2.3 Background

2.3.1 Historical context Cemeteries

The Early Anglo-Saxon settlement of England is demonstrated primarily from the distribution of cemetery sites. The majority of these were discovered during the late 19th century, although a number of significant major cemetery excavations during th e last thirty years have provided better quality data-sets from a number of sites throughout the areas of Early Anglo-Saxon settlement. In Eastern Yorkshire there is a considerable body of cemetery evidence from the excavations by Mortimer in the early pa rt of this century, and three recently excavated sites at Sewerby and Castle Dykes in Humberside and West Heslerton in North Yorkshire (Mortimer 1905; Hirst 1985; Humberside Archaeology Unit, forthcoming; Powlesland and Haughton, forthcoming). Further to the north, the cemetery at Norton on Tees is an important addition to the Northern Angli an group and has a great deal in common with both the East Yorkshire series (Sherlock and Welch 1992) and new data from Catterick Racecourse (West Yorkshire Archaeological Services, pers. comm.).

The cemetery evidence demonstrates that by the early 6th century Anglian communities were well established in the region, although there is little evidence to allow us to interpret the transition from Late Roman to Early Anglo-Saxon. There is little ar chaeological evidence for the native British population during the 5th century, reflecting an almost complete lack of research into Roman rural sites in the region such that we are unable to establish clearly the context of the emerging Anglian communitie s. Evidence from the West Heslerton cemetery indicates that two distinctive populations are represented in the cemetery with c.20% interpreted as 'Anglian' and the remainder 'British'. The collective evidence from the Northern Anglian cemetery seri es is quite distinctive, in particular on account of the frequent incidence of prone burials rather than simple differences in the material culture. However, even here there are contrasts with the southern Anglian populations. There is clear evidence, bot h from the metalwork contained in the graves and from the accompanying mineral replaced textiles, of links with Scandinavia and, in particular, with Southern Sweden. The polyfocal nature of the cemetery layout at West Heslerton may be indicative of social organisation, an aspect which should be reflected in the settlement and in any case has to be explained within the settlement context, highlighting the importance of this combined data-set which is unparalleled in Britain. Settlements

In contrast to the picture demonstrated by the distribution of cemeteries, the direct evidence of settlement has remained exceptionally limited both at the national and the local level. In Eastern Yorkshire evidence of substantial settlements at Se amer and Wykeham was demonstrated by evidence recovered in a piecemeal fashion between the 1940s and 1960s (Rutter and Duke 1958; Pye 1976; Pye 1983; Moore 1966). However, neither site was fully examined, the surviving records are very poor and both sites have now been lost, Wykeham due to quarrying and Seamer beneath housing developments. These two sites are important n ot only with a view to establishing an overall picture of population density in the Vale of Pickering, but because the ceramics indicate that they belong to two distinctive classes of site. Wykeham, like West Heslerton, appears to have been a substantiall y Anglian settlement whereas Seamer, in common with a site identified at Sherburn, appears to have a substantial Late Roman component with, however, an important Anglian presence. Recent work on the ceramics from both Wykeham and Seamer has shown that alt hough there are morphological similarities between West Heslerton and Wykeham these are not reflected in the ceramic fabrics; those from West Heslerton have more in common with the material from Seamer, suggesting that caution is needed when assessing the ceramic assemblage as a whole and links between fabric type and date.

The discovery of occasional Grubenhäuser at sites such as Wharram Percy and many others across the country, while offering some indication of Early or Middle Saxon occupation, merely frustrates our attempts to understand Early Anglo-Saxon settleme nt at a broader level. The partially excavated nature of most of the evidence has given us little opportunity to review settlement morphology and interpretations have too often simply followed the established view. Settlement shift

We can at least be sure of one characteristic of the Early Anglo-Saxon settlement of England. Early in the Anglo-Saxon period extensive settlement shift occurs, during which many of the large rural Roman settlement sites are given up in favour of n ew settlement locations. The social and economic framework in which this settlement shift occurs is little understood; however, the need to see this as a product of a political directive should be carefully avoided. A more likely cause was the breakdown i n the landholding structure at the end of the Roman period, which meant that settlements which had been constrained in frequently adverse environmental locations within boundaries defined by property ownership could only then be relocated. We have tended to see this movement as an inherently Anglo-Saxon feature. Evidence from West Heslerton, however, indicates that this site at least was certainly established as a focus during the latter quarter of the 4th century, albeit as a religious rather than a secu lar centre. During the Middle-Saxon period, settlement shift once again becomes an important issue which still needs to be clarified.

The excavation at West Heslerton and the evidence recovered from past excavations, trial work and remote sensing in the Vale of Pickering provides an unprecedented opportunity to re-evaluate and characterise Early Anglo-Saxon settlement both as an enti ty in its own right but also in association with the evidence from the associated cemetery (Powlesland et al. 1997). The settlement at West Heslerton can now be shown not only to provide the basis for a radic al reassessment of the nature of Anglo-Saxon settlement, but also to provide the potential to understand the most critical period of the Roman to Saxon transition, as well as the decline before desertion towards the end of the Middle Saxon period. As such , the site deserves close attention as a site of established national and international importance.

Fig. 2.2 Aerial photograph of Site 12 during excavation, September 1995


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