Re-Dating Early England (Seminar Review)Posted: November 11, 2013
Last Friday (8/11/2013), I attended the research seminar Re-Dating Early England at the Society of Antiquaries of London, a day of eight papers and a discussion session, organised to celebrate and explore the themes of two recent major publications: The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill IX: Chronology and Synthesis by Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy (the final volume in the Spong Hill series) and Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries AD: a Chronological Framework, an edited volume by Alex Bayliss, John Hines, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac and Christopher Scull (edited by John Hines and Alex Bayliss). Both have fundamental implications for our understanding of the chronology of 5th-7th-century Anglo-Saxon England.
The morning began with a welcome from Chris Scull, before the first session commenced with talks introducing each of those two new publications, the first by Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy, and the second by John Hines. After a break for coffee, we heard two talks focusing on statistical methodology, the first on absolute dating by radiocarbon, the second on relative dating by grave-associated artefact groups. In the first, Alex Bayliss explained how Bayesian analysis can be used to refine the probabilities of radiocarbon dating to a level of resolution useful for this relatively short period. Alex must have done a good job, as I surprised even myself by coming away with some understanding, albeit a basic one, of what had previously seemed a mysterious and dark art. Karen Høilund Nielsen provided an overview of the principles of seriation and the methods of correspondence analysis, a method that has become fundamental to establishing chronologies for this period and its many thousands of furnished graves, and one in which the speaker has for some time been leading the field.
Following lunch, we had two papers providing perspectives from the continent and a third on numismatics. Andreas Rau clearly communicated the quite complex methodological issues concerning the very earliest dates of ‘Germanic’ material in eastern England. Frank Siegmund’s contribution was perhaps the most thought-provoking of the day, dealing as it did not so much with the methods of chronological analysis, but with a novel manner of interpreting the different absolute lengths of chronological phases in terms of the ebb and flow of cultural change. Marion Archibald’s paper dealt with a seemingly quite critical disparity between the absolute dating suggested by Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods and those traditionally stated by numismatists.
The day closed with an open discussion session chaired by Andrew Reynolds. It was perhaps this session that raised the most pertinent question of the day. That is, now that we have the most secure chronological framework yet devised for early Anglo-Saxon England, what do we do with it? Unfortunately, this question seemed to stump the audience, including myself, who remained either silent or staunchly focused on methodological or relatively peripheral issues. This was perhaps inevitable after a day of papers whose focus was quite legitimately focused on methodology. Indeed, for a specialist like myself, this focus made the seminar among the most valuable I have attended. But it does beg the question, what next?
There is also a question, I believe, concerning the extent to which this chronological research will be used by Anglo-Saxon archaeologists in the decades to come. I have little doubt that they will be justly acknowledged and taken up by specialists, whose artefact-focused studies, like my own, have been crying out for an overarching chronological framework on which to peg their phasings. The question of ‘what next?’ for us is fairly obvious: we can refine our studies even further and justifiably place more confidence in our findings. Both of the above publications, for instance, have some impact on the absolute dates I suggested for cruciform brooches in my PhD thesis, which are confirmed at the latest end, and revised at the earliest. However, the real question concerns the extent of the effect they will have on more interpretative accounts. There has been a unfortunate tendency in more thematic, social archaeologies of the 5th and 6th centuries to treat these two centuries virtually synchronically. This is a result of necessity rather than ignorance. Until now, despite a couple of key volumes, chronological work on Anglo-Saxon archaeology has been relatively diffuse or obscure. We now have a challenge, I think, to incorporate those more theoretically inclined archaeologies with a methodological knowledge of the material on which they are grounded.