A Gazetteer of Sub-Roman Britain (AD 400-600): the British Sites

Christopher A. Snyder

Part One: The nature of the evidence

1.1 Introduction

"The darkest of the Dark Ages" might be an apt description of the fifth and sixth centuries in Britain, a time commonly referred to as the sub-Roman period. Not dark in the sense that this era lacked character or achievement: there are certainly enough real (St Patrick) and legendary (Arthur and Merlin) associations to attract modern interests. Anyone who has investigated the history of the period behind these figures, however, soon discovers the exasperating dearth of contemporary written records. Further study only leads to historical agnosticism, and indeed it may be that we will never be able to write a narrative history of sub-Roman Britain.

The slack has fortunately been taken up by archaeologists. The material culture of the fifth and sixth centuries, though itself not extensive, is in many ways more accessible than the problematic written sources. At first, archaeology was used merely to supplement historical models which relied chiefly on the testimony of writers like Gildas, Bede, and Nennius.1 After a profusion of source criticism began to shake these foundations,2 however, many archaeologists felt free to ignore the written record entirely and treat sub-Roman Britain as a prehistoric subject.3 The pendulum now seems to be swinging back toward the middle, with the most recent archaeological surveys of the period attempting a balance between speculative archaeological models and careful use of the written sources.4

These latest surveys are notable contributions and will undoubtedly influence the direction of future archaeological speculation. Yet there is something noticeably missing from this growing body of scholarship. Kenneth Dark puts his finger on it:

It is sadly true that no two modern surveys of the settlement archaeology of the period have managed to agree on a common corpus of sites. . . . The situation has resulted in an exceptionally unstructured data-base, chaotic in its randomness and often in the arbitrariness with which sites are included or excluded in discussion.5

There has, in fact, never been an attempt to present the database in a single comprehensive format. Even the most thorough of the surveys have at best presented only a handful of sites, and those only when they strengthen a particular argument which the author is trying to make. There are some excellent regional catalogs and gazetteers,6 and Dark has himself presented much of the data in his recent work on site identification.7 Yet, as valuable as these resources are, they do not fill the need for a single, comprehensive reference tool for researching individual sites and settlements in sub-Roman Britain.

The Gazetteer in Part Two of this study is an attempt to fill this void. It will no doubt suffer the typical failings of attempts at constructing an archaeological database: site omissions, the inclusion of dated information, having to rely upon incomplete excavation reports. But instead of begging the readers' forgiveness, I shall instead extend an invitation for reader response and cooperation in the future expansion and revision of the database (

1.2 Identifying ethnicity in the archaeological record

The nature of the archaeological evidence for sub-Roman Britain poses several problems. One is our ability, or more often inability, to identify "ethnicity" in the archaeological record. Structures, coins, pottery, jewelry, and military equipment have all traditionally been used by archaeologists to identify settlements and graves as Romano-British, Celtic, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, etc. However, all of these items can be used and reused by groups of people not necessarily responsible for their design or creation. For example, a "Roman" structure could be inhabited by "Germanic" squatters, and a "Romano-Briton" could wear "Germanic" jewelry. This has resulted in the questioning of several traditional assumptions. "Germanic" belt-buckles, for example, used to be taken as a sure sign of the presence of barbarian foederati in Roman Britain; now we know that they may not even indicate a military presence. In fact, the widespread early finds of "Germanic" jewelry and pottery have suggested to some scholars that the majority Britons were simply adopting the tastes of the minority Saxons, indicating a change of culture more than a change of population.8

There is, then, no archaeological indicator that can unquestionably define the ethnicity of a burial or settlement. However, some stylistic terms that are widely accepted and used by archaeologists for descriptive purposes (e.g. Romano-Celtic temple, Germanic pottery) will be used in the present survey.9 Here archaeology must work with written evidence to "suggest" the continuity of a Romano-British settlement, the "re-emergence" of a native "British" community, or the appearance of a new population of barbarian settlers, be they Irish or Germanic. Imported Mediterranean pottery, penannular brooches, and Germanic Grubenhäuser (sunken-floored huts) are all strong indicators of ethnicity, but their importance for this Gazetteer rests in their ability to help date a particular site, rather than to identify its occupants with confidence as "Roman," "Briton," or "Saxon."

1.3 Dating sites: coins, pottery, and scientific methods

Dating is a crucial problem which plagues both historians and archaeologists working in this period. The scarcity of coinage and chronological indicators in the written sources erodes confidence in assigning precise dates for artifacts and settlements. For this survey, I have tried to avoid precise dates for settlements; I am only concerned with whether or not activity occurred at a particular site during the fifth and/or sixth centuries. The means of dating sites used in the Gazetteer are, in the order of their importance, as follows: numismatic evidence (datable coins, ingots, and medallions); ceramic evidence (dishes and pottery which have been cataloged by type); various scientific dating methods (radiocarbon, archaeomagnetic), particularly those tests conducted quite recently which offer significantly enhanced precision; bonework, metalwork, glass, and jewelry dated by type or design; and dates from written sources, scarce in the sub-Roman period and almost always controversial.

The numismatic and ceramic evidence are not only indicators of date; they also provide important clues about the sub-Roman economy in Britain and its relationship to that of Rome's other former provinces. In the fourth century, currency entered Britain in the form of precious-metal coins, bullion (usually plate), and (silver) ingots. Up to 326, the mint at London was issuing bronze coinage, and for a brief period (312 and 314) it served as a comitatensian (troops in the company of the emperor) mint and issued some gold.10 Again, from 383 to 388, London minted some gold coinage for Magnus Maximus, but at some subsequent date it ceased to operate.11 Precious-metal currency was usually sent to Britain (after 388 from Gaul) to pay imperial servants (both civil and military), who were in turn expected to return it to the government in the form of tax payments or else exchange it for bronze coins.12 These transactions were normally facilitated by the nummularii or collectarii, who sold the precious metals back to the government and turned a profit. Thus, gold and silver were not expected to stay in circulation for very long in the provinces, and bronze coinage became the agent for day-to-day transactions.

The amount and kind of coinage reaching Britain also fluctuated according to the purposes of the various emperors. Archaeologists studying coin frequency also have to take into account the vagaries of "coin loss," both accidental and intentional. For fourth-century Britain, a study of bronze coinage alone shows dramatic fluctuations, ending with the total cessation of new bronze issues in 402.13 The last issues of gold and silver to reach Britain are those of Arcadius and Honorius minted in the first decade of the fifth century, along with the solidi and siliquae of Constantine III.14 Individual finds in Britain dating later than 411 tend to be copies or counterfeit, not official issue.15

Thus, the picture one gets is that the Roman state was no longer providing coins to the Diocese of the Britains after the Rescript of Honorius. Does this mean, then, that coins went out of use soon after 410? The standard answer is "yes," and that the Britons therefore must have engaged only in barter economy subsequent to this date. Richard Reece, however, has come to a different conclusion by observing the numismatic evidence of the fifth century from excavations at Roman Carthage, noting that "coinage seems to be made up of worn coins of the high periods of supply in the mid-fourth century. Losses are very low, and what is lost is very poor."16 This pattern closely parallels that of fifth-century Britain.17 Perhaps, as many are now suggesting, older issue coins circulated throughout the fifth century--and later--along with more recent counterfeits, and those that were lost were worn because of their continued use.18 This seems to have been the case for many areas of the sub-Roman West, resulting in a "hotch-potch" coinage (to borrow Dark's phrase), based on shape and weight rather than denomination, that continued well into the medieval period.19

The continuing circulation of coinage in sub-Roman Britain can be offered only as a possibility on archaeological grounds. However, the written sources provide evidence that argues strongly for this being indeed the case. Patrick mentions both solidi and scriptulae in his writings.20 Gildas states that the priests of his day have not contributed a single obolum to the poor, yet they "grieve if they lose a single denarius; if they gain one, they cheer up."21 And in one seventh-century Byzantine saint's life, there is an account of an Egyptian ship returning from south-western Britain laden with nomisma and tin.22

Along with scattered losses, we must also take into account the numerous coin hoards discovered in British excavations. Hoarding coins can signify many things, including (but not limited to) the threat of barbarian invasion (or of a campaigning Roman army), a devalued currency, or simply safe-keeping in the absence of a banking system. Over 1600 hoards of Roman coins have been recorded from Britain, most containing between 100 and 300 coins, though some contain over 1000.23 Britain exhibits a unique pattern of hoarding, for gold coin hoards are almost nonexistent, while silver and bronze hoards are quite numerous.24 There have been several recent surveys and analyses of these British hoards.25 A look at coin distribution by emperor shows that hoards containing coins of Honorius and/or Constantine III (over 80) rank second only to the Tetrici/Gallic Empire hoards (over 100), suggesting that hoarding was popular when Britain was cut off from Rome and coinage became scarce.26 This should not be surprising, nor should the geographic distribution of the late hoards, which Robertson has shown concentrates on eastern coastal areas where raiding was most frequent.27

However, it may be surprising that many of the coins in these hoards, especially the silver siliquae, show clear signs of "clipping," an easy means of obtaining gold and silver and also a way to create small change in the absence of reliable official bronze. These clipped coins of Honorius and Arcadius date to after 393, but this only provides a terminus post quem for the clipping and hoarding. 28 "The clipping of siliquae is a British phenomenon and requires a British explanation," declared George Boon; but a clear explanation has been elusive. 29 Given that the act of clipping was a crime punishable by death, and that few examples can be found prior to the end of the fourth century, it seems likely that this occurred in Britain when there were no longer any authorities present (or interested enough) to enforce the penalty; it also likely occurred while denomination still mattered in Britain, as opposed to the shape and weight of the coin which would be undermined by clipping. Andrew Burnett's analysis of hoards from both Britain and Ireland containing clipped siliquae have convinced many that the clipping probably took place during the uncertain years of the reign of Constantine III, verifying Zosimus's statement that "the Britons ceased to obey Roman laws" after 409. 30 The traditional view has been that this clipping was due to a shortage of silver coin imported from the continent during and after the usurpation of Constantine. 31 John Kent has offered the theory that "the siliqua was a coin used to make some habitual payment" in Britain, "and that it continued to be used for this purpose in early post-Roman times, but was then clipped to a smaller diameter because its value had become enhanced in relation to the importance of that payment." 32 Philip Grierson and Melinda Mays suggest that these coins may have been intended as half-siliquae, clipped by Marcus, Gratian, and Constantine to obtain silver for ingot payments to their troops, while the clipped coins could then be distributed to ordinary citizens during public appearances. 33 These are both plausible explanations for the clipping of coins during the tumultuous years of 406 to 411.

Non-systematic clipping likely continued for some time after this, though it is notable that clipped coins are usually found associated with Roman objects, while there are no recorded associations with items of post-Roman--either "British" or "Anglo-Saxon"--manufacture. 34 The deposition of these hoards then, especially in vulnerable coastal areas, is likely a fifth-century phenomenon, with a terminus post quem of the latest coin in each hoard. 35

Both the hoarding of silver coins issued in the late fourth and early fifth centuries (63 hoards were recorded by Archer in 1979), and the systematic clipping of these silver coins, occur in Britain on a remarkable scale compared to the rest of Europe, and in the East these phenomena are virtually nonexistent. 36 But another type of silver-hoarding--sometimes referred to as Hacksilber--is common to Britain and to other areas of the West where barbarian raiding occurred in the fifth century. These hoards contain gold or (more commonly) silver plate and other valuables, and are often cut-up or otherwise damaged in their depositional state. 37 They occur both inside and outside the diocesan border in Britain, while one of the most noteworthy examples comes from Coleraine in northern Ireland. 38 The most noteworthy collections from Britain are those found at Mildenhall, Water Newton, Canterbury, Thetford, and Traprain Law. Most of these hoards are dominated by decorated silver plate of a very high quality. Some contain items with chi-rhos and other explicitly Christian symbols. Those found beyond the frontier, particularly the Traprain Law hoard, contain pieces that have been cut and folded. At first this was thought to represent the loot from a barbarian raid on a Roman settlement. However, recent examinations have shown that the weight of these pieces corresponds with even ratios to Roman coinage, suggesting that the items were official payments to barbarian clients or would-be clients. 39

Official payments could, alternatively to coin and plate, also be made in foodstuffs. For example, the Roman army along the frontier needed to be supplied with grain (annona), which was transported over long distances in large pottery containers (amphorae). Commercial trade in luxury goods often followed these same official trade routes, and in the early empire these items--manufactured mostly in Gaul, Italy, and Spain--reached Britain via the rivers of Gaul and the Channel. Later, however, North Africa became the chief supplier of grain (as well as olive oil) for the empire, and North African goods were shipped accordingly in North African pottery. Study of the distribution of pottery in the later empire shows an increasing number of examples of this pottery, especially African Red Slip Ware.

Pottery is ubiquitous in Roman Britain, as indeed it is in most periods, for without it there could have been no life. Pottery also has a remarkable ability to survive in the archaeological record. In the first centuries of Roman rule, fine table wares--both locally-made and imported Samian varieties--could be found along with the imported amphorae. By the late fourth century, the active commercial kilns in Britain (some of which were exporting their wares to the Continent) were those producing Oxfordshire Ware, Black-Burnished Ware (from south Dorset), New Forest pottery, Alice Holt Forest pottery, Nene Valley pottery, and Crambeck Ware. 40 The traditional assumption is that these British pottery manufacturing centers had ceased operating by 410. Now, however, it is believed that the Oxfordshire kilns, the New Forest kilns, and those producing Black-Burnished Ware (I) continued to flourish for some time after the year 400. 41 Smaller, local producers of coarse wares flourished alongside the large commercial kilns throughout the Roman period, and there is much evidence that "organically-tempered" and other crude wares (e.g. grass-, shell-, calcite-, and limestone-tempered wares) were made and used through out southern and western Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries and possibly beyond. 42 In excavated settlements where pottery is totally absent, the occupants likely used wood or leather substitutes which seldom leave archaeological traces. 43

The decline in volume and quality of post-410 British pottery is often seen as paralleling the decline of a money economy (that is, the absence of new coins) in Britain, and to have been influenced by the absence of both the military and urban markets. However, this picture of decline and collapse is misleading. Like coins, pottery could have circulated for many years after the state-controlled production centers had closed. As for imported pottery, excavation is revealing an actual revival of wares in the sub-Roman period, carrying, for the most part, luxury items. These imports include not only Gaulish products coming to Britain from the old river-routes of Gaul, but also increasingly goods produced in such diverse Mediterranean centers as Byzacena, Phocaea, Cyprus, Gaza, and the cities of the Aegean, coming to Britain directly from such major ports as Carthage and Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries.

These imports were first discovered during the excavations of C.A. Ralegh Radford at Tintagel, Cornwall in the 1930s. 44 Termed colloquially "Tintagel ware," the imports soon began turning up at other newly-excavated sites in both western Britain and Ireland, though the Tintagel collection remains the largest and most diverse. Radford and subsequent excavators adopted the labels Ai to Aii and Bi to Bvi to describe the imports. 45 However, after the appearance of John Hayes's in-depth study of African Red Slip Ware and other late Roman Mediterranean wares, 46 Charles Thomas suggested an alternative labelling scheme, replacing Radford's A wares with PRSW (Phocaean Red Slip Ware) and ARSW (African Red Slip Ware). 47 Thomas's labels will be used exclusively in the Gazetteer of Sites.

Finally, a few words must be said about the precision of the archaeological evidence for this period. The scientific cataloging and analysis of finds like coins, pottery, and jewelry is a relatively recent phenomenon, with inexact reports more typical for those sites excavated several decades ago. Even when more recent analysis could be exact, as in the case of numismatic evidence, it is seldom accomplished in excavation re ports, many of which remain only in preliminary form. Given these drawbacks, the purpose of the present study is not to offer precise dates for Roman and sub-Roman occupation at particular sites. Rather, coins and pottery are used only to help place activity in the fifth and/or sixth centuries. If this can be done with confidence (the degree of which is signified by the labels "Definite," "Probable," and "Possible" in the Gazetteer), archaeologists and historians can then attempt to talk about the sub-Roman Britons in terms of their structures, weapons, jewelry, pottery, and other surviving artifacts. Once the scholarly community agrees upon at least some definite sub-Roman sites, the artifactual and written evidence combined will provide plenty of material for future discussion of the politics, economy, and culture of the enigmatic Britons.

1.4 Conclusions

I would now like to offer a few conclusions drawn from the archaeological evidence collected in the Gazetteer. 48 What must be obvious to anyone looking at this evidence is the diversity. The great variety of settlement types in the fifth and sixth centuries prove the Britons to be neither truly urban nor completely rural, but rather a mixture that lies somewhere in between with much gradation. 49 There is much greater evidence for continuity of occupation in Roman towns than has been acknowledged by even the proponents of continuity, though admittedly the sub-Romano-British town often gives the appearance of dramatic decline (an exception being Wroxeter, and possibly Verulamium). The evidence for Christianity is also more extensive than has been discussed heretofore, 50 with the bulk of this evidence deriving from objects and graves rather than newly excavated churches (Colchester and the Wells mausoleum are the exceptions here). There is good reason to be optimistic about further explication of the religious life of the Britons, with a growing number of specialists concentrating on the plentiful cemetery evidence. While sub-Roman inhumations have not yielded a wealth of gravegoods (a lack of military items especially contrasts Britain with the Continent), they have shown great variety in both design and construction.

Diversity must also have characterized the sub-Roman economy, with the plentiful evidence of late imperial coins, imported and domestic pottery, and large-scale slaughter of domesticated animals. The imported pottery has long intrigued many observers, and finally Charles Thomas and others 51 are offering fuller explanations of Britain's long-distance trade in the later fifth and sixth centuries. No one, however, has fully tackled the subject of sub-Roman architecture and engineering. Yet the evidence presented in the Gazetteer bespeaks a range architectural styles available to the Britons, whose structures were alternately of earth, timber, and stone (both dry and mortared), and whose technologies are exemplified by the Roman hydraulic system at Verulamium and the mechanical mill at Whithorn.

In closing, I would like to draw the reader's attention to the distribution of these British sites. There is positive archaeological evidence for British inhabitation in every part of Britannia in the sub-Roman period. If there is a noticeable density, it would be in the Bristol Channel/Severn River region, an area of cities fortified towards the end of the Roman period, while the most sparse region appears to be in the North along the Pennines, an area little touched by the Romans. There is more evidence for a Romano-British presence in the East than many have estimated, although this evidence is also often accompanied by Germanic objects, structures, or cremations. As yet the evidence assembled in the Gazetteer cannot firmly settle the question of the adventus Saxonum. But it can tell us much more than was previously known about the Britons, who dominate the sub-Roman period in population and literary output if not in terms of Britain's political destiny.


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Last updated: Wed Sep 3 1997