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Survival or introduction? Romanitas in Britain after AD410

Rose Baillie

Our AGM meeting saw the welcome return of Ken Dark, currently Chair of the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies and Director of the Research Centre for Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at the University of Reading, who began his archaeological career as a digger with COLAS.

He told us that until recently the conventional picture of Britain after AD 410 was one of a fairly rapid and complete collapse of the governmental, economic, material and social structures characteristic of Romano-Britain. This was believed to have occurred alongside Anglo-Saxon immigration, which resulted in eastern England being dominated by pagan Germanic peoples, while the Celtic British in the west reverted to a subsistence existence, led by hill-fort dwelling petty kings. The one glimmer of higher civilisation was the spread of Christianity among the Britons.

At first sight, this picture is apparently supported by many written sources, notably ‘The Anglo Saxon Chronicle’, Historia Brittonum (the preface of which claims it was written by Nennius) and Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae. The problem is that most of these works were produced much later than the events they describe. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ and Historia Brittonum (no longer believed to have been written by Nennius) were both compiled for 9th century political purposes. The Anglo-Saxons were illiterate in the 5th-6th centuries, and it was highly unlikely that historical information could have been accurately transmitted orally for more than about 200 years. However, if we examine AD 400-600 through contemporary sources only, we were left with very few sources and none from Anglo-Saxon writers. The most useful of these are the Confessio of St Patrick and the writings of Gildas. Recent research has shown that these present a very different picture.

Patrick describes growing up (perhaps AD c.450) on his father's villa estate, near what modern archaeologists of Roman Britain would call a small-town and a civitas capital where his father had an administrative role. His birth place Bannaventa taberniae, has not been located, but was probably in the West Country. In the mid-fifth century it seems, therefore, that in that region a typical late Romano-British settlement pattern was surviving, alongside a developed and sophisticated Church establishment, which had difficulty understanding Patrick's missionary approach in the different conditions of Ireland.

Gildas was another churchman (although not a monk as often imagined), and his excellent Latin in De Excidio Britanniae shows that he was someone who had been highly educated in the Late Antique scholarly tradition. He uses carefully structured rhetorical arguments, makes numerous allusions to a wide range of classical authors, as well as Church Fathers and the Bible. He had clearly read very widely, even by Roman standards. All rather surprising for someone probably writing in AD 525-550!  His work is addressed to the rulers of his own time, expecting it to be understood by them.

Ken Dark argued that these works give clear indications that large parts of Britain at least had not reverted to barbarism, but had developed a culture and ethos that is recognised elsewhere in the former Western Roman Empire during the 3rd-7th Centuries AD as 'Late Antique'. This was a fusion of provincial Roman, Christian and barbarian norms, and 'Late Antiquity' is today the standard term for the 5th to 7th centuries in Europe and the Mediterranean. There was considerable diversity in Late Antique ways of life and a spectrum of culture between being Roman, being romanised and being barbarian, both within kingdoms and between them. This romanitas in Late Antiquity was not about copying the High Empire of the 1st-2nd Centuries, but rather a continuation and evolution of Late Roman provincial customs and culture.

With so few written sources and no satisfactory detailed narrative history, archaeology has to play a major part in establishing what happened in AD 400-600. In Eastern England the chief markers for the 'Anglo-Saxons' (the term was not used until Bede writing in the 8th century), are graves with characteristic grave-goods.  While many, if not all, 5th century cremation cemeteries are likely to be of migrant pagan 'Ango-Saxons' or their descendents, it is hard to state categorically which of the so-called 'Anglo-Saxon' 5th-6th Century inhumations are Germanic or pagan, since the residual British population may have adopted 'Anglo-Saxon' material culture and customs, even if they were Christian. Elsewhere in the former Western Roman Empire during Late Antiquity - for example in Gaul - similar graves to our 'Anglo-Saxon' are probably those of the descendents of both barbarians and Roman provincials.

Western Britain remained under British rule and the evidence for 5th -6th Century romanitas is nowhere stronger than at Tintagel, Cornwall. This rocky promontory on the North Cornish coast, excavated by C A Ralegh Radford and lately Chris Morris, has yielded our largest assemblage of 5th-6th century Byzantine pottery. It has the remains over 100 rectilinear dry-stone and turf buildings, laid out along paths or on terraces, in a plan that looks like a Romano-British 'small town' but in this case probably dates mostly from the 5th-6th century. It also has multi-roomed buildings, evidence for the zoning of activities and of Latin literacy in the form of an inscribed slate, mentioning a man called 'Artognou' - nothing to do with 'Arthur', art- ('bear') was common in Celtic names at this time. Other finds include Frankish pottery and glass from Frankia, Spain and the Mediterranean. Tintagel in the 6th century looks more urban and romanised than any Cornish site at any time in the Roman period, and was likely to have been a royal settlement with active trading connections. Exciting recent study of the imported pottery indicates that the assemblage is characteristic of direct contact with Byzantium beg. there are ships' jars of a type usually only found in the Mediterranean, and there is even pottery that may be associated with the Byzantine official supply network.

Perhaps the rulers of Tintagel were receiving ambassadors or traders directly from the heart of the 'Late Antique' world. This may not be an isolated case. Ecclesiastical history has references to British involvement in wider Church affairs after AD 400 and the idea of monasticism was imported at some point during the late 4th-5th Century. There appears to have been a regular commercial route importing bronze 'Coptic' bowls into Kent and a Byzantine garnet intaglio has recently even been found in excavations at Cefn Cwmwd, a small hut group in-northwest Wales, not the sort of site where people usually used such high-status objects in the Roman period.

Other sites are shedding new light on post-Roman life. The extensive redevelopment of Wroxeter in the 6th century was revealed by the famous work of Philip Barker, while excavations at Brawdy hill fort in West Wales showed refortification in the 5th-6th Century AD with buildings including a timber-aisled building of Romano-British form that probably had rounded headed windows and white plastered walls.

Careful examination of the latest phases of Roman towns and villas is yielding further evidence of 4th-6th century continuity and there is more to find, Ken Dark believes. Even the infamous 'dark earth' may sometimes be evidence of different type of occupation, rather than desertion. There is also a need to re-consider of the dating of various 'Late Roman' pottery types and other objects, which may not have ceased production as early as is currently believed and there needs to be wider recognition of little known Byzantine and continental imports.

Our old views of 4th-6th Century Britain were no longer credible, Ken Dark said. It was not isolated and culturally backward, but in touch with the wider world, with much more going on than often recognised. This is a rich and varied story still in the process of being unravelled.

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The earliest human occupation of Britain

The demise of Peter of Colechurch's London Bridge

The enduring fascination of the mammoth

Further excavations at Winchester Palace, Southwark

London Before London:
The Iron Age of London

Survival or introduction? Romanitas in Britain after AD410


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