A History of London in 10 Archaeological Objects: Object 4May 3, 2012 Archaeology, Blogs, LAARC, LAARC Object of the month
The LAARC has celebrated a great achievement the past month by being announced as the largest Archaeological Archive in the World! As part of my series of exploring London’s history explicitly through archaeology, this month it’s the Saxons (or is it?) and an object associated with archaeology’s ability to sometimes completely rewrite the history books.
Our historical knowledge of Saxon London until the 1980s was scant. No contemporary histories of the period exist until the writings of the Venerable Bede, an English Monk, in the c.730s AD who mentions the city of Lundenwic: “Its [the province of the East Saxons] chief city is London, which is on [the river Thames] and is an emporium for many nations who come to it by sea and land” (Historia Ecclesiastica). It was considered that this wic or emporium would have been situated within the walls of the old Roman city; however, little evidence was forthcoming. This is reflected in the paucity of the Museum of London’s core collection of Saxon objects from the city, which only number some 700 artefacts. Excavations at Jubilee Hall in 1985 proved new theories by archaeologists Martin Biddle and Alan Vince that Middle Saxon (650 – 850AD) Lundenwic actually existed west of the Roman city, in the modern area of London’s Strand/Covent Garden.
This fourth object will hopefully emphasise how new archaeological discoveries are constantly changing our understanding of London’s history and the difficulties associated with interpreting transitional periods in the archaeological record.
Early Saxon (Late C6th AD) Amber Bead Necklace
These 19 individually polished, red amber beads were excavated from one of the earliest graves belonging to a Saxon Londoner, on site of the London Transport Museum in 2003. This object was one of several grave goods accompanying a somewhat enigmatic burial. The skeleton itself could not be aged or sexed and exhibited no pathology that could be interpreted.
As such we know virtually nothing of this person other than that which can be interpreted from the goods chosen to accompany the body in burial (always a tricky business). A shield-on-tongue buckle could be of Kentish manufacture or an import – the garnet keystone brooch pre-dates any ‘Kentish’ known examples. Two ‘Roman’ artefacts – a glass vessel rim and copper-alloy terret – suggest some form of historical curation by the Saxons, but muddy the picture of this particular Saxon’s ethnic and cultural identity.
The amber beads have been highlighted from this assemblage because of all the grave goods they are the most ‘exotic’, having been sourced and traded from the Baltic. Amber was especially popular in the C5th and C6th and favoured in the Anglian and Saxon regions of England (versus Kent). Despite this popularity, this specific jewellery type is the first excavated from the London region, making it unique. On a broader perspective we can see, despite the end of the Roman Empire, London persists as a centre of trade.
Continuation of Roman practice is also evident through location of this pre-wic Saxon cemetery where Roman burials and the re-use of sarcophagi have been discovered. The burial itself is also telling as it is believed inhumation was a Saxon practice inherited from the Romans. However, the positioning of the body – head orientated to the west – may suggest a Christianizing influence.
The unusual Amber beads from this burial are only one piece of a puzzle that epitomizes how archaeology often asks more questions of its material than it can ever answer. All we can tentatively suggest of our Saxon in question is that she was an adult female and clearly of status.
In the last 25 years our knowledge of Saxon London has changed dramatically and in the last twelve years excavations, such as at sites LGC00 and SMD01, have allowed archaeologists to refine the stratigraphic framework and related chronology of this period. Having located where Saxon London was, perhaps in another 10 years we will be far closer to understanding who our Early Saxon Londoners were. Only archaeology will tell…