, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It has been a very long time since my last post but a self-imposed hibernation was not unwarranted. Life got very busy, and in my attempts to finish a substantial chunk of my thesis I let Darkage-ology fall to the side.

There is only one way to truly say sorry: with a sad looking fish.

1Yes, this is a real animal.1

The work that I had hoped to have finished by April took until the beginning of June to finish, but its completion – a case study representing almost a third of my doctoral thesis – has been a relief the likes of which I have not felt in some time.

So the time seems right to pick this blog up again and try, once more, not to abandon it.

My case study looked at the sixth- and seventh-century ‘great hall’ complex known as Cowdery’s Down in northern Hampshire (Millett and James 1983). This site, one of only a very small handful of excavated monumental timber halls from pre-Viking England, represents a watershed in the architectural and political history of early England (Hamerow 2010).

It is an architectural shift because Cowdery’s Down and other such sites have halls of a truly impressive size: the largest we have in England are almost 30 metres long, and in contemporary Scandinavia excavated examples can be upwards of 60 metres in length.

2A possible reconstruction of Structure C12 at Cowdery’s Down, Hampshire.2

Perhaps more interesting though is the political development preceding the creation of such structures. The nature of fifth- and early-sixth-century society is largely unknown for the most part, but there is a certain egalitarianism in the excavated evidence (Scull 1999). People are able to denote status at an individual and familial level, but there is limited evidence for a rigid hierarchy and social class system.

This appears to change in the latter part of the sixth and in the seventh centuries, where the power wielded by a few (royal) families and kin groups increases exponentially. Two bodies of evidence exemplify this shift in people’s ability to accumulate power: ‘princely burials’ and ‘great hall’ complexes.

Both of these archaeological phenomena evidence a society where an emerging elite are able to cement their superior position by commissioning monumental buildings and commemorating their dead with elaborate and conspicuous spectacle. One might draw parallel with our current period of neoliberalism; where an emergent class of ‘super rich’ people – often known as the 1% – have managed to accumulate wealth at levels so inconceivable that even the gold-hoarding dragon from Beowulf might have felt uncomfortable.

Perhaps, then, a neoliberal revolution underpinned the development of kingship and a class-based society in early England? But I digress: the runaway effects of increasing inequality in my own time and the extent to which measures to redress it were roundly rejected by the electorate earlier in the month are surely sullying my interpretations of the past.

Taking the incredible site of Cowdery’s Down I drew a 40 km x 40 km study region around it to understand the phenomenon of ‘great hall’ sites from a regional perspective. Archaeological data dating from the fifth to eighth centuries were collected from within this study region to aid my endeavour, and a fairly sizable database of evidence was compiled in which to interrogate.

3I also made a (sexy) 3D model of the study region using ArcMap to get a better feel for the topography. Cowdery’s Down is in the centre, nestled close to the Hampshire Downs.3

The analysis combined chronological understanding with spatial investigation to articulate a narrative of regional development. If it is appropriate to force several months’ worth of research into a nutshell I would conclude that there is a genuine tendency towards greater complexity in the archaeological record until the beginning of the seventh century, at which point the burial and settlement evidence falls silent, and we have only a handful of stray objects from which to paint a picture of eighth-century life.

4‘Activity curves’ based on the relative numbers of sites across twenty-five-year time segments. Top: all datable and closely-datable sites. Bottom: settlement and burial sites.

Perhaps the most important finding was the tentative identification of a network of interaction between the archaeological sites – particularly in the sixth and seventh centuries – and Cowdery’s Down appears very much to have been at the centre of it; an archetypal Christallerean central place situated within a central-place system, if you will (Christaller 1933).

6thA possible reconstruction of the regional settlement network during the later sixth century. Blue dots are settlements and red dots burial sites. This diagram was made using the free network analysis software Visone.4

I am aware that I have probably already lost your attention, so I will leave it here for now, but I do hope to be able to share more results from this study with you in subsequent blog posts.

I should also like to write a few tutorials, particularly for some of the GIS and network analyses I had to teach myself how to do. It is in the spirit of blogging and twenty-first-century scholarship that such documents might be useful to a wider research community.

Picture credits

1 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/howaboutthat/7077472/Blobfish-worlds-most-miserable-looking-marine-animal-facing-exinction.html.

2 after Millett and James 1983, 245.

3 © Crown Copy and database rights 2012 Ordnance Survey.

4 http://visone.info/.


Christaller, W. (1933). Die Zentralen Orte in Süddeutschland. Jena: Gustav Fischer.

Hamerow, H. 2010. Herrenhöfe in Anglo-Saxon England. In: Jons, H., Schon, M. D. & Zimmermann, W. H. (eds.) Siedlungs- und Küstenforschung im Südlichen Nordseegebiet 33. Rahden: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH.

Millett, M. & James, S. 1983. Excavations at Cowdery’s Down, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1978-81 [Bronze Age to Civil War site including extensive 6th-7th century settlement, etc]. Archaeological Journal, 140, 151-279.

Scull, C. 1999. Social Archaeology and Anglo-Saxon Kingdom Origins. In: Dickinson, T. & Griffiths, D. (eds.) The Making of Kingdoms: Anglo-Saxon Studies in History and Archaeology 10. Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology.