What is the future of the past?

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Anglo-Saxon studies in 2020 and their prospects

A cheek-piece from the single helmet in the Staffordshire Hoard (see CA 361). Finely decorated and gilded helmets were symbols of exceptionally high status among a warrior elite. [CREDIT: © Birmingham Museums Trust]

Concluding his two-part exploration of Anglo-Saxon studies in the present day, John Hines considers what the future holds for this field.

Two recent exhibitions, both hosted in large, diverse cities, showed the enduring strength and depth of public interest in the Anglo-Saxon past. The out-of-the-blue discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009 (see CA 236) stimulated huge excitement, with crowds in Birmingham queueing to see the new finds. More traditional in concept, though unparalleled in its range, was the British Library blockbuster Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in 2018-2019 (CA 346). These embodied rather different things: one art, craftsmanship, and treasure used for an elite whose role it was to be ready for battle; the other, literacy and learning – the worlds of schoolroom, scriptorium, and Church.

Between them, though, what was on show represented the whole chronological range of the Anglo-Saxon period; key and complementary aspects of that culture; and a perfect balance of material and textual evidence. But they also displayed special, spectacular objects, which for the most part belonged to privileged groups of that population. Objects that had been produced againsta background of drudgery, poverty, and exploitation. That side of social life and the economy is always more elusive, whatever source of information is used – except, perhaps, the skeletal remains of the people themselves.

A valuable initiative that seeks to provide a more inclusive perspective on the peoples of this period is the new module in the GCSE History syllabus ‘Britain: migrations, empires, and people’. Understandably, if still regrettably, this does not start with the obscure events of the post-Roman transition in the 5th century, but with the Viking period around AD 790, and follows the topics through to the present day. Designed to connect the experiences and evidence of a distant period with those of a multi-ethnic contemporary population in England and Wales, this is a fine initiative, and one that should be promoted enthusiastically.


The study of Scandinavian expansion in the Viking Age, and of the impacts of its raids, conquest, migration, and settlement all around Britain and Ireland, must recognise the contributions made by archaeology, language, and place-names alongside the historical, documentary record. Archaeology is exceptionally well-suited to revealing the commonest experiences, both through settlement and burial sites. In northern and eastern England, a dominant theme of interpretation of the material record has long been emphasis on hybridisation and the construction of a new ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ culture. Meanwhile, the newer laboratory technique of isotope analysis has provided some precise insights into mobility from Scandinavia at individual levels: for example, a woman from either Norway or the far north of Scotland buried near Doncaster in the late 9th century, or the ill-fated Weymouth Viking band, executed en masse a century later (see CA 245 and 299, and also CA 352 on Repton).

What is in a name? Now the home of trendy nightclubs, Womanby in Cardiff is the oldest known part of the medieval town, opposite the castle and beside the River Taff. The original Hundemanby represents a farmstead with a Norse name. Hundeman, ‘dog-man’, could be both an occupational label and a personal name. In the Viking world, Hundi (‘little dog’) was used as a personal name only in Gaelic-contact areas where the same term Cuilean was a regular male name. [CREDIT: J Hines]

It is those scientific and mathematical methods that promise the greatest advances in knowledge and understanding, yielding information that could previously only be dreamt of. But they can easily and productively be combined with much longer-established ways of looking at archaeological finds – in the same way as the new chronological framework of early Anglo-Saxon burials integrated a suite of techniques old and new (CA 285). Until very recently, population studies based on genetics could only try to work back from the living population; now DNA from the period itself can be gathered. This promises eventually perhaps not to answer long-standing questions conclusively but, even better, to refine our ideas and investigations.

A Bayesian chronological model of the sequence of burials at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk. The transition from Stage 1 of the site to Stage 2 sits around the second quarter of the 6th century, a time of massive challenges and disruption. After this horizon, the detectable burying population was reduced by as much as 80 per cent. [CREDIT: J Hines]
Ignorance and wonder, and more ‘dog-men’. Africa was remote and mysterious to England 1,000 years ago. A text called The Wonders of the East recycles the fantastic tale found first in early Greek sources that trans-Saharan Africa was inhabited by dog-headed people, the Cynocephaloi. The passage in this text ends ‘These lands are near the towns that are filled with all wordly goods.’ From British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A xv, fol. 100r. [CREDIT: © The British Library Board]

For example, a fascinating recent discovery identifies sub-Saharan West African ancestry for a young teenage girl buried in Kent around the year 600. For good reasons, our perception of intercontinental connections and trade reaching England at this time had long been focused exclusively on an East–West axis, tracing exotic valuables coming from Persia and Afghanistan, southern and eastern Asia, and the Indian Ocean. Yes, North Africa was still then part of the Christian Late Antique West, and trans-Saharan as well as Nilotic trade routes are known. This new discovery and its implications, though, draw attention to the evidence for vibrant trade between Ghana/pre-Malian Gao and the Mediterranean lands, with gold and salt going north. Concurrently, they reinforce the case for the indigenous origins of political centralisation and urbanisation in the southern Sahel, earlier than the arrival of Arab merchants in the 9th century.


Climate change and pandemic disease are the most-worrying environmental and biological threats we currently face. Neither is new, although our awareness and understanding, and our ability to respond – if the will is there – both organisationally and with scientific counter-measures are, of course, light years away from what was possible in early medieval Europe. Specifically in Britain in fact, and in Anglo-Saxon cemetery populations, we have precisely focused evidence both for an environmental catastrophe in the period AD 536-540, and a severe climatic downturn afterwards, followed by the predatory mutation of the bubonic plague bacterium (which was possibly already present). Together, these seem to have caused a huge drop in population level, and thorough social and economic reorganisation over the coming centuries. We need to understand that to the best of our abilities.

Archaeology is just one source of evidence. For a generation now, the willingness of specialists in Old English literature and language to work with and discuss issues with archaeologists and historians has been something to be proud of. In comparison with the mute material evidence, the literary sources function at a quite different level to express the modes of thought – the ideologies and understandings – of the past. At the same time, we have seen a reciprocal engagement in literary interpretation with topics from the social and political contexts, while the new ‘ecocriticism’ is, at its best, a form of critical reading and evaluation which acknowledges how essential the physical reality of the natural environment is, and also how it is perceived and used by the human population.

‘Dwarf is dead!’ A lead-sheet charm inscribed with these words, recently found in Norfolk. Although simple and naïve, the find has much to tell us about both superstition and medical understanding, with parallels around the North Sea zone and beyond. [CREDIT: J Hines]

Where technological advances have impacted most in literary and linguistic studies has been in the production and availability of comprehensive digital data-sources. What previously needed weeks of patient toil in one of the few adequately stocked research libraries may now be produced in a few minutes, with moderate tech-savviness. This is revitalising research into the language itself, which for a while had seemed to be fossilising into rigid grammatical philology. Really understanding ancient languages like Old English, Norse, Irish, or Welsh is still a hard-won skill, but – among other things – inscriptional evidence, new examples of which are now regularly found, can swiftly be made accessible, as a source of endless fascination. Historians are also making superb use of new databases of the Old English laws, and Anglo-Saxon charter texts, not least to explore the nuances of local relationships and regional identities.


There is so much more to talk about – here I can only namecheck art history, place-names, and numismatics, for instance. But space is needed to end with a more personal credo. Three things are essential in comprehending the past: the integrity of the evidence, the quality of the analytical methods, and the relevance of the interpretative approach. A subject that neglects any element of those fundamentals is flawed. It is morally and intellectually of supreme importance to encompass understandings based on the experiences of every social background and to exclude no one. The human past is common to us all.

We long to have the benefit of a fully inclusive and diverse heritage sector in all areas, professional and voluntary. At the end of last year, British Archaeology drew attention to vandalism of an ancient monument by a shadowy white nationalist neo-pagan group, and suggested a link between that menace and the need to solve the problem of the numerical under-representation of BAME people in archaeology in Britain. But if awareness and enthusiasm alone would correct the racial and ethnic imbalance, it would have happened long ago.

And focusing primarily on numbers or percentages can, alas, easily descend into quota-based tokenism. As one who was actually there, a particular sadness for me was the fact that the controversy that dogged the 2017 conference of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (now the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England; see CA 366 for a discussion of the validity of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as a historical label) in Hawaii gave the organisers no credit for striving to promote greater diversity by focusing on global perspectives, and on World History as a conceptual framework. At the same time, they had also introduced a new programme structure which accommodated senior postgraduate students and early career scholars in a far better way than ever before.

Especially at school level, it is entirely valid to emphasise direct connections and parallels between now and the past, as in the GCSE ‘Migrations’ module. In a fully rounded perspective, though, to depend on identifying and promoting ‘relevance’ risks patronising target groups, and selectively distorting the material because some fields fit such an agenda better than others.

To work within a common framework that embraces the whole enterprise, a global history can proceed on a boundless comparative basis. Also to be emphasised is that World History is concerned with truly important universal themes and general processes. To investigate those in detail and in specific contexts does not mean to homogenise the diversity within archaeological periods, nor among populations, greater or smaller, who share aspects of language and culture in any part of the world.

I was inspired to write this article, and its counterpart in the previous issue, by CA 360’s ‘Sherds’ column. In response, it needs to be clear that we do not treat anything ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as at all ‘different’ and ‘exceptional’. I can with good conscience regard the multiple sources of evidence for early medieval Britain and Ireland as ‘special’ for the simple reason that they are very rich. Not exclusively so, but barely surpassed anywhere else in Europe for this period. Thus they contribute hugely to the international comparative studies that actually are the norm in European scholarship on this period. They also have a practical special status for me and everyone else living in these islands, because this is the local evidence which is most directly available.

A zone around the North Sea and south-western Baltic defined by local adoption and developments of the cruciform brooch in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Data compiled and mapped by Dr Toby Martin and reproduced with permission. [CREDIT: Toby Martin]

For no serious practitioners that I know of does the study of this period involve the sentimental adoration of the past of Shakespeare’s ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’, uniquely blessed by God. On the contrary, it is focused on the precise insights we can gain into how people manage technical and environmental challenges in any circumstances; how they adapt; and how they both use and are influenced by the agency of their social, ideological, and cultural heritage. Our idealism is the belief that these will add to understanding of and respect for humanity as a whole. The widest possible reflection and discussion are needed in order to achieve full inclusivity in understanding heritage. As is practical action. I believe what is outlined above are terms on which we can enthusiastically urge anyone and everyone to appreciate and gain from thinking about what happened and what was produced in the Anglo-Saxon period.

This is article appeared in CA 367. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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