3.4 Material culture on a national scale

Section 3.3 has examined the overall distribution of early medieval artefacts and coinage, region by region. The VASLE 'National dataset' also has the potential to allow the study of distributions of specific artefact and coin categories on a national scale. Traditionally, archaeologists have mapped artefact types to study the spread of archaeological cultures. More recent theoretical paradigms have emphasised that these distributions do not just represent passive reflections of cultural identity, but that artefacts may be actively used in the negotiation and creation of identities (see for example, Hadley and Richards 2000). The VASLE dataset has the potential to allow the mapping of these cultural zones. How far do dress styles respect the known borders of the 8th- and 9th-century Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for example? Can the Viking incursions, and the creation of an Anglo-Scandinavian cultural identity, as witnessed in sculpture, also be recognised in the distribution of portable metalwork (Richards and Naylor forthcoming)? In each case it is necessary to pay due regard to the possible biases in the datasets, as discussed in Section 2, and to take account of the constraints mapping.

Interactive map

The interactive mapping facility provided within this publication allows the reader to explore some of these distributions, to overlay and compare categories, and to examine the relationship to other mapped features, against the background of the constraints layer and topographic features. The artefact data from VASLE 'National dataset' is also available for download. Full grid references have been removed, but most finds are located as far as parish, which is sufficient for most research framed to look at overall distributions. The coin data used by VASLE is not available for download as a current version is maintained by the EMC.

The distribution of various classes of coin has particular significance for our understanding of landscape and economy. The flow of coinage in early medieval England was generally regulated, and numismatists such as Blackburn (2003) and Metcalf (2003), among others, have demonstrated its potential for the study of political boundaries and economic influence, although it has rarely been possible to study its distribution alongside other artefact types. Section 3.4.1 discusses the distributions of the individual classes of coin, as available from the interactive mapping facility.

There was not scope within the VASLE project to explore the distribution of all artefact types. Many forms have only recently been recovered in sufficient numbers to allow detailed study, and have not yet been adequately classified so as to permit meaningful study of such typological trends. A number of the larger groups of artefacts have already been studied on a national scale. Thomas (2000a; 2000b) has examined the distributions of the various types of strap-end; Williams (1998) has focused on the stirrup-strap mounts, although the discovery of new finds may make it worth revisiting some earlier interpretations. There are a number of substantial groups, however, for which no published work is yet available, and which the VASLE dataset makes possible, including pins, hooked tags, Late Saxon buckles and Ansate brooches.

The VASLE buckle classification is based around frame shape, which works well and forms some good groups. Class A1 is confined to the eastern counties, but it should be noted that A1ib (with bulging eyes) is tightly confined to Northumbria. Interestingly, Thomas (2006, 159) mentions bulging eyes on the Poppleton strap-ends as being a Northumbrian feature. If significant, it possibly dates the buckle type to the 9th rather than 10th or 11th century.

The VASLE classification of hooked tags is based around plate shape, decoration and the presence/absence of any lobes. There is an almost complete dearth north and west of the Trent/Avon line or north of the Humber. There are just two examples from Bidford-on-Avon, and a few in Hereford and Worcester (of a type also known at Meols but not in the PAS database) and together these areas account for just 4.5% of the total. Apart from a few outliers (including some from Hamwic not in the PAS database) Classes A, B and D can be described as having a Danelaw distribution, while Class C (with a triangular plate) has a broader spread and accounts for all known examples from Hampshire in the VASLE dataset. There are none known from north of the Humber.

Section 3.4.2 examines the distribution of equestrian equipment to demonstrate the further potential of this work. This is an interesting case study because of the postulated association of these objects with an Anglo-Scandinavian equestrian elite, and because it demonstrates how the PAS has added to and altered existing distributions.


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Last updated: Tues Apr 21 2009