E-monograph Series. No. 2

A Gazetteer of Sub-Roman Britain (AD 400-600): the British Sites

Christopher A Snyder

Assistant Professor of History, School of Arts and Sciences, Marymount University, 2807 North Glebe Road, Arlington, Virginia 22207-4299. USA. csnyder@marymount.edu

Cite this as: Snyder, C. A. (1997). A gazetteer of Sub-Roman Britain (AD 400-600): The British sites. Internet Archaeology, (3). Council for British Archaeology. doi:10.11141/ia.3.2

Summary

cadbury tintagel
Ramparts of Cadbury Castle, near South
Cadbury in Somerset
"Tintagel Island", Tintagel in
Cornwall

"The darkest of the Dark Ages" might be an apt description of the fifth and sixth centuries in Britain, a time commonly referred to as the sub-Roman period. Not dark in the sense that this era lacked character or achievement: there are certainly enough real (St Patrick) and legendary (Arthur and Merlin) associations to attract modern interests. Anyone who has investigated the history of the period behind these figures, however, soon discovers the exasperating dearth of contemporary written records. Further study only leads to historical agnosticism, and indeed it may be that we will never be able to write a narrative hitory of sub-Roman Britain.

The slack has fortunately been taken up by archaeologists. The material culture of the fifth and sixth centuries, though itself not extensive, is in many ways more accessible than the problematic written sources. At first, archaeology was used merely to supplement historical models which relied chiefly on the testimony of writers like Gildas, Bede and Nennius (see Collingwood and Myres 1936; Frere 1967; Alcock 1971). For a thorough survey of this archaeological tradition see Snyder 1994. After a profusion of source criticism began to shake these foundations (see Dumville 1977 and Snyder forthcoming) many archaeologists felt free to ignore the written record entirely and treat sub-Roman Britain as a prehistoric subject. For an example of this see Arnold 1984 and for a critique of this school of thought see Alcock 1988. The pendulum now seems to be swinging back toward the middle, with the most recent archaeological surveys of the period, such as those by Higham 1992 and Dark 1994a, attempting a balance between speculative archaeological models and careful use of the written sources.

These latest surveys are notable contributions and will undoubtedly influence the direction of future archaeological speculation. Yet there is something noticeably missing from this body of scholarship. Kenneth Dark 1994b, 67 puts his finger on it:

It is sadly true that no two modern surveys of the settlement archaeology of the period have managed to agree on a common corpus of sites ... The situation has resulted in an exceptionally unstructured data-base, chaotic in its randomness and often in the arbitrariness with which sites are included or excluded in discussion.

There has, in fact, never been an attempt to present the database in a single comprehensive format. Even the most thorough of the surveys have, at best, presented only a handful of sites, and those only when they strengthen a particular argument which the author is trying to make. There are some excellent regional gazetteers (e.g. Edwards and Lane 1988 and Olson 1989, xiv, 41-45), and Dark (1994b) has himself presented much of the data in his recent work on site identification. Yet, as valuable as these resources are, they do not fill the need for a single, comprehensive reference tool for researching individual sites and settlements in sub-Roman Britian.

The Gazetteer in Part Two of this study is an attempt to fill this void. It will no doubt suffer the typical failings of first attempts at constructing an archaeological reference tool: site omissions, dated material, incomplete excavation reports. But instead of begging readers forgiveness, I shall instead extend an invitation for reader response and cooperation in the future expansion and revision of the database.

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