the maps!)

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