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Finding Britons in Anglo-Saxon graves

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  • Finding Britons in Anglo-Saxon graves

    Finding Britons in Anglo-Saxon graves

    There can be few peoples whose ethnic origins are so fraught with historical
    problems as those of the English. Bede, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, provide a story of Anglo-Saxon invasion in the 5th century and large-scale slaughter or displacement of native Britons. Many historians doubt the story -- believing many or most Britons survived -- but evidence to back up their account has always been hard to find.

    Large numbers of native Britons have never yet been recognised in the archaeological record. My own research, however, suggests that evidence for the Britons can in fact be found, and in places where archaeologists have hitherto rarely looked -- that is, in Anglo-Saxon settlements and cemeteries. It should not really be a surprise to find them there, as the 7th century laws of King Ine of Wessex contain regulations for Britons, in a way that implies their close co-existence with Anglo-Saxons, often as slaves or serfs. So how do we recognise them? First, we can assume they had fewer grave goods than their Anglo-Saxon masters, and no weapons; and second, we can recognise them through skeletal traits.

    Evidence of this sort suggests two distinct phases of interaction between native Britons and Anglo-Saxons -- immigration in the 5th/6th centuries resulting in ethnically divided communities and regions; and increased mixing of the two groups in the 7th/8th centuries, leading to the assimilation of the natives into Anglo-Saxon society.

    In the first phase, about half the male adults in Anglo-Saxon inhumation cemeteries were buried with weapons; and where there are enough skeletal data, it appears the men with weapons were, on average, one to two inches taller than their weaponless brethren. Other skeletal evidence suggests this was probably not the consequence of different diet and health. There is also strong evidence that the men of post-Roman Germanic populations on the Continent were one to two inches taller than Romano-British men. We may, therefore, accept the stature difference in post-Roman England as evidence that about half the male population in 'Anglo-Saxon' communities was of native stock.

    A closer look at individual sites, using this type of evidence, suggests two different patterns of immigration and settlement in southern England. The cemetery of Berinsfield, Oxfordshire, is an example of the 'community model' where immigrants had arrived in complete kin-groups, and did not
    intermarry with Britons despite living close together. In the cemetery, distinct plots contained skeletons with two different genetic patterns, suggesting separate communities of Britons and Anglo-Saxons several generations after the Anglo-Saxon immigration.

    The 'warband model,' on the other hand, is exemplified by the cemetery at Stretton-on-Fosse in Warwickshire, where almost all male burials contained weapons, and where genetic skeletal traits and textile techniques continued from the Romano-British phase to several generations after the Anglo-Saxon immigration. This suggests that an all-male group had settled there and taken native women as wives.

    Historical evidence and place-names, point in addition to the existence of a third pattern in the south -- wholly British enclaves -- for instance in the Chilterns and in places such as Walcot and Wallinford (derived from the Old English word wealh for 'foreigner', indicating Britons).

    This situation changed gradually throughout the 7th and 8th centuries. A drop in average male stature by one inch in 'Anglo-Saxon' cemeteries in Wessex suggests that more native groups, previously buried in cemeteries that cannot be identified, were now adopting Anglo-Saxon culture and burial practices. In addition, in existing Anglo-Saxon settlements the disappearance of the stature differential between men with and without weapons suggests more intermarriage between ethnic groups. The appearance of Celtic names in the Wessex royal house (for instance, the 7th century king Ceadwalla) suggests that the elite too became mixed.

    In the transition from an ethnically-divided conquest society to an early state, social differences of rank and status were becoming more important than ethnic origins. Biology and culture were moving in opposite directions. The common culture created in the 7th and 8th centuries was Anglo-Saxon, but Anglo-Saxon skeletal traits gradually became submerged in those of the Britons; and together the Anglo-Saxons and Britons became the English.

    Dr. Heinrich Harke is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Reading.

  • #2
    Originally posted by Txschlib
    A drop in average male stature by one inch in 'Anglo-Saxon' cemeteries in Wessex suggests that more native groups, previously buried in cemeteries that cannot be identified, were now adopting Anglo-Saxon culture and burial practices.
    This is a far-fetched explanation for a very logical phenomenon.

    The most obvious explanation is that with each passing generation, as Anglo-Saxons took local wives, the Anglo-Saxon stature advantage would become progressively diluted. This is totally consistent with the hypothesis that the invaders effectively exterminated the indigenous male population by taking their womenfolk and livelihoods.

    By the way, driving the indigenous men into 'safe areas' like Scotland and Wales has the same effect, because such men must then compete with the local men for womenfolk and livelihoods. This, too, is a recipe for long-term demise.


    • #3
      The supposed drop in stature could have non-genetic explanations, as well, like a change in diet.