Riches of the Dark Age

18 March 2012

At… and is another discovery, this time in Cambridgeshire, of a grave with rich trappings that indicates the dark age was not really 'dark' but an incredibly wealthy period – for large numbers of people. On this occasion the body of a young girl, laid out on a bed with iron legs, as if she was at rest, had a delicate and well made gold and garnet cross on her chest. At a study group meeting last year Lawrence Dixon mentioned attending a talk on the archaeology of the dark age and was surprised at the wealth and the richness of finds that indicated trade routes to the Mediterranean and elsewhere were in operation. I've also been reading a book, Barbarians to Angels, Peter Wells (Norton and Co., 2008) (another cheapie) which is a sort of reassessment by archaeologists who seem to have ditched a lot of the old ideas on the dark ages – across Europe north of the Alps. It has a nice description of Roman London which flourished between AD90 and the 3rd century. After this many buildings fell into disrepair and others were demolished and the stones re-used – for example, in a new town wall along the north bank of the Thames. What had happened to make people want protection from the direction of the river? The mid to late 3rd century was a period of Anglo Saxon activity that closely resembled that of the later Vikings, their ships creating a threat in the North Sea and the Channel (on both sides, northern France and southern Britain).

We are familiar with the Dark Earth layer as a result of talks and articles by Steve Mitchell over the last few years. It seems this is now dated to the Late Roman era – 3rd century onwards. It can be found in London for example but in many provincial towns too and consists of dark humic soil (derived perhaps from food and animal waste) in which the remains of pottery, animal bones and glass fragments can be found. The Dark Earth uniformly covers the remains of early to mid Roman occupation levels (up to mid 3rd century) and after a lot of discussion amongst archaeologists it is now thought to represent thriving activity in a culture that had reverted back to a more traditional Celtic Iron Age lifestyle. Even house remains are timber framed and wattle and daub in construction, a situation that prevailed into the 6th century. The early to mid Roman period is marked by a climate that was much warmer than normal and Roman culture was able to transplant itself fairly easily into Britain – particularly in the south. However, in mid 3rd century the climate became cooler and wetter and unsuitable for Roman agrarianism. This discovery illustrates in a remarkable fashion just how profound the change in climate that occurred at this time. In fact, it is difficult to delineate much different in archaeological contexts between the Late Roman period, 3rd 4th and 5th centuries, and that which is designated Anglo Saxon in the 6th 7th and 8th centuries, and herein is the mystery – where is the evidence of dark age migrations in Britain and France? It seems the majority of the population, being farmers, carried on in their own sweet way. It is now assumed the changes affected the ruling classes – who were replaced or co-mingled.

However, in the 6th century London appears to have moved NE of Covent Garden and outside of its Roman boundaries, expanding into what had been farmland. London was never abandoned – it continued unabated with all the old trades from jewellery making, the import of wines, and iron works etc. Its focus shifted a little way but it was still London – bringing an end to previous ideas. However, there was some technological innovations – a new kind of plow. The Roman ard was quite simple, it seems, a three pointed piece of wood dragged through the top layer of soil that made a narrow ditch in which seeds were sown. During the 5th and 6th centuries, or possibly during the Late Roman era, the iron plow was introduced across northern Europe. It was shaped more like a knife and it sliced through the top soil. In addition, the three field system became the common agricultural practise and the horse collar was adopted – across Europe north of the Alps. 

Archaeologists have found no evidence of a poor diet during the dark age – plenty of cemetaries have been investigated. There are also lots of quality artifacts such as costume jewellery, well made weapons, and iron tools used down on the farm. Lots and lots of iron tools were being produced all over northern Europe from Sweden and Denmark to Germany, France, Britain and Ireland. Huge workshops have been unearthed producing huge quantities of iron tools for everyday tasks. On top of this there were mobile metal smiths travelling the countryside repairing and making farm implements and household utensils. On top of all that a series of elite residences have been discovered at diverse places around Europe. The port of Dorestad for example, on the mouth of the Rhine, the entry and exit port for the empire of Charlemagne, or Tintangel, on a promontory in Cornwall, protected on all sides from invasion. Only five per cent of the site has so far been excavated but it has produced lots of evidence of trade with Byzantium, Spain, and North Africa – in the dark ages. The sea lanes remained open, it is clear, and the coast was the point of entry of luxury goods, wine, and olive oil etc. However, there is plenty of evidence that native artisans were producing highly ornate objects – and here we are back at the beginning and the gold and garnet cross on the chest of a corpse laid to rest in a bed.

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