5.3 Summary and conclusion

The VASLE project has been the first systematic attempt to make use of the finds recovered by metal-detector users to understand the landscape and economy of early medieval England. It has proceeded with an incremental narrowing of focus from a national scale, to regional studies, to a site-based focus, with each level providing a context and foundation for the next stage of analysis.

Interactive map

This article has sought to use the flexibility provided by electronic publication to present a large volume of analyses based on the VASLE 'National dataset' and 'Sites dataset'. It has been accompanied by a range of maps and charts, and interactive mapping allows users to investigate distributions for themselves, or to download the primary data files from the Archaeology Data Service. Section 1 described the aims and objectives of the project, and the history of portable antiquities research.

In Section 2, the national data sources were introduced, and the overall distribution of finds of all periods was discussed, region by region. This research has demonstrated that distribution maps of metal-detected finds are subject to a complex interplay of biasing factors. The VASLE project has attempted to create a constraints map, which provides a visibility template, indicating areas where there is a real absence of finds as opposed to regions where finds have not been discovered or reported. It has revealed some interesting biasing factors, such as concentrations of finds just beyond urban conurbations, as well as linear spreads of finds that may be as much to do with modern motorways and trunk roads as the Roman and Anglo-Saxon routes they often overlie.

The overall PAS dataset provides a control against which the database of Anglo-Saxon finds could be compared in Section 3. This reveals some regions where metal-detector users have recovered many artefacts, but very few dated from AD 700-1100. The north-west of England is particularly sparse, as is the Weald of Kent and Sussex. Some of these gaps may be due to the nature of the landscape, the Weald being heavily wooded in the Anglo-Saxon period, or areas of north-east Norfolk or the Cambridgeshire fens being flooded, for example. Other gaps may reflect cultural differences; the inhabitants of Somerset and Lancashire for example, being less inclined to wear artefacts recognised as Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian.

The VASLE project has also developed a series of 'fingerprint' charts that allow the comparison of proportions of coinage and other artefact categories between regions. These charts reveal that while the categories of finds are broadly similar across the country, there are significant differences in the proportions of different classes of artefacts across different regions. Northern England and Northumbria stand out, for example, not just for their adoption of the styca copper alloy coinage, but for differences in dress fashion as well, including the more common occurrence of dress pins. In southern England and Wessex, by contrast, there are much higher proportions of horse-related artefacts, indicating a different means of signalling elite status in the south.

In Section 4 'fingerprint' charts have been provided for 69 sites, including a sample of excavated Middle Saxon wics and rural settlements, as well as a large number of so-called 'productive sites' known only from metal-detected finds. The majority of these are within East Anglia, but there is a scattering of examples from Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and south-eastern England. To a great extent the individual site fingerprints follow the expected regional trends, but they display a continuum of proportions of finds. Apart from the expected differences in the range of materials and finds encountered between excavated and metal-detected sites, there are also big differences in the proportions of coinage at different sites. Some of these can be explained by the difficulties encountered in trying to combine the discrete data sources. These were exacerbated by the time available, which meant that for some sites only one source could be examined. However, this does not disguise the fact that there are real differences in coin usage at the sites within the sample.

The VASLE project had hoped to be able to characterise the 'fingerprints' associated with different types of activity, but faced a number of limitations in achieving this goal. Firstly, the chronological range of occupation added a complicating factor, as the period of use as well as the type of activity determines the site 'fingerprint'. Does the absence of coins at a site mean that there was no monetary activity or just that it was not occupied during a coin-using period? Secondly, the lack of concordance between the EMC and PAS made it difficult to identify to a sufficiently high level many sites for which coins and artefacts had been recorded. There are large numbers of sites recorded only in the EMC, and an equally large number known only in the PAS. Thirdly, this also highlighted the difficulties of defining a 'site'. During the course of examination of the distribution of metal-detected finds at a number of the sites considered in Section 4, it became clear that there was often a spread of activity across the parish although the finds had all been logged as one site. A detailed desk-based study of the records for the area surrounding Bidford-on-Avon (Naylor and Richards forthcoming) revealed shifting foci of activity at different times within the Anglo-Saxon period. Excavations conducted for Aim 3 of the VASLE project have supported this analysis. At Burdale, for example, there were two concentrations of Middle Saxon activity, with different activities taking place within each group of excavated enclosures. Other excavated sites reveal a similar picture. At West Heslerton, Dominic Powlesland has identified a zonation of domestic and craft activity. At Cottam B Middle Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian farmsteads were adjacent, but far enough apart to be represented by two concentrations of finds. Very rarely is the spatial recording of metal-detected finds precise enough to allow definition of different concentrations of finds reflecting different periods or activities. The VASLE project underlines the need for high resolution of spatial recording of portable antiquities.

Interactive map

Nonetheless, despite all the complicating factors the VASLE project has underlined the potential of portable antiquities to help understand Anglo-Saxon and Viking landscape and economy. The number of reported finds is increasing all the time, and the quality of recording is also improving. The project had inevitably to impose a cut-off point for data collection, but it is clear that if it were undertaken again now much more data would be available.


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Last updated: Tues Apr 21 2009