Anglo-Saxons

Anglo-Saxons: A compound name used from the early c5 AD after movements of the Angles and Saxons from their homelands led to a merging of their separate identities. This took place in the Elbe-Weser region of the North Sea coast, whence they crossed to settle in England after the breakdown of Roman rule. Other Germanic peoples who part in the migrations, such as the Jutes and the Frisians, have become included under this name. The language, culture, and settlement pattern of medieval and later England can be traced directly to them.

The movement probably began in c4 with the arrival of barbarian Foederati to serve with the Roman army, a situation mirrored in the legendary invitation of Vortigern to Hengist and Horsa to settle in Thanet in exchange for their military support. The main immigration began in the middle of c5. Bede, writing early in c8, gives the only reliable historical record for this period, though incidental information can be found in the Old English literature, particularly in the poem of Beowolf.

By late in c6 this movement was coming to an end and the English kingdoms were taking shape. Though they were traditionally seven in number (the Heptarchy) there were more than this to begin with, the less powerful gradually being absorbed by Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. East Anglia and Kent retained their independence longest. The increasing number of detailed contemporary documents shows the varying fortunes of these kingdoms. Wessex became the nucleus of an increasingly unified England between 886 and 927. In 1016, however, the kingdom fell to the Danes under Canute, and then to William of Normandy in 1066, the date generally accepted as marking the end of the Anglo-Saxon period.

Archaeologically, the period can divided into three, not counting the poorly documented preliminary phase overlapping the Roman occupation. The Early or Pagan Saxon period ends with the general acceptance of Christianity in c7, following the arrival of St Augustine at Canterbury in 597 and St Aidan at Lindisfarne in 635. Its remains are limited largely to burial deposits, these often being very rich. Burial was by cremation in urns, or by inhumation in cemeteries of trench graves or occasionally under barrows. Grave goods often include knives, a sword or spear, a shield boss, and occasional brooches and buckles with the men, brooches, beads, girdle-hangers and pottery with the women. Recently villages have come light, such as at West Stow, Suffolk, and Mucking, Essex.

The Middle Saxon period is less well known since the practice of burying grave goods with the dead went out with the advent of Christianity, Few buildings have yet been identified, the most outstanding being the royal palaces in Yeavering in Northumberland.

The invasion of the Vikings or Danes in C9 introduce the Late Saxon period. Grave goods are again not found but more is known of the doubtless commoner and more substantial dwellings. Large timber-built town houses have been studied at Thetford, Winchester, and Southampton, with some stone-built churches survive (Bradford -on-Avon, Earl’s Barton, Escomb, etc). The pottery of the period is also beginning to be understood, with the recognition of distinct fabrics made by industry based on St Neots, Thetford, and Stamford.”

Excerpted from: Bray, Warwick, and David Trump. The Penguin Dictionary of Archaeology. New York: Penguin, 1984.

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