5.2 The Anglo-Saxon and Viking landscape

The Anglo-Saxon landscape of southern and eastern England was once thought to be sparsely occupied and densely wooded, with only gradual recolonisation of areas abandoned after centuries of plague and piracy. However, extensive archaeological fieldwork from the 1970s has revealed a densely occupied and intensively cultivated landscape. That pattern is confirmed by the VASLE project, with generally high densities of portable antiquities, apart from some notable exceptions of woodland such as in the New Forest or the Weald, or wetland, such as in Lincolnshire and East Anglia around the Fens.

Riverine and coastal traffic provided important means of inter-regional communications, but earlier land-based networks, including prehistoric trackways and Roman roads, also continued in use. These connected the major international trading hubs with a lower tier of central places. These generally had multiple functions, including local administration and tax collection, as well as the processing and consumption of agricultural surpluses. Some had an industrial role, including salt production or metalworking. Many had an ecclesiastical function, as the locations of monasteries and minster churches. Many also formed part of local networks of settlement, joined together by social and economic ties. Rural markets flourished at these places, and exchange was fuelled by the availability of lower denomination coinage.

However, we are also now much more aware of a cultural and ideological landscape, which is not so easily explained in terms of trade and exchange. Through the national distribution of styles of dress accessories and other portable antiquities the VASLE project has demonstrated various cultural zones and trends, such as the westwards spread of Northumbrian hegemony, and the Anglo-Scandinavian stylistic domination of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglia. In some cases these artefact zones correlate with historically documented polities, or areas of cultural influence as mapped by sculpture or place-names. In other cases, it is clear that material culture is indicating a more complex social landscape. Artefact style and form is not just providing a passive reflection of pre-existing groups of people; it is being used in the creation and negotiation of new identities.


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