4.1.2 'Productive sites' research

Research involving 'productive sites' has been evolving for some time. Numismatists were the first to make use of metal-detected finds, and to realise their potential importance to our understanding of the past. Their work consisted of both 'pure' numismatics, i.e. discussion of the coins themselves, their classification, chronology etc., and monetary history, examining the place of coinage within the society and economy of the period. In 1989 Mark Blackburn and Michael Metcalf organised a conference in Oxford of archaeologists and numismatists to consider the phenomenon of 'productive sites', as they had by then become known, but unfortunately the proceedings were not published. A second conference, on 'The Archaeology of Inland Markets, Fairs, and "Productive" sites' was held in Oxford in 2000, and that meeting has led to an important collection of papers published as Pestell and Ulmschneider (2003). This provides a range of papers by scholars working on this subject around Northern Europe, and highlights the wide variety of sites found by detector users and the range of techniques involved in their interpretation. As a result, archaeologists, numismatists and historians continue to debate the different natures and functions of 'productive sites'.

The research led by numismatists has proved to be of significance, providing better understanding of Anglo-Saxon coinage and a regional component to early medieval economic research, an area previously dominated by theories focused towards urbanism and long-distance trade. Much of the more recent research that has examined rural society and economy has utilised the finds from the metal-detected 'productive sites', and these have begun to form the core of interpretations of the period. Many researchers believe that 'productive sites' represent economically important points in the landscape and were probably the estate centres, which exploited their natural resources to produce surplus materials that could be used for trade or the payment of tax. The large numbers of finds of coins and metalwork at these sites are interpreted as showing both that 'productive sites' were places with high-status occupants, and that they were more than likely to have had seasonal markets attached to them.

From such interpretations, it has been suggested that the most likely type of settlement to be represented by a 'productive site' is the minster or monastery. Ulmschneider (2000a) notes the difference between the assemblages of excavated rural sites, such as Flixborough, and those found at wics. She notes evidence for secondary production and skilled labour and suggests that their wealth was a product of intensive exploitation of the locality. Pestell (2003; 2004) notes the presence of ecclesiastical landholdings in East Anglia on or near many Middle Saxon productive sites, with the inference that these began life as monastic sites. These were settlements that were often endowed with lands, had become rich and required contact with the wider world to procure certain goods and materials, such as wine and incense, as well as to keep in contact with the central administration of the Church. As religious institutions, they would have been important places in the countryside and are often located on road or riverine communication routes, attracting a wide range of people during festivals during which time markets could have taken place.

However, others have urged caution. 'Productive sites' are notoriously difficult to interpret satisfactorily, given their general lack of finds other than coins and metalwork (made from either copper alloy or precious metals), and treating them as a homogeneous group may be unwise. Ulmschneider (2000a, 65) recognises that the East Anglian evidence suggests significant differences in the material collected by field-walking and excavation at such sites, such as the presence or absence of large amounts of Ipswich Ware, vessel glass, or continental pottery. Adherence to the ecclesiastical model has been challenged by a number of researchers, including Loveluck (1998), Richards (1999a) and Naylor (2004). Excavations at Cottam B in East Yorkshire have shown that, once excavated, a seemingly artefact-rich, high-status 'productive site' can appear no different to an ordinary domestic settlement (Richards 1999b). Excavations produced evidence of non-contemporaneous occupation on two separate but closely spaced sites dating to the 8th/9th centuries and 10th/11th centuries, but little evidence of widespread contacts were found. Such evidence led him to the conclusion that the settlements excavated were of lowly status, and probably represent simple farmsteads administered through an estate centre elsewhere.

Perring (2002, 93) has defined the need for a descriptive typology of Middle Saxon sites, based upon explicit analytical criteria. He proposes a provisional three-fold classification of 7th-8th century sites (Perring 2002, 101): (i) sites with evidence for artefact production and discard comparable to wics; (ii) sites with evidence for discard comparable to wics, but no clear evidence for production; and (iii) sites with sparse evidence for discard. He argues that these should define sites by economic process and social function, and that settlement morphology and building types should not be the sole determinants for classifying sites. Animal bones are seen as providing the best evidence for discriminating between sites, but unfortunately there are few good excavated assemblages from rural settlements of the period. We need to understand how sites are integrated into local patterns of consumption and production: 'The characterization of artefactual signatures for sites of the period c AD 650-850 is therefore an important subject of study' (Perring 2002, 93).

Other work also highlights the likely very varied nature of 'productive sites' (e.g. Naylor 2004). This work has involved in-depth analysis of coinage and other artefact types including metalwork, pottery and stone objects. Naylor argues that it is levels of coin loss, rather than other metal artefacts, that set 'productive sites' apart. Not all finds-rich metal-detected sites were actually directly involved in economic activity. He demonstrates that the majority of sites with large coin assemblages are situated within 15km of the coast, i.e. they are within one day's travel of the coast. The patterns of coin loss indicate a monetised economy, but the relationship of sites to the coast supports the idea that they are associated with long-distance trade, suggesting that international trade was not restricted to emporia. Naylor also argues that the attribution of 'productive sites' to minsters is all too often based on flimsy documentary evidence.

Hutcheson (2006) suggests that 'productive sites' were centres of estate administration and tax collection. The distribution of coins may reflect a loose multiple estate model. Hutcheson notes the possible correlation between East Anglian 'productive sites' and '-ham' place names, identified as possible multiple estate centres by Williamson (1993). He suggests tax collection was organised at central places, based either within a single 'multiple estate' or some conglomeration of them. His approach therefore goes back to Grierson's view that coins may represent fiscal activity, rather than exchange (1959). Hutcheson argues that trade was socially embedded and coin finds represent places where tenurial obligations were due. The previous system of collecting taxes as food renders was no longer practicable as the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms grew larger. 'Productive sites' were therefore places where agricultural surplus was converted into coin for the specific purpose of paying taxes.


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