3. Rethinking Late Roman Mucking

While initial interpretations of the Anglo-Saxon settlement at Mucking such as those of Jones et al. (1968) suggested a very early start date for the occupation and burial sequence (perhaps even as early as the late 4th century, based on the presence of late Roman military belt-fittings in both graves and settlement features, as well as chronologically early brooch and pottery types), subsequent authors settled on a later date around the middle of the 5th century (in line with those put forward for most other early Anglo-Saxon settlements). This is something that has now been more clearly addressed by the recent publication by Sue Hirst and Dido Clark of the Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (Hirst and Clark 2009), where a small number of graves are clearly assigned to the early to mid-5th century. The most convincing examples are the two graves with late Roman military belt-sets, Grave 117 in Cemetery I and Grave 979 in Cemetery II. The latter also contained an early type of spearhead and a penannular brooch worn singly on the chest; the same grave-goods are also found with Grave 789, which is also thought to date to this very early phase. Within the female-associated graves were a small number that could also date to the very early 5th century: Grave 100 in Cemetery I, with an early brooch form, and Graves 875, 987 and 989 in Cemetery II, all of which have either early brooch and/or buckle forms; Grave 631 with its bracelet assemblage and Grave 823 with its belt set would also not look out of place in this early group. The two cremations with zoomorphic bone combs, 813 and 945, and one of those with a needle, 519, may well also be of this date. Obviously several of the less well-furnished inhumation and cremation graves will also belong to this phase, but cannot be confidently assigned using the grave-goods alone (unfurnished Grave 986, for example, is cut by 987 and must pre-date it).

It is interesting that faceted carinated pottery is not used for cremations, as there are several examples of this in early phases at Spong Hill, but instead seems to be largely restricted to settlement features (Hamerow 1993, 314), although one is found as an accessory vessel in Grave 989. Given that the earliest phased burials at Mucking are inhumations, could it be that cremation is a slightly later burial practice here – might this account for the greater incidence of bossed pottery in the cremations?

Taken together with the revised chronology for the major cremation cemetery at Spong Hill (Hills and Lucy 2013), which clearly demonstrated a burial sequence at that site starting in the early 5th century, the start of occupation at Mucking can perhaps once again be brought forward to the first few decades of the 5th century. It should be noted that we are not thereby suggesting continuity of occupation at Mucking from the Romano-British period into the 5th century; as noted above, the Romano-British site appears to have gone out of any substantive use by the later 3rd century. This earlier dating for the Anglo-Saxon settlement may, however, give a better context for the small amounts of very late Roman pottery wares found largely in features of early Anglo-Saxon date at Mucking. These Romano-British pottery assemblages are largely in Grubenhäuser fills or ditch fills with high proportions of Anglo-Saxon sand-tempered pottery (thought to indicate the earliest Anglo-Saxon features at Mucking). It may be that we are finally starting to identify an early 5th-century material assemblage – one that employed burnished and particularly carinated handmade pottery alongside later Romano-British wheel-thrown wares of particular types. Incidentally, Much Hadham wares form a part of this assemblage; although they have reverted from being described as 'Romano-Saxon' wares, back to being considered a standard late Roman provincial ware, their use may need to be considered more carefully in future, as might especially Portchester D Wares.

Reflecting on the potential significance of this re-dating is also interesting. It perhaps should be done in conjunction with the distribution plot of the latest Roman pottery, which abuts quite clearly on the enclosure apparently 'reserved' for Anglo-Saxon Cemetery II (Figure 4). If burial activity did in fact start in this area in the very early 5th century (when this pottery is assumed to have still been in use), then the apparent enclosure of the burials in this area does not look so surprising. This dating may also make more sense of the stone coffin burial that had been inserted into the earlier RB Cemetery IV, which is dated to the late 4th century by its glass vessel. With 'Anglo-Saxon' burials such as Grave 631, which would not look out of place in a later Roman cemetery, and potentially a few of the inhumation burials in RB cemetery I also dating to the 4th cemetery, there might be continuation, not of settlement at Mucking, but of burial activity, at least in a limited and intermittent form.

Figure 4: Anglo-Saxon settlement plan (left); right, site-wide distribution of fourth-century Roman pottery and Anglo-Saxon pottery.

How one interprets the resumption of occupation at Mucking in the decades around AD 400 remains unresolved. One could, of course, revert to the traditional interpretations within a historicist framework (see Hills 1979 for a detailed critique of these), and resurrect the foederati/laeti explanation. However, given that direct equations of material culture with ethnic identity are now regarded as being rather simplistic, in what was clearly a very complex societal development, perhaps other scenarios should be entertained. The transition from 'Roman Britain' to 'Anglo-Saxon England' was a long one, which may even have started before the former officially ended, with the development of new power structures in certain areas in the 4th century. The transition from a state-controlled infrastructure to one controlled more by individual force of personality is one that could be usefully explored through the burial and settlement evidence now documented at Mucking and other sites. That the very earliest 5th-century graves on the site drew directly on later Roman forms both of burial and of material culture suggest a familiarity with these ways of life. While this could arise from the employment of the belt-set wearing individuals within the later Roman army, it could also represent ambitious individuals who deliberately employed these symbols of the later Roman state in burial rites (alongside the non-Roman inclusion of weapons), and presumably also in life. This might represent a more gradual transition to the new societies that we see emerging in eastern England through the 5th century than we have previously imagined.