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West Stow Anglo-Saxon village

23 December 2012

West Stow is an archaeological dig that was developed by English Heritage into a visitor centre and re-enactment of what the village is thought to have looked like when it was inhabited. Various volunteers walk around in A/S costume and it is, generally speaking, a good day out, especially if you have children, or grandchildren. It is located on the Breckland, not the most fertile of soils, but this led to its preservation – or the remains of the huts. They are described as huts rather than houses as early Anglo-Saxons are supposed to have been a bit rudimentary in living style – so have EH been a bit imaginative in their recreation? They also have underground chambers beneath some of the huts which has led to a lot of debate over the years. What were they for? They were at one time alleged to be a characteristic brought by migrants from the other side of the English Channel, and variously defined as sleeping quarters, storage pits for grain or other commodities, or workshops. The latter appears to have attracted some recent attention and if this is so that rather puts the kibosh on the idea the people living in the huts were peasants, and pretty basic peasants from what was the original interpretation. The word clods springs to mind, or bumpkins.

Steve Mitchell, in a recent email to several members of SIS, has come up with an amazing discovery. It seems the Anglo Saxon village of West Stow may actually date to the Late Roman period – prior to the arrival of Anglo Saxons. The stratigraphy of the huts, and the sunken buildings, have a not later than AD350 age, he suggests. The assemblage of artifacts at West Stow is actually mostly Roman in culture – apart from Hut 10 which is situated elsewhere on the slope, to the far west of the site. The Roman period stratigraphy, he adds, and most importantly, was topped off by an alluvial deposit – which contained one Saxon pot. The point about Hut 10 is that it dates to after the abandonment of the village – as a result of rising water levels. These rising water levels are a well known feature of the Late Roman period and Steve relates them to the Dawson and Smith sea level curve. In this, a rise of sea levels, and the drowning of large parts of the Fen lands and East Anglia, brought West Stow close to or even at the tidal reach point of local rivers. The alluvial deposit was therefore laid down during local flooding events associated with the flood plain. The situation is described in a letter from the British to the Roman consul Aetius, in Gaul, at around AD430. What Steve can't explain is the Anglo-Saxon coinage found at West Stow, the so called sceattas, or silver pennies (see for example www.time-line.co.uk/saxon-sceattas-for-sle-192-0.html). The sceattas have caused problems in archaeology for some time – see for example www.britnumsoc.org/publications/DigitalBNJ/pdfs/1949_BNJ_26_12.pdf. Why do sceattas appear in what is possibly a Roman layer? They are supposed to date from after AD600 and it is their presence that the site was defined as Anglo Saxon. The sceattas took precedence over the Roman artifacts – being the later (it is thought). However, they have in recent years, Steve adds, been found in Roman contexts elsewhere, and they have parallels to some Celtic coins. Are the sceattas British rather than Saxon – or was there contact across the North Sea during the Roman period? The contact address is available to anyone who might like to enlighten us.

Note … both links appear to have problems. Go to the individual home pages, www.britnumsoc.org (click on Digital BNJ on LH menu and when it comes up scroll down to 1949-51, click link and scroll down to 'Problems with Saxon Sceattas) and likewise at www.time-line.co.uk (click on coins and scroll down to sceattas).

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