Salisbury Museum Volunteers have been involved with the Deverills Archaeology Group (DAG) since last summer and joined a packed village hall at Kingston Deverill last week for their inaugural talk, given by Simon Esmonde-Cleary (Emeritus Professor of Roman Archaeology Birmingham University) on the end of Roman rule in Britain (c AD 410).
The early 5th century AD is, of course, the start of what is often called the ‘Dark Ages’, but the name refers to our lack of knowledge of the era, rather than, necessarily, the state of the country, or the weather! The Professor posed the question right at the beginning of his talk – did the end of Roman rule mean mass annihilation, bloody invasion by Saxons and so on? Did it, in fact make much difference at all?
Under attack itself, Rome was too distracted to govern this far-flung part of the empire. We know from the archaeology that coinage ceased to come in to the country which meant that Roman soldiers still based here were not being paid. Neither were the local officials. Most of the Roman army in Britain was British anyway. Within a generation, two at the most, those soldiers had settled with their families in the general area of their posting, and begun to farm or provide ‘policing’ perhaps for anyone who would reward them. Similarly, the civil servants moved away from the towns (which no longer had a much purpose) or died off. Excavations at Birdoswald fort and Chedworth villa show that sites and buildings were taken over by the far less privileged, with hearths set up on the sitting room mosaics and timber buildings erected where stone ones had previously existed. A member of the audience shared an interesting parallel – in recent times, modern British army barrack blocks in post colonial Africa were used by local families as they became vacant but those families continued to live as they had done in their relatively simple dwellings, with open fires in the rooms and so on.
The point was made that in 5th century AD Britain the local people were largely untouched by Roman rule (for a fascinating book on this, read Miles Russell’s and Stuart Laycock’s ‘UnRoman Britain’ pub by The History Press 2011) and were still living an Iron Age life. Hence the limited takeover of villas and so on as described above.
Did the Saxons seize their chance and invade? There is limited evidence for invasion and research into DNA, excavation of burial sites, etc (different burial rites are often indicators of new groups arriving in an area) offer a confused picture. Some Anglo Saxon settlement was encouraged by the locals. In other areas, settlers may not have been welcome and there may have been bloodshed. Once some settle, others follow, for a variety of reasons. Within a couple of generations those settlers are adapting to local culture and language while ‘locals’ are adapting to theirs. It is an age that is still ‘dark’. Fascinating.
It was a sometimes delightfully funny talk but also very thought provoking. We sat there as our Prime Minister faced a no-confidence vote in Parliament and thought that nothing changes very much!
Thank you DAG for a great evening.