• Tastes Of History

Being Anglo-Saxon

The BBC’s series ‘Digging for Britain’ has returned to screens this month. Hosted by Prof Alice Roberts (pictured), the programme showcases archaeological finds from excavations across the country that took place during 2021. One theme that is noticeable this time round is the evident continuity of occupation at many sites. For example, archaeologists working on the route of the HS2 high-speed railway have found a vast wealthy Roman trading settlement. The site, known as Blackgrounds after the black soil found there, is near the villages of Edgcote and Chipping Warden in south Northamptonshire. An Iron Age village of more than 30 roundhouses established about 400 BC is thought to have developed into a wealthy Roman trading town. Discoveries showed the settlement expanded over time, becoming more prosperous during the Roman period, with new stone buildings and roads being built.

Blackgrounds is not unique. The Heslerton Parish Project studied 10 square kilometres (3.9 sq mi) around the village of West Heslerton in Yorkshire to set archaeological excavations in context. The Project’s leader, Dominic Powlesland FSA, championed a detailed, landscape-scale approach, arguing that studying sites in isolation misses the 'connective tissue' of past landscapes. West Heslerton proved a continuity of occupation from pre-history until today at odds with dividing history and people into conveniently distinct periods. First the Britons were Romanised until the Romans all left only to be replaced by Anglo-Saxons and then the Normans. Archaeology, however, is revealing that communities do not change in quite so orderly ways.

This idea of new arrivals replacing the inhabitants of these isles wholesale is exemplified by historical documents implying Anglo-Saxons more or less completely replaced the Romano-British. But this is far from certain given the contradictory nature of the available evidence. Could the Anglo-Saxons have been so numerous that they simply took over? What was their relationship with the existing Romano-British?

With that in mind, in 2021 researchers from Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the University of Sydney attempted to resolve the question: ‘Who were the Anglo-Saxons?’ Although their origins can clearly be traced to a migration of Germanic-speaking people from mainland Europe between the 5th-7th centuries AD, through three-dimensional analysis of skeletal remains (photogrammetry) the team found that Anglo-Saxon identity had more to do with shared language and culture than shared ancestry.

The initial press report revealed ‘paleoanthropologists have found that when the base of the human skull is analysed in 3D, it can be used to track relationships among human populations in a similar way to ancient DNA.’ As Kimberley Plomp (pictured), a postdoctoral researcher in SFU’s Department of Archaeology, explained the researchers ‘…collected 3D data from suitably dated skeletal collections from Britain and Denmark, and then analysed the data to estimate the ancestry of the Anglo-Saxon individuals in the sample.’ Isotope ratios extracted from these Anglo-Saxon skeletons indicated the incoming population was relatively small in size. Plomp and her colleagues found that between ⅔ and ¾ of early Anglo-Saxon individuals were of continental European ancestry, while between a ¼ and ⅓ were of local ancestry. When they looked at skeletons dated to the Middle Anglo-Saxon period (several hundred years after the original migrants arrived), they found 50% - 70% of the individuals were of local ancestry, while 30% - 50% were of continental European ancestry, indicating a change in the rate of migration and/or local adoption over time.

The implication is that, instead of wholesale population replacement, it is far more probable the indigenous population adopted Anglo-Saxon language and culture. Indeed, as Professor Keith Dobney of the University of Sydney concluded: ‘the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of early medieval Britain were strikingly similar to contemporary Britain - full of people of different ancestries sharing a common language and culture.’

The complete research article can be found here.

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