Author: hrothgaratheorot

Repton Revisited

There is no doubt that Repton was an important place to the Mercians and was also the site where the Viking Great Army overwintered in 873-874.  Repton is frequently mentioned as a place where Mercian kings granted charters and the churchyard at Repton contains several graves that are distinctively Scandinavian.

The site around the Church was excavated by the Biddles between 1974 and 1980.  Their conclusion was that the church was part of a defensive D shaped enclosure that had housed the Great Army.  A nearby mausoleum was excavated and found to contain the bones of at least 264 individuals and the Biddles postulated that these individuals were part of the Great Army.  However, the initial radiocarbon dates did not support this with some individuals appearing to have died in the 8th century.  Cat Jarman looked at the bones again and concluded that many of the individuals had consumed a mostly marine diet and this had distorted the radiocarbon dates (the marine reservoir effect).  When she corrected the radiocarbon dates for this effect all the individuals now had a date of death that was compatible with death around 873/874.

The D shaped enclosure

In their recent book ‘The Viking Great Army and the Making of England’, Julian Richards and Dawn Hadley (2021) question some of the conclusions about the D-shaped enclosure.  The archaeology is complicated by the presence of ditches belonging to the bailey of the 12th century castle and Richards and Hadley believe it is possible that the archaeology may have been misinterpreted. To clarify this the excavation archive would need to be studied.  It is possible that there never was a D shaped enclosure.

Did those buried in the mausoleum really have a marine diet?

The Great Army had been in England since 865.  Their known overwintering sites were not near the sea and there is no evidence that they brought in vast quantities of fish for the 5000 or so members of the Great Army to eat.  They appear to have lived off the tribute brought to them or foraged for in the local area.  However, according to Cat Jarman, the isotopic evidence is that many of those buried in the mausoleum did have a diet with a significant marine food content.  This is based upon C13 content of bone collagen which turns over about every 10-15 years.  After 8 years in England there wouldn’t be much evidence left of a marine diet and this is the result obtained from samples sent to the University of Utrecht. The results from five samples indicated a marine food content of around 10%.  A larger number of samples were analysed by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit but the same five samples indicated a marine food content of between 15 and 28%.  The authors felt that the Utrecht figures were less reliable than those from Oxford, and only used the Oxford C13 results to calculate percentage marine diet content and revised radiocarbon dates that took into account the marine reservoir effect. A number of assumptions were made in the calculation and these had a significant impact on the precision of the results.

The revised radiocarbon dates were impacted in two ways.  The dates became less old and the dates became less precise.  Take sample G529 for example.  The original radiocarbon date was 670-770.  Taking into account marine reservoir effect the dates become 690 to 939.  The range of possible dates has changed from 100 years to 249 years so almost any measurements will now include the 873/874 dates.  Simply by including the marine reservoir effect in the calculation, the hypothesis that all the bones relate to the overwintering of the Great Army is now possible.  This is very poor use of science.

So, in summary, the evidence for a D shaped enclosure is not convincing and the evidence that all the people buried in the mausoleum belonged to the Great Army is also a bit shaky.

Were cattle and pigs really moved from Scotland to Wessex in the Neolithic?

Madgwick et al (2019) used strontium (Sr), oxygen (O) and sulphur (S) isotopes to determine how far pigs had been transported before being consumed at Neolithic sites in Wessex.  Strontium is the most reliable indicator of geographical location and depends upon underlying geology.  Strontium is incorporated into tooth enamel in young animals and is then fixed for the rest of the animal’s life.  The strontium isotope values of a few pigs from some sites showed that they were raised in areas of older rocks (not the chalk found in Wessex).  The Sr isotope ratio of bioavailable strontium on the Wessex chalkland is around  0.708, but some pigs had a Sr isotope ratio much higher than this, up to 0.717.  There are older rocks in the south of Britain; the Silurian rocks of south wales and the pre-Cambrian rocks of the Malvern Hills have a high ratio, but rocks with a Sr isotope ratio as high as 0.717 are only found in the north of Britain, in the Lake District or some areas of Scotland.  This led Madgwick et al to suggest that animals may have been brought from Scotland to Durrington Walls.

In another paper published around the same time, the same group (Evans et al 2019) studied Sr ratios in cattle.  They had concluded that some cattle may have been transported from Scotland, but they also raised the possibility that there could be sources of high strontium isotope ratios in the south of Britain that were so far undiscovered.  This possibility was raised because other papers had found high strontium isotope ratios in animals and humans that were very unlikely to have been raised in Scotland. However this suggestion was not included in the paper on pigs.

One of the problems with the suggestions that animals were moved around 400 miles before being consumed is the impracticality.  It is conceivable that cattle could have been driven along drove roads to get from Scotland to Wessex, but this would have been a journey of several weeks.  The return journey would take the total journey into months.  Pigs are even more difficult to transport.  Pigs cannot be herded like cattle or sheep so driving pigs all that way is highly improbable.  Live animals could have been transported by sea but that would be an extremely arduous coastal route that would still involve land transport at each end of the journey.  The only other possibility for the transport of live animals is that they were moved by cart. (Is there any evidence for wheeled vehicles in the neolithic?)  If they weren’t transported as live animals were they butchered in Scotland and the meat carried to Wessex?  Again, unlikely.  If the pig had been butchered in Scotland would they really have carried the head all the way to Wessex?

Madgewick et al have been criticised for publicising an unlikely conclusion.  Barclay and Brophy (2020), pointed out that strontium isotope ratios up to 0.716 have been found in the Malverns and several places in Wales.  Only two pigs out of 131 had ratios above this with a maximum of 0.7172.

Madgwick et al responded by emphasising that their study was a multi isotope study and the results from oxygen and sulphur isotope values support their claim that the pigs could have originated from Scotland.  I am not convinced. Oxygen isotope values from pigs are difficult to relate to oxygen isotope values of groundwater and they do not attempt to do this, so cannot identify possible origins of individual pigs.  All they can say is that there is a variety of values that must reflect a variety of sources.  My biggest problem with this is that pigs are omnivores.  They eat anything that is available and if they are fed food waste, how the food has been processed will affect the oxygen isotope values. 

Similarly sulphur isotope values cannot be related to specific locations.  Generally values are related to the proximity of the sea but the resolution is poor and there is no map that relates sulphur isotope values to location.  Again, the authors say that the wide variety of values reflects a variety of origins for the pigs. 

Conclusions

To quote directly from Madgwick et al (2019):

On the basis of current mapping data, it is not possible to define origins with confidence, even when using multi-isotope proxies.

Unfortunately, in their abstract they are not quite so cautious and talk about transport pigs “over vast distances”.  In their conclusion, based on strontium isotopes, they say that “some of the pigs are likely to derive from Scotland.”  I think it is fair to say that their mixed messaging invites criticism.

Overall, the transporting of pigs from Scotland is a very unlikely scenario.  There is no doubt that the animals consumed at Stonehenge came from a variety of sources but they most likely came from different sources across southern Britain.

Bibliography

Barclay, G. and Brophy, K. (2020) ‘A veritable chauvinism of prehistory’: nationalist prehistories and the ‘British’ late Neolithic mythos. Archaeological Journal https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00665983.2020.1769399?journalCode=raij20

Evans, J., Parker Pearson, M., Madgwick, R., Sloane, H. and Albarella, U. (2019) Strontium and oxygen isotope evidence for the origin and movement of cattle at Late Neolithic Durrington Walls, UK. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 11:5181-5197

Madgwick, R., Lamb, A., Sloane, H., Nederbragt, A., Albarella, U., Parker Pearson, M. and Evans, J. (2019) Multi-isotope analysis reveals that feasts in the Stonehenge environs and across Wessex drew people and animals from throughout Britain Science Advances https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/3/eaau6078

Madgwick, R., Lamb, A., Sloane, H., Nederbragt, A., Albarella, U., Parker Pearson, M. and Evans, J. (2021) A veritable confusion: use and abuse of isotope analysis in archaeology, Archaeological Journal https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00665983.2021.1911099?scroll=top&needAccess=true#.YKPempqPVqU.twitter

Book Review: The Warrior Queen. The life and legend of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great

Several typos in the fist few pages made me take an instant dislike to this book. If you are going to write a book on history you have to be accurate. As well as the typographical errors there are other simple errors. For example when she talks about the end of Alfred’s reign she says that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is quiet on the closing years of the tenth century. Unfortunately Alfred died at the end of the ninth century. The book was clearly an attempt to capitalise on the 1100th anniversary of Aethelflaed’s death. As the deadline loomed there was no time for proof reading.

The only new material in this book is the unfounded speculation so if you must read a book on Aethelflaed read ‘Aethelflaed, The Lady of the Mercians’ by Tim Clarkson.

Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football

To understand the context of this post please read The Danelaw in Derbyshire.

The traditional game of Shrovetide football is played in Ashbourne every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.  There are two sides, uppards and downards; uppards are those born on the north side of the Henmore Brook and downards those born on the south side.  The goals are about three miles apart at the mills of Clifton and Sturston, Clifton is downstream from Ashbourne and Sturston upstream.  The number of players on each side is unlimited and the objective is to carry the ball to the opposing mill and bang the ball three times against the mill wheel.  Play starts at 2pm each day and finishes at 10pm.

The division of the sides into uppards and downards clearly mirrors the division of Ashbourne in the Danelaw period.  The uppards are the Anglo-Saxons and the downards are the Vikings.  The aim of the uppards (Anglo-Saxons) is to score at Sturston mill.  The placename Sturston is believed to be a hybrid name – a Viking personal name + tun which is Old English for settlement.  So the Anglo-Saxons are attemting to score at the Viking mill.  The downards (Vikings) are attempting to score at the Clifton mill which has a placename that is purely Anglo-Saxon.

The earliest reference to Shrovetide football at Ashbourne is from the 17th century but ball games have mentioned earlier in the historical record and it is possible that the game at Ashbourne is based upon rivalries that have existed since the 9th or 10th centuries.

Next fixture

Ashbourne Angles v Compton Vikings 2pm Shrove Tuesday 2021 (Covid-19 permitting)

Viking Genomics

I have attempted to read the paper ‘Population genomics of the Viking world’ recently published in ‘Nature’ and found it totally incomprehensible. To understand it you need a degree in statistics and/or genetics. This is dangerous because non specialists are not able to critically assess the work to ensure that the conclusions are justified by the evidence. They can only understand the Abstract and Discussion and hope that the authors’ preconceptions and errors have not affected the conclusions.

It then becomes a matter of faith, you either believe it or you don’t. There are errors in the work, eg: “The ancient samples are divided into the following five broad categories: Bronze Age (BA), Iron Age (IA), Early Viking Age (EVA), Viking Age (VA), Medieval (MED) and Early Modern (EM).” They can’t count! How can they expect us to believe that the complex statistics are right when they can’t count beyond five? There are 89 authors listed; did any of them read it? Apparently not.

Book Review – ‘Pecsaetna’ by Phil Sidebottom

There are only two historical references to the Pecsaetna.  One is in the Tribal Hideage and the other in a charter from 963 that records the transfer of a parcel of land within the bounds of the Pecsaetna (‘in pago Pecset’).  So, to produce a 120 page book about the Pecsaetna you need a lot of background information and a lot of speculation. Dr Sidebottom provides both but also inserts a blank page at the end of each chapter just to pad it out a bit more.  Surprisingly however he doesn’t include an index which is unusual for an academic book and would have added a few more pages.

Having said that the book does try to make some interesting connections.  The Pecsaetna seemed to have occupied the (mostly) Derbyshire Peak District and this is roughly the same area as a large group of high status 7th century Anglo-Saxon barrow burials.  The same area is also the lead mining district of Derbyshire and the location of some fine Anglo-Saxon sculpture including the Wirksworth slab and a series of cross shafts. 

I would have liked to have seen a summary of the arguments for the origin and dating of the Tribal Hideage.  Dr Sidebottom believes that the document was of Mercian origin and whilst he acknowledges that others think it may have been Northumbrian I didn’t get a sense of why one argument would have been preferred.  The lack of clarity around the Tribal Hideage makes the origins of the Pecsaetna a bit murky.  Similarly the timing of the demise of the Pecsaetna is also obscure. Presumably, at some stage they were absorbed by Mercia and by the time of the 963 charter ‘in pago Pecset’ was referring to an administrative area rather than a separate kingdom.

There are a few annoying typos and errors (eg confusing complement and compliment) and the subtitle of the book (People of the Anglo-Saxon Peak District) is a better description of the contents than that of an obscure tribe about which almost nothing is known.

Rethinking the Emergence of the English

I recently watched Susan Oosthuizen give an online presentation on Rethinking the Emergence of the English.  Professor Oosthuizen reviewed the evidence for a large migration of people from Northern Europe to Britain between 400 and 600AD. Her conclusion is that there is very little evidence to support the widespread belief in a large scale migration.  There has been continuous migration of people into Britain since the last ice age, so in all likelihood there would be some migration between 400 and 600, but was it more than normal during this period? Professor Oosthuizen reviews the evidence from a wide range of sources to support her hypothesis that there wasn’t wholesale migration at this time and there was continuity from the late roman period.

There are two British sources for this period, Patrick for the 5th century and Gildas for the 6th century.  According to Professor Oosthuizen both these sources show continuity from late Roman Britain with administrative and religious functions surviving well into the 6th century.  I think the flaw in her argument is that Patrick and Gildas are generally agreed (including by Prof Oosthuizen) to be from the west of Britain and there could well be continuity in the west of Britain, at the same time as the east of Britain was experiencing mass immigration and disruption.

Professor Oosthuizen then continues with an unusual interpretation of Gildas, saying that the Saxons left Britain.  Gildas does say that the Saxons who had come to Britain as mercenaries, after they had rebelled and defeated the Britons militarily ‘were returned home’.  The Britons rallied under Ambrosius Aurelianus and the narrative almost immediately continues with the story of how the Britons fought the enemy, culminating in the siege of Badon Hill, and this was 44 years and one month after the landing of the Saxons.  The narrative implies that Ambrosius Aurelianus was fighting Saxons and it would need a very tortuous reading of Gildas to come to the conclusion that he was fighting somebody else.

The DNA evidence from Oakington in Cambridgeshire is then examined.  Professor Oosthuizen is making the point that those with DNA from north-west Europe have the same grave goods as those who are local and are impossible to distinguish archaeologically, so archaeological evidence cannot be used as evidence of migration.  She conveniently ignores the fact that of the four people tested, two were probably from north west Europe, one was a mixture of north west European and local DNA and one person was wholly local.  Clearly the sample size is tiny but the DNA evidence shows that there were migrants coming from north west Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The DNA evidence from modern populations is also considered and in this instance Professor Oosthuizen critically assesses the science.  This is something that most archaeologists fail to do.  Faced with the unintelligible vocabulary of a scientific paper they read the abstract, introduction and conclusions and accept all the findings. The paper claimed that between 10 and 40% of the British population had northern European DNA from the ‘Age of Migrations’. The critical assessment by Prfessor Oosthuizen highlighted the fact that the authors of the paper had fiddled the figures by removing DNA from France from the calculations, boosting the DNA from northern Europe.

Professor Oosthuizen makes a very important point in saying that we should take nothing for granted and critically reassess all evidence.  This is true but I think that the most crucial, unequivocal evidence will come from analysis of ancient DNA and hopefully the results will build on those from Oakington.

Figures in Stone (1)

Cross Shaft from Norbury

Norbury is a small village in Derbyshire, close to the River Dove and the border with Staffordshire. In the church there are two cross shafts, one of which features a warrior figure. The figure appears to have breasts and it isn’t a giant leap to suggest that this figure could be a representation of Æthelflæd. In the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Sculpture for Derbyshire and Staffordshire it is dated to the 10th century. As demonstrated in my page on Vikings in South Derbyshire Norbury was within the Danelaw and would have been reconquered by Æthelflæd around 917 when Derby was retaken