Category: Uncategorized

Pillboxes and Anti-Tank Ditch between Purton and Royal Wootton Bassett, Wilts

Pillboxes and Anti-Tank Ditch between Purton and Royal Wootton Bassett, Wilts

In May 1940 Germany invaded France.  British troops in France retreated to the channel coast and most of the British Army was evacuated from Dunkirk but left most of their equipment behind.  France quickly surrendered and there was a real danger that Britain would be the next target for invasion.  General Ironside was given the responsibility of organising Britain’s defences.  The first line of defence was along the coast but further inland a series of stop lines was envisaged that could halt the German advance if they broke through the coastal defences.  These stop lines consisted of natural barriers and constructed defences.  One stop line ran along the Thames upstream from London and along the Avon upstream from Bristol.  Unfortunately, there is a gap between the two rivers and this gap was plugged by a defensive line (GHQ stop line red) running from Great Somerford on the Avon to Lechlade on the Thames, then further on to Tilehurst near Reading.  Part of this gap was defended by an anti-tank ditch and pillboxes.  The anti-tank ditch ran from just north of Wootton Bassett to the River Ray at Mouldon Hill in Swindon.  Additional defensive support was provided by seven pillboxes along the route with an additional pillbox situated just north of Blunsden station.

Fig 1 Pillbox, north of Lydiard Millicent, west of Manor Hill Farm

Fortunately, the defensive line was never tested and after the war the ditch was filled in.  Of course, the material from the ditch didn’t go back in completely and there was a hump where the ditch had been.  Most landowners waited for the hump to settle but some spread the hump out to make the ground flat.  The hump can still be seen in many places along the route but in some places the line of the ditch is marked by a slight dip where the hump was bulldozed and settling occurred afterwards.  Pillboxes had been constructed to withstand direct hits from tanks so were extremely difficult to demolish, so most were simply left alone.

The route has been studied before and around 2000 two complementary articles were published, one in the Lydiard 2000 magazine by Michael Saunders and one in the Purton Historical Society by Eric Tull.  The article by Eric Tull had a map of the route.  I wanted to see if there are still any visible remains of the ditch today (2023).  Before starting out in the field I examined LIDAR images of the area.  LIDAR provides an accurate image of the ground surface by surveying from a light aeroplane.  The big advantage of LIDAR is that an image can be produced of the ground surface without vegetation so that it often reveals features that are not visible to the naked eye.  LIDAR images are readily available from but I used images that used DEFRA data downloaded to ArcGIS.  DEFRA is a government agency that originally used LIDAR data to assess flood risks but is now available for most of the country.  ArcGIS is a software package for processing and displaying geographical information.

Some sections of the ditch show very clearly on LIDAR

Fig 2 In this LIDAR image the ditch starts in the bottom left hand corner and heads north-east, crossing the Flaxlands road, going through the stable yard before skirting Frith’s copse.

From the LIDAR images I was able to construct these maps of the route:

Fig 3 Route of the ditch from LIDAR images (Southern section)

Figs 4 Route of the ditch seen by LIDAR (Northern section)

However, there were some areas where the route of the ditch wasn’t clear. But another source of data has recently become readily available.  The National Library of Scotland publish several different versions of Ordnance Survey maps on their website, ,  not just for Scotland but for the whole of the UK.  Recently that have also published aerial photographs, joined together to form a continuous picture.  Currently they cover mainly the south east of England.  The aerial photographs were mainly taken just after WW2 when the RAF had surplus planes and surplus pilots.  For the area we are interested in the photographs appear to have been taken after the ditch was filled in but it is still very visible.

Fig 5. Aerial photograph from the post-war period. The ditch showing in the area north of Lydiard Millicent. Pillboxes show as white spots. In the top right hand corner the ditch touches the edge of the cricket ground

The aerial photographs can now be used to complete the map of the route of the ditch.

Fig 6 Route of the Ditch (Red line) and position of pillboxes (Purple dots)

So what can we see today?  Obviously, the pillboxes are the most visible remains but there also remains where the ditch crossed a road.  Rather than dig up the road, a roadblock was created using concrete blocks and after the war these blocks were simply pushed to the side of the road, where amazingly many still remain.  These are near The Fox:

Fig 7 Concrete blocks used as anti-tank measures

And there are four on the ramp leading up to Bremhill Bridge:

Fig 8 One of the concrete blocks used as a roadblock on the approach to Bremhill Bridge

But, what of the ditch itself? This photograph was taken from Flaxlands Lane looking south and the hump of the ditch can be clearly seen in the foreground.

Fig 9. The hump of the filled in ditch near Flaxlands Lane

Other places where the hump can be clearly seen are at the bottom of Flaxlands Lane in the field below Flaxlands Farm where the line of the ditch runs parallel to the road, and in Mill House field between Stone Lane and Purton where the line of the ditch runs diagonally across the field.

The archaeological remains of GHQ Stop Line Red are an important reminder of the impact of WW2 on a quiet corner of North Wiltshire. There are other reminders and these will be explored in future Blog posts.

Keith Allsop March 2023

Further Reading:

Wills, H (1985) Pillboxes, A Study of UK Defences 1940. Leo Cooper/ Secker and Warburg, London

Do you really want a heat pump?

Heat Pumps – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I have had a ground source heat pump for the last 15 years.  In 2019 we had an extension built and added an air source heat pump to the system.  This article is an objective view of the pros and cons of heat pumps from somebody with practical experience.

Heat pumps are supposed to be an efficient, renewable energy source.  Is this true?  They are expensive and take up much more space than, say, a gas combi boiler. Since 2021 new installations of heat pumps have been eligible for a grant of £5,000.  Prior to this those who installed a heat pump in their home received a quarterly payment as they used the system; this payment was called the Renewable Heat incentive.

One of the most obvious disadvantages of a heat pump is the amount of space they take up.  If you use a heat pump for room heating and hot water you need two tanks – one for the hot water and one for room heating.  Add in the heat pump itself and it becomes impractical to house this inside most modern houses.  The installation pictured is for a large four bedroomed house so would be smaller for a smaller house but still difficult to fit in.   Most installations are therefore moved out to the garage.  We now have two elements that combine to reduce the efficiency of the system.

Ground Source heat pumps are supposed to generate 4kW of output for every kW of energy input.  For air source heat pumps this ratio is slightly less at 3:1. But as the water is stored it loses heat.  As the water is transferred from the heat pump around the house it loses more heat. And since the heat pump is often situated away from the core of the house it is usually necessary to circulate the water around the house so that hot water arrives at the tap, but constantly circulating the water loses even more heat.  I estimate that the true efficiency of the total system, including ground source heat pump, is around 1.75:1 and the air source heat pump around 1.5:1.

One of the features of a heat pump is that it does not heat the water as hot as a traditional gas boiler. For hot water heating a gas boiler is usually set to around 60°C.  A heat pump is usually set to 50°C.  The hotter you want the water the less efficient the heat pump becomes.  The factory settings for my heat pump had a set temperature of 50° with a temperature drop of 10°.  So, the heat pump heated the water to 50° then switched off.  The water temperature would drop to 40° before the heat pump kicked in again.  If you are unlucky when you run your bath the water is just above 40°.  So, if you like a hot bath – tough. To help maintain a higher temperature I have changed the set points so that the set temp is now 51° and it drops to 43°before heating up again.  These changes will have reduced the efficiency of the heat pump but make the water temperature a bit more acceptable.

The water for room heating is also lower.  With underfloor heating the set temperature is usually around 35 – 40°.  This usually varies with outside temperature.  If it gets colder outside the set point increases so the water going through the underfloor heating is hotter.  If the underfloor heating is running all the time and the room isn’t warm enough it is possible to increase the temperature of the water going to the underfloor heating.  The trouble is, the higher the temperature, the less efficient it becomes.  Underfloor heating is good for solid floors but not so good for suspended floors so the usual recommendation for upstairs rooms is low temperature radiators.  These are larger than normal radiators and, like underfloor heating, are best left on a low temperature all the time.  But this is very wasteful for bedrooms.  Bedrooms are unoccupied most of the day and during the night you are snuggled up under a quilt so you only need heating for a short time in the evening and a short time in the morning.  The best solution for this requirement is a traditional gas combi boiler.  If you don’t have gas, a short burst from an electric heater is better than having your heat pump, underfloor heating or upstairs radiators running all day.

The good thing about underfloor heating is that (sorry for stating the obvious) you don’t have any radiators so this gives more freedom when designing your rooms.  Unfortunately, underfloor heating isn’t reactive. It gives a low heat all the time but can’t give heat quickly.  So, if you were out at work all day you couldn’t come home and switch on the underfloor heating and expect it to warm up quickly; you would reach temperature in time for the ten o’clock news.  However, the underfloor heating/heat pump system is ideal for homes where the house is occupied most of the time, eg for elderly people.

If you think that a heat pump is the system for you, I would make the following recommendations:

Install in new builds only

Design so that the heat water is produced near the kitchen and bathrooms (to reduce heat losses in transfer)

Insulate all hot water pipes

The advice given by heat pump installers is to insulate the home properly before installation – make sure loft insulation is adequate, windows are double glazed and draught free, cavity wall is insulated.  All this is true but it then makes it impossible to evaluate the impact of the heat pump.  The suspicion is that most of the savings come from the improved insulation.

After you have done all that, you then have a problem with ventilation and condensation may become a problem.  Extractor fans in kitchen and bathrooms are necessary but suck warm air out of the house so a heat recovery system should be considered.  The problem is that these are very expensive and the payback time is about a hundred years.  My solution to the excess moisture in the air is to run a dehumidifier, but then, of course, you are increasing your electricity usage and any savings are soon wiped out.

Ringsbury Camp, an Iron Age Hillfort near Purton, Wiltshire

Ringsbury Camp, an Iron Age Hillfort near Purton, Wiltshire

Ringsbury Camp is an Iron Age hillfort near Purton in Wiltshire.  As far as I am aware it has never been excavated or surveyed, so we know very little about it.  However, it is well preserved, and features not visible to the naked eye are visible on LIDAR images.  It sits on a bed of Corallian limestone and this can be seen at the entrance in the south eastern corner of the hillfort.

The hillfort (red dot on the map) is easily accessed by a short walk from Purton. There is a footpath that skirts the southern perimeter of the hillfort, but there is no public access to the rest of the monument.

© Ordnance Survey

Hillforts come in all shapes and sizes and it is unlikely that all hillforts had the same function. One proposed function of hillforts is that they were concerned with the management of animals.  Most hillforts were built in the period 800 – 400 BC and this period coincided with a climatic downturn with prolonged periods of colder and wetter weather, and hillforts could have been built to protect sheep from winter storms (see Climate Change and the Iron Age on this website).  There is evidence from the LIDAR image that Ringsbury Camp had other roles to play in the management of sheep.

To the north of the hillfort are two annexes; annexes are a common feature of Iron Age hillforts and are generally believed to be connected with stock management.  There is access to each annex from the hillfort ditch via a gap in the outer bank.  At these points of access, the ditch is frequently waterlogged.

Also on the LIDAR image near the north west entrance is an additional bank and ditch that extends from the western entrance to the first annex. 

On the south side of the hillfort the public footpath runs along the top of the outer bank and has worn a groove in the bank.

Where the Mud Lane footpath joins the fort there is an accumulation of loose stone.

My (very rough) diagram shows the features a little more clearly.

My hypothesis is that sheep approached the hillfort from the east along Mud Lane.  Where Mud Lane joins the hillfort the accumulation of loose stone indicates that the bank of the hillfort may have been faced with stone and this has collapsed thanks to the action of tree roots.  The sheep went up the incline to the top of the outer bank and followed the footpath around to the western entrance.  The action of the sheep has worn a groove in the top of the bank.

When the sheep got to the western entrance the sheep were sorted.  Some went into the waterlogged section of ditch which could have been a sheep-wash.  Some went through the sheep-wash and exited into the first annex and some exited into the second annex.  There is also a route around to the first annex that avoids the sheep-wash.  So why were they being sorted? There several possibilities:

  • Sorting the sick from the healthy
  • Sorting pregnant from the non-pregnant
  • Sorting by owner; if the sheep were marked in some way the flock could have sheep from several owners
  • Sorting by the quality of the wool; castrated rams produced the best wool

I am sure there are other reasons why the sheep would have been inspected and sorted, but it does seem that the sorting process is a good explanation for the observed landscape features.

A different LIDAR image , supplied by Phil Barrett, shoes some additional features not evident in the image above.

The larger, second annex appears to have a route around the hillfort to the eastern entrance. So, animals sorted into this annex could return safely to the interior of the fort.

There is other evidence that Ringsbury Camp is concerned with the management of sheep.  The sheep probably spent time away from the hillfort and were brought to it for the processes described above.  One possible location would be Purton Common.  The road leading from Purton Common towards Ringsbury Camp is known as Hogg’s Lane. Today a hog is usually a word used for a pig but it is also a word for a one-year old sheep, Hogg’s Lane could be the route taken when the young sheep were being moved to the hillfort.

For more about climate change and the Iron Age go to  This was my dissertation for the MSc in Applied Landscape Archaeology at Oxford Continuing Education Department.

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. 


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.


Barclay, G. and Brophy, K. (2020) ‘A veritable chauvinism of prehistory’: nationalist prehistories and the ‘British’ late Neolithic mythos. Archaeological Journal

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

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

Update, Jan 2023

Recently a more accurate strontium isotope map of south west England has been published, This demonstrates that there are areas in the south west that have higher strontium isotope ratios and that the cattle and pigs found in the Stonehenge area probably came from local sources, not from Scotland, vindicating the above post.

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.