5.1 The archaeology of Middle Saxon trade

The development of Anglo-Saxon trade and exchange has always been closely linked to the concept of urbanism. Both Stephenson (1933) and Tait (1936) believed that the reoccupation of Roman centres was critical for the revival of both urbanism and trade, although Tait believed it took place as early as the 7th century, while Stephenson argued it did not occur until the Viking period. With the growth of urban archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s, new datasets became available for trading sites such as Hamwic. Polanyi (1963) introduced the idea of a coastal port or emporia acting as a neutral trading zone, used to regulate and monopolise trade. Access to long-distance trade was limited to those in power.

This interpretation gained wide circulation in archaeology through its adoption by Hodges, who promoted an urban-centred examination of trade. Hodges also operated firmly within a substantivist approach to economics. Until the 9th century the vast majority of production and exchange was conducted in the context of social relationships; it was not 'for profit' in the modern sense of the word. The development of 'market-led' trade and exchange only occurred in the 9th and 10th centuries. In Dark Age Economics (1982) Hodges aimed to show that long-distance trade in pre-9th-century Europe was not market-based but was politically orientated towards the procurement of prestige goods by royalty. Trade was undertaken at boundaries, and later confined to designated ports-of-trade, or emporia. Only in the 9th century did the disruption caused by the Vikings and the breakdown of the Carolingian Empire lead to a decline in long-distance trade, and the beginnings of an urban network of local markets.

Hodges proposed an evolutionary typology of emporia. In the 6th and 7th centuries trade was undertaken at small beach markets – his Type A emporia. However, in the late 7th and early 8th centuries kings sought to retain control of access to growing volumes of imports through the foundation of larger trading settlements – the wics, or Type B emporia. When trade was disrupted in the 9th century the emporia were abandoned or became focused on regional administration and trade – the Type C emporia.

Hodges followed Grierson (1959) in taking a substantivist view of Anglo-Saxon coinage. Grierson argued that coins in their period were not used as currency but were largely a fiscal device, used to pay fines and taxes and in gift exchange. Taking as proof the apparent low numbers of coins found, he believed that, even by the 10th century, coins only circulated in towns and ports used by elite groups and were not used in a money economy.

However, Hodges' work attracted a number of criticisms. Astill (1984, 53-5) argued that the lack of regional economic study of rural settlement was unhelpful and masked mechanisms of change from a redistributive to a market economy in the 9th century. He noted that emporia depended upon a food supply from their hinterlands and were linked to inland networks, with second-tier market sites. Arnold (1983, 83) criticised Hodges for treating emporia in a vacuum from the rest of society, while Metcalf (1984) demonstrated from the distribution of coins that the Anglo-Saxon economy was monetised by c. AD 750. Metcalf attempted to use die research to show that the number of coins minted was extremely high, and that originally there must have been millions of sceattas. He argued that with so many coins circulating they must have been used for commercial transactions. Metcalf therefore proposed that coin loss reflected exchange, and an integrated monetary economy. However, Grierson (1959) challenged Metcalf's assumptions about die usage to argue that he had exaggerated the quantity of coinage. The shortage of coins and lack of regional excavation data provided the greatest obstacle to a convincing rebuttal of Hodges' theories.

In The Anglo-Saxon Achievement (1989) Hodges modified his position somewhat. The economy was still based on prestige goods exchange, but regional production and distribution of goods under royal control were now seen as primary functions, with emporia as entry points for imports. It was around this time that the concept of 'productive sites' was developed and emporia began to be placed within a regional framework. Nonetheless, the regional inland markets are still missing from some major syntheses, such as McCormick's (2001) Origins of the European Economy.

In conclusion, the growing number of coin finds from rural sites evidenced in the VASLE project must make us question Hodges' view of coinage as special purpose currency under the control of kings for use only in international trade, and for the payment of taxes or fines. Hodges' view that the emergence of regional markets triggered the demise of emporia has also been shown to be misplaced. Bawsey and Tilbury share identical loss profiles to Hamwic, over the same period. These must also have served their regions as much as Hamwic, even if they lacked a planned layout.

The transition from gold coinage to silver in the 7th century facilitated lower level transactions, and the increasing use of coin is shown by their widening distribution. The early silver coins were easy to lose, and large numbers were required for high value transactions. Hinton (2005, 85) notes that 8th- and 9th-century charters show that land was increasingly being exchanged and payments are sometimes referred to as being made in mancuses, a unit equal to 30 sceattas. In the charters, estates change hands for between 20-100 mancuses, i.e. 600-3000 sceattas.

The nature of trade also changes, as is implied by the numbers of coins found in particular places. Emporia can no longer be seen as monopolistic ports of trade. Coins were used at wic sites and at early monastic sites, such as Whitby. Churches had need of imported goods and also encouraged development of markets, and converted the surplus from their estates into cash. But major rural markets also developed at other places with good communications links. The presence of sceattas at sites such as South Newbald suggests substantial amounts of monetary exchange where there were no institutions.

Most of the goods that changed hands at 'productive sites' have left few traces. Animals and foodstuffs, clothing, and leather, wooden objects, basket work, and salt, maybe even slaves, are rarely visible. We are left with the means of exchange – the coinage – and dress accessories, and pottery, although it is only with the detailed work in East Anglia where metal-detecting has been complemented by field-walking that this has been recovered in any quantities.


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