09.11.23, Williamson, Sutton Hoo and its Landscape

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Della Hooke

The Medieval Review 09.11.23

Williamson, Tom. Sutton Hoo and its Landscape: The Contexxt of Monuments. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2008. Pp. 154. ISBN: 9781905119257.

Reviewed by:
Della Hooke
University of Birmingham (emerita)

This book examines the landscape setting of one of England's most remarkable Anglo-Saxon sites--the great barrow cemetery at Sutton Hoo in south-east Suffolk, thought by many to be the site of the burial of the early seventh-century East Anglian king, Raedwald. The site lay within the territory of the Wuffingas, the ruling dynasty within the kingdom of the East Angles by at least the late sixth century. Williamson shows how the site lay on a spur of land overlooking the estuary of the river Deben, a dramatic feature of the local and regional landscape and an artery for trade and communication. Interestingly, he speculates whether this folk group, like many others, may have taken its name from an earlier name for the river--perhaps a name incorporating the British uerb, meaning "to turn, twist," as in the Yorkshire Wharfe, for which the earliest names are Weorf and Werf (Deben is a back-formation from Debenham upstream and Uffa/Wuffa of the genealogies is a mythical figure).

One of the strengths of Williamson's approach is that he not only attempts to set the Sutton Hoo cemetery within its contemporary landscape space-wise but examines the region within a greater timescale, an exercise that puts this book firmly among other such sample studies of early medieval and medieval settlement and land use evolution such as those of Shapwick in Somerset, Whittlewood and Raunds in Northamptonshire, all of which have proved to be enormously important in our understanding of settlement evolution and change.

He begins by looking at the geology and topography of the region around Sutton Hoo, today part of the "Sandlands" or "Sandlings," a strip of light soils lying between the North Sea to the east and the dissected clay plateau to the west. The landscape of today is, however, rather different to that of Anglo-Saxon times. Currents and longshore drift have deposited eroded silt across estuaries to give rise to areas of coastal salt marsh (the destruction of the medieval town of Dunwich to the north-east is a well-recorded phenonemon). Looking back further in time, the medieval parish pattern of the region hints at how natural resources were divided up. Williamson's reconstruction of the pattern of Domesday vills appears to be entirely convincing, revealing how later parishes were normally composed of a number of diminutive late Saxon vills, some of which failed to survive. If any criticism can be made, it would be that more cross-referencing of sites on individual maps might have made some of these arguments easier to follow for those not familiar with the region.

Moving back further in time, known prehistoric, Romano-British and Saxon sites are plotted, indicating how the earliest of these appear to have been sited on the margins of the sandy uplands where the sandy soils were giving way to rather more fertile, but still sandy, soils. Roman occupation suggests a steady abandonment of the core sandy area so that by the Saxon period the majority of sites appear to have been concentrated on the more fertile soils of the underlying crag and glacial soils around the periphery. Here the foci of the late Saxon/medieval settlements were to become established, together with their churches. It is suggested that the quality of the soils in the central region here has deteriorated over time--indeed, the area immediately around Sutton Hoo has been shown to have been farmed in the prehistoric and Roman periods prior to erosion and podzolisation. The now commonly recognised pattern of townships sharing the resources of a region of woodland and heathland--probably primarily a wood-pasture resource--is clearly visible here and a pattern of "primary" routeways influenced by such resource management can be deciphered. (It might be wiser to consider Old English leah as initially referring to "wood" rather than "clearing" but the feld term does reveal the existence of much open land.) Almost every township by late Saxon times was to acquire a share of the sandy uplands that occupied the central area between the rivers Deben and Aide.

Unlike the pattern of nucleated village so common in the east midlands, here settlements always appear to have been more dispersed. In general, population growth led not to greater nucleation but to farms and cottages spread out across the landscape with varying amounts of common open field existing alongside enclosed land. The evidence of later field patterns and land holdings is carefully investigated, with seventeenth-century land ownership appearing to confirm the initial distribution of scattered patches of subdivided open field within limited areas. In medieval and post-medieval times the heathlands continued to provide valuable sheep pasture although large areas were also used as rabbit warrens. The development of land use is carried forward into post-medieval times with the enclosure of the last remaining open fields, the reclamation of some of the heathland in the period of the "agricultural revolution" (with attempts to remedy soil acidity) and the drainage of the coastal salt marsh. The twentieth century witnessed the extensions of plantations over the heathlands and, in the post-war period, further attempts to convert the remaining heathland to arable.

The sequence of events discussed by Williamson does not follow this simple chronological approach and some may feel that the arguments fail to flow clearly. However, close reading corrects this assumption as the more thematic approach becomes apparent. In following the evolution of land use in the region the scene is set for a return to the landscape of Sutton Hoo where evidence previously outlined can be discussed in connection with its relationship to the site itself and to the situation prevailing in the Anglo-Saxon period. The relationship between Roman and Saxon settlement, the fragmentation of territory (which is where the seventeenth-century evidence of land ownership comes in again), and the fluctuations observed in vegetation cover are relevant here. More specifically, the evidence for prehistoric "co-axial" fields in the area is examined and compared with later patterns of boundaries and communications to suggest the possibility of a degree of continuity within the present landscape, not least in the regional patterns of land use in the area--the farmed and settled territory around the river and "the more sparsely inhabited, spatially marginal uplands, with their lonely woods and pastures" (94).

Unusually, the archaeological monuments of the region are reviewed last of all as the author takes his readers into the heart of his discussion. The reason for the choice of location, some distance from the royal centre of Rendlesham, remains uncertain but the belief that "the importance of prominence, visibility and display" were the most relevant factors is examined and the author suggests that the key factor for the earliest burials was the location beside the river Deben, the focus for group identity, but with subsequent burials deliberately adopting a different relationship with the site as the Wuffingas became a dynasty rather than a "tribe." The extension of the Wuffingas territory northwards and north-westwards, but not southwards, shows how they were only able to impose their rule over people of their own kind rather than by random conquest, as some have suggested. Furthermore, Williamson shows how the site lay close to what was a cultural frontier region over a long period of time. Although the author concludes by commenting that this volume "aspires to be no more than a footnote to the various weighty academic tomes which have been produced on the subject of the Sutton Hoo burial ground" it is probably one that considers the landscape setting--both the immediate and the wider setting--more thoroughly than ever before and a provides a starting point for yet further discussion. It deserves to be taken seriously by all those wishing to add to the volume of research on this particular site or to understand Anglo-Saxon territorial arrangements in general, with any corresponding settlement and land use change.

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Author Biography

Della Hooke

University of Birmingham (emerita)