Excavating the CA archive: early medieval

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, starting 7 September. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI331, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

This latest look at CA’s reporting down the years continues the chronological survey we began in CA 329 by examining the Viking and Anglo-Saxon period: what used to be referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’ but now sits under the more accurate – albeit less Romantic – moniker of ‘early medieval’. The early medieval period has struggled a bit for coverage in CA over the years, for various reasons: the relative absence of surviving ‘monumental’ sites, the uncertain place of this topic in universities (does it sit in the history, archaeology, or even literature departments?), and the burial of some of these sites beneath later medieval and modern developments all take their toll in different ways. Notwithstanding these challenges, CA has covered some amazing sites over the years.

In the city

It is impossible to explore this period through the pages of CA without mentioning the husband-and-wife team of Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle. The former was one of the leading lights of Anglo-Saxon archaeology back in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; the latter was a similarly significant figure in Viking archaeology; together, they were leaders of the rescue-archaeology movement over the same period. This polymath pairing quickly recognised the potential of the nascent Current Archaeology and, as a consequence of their friendship with the Selkirks, their sites appeared regularly in the pages of CA in its early years.

Down the years, a generation of archaeologists (many still at work today) cut their teeth on the complex Roman, and early and high medieval archaeology of Winchester with Biddle and his colleagues. As they went along, they developed many of the approaches that are now taken as standard in the discipline, especially recording and drawing conventions.

The cover of CA 2.

Winchester played a starring role in CA 2 (May 1967) and popped up regularly thereafter, appearing in, among others, CA 6, CA 20, CA 100, CA 102, CA 110, CA 200, CA 271, and CA 300. Biddle and Winchester thus vie with Crummy and Colchester for the crown of CA’s ‘most featured’ site over the years. Viking Age York is another early medieval urban centre that can make claims in this direction: few among us have not visited the Jorvik Viking Centre at least once, and its creators the York Archaeological Trust – have a similarly distinguished pedigree in the history of rescue archaeology as their southern cousins in Winchester. CA 17 (November 1969) was the first in-depth visit by the magazine to York, but it returned in CA 37, CA 58, CA 76, CA 104, and CA 140, as just some examples.

A tale of three cities

A less happy urban story came in CA 66 (April 1979), which reported on the ‘excavations’ – very much rescue archaeology – at Wood Quay in Dublin, centre of Viking Dubh Linn (the town of the ‘black pool’). Dublin’s cultural vibrancy and rich history attract tourists from across the world, but few of them, I suspect, spare as much as a glance for the rather forbidding 1970s council offices that dominate the popular Temple Bar district. Fewer still are likely to realise that they are at the heart of the old Viking town, with its sea connections to locations that are now but a Ryanair flight away.

One such flight would land the modern visitor at Southampton, with its Saxon (and before that, Roman) origins and unexpected links to those modern-day lovers of Viking-like ostentation: Premier League footballers. CA 79 (October 1981) reported on finds from Saxon Hamwic, underlying and adjacent to what is now Southampton F.C.’s St Mary’s Stadium.

The cover of CA 79.

CA 93 (August 1984) also told a ‘tale of the (somewhat) unexpected’. The remains of Saxon London – Lundenwic – were being uncovered beneath modern-day Covent Garden and Aldwych by redevelopment in an area previously overlooked due to the more dramatic Roman and medieval discoveries in the historic City of London just to the east.

Angles of death

Cemeteries are another regular early medieval site-type that consistently appears in the pages of CA. A series of extraordinary discoveries of such sites across the last 50 years have revealed much about the emergence and evolution of Christianity in this period, and about its relationship with often co-existing ‘pagan’ religions, especially through changes in Anglo-Saxon and Viking funerary traditions – see, for example, CA 3 (July 1967) and more recently CA 285 (December 2013). Such studies of burial grounds have also transformed our understanding of the health, diet, and origins of these different communities, thanks to the evolving science of osteoarchaeology and the deployment of DNA analyses. A sign of just how ahead of the game CA has always been is the examination of all of these approaches and their future possibilities that comes as early as CA 4 (September 1967), with a report from Blewburton Hill cemetery in Berkshire.
Every few years from then on, a good cemetery site popped up in the pages of CA: St Albans in CA 101 (August 1986, coincidentally my favourite CA cover of all, showing a splendidly yellow-jacketed Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle explaining the site to the berobed Supreme Catholic of the Armenian Church and to Robert Runcie, soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury); Snape, Suffolk, in CA 118 Ganuary 1990); Buckland, Kent, in CA 144 (August 1994); Yarnton, Oxfordshire, in CA 173 (April 2001); Sheffield’s Hill, Scunthorpe, in CA 175 (August 2001); and Cleatham, Lincolnshire, in CA 210 Guly 2007) are just some of the finer examples. There was an excellent summation of these four decades of dedication in CA 246 (September 2010).

The cover of CA 246.
Viking for a day

Considering the popular appeal of Vikings – or, at least, the modern-day myth of blond, tanned super-warriors – there has been surprisingly little dedicated ‘Viking-ology’ in the pages of CA. Beyond the regular features on York noted above and occasional site-specific visits, such as Wood Quay, the most consistent reporting down the years has been from Orkney in particular, and more generally from Scotland, especially the west coast. In CA 324 (March 2017) my column on CA’s coverage of Scottish archaeology looked at some of these sites, and the editorial in CA 127 (December 1991) explains a major reason for this: ‘When David Breeze became Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Scotland he soon approached us with a request: Current Archaeology had not been devoting enough space to Scotland, so how about a special Scottish issue? He therefore invited me up to Edinburgh … The result was an embarrassment of riches .. .’. CA reported on a range of sites of all dates across Scotland in that issue, but it was CA 131 (October 1992) that really saw Scottish Viking archaeology take centre stage, with an in-depth report on the boat burial at Scar, Orkney, appearing on the front cover (see also CA 280, for a report on the similar Swordle Bay boat burial from the Ardnamurchan Peninsula).

The cover of CA 131.

Across the 1990s and 2000s, Viking archaeology became a regular feature in CA in a way that it had not previously been. Of particular note here are CA 199 (September 2005), identified as an ‘Orkney special’ and reporting on the long-term research project then under way at Quoygrew on Orkney, and CA 245 (August 2010), which might be described as, by contrast, a ‘Viking special’. Scotland didn’t have the Vikings entirely to itself in this period, however. What might be termed an English fightback began in CA 281 (August 2013), with what was easily the lengthiest report on the most important Viking site in England that had been covered up to that point in the history of CA: the Viking army’s winter camp of AD 872-873 at Torksey, Lincolnshire. Even more recently, CA 294

The cover of CA 328, which included a re-examination of Wood Quay.

(September 2014) perhaps shows the future of the magazine’s reporting on this topic, visiting the Cumwhitton Viking cemetery in the Eden Valley, south-east of Carlisle, while CA 328 re-examined Wood Quay, to mark the publication of the full excavation report on the site. More such reports on the rampaging Norse, from both north and south of the English Scottish borders surely await, and from Wales too.

Discover old issues
Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 7 September. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI331’.

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