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morfrain_encilgar
Wednesday, January 19th, 2005, 04:40 PM
A long pattern of peaceful co-existence and two-way contact between the Anglo-Saxons and the indigenous Britons has emerged from post-excavations studies carried out recently on a rich group of finds from an ancestral burial ground in Warwickshire. The finest of the excavated objects from Wasperton, five miles south of Warwick on the east bank of the River Avon, which have been among exhibits in a touring exhibition, "Offa's Kingdom", are to go on permanent display at the Warwickshire Museum, this autumn.

The findings from Wasperton point to the existence of a Romano-British community that underwent a long and gradual cultural transition into one displaying Anglo-Saxon characteristics. In marked contrast to the more familiar and broader pillage-and-warfare view of relationships between the traditional foes.

Wasperton is now cited as a key example of those cemetery locations yielding archaeological features long sought-after but rarely detected: contact between Briton and Saxon and vice-versa.

More specifically, the cemetery site seems to reveal one of the tantalising intangibles of early English history -- the phenomenon known as "Britons disguised as Anglo-Saxons".

Those left behind after the withdrawal of the Roman administration in AD410 are notoriously difficult to detect in the archaeological record for two principal reasons: the seemingly sudden decline of Romano-British culture and the virtual absence of a recognisable material culture to replace it. But because the indigenous Britons were exposed to the influence of Christianity, many of them practised inhumation, but burial without accompanying grave-goods.

Clearly, a substantial element of the native population must have survived the Anglo-Saxon settlement and co-existed among immigrant groups. As one scholar recently observed, it has to be accepted that many of those given a "Germanic" burial rite were not immigrants from North Germany and Scandinavia -- and that the form of burial symbol employed was a complex one, used at one level at least, to assert the domination of Germanic culture, not the annihilation of the indigenous inhabitants.

This, is just where the evidence from Wasperton comes in, though even at some of the large Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of eastern England there may have been, it is suggested, a "British" component. The evidence uncovered from the graves at the Warwickshire site indicates a form of cultural contact and exchange and acculturation (acceptance by an indigenous group "of the material possessions and burial practices of an immigrant people") that is infinitely more complex and ambiguous than earlier studies have indicated.

Wasperton has produced evidence for the occupation of part of the Avon Valley for over 3,500 years. During the Roman period a bakery was established there and also a small shrine, but the only remains of this located by the excavators were two sets of antlers and a sandstone slab inscribed FELICITER contained within a pit in the ground.

In the fourth century AD, however, a small cemetery was established, arranged around an earlier enclosure ditch. It remained in use down to the seventh century. There was no evidence that the burial ground went out of use at any time.

During the initial Anglo-Saxon occupation in the fifth and sixth centuries, the site lay at the extreme western extent of the immigrant advance -- in a frontier zone in which, it is argued, ideas but not necessarily people flowed. Similar evidence has also emerged at another Warwickshire cemetery site, Stretton-on-Fosse (date span -- AD 475-625).

In a report based on interim accounts of the excavator at Wasperton, Philip Wise of the Warwickshire Museum (the explorations were conducted by Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit on behalf of the Museum) records that the site produced twenty-five cremations, mostly in urns, and 182 inhumations. Of these, 137 are regarded as Saxon, thirty-six as Roman, while nine displayed characteristics that are both Roman and Saxon.

Jewellery recovered from female graves at the site displayed outstanding richness and variety, and included a range of gilded brooches. Among them were four examples of great square-headed brooches" -- a wealthy status symbol much favoured by the Anglo-Saxons of the Avon Valley.

The four square-headed pieces have all been dated to the mid-sixth century, while a rare composite disc brooch, covered with gold foil and set with blue glass in a star pattern -- has been dated to the end of the seventh century.

"Great square-headed brooches", says Philip Wise, "are usually restricted to only one or two examples in any one cemetery, and to have four, as at Wasperton, is considered to be remarkable".

Significantly, one of the brooches is identical to one uncovered at Bidford, another Warwickshire site. The presence of this design -- it has also been found at another site at Lechlade in Gloucestershire -- suggests it was the work of a specialist Anglo-Saxon craftsman. The jewellery fashions and styles revealed at Wasperton, are said to indicate that the cultural connections were strongest with the Upper Thames Valley rather than with eastern England.

The Avon Valley, in the southern half of Warwickshire, is known to scholars to have been an important focus of pagan Anglo-Saxon burial practices. At the two cemetery sites, Wasperton and Stretton-on-Fosse, the burials began in the Romano-British phase -- when bodies were often buried in wooden coffins with the head placed to the north. In some cases, a pair of hobnail boots was placed in the grave, while a number of burials at Wasperton also reveal that the corpse was mutilated after death -- sometimes by cutting off the head and placing it between the legs.

These cemeteries continued into the Anglo-Saxon period when the head of the corpse was placed at the south or west and the body accompanied by jewellery and weapons. The broad conclusion is that for several hundred years these sites were the ancestral burial grounds for small farming communities, which in the fifth century adopted Anglo-Saxon customs and objects.

Studies of field boundaries at a number of places, including Wasperton, have shown that the pattern laid down in the Roman period continued into the Middle Ages, with strong evidence for the continuance of country life and the adoption of the existing fields by the Anglo-Saxons.

The historical sources make it clear that by the seventh century the political hierarchy of the West Midlands was Anglo-Saxon. However, the archaeological evidence, as demonstrated by the recent finds and associated scholarly work, suggests that in this area complicated social patterns lay behind the power politics of the period. At ground level at least, it was clearly not all a question of fire and the sword -- or a form of Dark Age "ethnic cleansing".

In his study The Ending of Roman Britain (Batsford), Dr Esmonde Cleary says the presence of Anglo-Saxon objects on British sites such as Wasperton can be seen as acculturation. But it could, he argues, also reflect the process of assimilation: that the population, though genetically British, ceased to regard itself as Culturally British and came to look upon itself as Anglo-Saxon, though as Dr Cleary observes, the written sources concentrated on the conflict because this is what the heroic ethos of the time required -- peaceful interchange was for appropriate material for relating.

Yet this region was to form part of the heartland of Mercia, at the height of its power the most important kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England. It must be, so runs the argument in the light of the recent cemetery discoveries, that many who called themselves Mercians were in fact ethnically British but regarded themselves as Anglo-Saxons.