Review – Kingdom, Civitas, and County: the evolution of territorial identity in the English landscape

2 mins read
Stephen Rippon
Oxford University Press, £85
ISBN 978-0198759379
Review Edward Biddulph

Conventional wisdom has it that very little of the English landscape can be traced further back than the Anglo-Saxon period; and while DNA and isotopic analyses are starting to identify post-Roman Britons in ostensibly Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, it has long been held that British populations in large parts of England were replaced almost entirely by Germanic settlers. In Kingdom, Civitas, and County, Stephen Rippon demolishes these views, demonstrating that territories and administrative boundaries have endured in some form since prehistoric times and that Britons were key to their survival.

Looking in detail at the eastern counties, Stephen’s approach is twofold. First, he defines four zones based on natural topography, soil type, and geology; and second, he maps the distribution of artefact, site, and feature types – from the Iron Age to the medieval period – across these zones. The results show a strong correlation between material culture and the defined regions, as well as remarkable continuity through time.

The landscape is undoubtedly a factor here, but more fundamental to the pattern are demographic continuity and stable cultural practices. Trade and exchange were socially embedded, with boundaries evident even where there was no physical barrier. Through these plots, we see the emergence of social identities and territorial entities, and can begin to question age-old labels. Is all pottery made between the 5th and 7th centuries in the northern Thames basin really Anglo-Saxon? As Stephen notes, there is not much that is ‘Saxon’ about the East Saxon kingdom.

Underlying the work is a huge amount of data, and Stephen has done extraordinarily well to make sense of it. The book serves as a plea for greater consistency in finds identification and recording methods. While the mechanisms that determined how social practices and the elements of identity were transmitted and survived or evolved through successive generations are perhaps under-explored – might cultural selection have a role to play here? – there is more than enough to occupy the reader. In short, the book is a triumph.

This review appeared in CA 343.

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