The Early Anglo-Saxons on Wikipedia: an Assessment

“Do not cite Wikipedia” is lesson number one for many undergraduates.  I’ve seen teachers become unnecessarily (if amusingly) apoplectic over this.  Wikipedia should never be referenced because it’s an unstable source.  But it is rarely a misleading one.  Even on the occasions when it is, we are usually talking about some minor issue, frustrating to the specialist who’s work has gone unacknowledged, but not exactly a heresy.  Most of the time, information on Wikipedia is pretty useful.  Of course, it needs to be read critically with an awareness of how it is compiled, but the same could be said of any source, academic or not.  Rather than complaining about the accuracy of a brilliant, free source of information that everyone is going to use anyway,  I think academics have some responsibility to contribute constructively.

I’m particularly interested in the remove between the kind of knowledge authenticated by institutions and peer-review and that compiled by the generally unacknowledged authors of Wikipedia articles.  Could it be the way that Wikipedia disrupts traditional hierarchies of knowledge that inspires dismissive treatment from the academy?  Perhaps, but I digress.  I’m more interested in how this knowledge differs than the politics.  To assess this, I would like to explore the kind of information available on Wikipedia, as of August 2013, concerning my own specialism: early Anglo-Saxon archaeology (5th-7th century AD).  I’ve never really looked at these pages, as I tend to use Wikipedia for material with which I am much less familiar, so I’m coming to this with fresh eyes.

The general page on Anglo-Saxon archaeology is not what I expected.  It is divided into the following topics: hoards, art, numismatics, glass and architecture, but contains very little information itself.  It has a section on burial, containing a slightly odd list of cemeteries; some important, some less so.  There are the expected references to the presence of unproblematic groups of Angles and Saxons and a reference to the burial of animal skulls in graves, which, given the rarity of this practice, seems bizarre.  There’s also a bit on deviant burials and a paragraph on the famous later barrow burials.  There’s no misinformation here, but the contents seem rather too summary and non-representative.   The reason for the imbalance and limited examples becomes evident upon noticing that the only reference on the page is “Hutton 1991”, presumably a book by Ronald Hutton called The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy.  To my discredit, I have never encountered this book before, but it certainly isn’t a standard source for Anglo-Saxon archaeology.

Moving on to those subcategories.  The ‘Anglo-Saxon hoards‘ page links to a section on a more general page about hoards in archaeology.  ‘Anglo-Saxon Art‘ has a page all to itself, which though pretty good overall offers very little indeed for the 5th and 6th century.  Admittedly, I find it slightly odd that Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard and the Canterbury-St Martin’s Hoard are all subsumed under this category, as their significance is far wider than art.  The ‘Anglo-Saxon Numismatics‘ page is disappointing (it links to a project page for the the Sylloge of the Coins of the British Isles, whatever that might be), offering nothing on either numismatics or archaeology (but this can be found elsewhere, it’s just the link that is wrong).  I was initially surprised to see a page dedicated to Anglo-Saxon glass, given there is not one for metalwork or other craft products, but the page to which it links is actually pretty good offering some detail as well as general information and is well referenced.  Finally, the link to Anglo-Saxon architecture has its own page, but provides only very summary information, with nothing derived from archaeology and perhaps unsurprisingly nothing earlier than the seventh century.

It seems, therefore, that one must dig a little deeper to find Anglo-Saxon archaeology on Wikipedia.  I had hoped to find some more Anglo-Saxon archaeology through the Anglo-Saxon England page.  To my disappointment, however, generic ‘archaeology’ is referenced only as a potential source for information about the period (the link takes us to that page above).  There are a few familiar archaeological books among the references here, but at no point is information derived from archaeology referenced.  The Anglo-Saxons article offers similarly historical fare, emphasising things like art, religion and language.  Fine in its own right, but not archaeology.  This is not necessarily a problem.  I certainly don’t believe archaeology should have its nose in every subject.  However, these are not explicitly historical pages and Anglo-Saxon archaeology, especially from the virtually ahistoric early centuries, really has made significant contributions to these general topics.

So where is the Anglo-Saxon archaeology on Wikipedia? I found my way in by searching for a page on Burial in Early Anglo-Saxon England, which offers an excellent account and should surely be referenced from the Anglo-Saxon archaeology page.  Under the Wikipedia category of Anglo-Saxon burial practice to which this page links, there is once again a non-representative selection of sites (including Buckland, Finglesham, Fordcroft, Mill Hill, Polhill, Sarre, Shrubland Hall, Snape, Streethouse and Walkington Wold), practices (bed burial, burial mounds) and specific examples (St Cuthbert’s coffin, the Ridgeway Viking burial pit and the Trumpington bed burial).  All these pages are actually very good by themselves.  They demonstrate there is indeed the potential for detailed and specific information Wikipedia.  Nevertheless, a more representative set of examples would be beneficial.

I cannot, however, locate a sister page on Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology.  Neither can I find any links to the major 20th century Anglo-Saxon archaeologists – Leeds, Myres, Hawkes, Evison etc. are all notably absent given their major contributions (Lethbridge is here, but not for his contributions to archaeology…).

Searching again for archaeology on general pages, I thought I might find some information on probably the most popular topic of the period: migration.   The page on the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain is actually very good on its mixture of history and archaeology.  Sure, some of the points are contentious, but the account here is relatively balanced.  Nevertheless, it is perhaps notable that references to archaeological material on this page have all been taken from secondary references in primarily historical research.  There’s also a major article on Anglo-Saxon paganism, which is good and well referenced and includes some references to burial from archaeology (mostly, it seems from Hutton 1991).  Again, the focus is historical, but perhaps this is to be expected for such a topic.

Closer to home for me, is the dedicated page on Anglo-Saxon dress.  Unfortunately, it is dominated by a section on masculine dress and offers very little on women, which is perhaps unexpected given the greater archaeological evidence for the latter.  There is some archaeology here, but not an awful lot considering the wealth of archaeological information on jewellery.

So what, in the final assessment, is the state of early Anglo-Saxon archaeology on Wikipedia? This is only a brief overview, but the overall impression is mixed.  While there is some good information, it lacks coherency and is not representative.  Some topics (e.g. burial, migration) are dealt with in pretty good detail, but other equally important ones (settlement, material culture) are virtually absent.  Ranges of examples are non-representative, with a few favourite sites given detail and others going unmentioned.  The dedicated page to Anglo-Saxon archaeology is poorly linked and lacking in both scope and detail.  Given the history of the disciplines, one would expect Anglo-Saxon Archaeology to play second fiddle to Anglo-Saxon History, but the extent to which the archaeology is subsumed by the history is surprising given the considerable archaeological contribution in recent decades.

However, my point here isn’t to criticise but to assess what we’re missing. I entirely appreciate the time that individuals have invested in putting these pages together.  The problem here is clearly not with the people that have contributed, but with the people that haven’t.  I must admit, I am as guilty of this as anyone else, which is why I thought this short round-up might be a step in the right direction.   Hence, I offer the following suggestions from an outsider’s perspective.  My views may well not accord with the format of Wikipedia, or the manner in which similar period-specific subjects are structured.  Hopefully, that in itself might be of some value.  If anyone was interested, my provisional suggestions would be:

  • Overhaul of the Anglo-Saxon archaeology page, including a short disciplinary history outlining important contributors (linking to their own pages).  Links to more general Anglo-Saxon archaeological topics such as burial (which already exists, but I might consider extending it to include later Anglo-Saxon periods), settlement and material culture would also be helpful
  • Pages on at least a handful of the major early Anglo-Saxon archaeologists
  • A dedicated page to Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology
  • A page dedicated to Anglo-Saxon material culture including ceramics, weaponry and decorative metalwork
  • A greater range of dedicated examples of sites or specific objects
  • More contributions from archaeology on the general Anglo-Saxon pages

All comments/disagreements gratefully received.  I would be extremely surprised if anyone agreed with me entirely.  After all, this is a big topic I’ve covered minimally and selectively.  But I’d very much like to hear how your opinion may differ!

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the inspiration behind this blog post, which was a twitter conversation initiated by Pat Hadley (@PatHadley) back in April.  While I attempted to give a general impression of the Anglo-Saxon pages then, I was enticed into compiling something in excess of 140 characters!


6 Comments on “The Early Anglo-Saxons on Wikipedia: an Assessment”

  1. Andy Mabbett says:

    ” Wikipedia should never be referenced because it’s an unstable source” – There are good reasons why Wikipedia should not be cited (it’s a digest – cite the original sources instead), but being an “unstable source” is not one of them: each version of each page has a permalink (its own unique URL) which can be cited and which will remain unchanged in perpetuity.

  2. I agree with the comment that Wikipedia is a primer and should be used solely as such. I find I often hyperlink to Wiki pages when referencing something in passing in a blog post, when a formal reference would be inappropriate/overkill for the quick-and-to-the-point style of the medium. However, this also stems from the site more often than not being the top result when I google a topic/place in the course of writing. If not an overhaul of the Wiki pages, perhaps what is needed is a dedicated website on Anglo-Saxon archaeology and related subjects with expert-authored pages – and someone who is a dab hand at Google Analytics to get the site to the top of the search engine results pages!

  3. John Byrne says:

    I drafted this at the time, but never finished it. So I might as well add it now. Since then the main “Anglo-Saxons” article has been largely re-written, also the “settlement” one. The author is strongest on the early period, and archaeology.

    Thanks very much for taking the trouble to investigate this & write it up. Most of what you say is of course true, although in several places our own linking and organization has let us down, and not led you to better content – I have tried to improve some key failures, but I’m sure plenty remain. I’m sure you’ve realized some of the key points about the way Wikipedia gets written:

    There is no editorial board, or anything much like it
    People write what they feel like writing; conscious gap-filling is very hit-and-miss, and often article placing and linking is not thought through.
    If no editors happen to be interested in a subject, very little gets written

    I hadn’t seen either Anglo-Saxon archaeology or Coinage in Anglo-Saxon England before, but both are pretty useless, even at linking to our other content. The coinage page didn’t have as much as links to the long History of the English penny (c. 600 – 1066) or Sceat, really the main articles on this subject. These were linked via the categories at the bottom of the page, in this case Category:Anglo-Saxon money. These categories (they function like subject tags) are really the best way to explore what content there is, though they also often don’t contain everything they should (as the AS burial one did not).

    The same is probably true for the articles on sites, cemeteries and burials. Hidden in Category:Anglo-Saxon sites in England may be all sorts of other stuff – the shortish Spong Hill for example was not in the oddly-named Category:Anglo-Saxon burial practices, though it was linked in the burial article.

    I have written on a number of AS topics mainly concerned with art history, including most, nearly all I think, of Anglo-Saxon art. I’m sorry there isn’t more on the 5th & 6th centuries, but to some extent this I think reflects the sources used (Wilson etc – I have got the new Webster since writing it, but not used it much). I admit I find the early brooches confusing & less compelling than later stuff – I did also do Penannular brooch, but that doesn’t have much AS relevance. I’m afraid jewellery of any period tends to be very poorly covered on WP. I found we have Harford Farm Brooch (short) & have mentioned that, & I hope to add more some time, or of course anyone else can. We also have Forsbrook Pendant, though with no image. I’m glad you liked the rest of the article.

    I was a bit puzzled by “Admittedly, I find it slightly odd that Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard and the Canterbury-St Martin’s hoard are all subsumed under this category, as their significance is far wider than art.” How “subsumed”? They are all mentioned in the art article, but have their own articles, the first two quite long; Sutton Hoo is in 13 categories altogether, if that’s what you meant by “category”. Sutton Hoo is one of the few AS articles we have mainly written by a proper archaeologist, and despite some additions rather long on the excavation history and short on the art history to my mind (or taste). Of course the great majority of the articles we have on AS art or artefacts are on manuscripts – 42 articles on Insular MS, plus others, and our coverage of art & artefacts naturally concentrates on the big showy and well-preserved pieces, just as most general books and museum presentation also do, tending to neglect the more typical bones, sherds and bits of broken brooches. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

    Coverage of other AS angles you mentioned is really just rather random: Anglo-Saxon glass is one of a series I think done by a class of glass archaeology students (Goldsmith’s was it?), all very strong on the technical side – see Sassanian glass for another example. We just haven’t had anyone very interested in developing Anglo-Saxon architecture, though the nearly 50 individual buildings in Category:Standing Anglo-Saxon churches are generally well-covered, and other articles in the category like Anglo-Saxon turriform churches. Anything to do with Anglo-Saxon runes is very well-covered, as far as the runes are concerned – see Category:Anglo-Saxon runes. I’m rather surprized we don’t seem to more on AS warfare & weapons than Bamburgh Sword & a few helmets, plus generally Anglo-Saxon military organization and Anglo-Saxon warfare – usually “Milhist” is a strong area. Did you check out Category:Anglo-Saxon studies scholars, 85 strong? I couldn’t see “– Leeds, Myres, Hawkes, Evison” there, but “etc” might be. In general, WP coverage of everything is long on articles on discrete subjects, whether people, places, events or objects, and much shorter on topical articles – the reverse of the traditional encyclopedic formula of course, but there we are. As you rightly say “The problem here is clearly not with the people that have contributed, but with the people that haven’t”.

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