03.03.02, Hamerow, Early Medieval Settlements

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Professor John Hines

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.002


Hamerow, Helena. Early Medieval Settlements: The Archaeology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe 400-900. Series: Medieval History and Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 225. ISBN: 0-19-924697-1.

Reviewed by:
Professor John Hines
Cardiff University

Helena Hamerow's book is a unique general survey of and introduction to what archaeologists specializing in the Early Medieval Period have long felt is an under-developed area within their discipline. The relatively neglected state of settlement-site archaeology may partly be due to the unglamorous character of the finds relative to funerary deposits or hoards. In reality, though, the state of affairs is probably due rather to the intrinsic difficulty of integrating the very diverse strands and implications of the evidence typically associated with "settlement archaeology," and indeed of effectively defining the subject itself. While of course we do not usually have any difficulty distinguishing a site of occupation and mundane economic activities from a cemetery or any other type of special ritual activity, it is a much harder matter to specify where the interpretative concerns of a distinct settlement archaeology begin and end relative to other branches of archaeology. When "settlement" includes the expansion and contraction of land-use, the relationship between human occupation and topography, the development of the landscape, and social differentiation and hierarchy in the secular and economic spheres, burial sites and ritual centres are likely to have as much to tell us as the remains of places where people lived and worked -- often more. It is fully acknowledged in this book that settlement archaeology cannot stand alone but has to be integrated with other evidence, both material and documentary, to produce any sort of useful history for us.

This overview restricts itself quite strictly to the period of the fifth to ninth centuries A.D., a reasonable and pragmatic limitation, although one that neatly relieves the author of too much exposure to some of the knottier problems of the transition between the earlier and later Middle Ages. The North-West Europe the title indicates the book deals with is effectively a southern North-Sea zone, helpfully illustrated in an early distribution map (Fig. 1.2): attention falls principally on sites in south-eastern England, the Low Countries, northern Germany and Denmark. A group of sites considered from further south in Germany in fact appears to offer contrasts in respect of type and character at least as much as they reveal more of the same in this core area. The detailed discussion opens, appropriately, by focusing on the domestic context that has to stand at the heart of settlement archaeology, with a chapter on "Houses and Households: The Archaeology of Buildings," and then broadens the perspective in the two stages of "Settlement Structure and Social Space" and "Land and Power: Settlements in their Territorial Context." These chapters are followed by, for this reviewer at least, especially informative overviews of the economic evidence, for agriculture ("Crop and Animal Husbandry") and "Non-Agrarian Production" respectively. Generally what the author has aimed to do is to synthesize, introduce and explain a wide range of data in a clear and accessible manner. The book is generously illustrated, and for the most part is highly successful in the pursuit of its objectives.

There are, however, a few crucial terms which are used that would have benefited from closer definition or, in certain cases, from a full discussion of the problems of any attempt at defining them. An especially striking example is the term "manor," or rather the proximate concepts of "manorialism" and "manorialization." This indeed is precisely one of those awkward historical phenomena whose full manifestation conveniently falls beyond the chronological range of the book; nevertheless the "changing relationship between land and power...which laid the foundation of manorialism" is introduced as early as page 4 as one of "two fundamental questions" addressed in the settlement history and archaeology of this period, and so implicitly by this book. The criticism is not that the author's use of these terms is vague or improper, but rather that they are thus introduced in such a way as would surely lead any newcomer to the subject to believe that the phenomenon of manorial organization is a well-understood and sharply defined one. More discussion of the topic does appear in the critical review of Frans Theuws's work on and interpretation of the Kempen region in northern Austrasia (The Netherlands) (116-20), although there it is noted that Theuws's representation of the process of manorialization as a shift from a society organized around a warrior elite supported by bought loyalty to one of landlords with dependants tied to estates is over-schematized. No derivative of the word "manor," nor the word itself, appears in the index. Such major phenomena as the open field and common field are handled in a broadly similar way (cf. 154, n. 47). At a quite different level, I cannot believe many readers of the book will come to it with a prior knowledge of what rachis fragments of cereals are (138-9). Perhaps it will do them, like me, good to have to look the term up in a dictionary. But these are surprising lapses in the helpfulness of presentation when considered against the general quality of the book.

Returning, however, to matters of greater substance, and the contents of the book rather than its presentation, no reader could be left in any doubt that the quantity and quality of available evidence from the Continent and southern Scandinavia are generally much superior to what can be included from England. This is not because the situation must inevitably be so; nor indeed should it remain so. The outstanding breadth and depth of Dominic Powlesland's Landscape Research Centre's work at West Heslerton and the Vale of Pickering in eastern Yorkshire are known about, but relatively few of these data are yet in the public domain in published form. Hamerow also makes frequent reference to a less well-known but apparently substantial body of evidence from Yarnton in Oxfordshire: again, though, the publication of this is listed simply as "forthcoming," and one hesitates even to speculate when that may happen. This situation is not simply the result of an indifferent attitude amongst the majority of Anglo-Saxon archaeologists, or of some sort of "established view" favouring cemetery and artefact studies, as has sometimes been suggested; rather it reflects at heart a problem in the realms of policy and organization (both of which imply the allocation of resources) over ensuring a proper flow of work from research (starting with survey and excavation) to the dissemination of results, particularly in the face of such large-scale and demanding projects as the study of past human occupation and use of the landscape.

Anglo-Saxon archaeology continues, nevertheless, to enjoy a privileged position in Helena Hamerow's book, not unreasonably for a study published in England and for an Anglophone readership. Special sections on the Anglo-Saxon evidence conclude each main chapter. My attention was particularly caught by a pair of key propositions concerning Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology that she puts forward and which are worthy of special notice and some comment. Indeed they may be held to be rather more closely connected to each other than the book explicitly suggests. One of these is the issue of the early Anglo-Saxon house, and its recently postulated Romano-British background. Although firmly rejecting the simple rectangular, at most bicameral, early Anglo-Saxon house (and we must reject the term "hall" for these buildings!) as a diagnostically British type -- as she demonstrates, this is a wholly unsustainable hypothesis -- and explicitly stating that "the key issue behind the absence of the longhouse is not ethnic identity," Hamerow is prepared to consider that the loss of the Germanic longhouse from the transferred material culture might be due to the lack of need and means for such an investment of social capital amongst an ethnically mixed (i.e. Germanic and sub-Romano-British) and socially restructuring population (50-51). There is, of course, a substantial difference between the presence of something distinctive, such as the introduction of the sunken hut (Grubenhaus), being interpreted as element of influence or development with significant ethno-cultural implications, and tentative explanations of the absence of a characteristic feature against such a background. Despite the author's careful approach, one cannot but be concerned that her comments could be seized upon by over-eager supporters of the minimalist view of Anglo-Saxon immigration as the authoritative and preferred interpretation of the settlement evidence. I do not myself think that the situation demonstrates anything more than the capacity of essentially indeterminate settlement evidence to be capable of conforming to any of a variety of reasonably conceivable scenarios on this particular point. What must be equally emphasized, as Hamerow makes absolutely clear, is that a shift in building practice from the longhouse to precisely this type of simpler structure was a strong new trend in the Anglo-Saxon homelands of northern Germany in the fifth century. There are parallel instances in other areas of the archaeological record that what was only a tendency, only a preference, on the Continent or in Scandinavia could become effectively the rule in England.

The second key proposition to reflect upon is a methodological rather than an historical one; this indeed is how the two can be held to be fundamentally interconnected. Hamerow argues that the character and development of Anglo-Saxon settlement sites, with the deficiencies of accessible evidence noted above, are illuminated by comparison with the wider and more substantial evidence from elsewhere in around the North Sea. Certainly this produces a number of potentially important insights: for instance the possibility that the increase in the number of buildings aligned North-South around the eighth century could be interpreted as an increase in the provision of special-purpose, functional buildings. Particularly interesting are the marked differences in terms of both cereal crops and the range of animals farmed between England and the Continent, differences that are partly but by no means entirely attributable to the apparent continuation of the Late Roman-period agrarian regime.

Despite that latter point, however, the overall impression that the broad-based overview gives is one of an essentially harmonious and consistent cultural zone throughout the area considered here, a zone in which such comparative studies to fill out the picture make utterly good sense. One cannot, of course, make a direct inference from this easterly orientation of the conditions in Anglo-Saxon England to trans-North-Sea origins of a sizeable proportion of the population of England, but the implicit fact that there is no point at all looking westwards or northwards in Britain or over to Ireland for comparanda makes its own clear statement. But is that "fact" so certain? An intriguing excavated settlement in southern England datable to the fifth to early seventh centuries that one would have dearly liked to read the author's views on is Poundbury, just outside Dorchester in Dorset. This is an area where we have otherwise no evidence of the introduction of Anglo-Saxon culture before the seventh century. The settlement is associated with unfurnished graves that appear to show continuity of use of a large Roman-period cemetery of the town; it contained several curiously formed sunken-feature buildings, rather different in most cases from what we find on contemporary settlements further east and north; the excavations yielded an artefact assemblage including a very little grass-tempered pottery (normally considered typically Anglo-Saxon); and the faunal and floral evidence again imply a marked shift in the farming economy from the Roman Period to the Early Medieval, that is, an increase in sheep farming, and a switch from spelt to bread wheat, oats and barley (in descending order of quantity) as the cultivars. This is an unusually challenging range of evidence in relation to many of the broadest questions raised in this book.

It is much to be welcomed that a publishing house of the weight of the Oxford University Press is willing to launch a series of monographs in Medieval History and Archaeology, and the series is off to a fine start with this volume. What it is hoped will be accepted as the constructive comments above aside, this book should provide a most helpful resource for students and reference book for a wide range of specialists with interests in the economic and social history of Early-medieval Europe. If one may, however, offer just one more constructive suggestion to the publishers, it would be to be willing to be a little less thrifty with the ink. Some of the pages in my copy were remarkably lightly printed, to the point that individual letters are broken up. This gives a skimpy impression that is a shame for what is otherwise clearly a very carefully produced volume.

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Professor John Hines

Cardiff University