Ancestral Lands, part of the Henstead Hundred Series
Saxlingham—Nethergate and Thorpe
Saxlingham has rightly been named a village of outstanding beauty. While taking the photos that accompany these three posts on Saxlingham’s early history I found it difficult to find something that wasn’t enchanting.
From its two churches—one now a ruin—to its lanes lined with neat and quaint thatched houses, everything fully photogenic!
The village hasn’t been styled especially as a tourist attraction. Though it does attract tourists—mostly arriving on two well-shod feet, for the parish is exceptionally well served by footpaths. I could say that’s how I first encountered the village. But it’s not. I encountered it first in childhood, passing through it on the way to my grandparents who lived the next village along. Love at first sight? Perhaps.
Many years later, when looking for somewhere other than marshes to walk, I remembered this ‘green’ village (that’s how I remembered it), and set out to walk it—and there began a love affair that, today, has resulted in this set of four posts. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed the research and the writing, the walking and photography. But if not, then at least enjoy the photos.
So, to start at the beginning . . .
Across the North Sea—from Ice Age Hunters to Saxon Settlers
There were people living at Saxlingham, in the ancient Hundred of Henstead, long before it was given that name. Long before the Saxons came.
Palaeolithic (500,000-40,000 BCE)
There’s not much to write on this period. What marks were made upon the landscape, the subsequent glacial ebbs and flows have wiped away. Not that Norfolk (and therefore Saxlingham) was often weighted by ice; it remained more often at the peripheral. But the glaciers, while not quite reaching here, in their cyclic melting released everything gobbled up on the way. This weight of mixed aggregates was spewed out in great fans across the Norfolk landscape; the pulverised silt dumped as boulder-punctuated clay across what then was tundra. The combination of gravel and clay gives Saxlingham a distinctive environment. One of the first things I encountered when walking here: clay-based soil doesn’t drain well! I bought a pair of galoshes. But more of that anon.
Despite the glacier-carried gravel screes and the rivers of mud, human hunters and gatherers did hunt and gather here—between the ‘cold snaps’. Flint-flakes and ‘lithic implements’ thought to date from Lower to Middle Palaeolithic have been found in the fields and in gardens when digging foundations for home-extension. An elegant hand-axe flaked from grey-black flint is said to be from ‘Middle Palaeolithic’. As to the rest of this period . . . best consign it to the ‘Interesting box’, and move on.
Mesolithic (10,000-4000 BCE)
When the ice retreated, flora and fauna flourished again. That’s something like 4000 years summed up in nine words. Let’s expand on that. Birch, aspen and sallow were the first to inveigle their roots amongst the various dwarf shrubs, sedges, grasses, mosses and lichens that had clung limpet-fashion to the gravel-and-clay abused land. Followed by the intrepid hazel and pine; then alder and the mighty oak. Next came came the less venturous of the deciduous trees, creeping across Europe from their refuge around the Caspian Sea: lime and elm, holly, ash, beech, and finally the bashful maple and hornbeam. And, of course, with trees came the underbrush. And with the underbrush came most—though not all—of the wild flowers and herbs that now grow in much less abundance around the fields, the lanes and the commons. And along with them all came the beasts of plain, fens and forest.
How did they reach this ice-cleared isle? Not by floating across the North Sea, for the sea wasn’t yet there. Britain was not an island, the Norfolk coast did not exist, until circa 6000 BCE. Between Britain and north-west Europe there existed a hunter’s paradise, an open plain, today termed Dogger Land. This extensive landmass catered to the fisherman and fowler, too, riven by marshes, fens, streams, rivers and their estuaries. If all one required in a diet was protein, here was protein sources aplenty. But what of the honey? The berries? The herbs for healing? What of the wood one sometimes requires? Though we all know things can be improvised. What of the flint?
So many mythologies have a ‘happy hunting ground’ away to the west. Norfolk, and lands north and south, was that place for the hunter-fisher-fowler-gatherers of Dogger Land.
The Rhine flowed across this wet-land/plain terrain to empty via the soon-to-be-formed English Channel. The Yare was one of the Rhine’s many tributaries. The Yare, and its tributary the Tas, was wider, and deeper, than we find it today, inviting coracles or bark canoes, and the like. How easy, then, to reach the place that would one day be Saxlingham, spread upon the wooded banks, there to set a few-days camp while gathering berries, and honey, and herbs and . . . who knows what else.
In those days, the land that was to become Saxlingham was riven by a tributary of the Tas. And, again, by a tributary of that tributary. Together, they formed a claw that enclosed the later (and now abandoned) settlement of Saxlingham Thorpe.
Rivers in those days. not yet silted through land erosion—land erosion caused initially by tree clearance required for agriculture, exacerbated by the overworking of that denuded land. (We’re seeing it happen elsewhere in the world, but it happened in the Near East and in Europe first.) The ‘tributary of the tributary’—which maybe had never been more than a stream, has since disappeared—except for in extremely wet weather. Now, it flows after plentiful rain when drainage from the clay-burdened fields helps swell its course. As it reaches the crossways at heart of Saxlingham Nethergate (the lower village), a drain beneath the road takes that flow, to deliver it, ultimately, to the main tributary. That main tributary is marked on old maps as Broad Slough.
The word ‘slough’ best translates as ‘bog, mire, marsh’. A quaggy area. Today, modern drainage has reduced the lower reaches of Broad Slough to grazing pastures trickled through by a seasonal stream.
Even where it joins the Tas it’s not exactly a spectacular water course. Yet at one time it would have been quaggy for the full width of these pastures. And before being quaggy, a condition resultant of silting due to . . . here we go again . . . tree clearance and agriculture, it would have been a broad stream. Even what might pass as a river. That river (or stream) rose to the south of Saxlingham, where it borders with Hempnall. Today, all that remains here is a weed-choked ditch.
How different the environment for the Mesolithic hunters who left behind a trail of worked flints—including (recognisable) an axe-head, and what’s been described as a perforated quartzite macehead but more likely was a perforated weight for a digging stick.
There are two misconceptions about this period. One is that our Mesolithic forebears, being primarily hunters and fishers, were given to a lifestyle predominately nomadic. Yet there now is sufficient evidence, especially in Denmark, Poland, and in France, to suggest that whenever they found a reliable source of food (herds, fish, fowl—and edible plants) they happily erected permanent shelters, usually surrounded by their ever-growing middens, into which, with respect and awe, they inserted their dead.
And that ties in with the second misconception. That our forebears of this period ate only fish and whatever they bagged in the hunt. Nonsense. Increasingly the evidence points to active herd management (corralling, provision of winter fodder). And though barley and wheat hadn’t yet arrived from the Near East, they’re not the only grains edible. There’s a plethora of what we call weeds that yield nutritional seeds. Not to mention the greens, and the roots, the nuts and berries. So, while the men were out hunting (or herding) and fishing and fowling, the women would have been out gathering, else (according to season) tending their ‘garden’ plots.
Neolithic (4000-2350 BCE)
Circa 4000 BCE, agriculture arrived.
Ultimately, these first farmers were from the Near East—Anatolia, today’s Turkey. Oh, what Trojans? You mean to say that Geoffrey of Monmouth was right? Coincidentally, yes, and out by a huge factor of years.
But these ancestral farmers hadn’t headed straight to Britain. Far from it. They had crossed from Asia Minor into Europe, settled, begat descendants some of whom, some time later, upped roots and walked a little bit further. They formed two groups. The northern group followed the Danube. Europe being sheltered beneath heavy forest cover, the farmers settled the more open river valleys on their inexorable journey westward. It took some 5,000 years for the descendants of the descendants of the first farmers to eventually arrive at the last hurdle. The North Sea. But they didn’t cross it. Not yet.
The southern group edged their way around the Mediterranean to arrive in Iberia (Spain and Portugal of today)—in fact, the speed of that journey bears witness to their use of boats. From Iberia, they followed the Atlantic coast all the way north, crossing the ever-widening English Channel, to arrive in western Britain, Ireland, the Scottish Isles. And to continue—all the way north to the Orkneys. Some journey, effected in tiny steps by each generation.
Studies of ancient DNA show that those arriving in Britain were mostly the southern group, even if they crossed the North Sea, for they settled the coastal lands there, as well. Yet, strangely, modern DNA studies strongly suggests that the southern group settled only in the west. Those of us living in the east (residents of Saxlingham included) carry genes from the northern group. How come?
There is more to the genetic story. For instance, it used to be thought that on their way across Europe the genes of the northern group had been thoroughly spliced, many times over, by the indigenous population there encountered. However, recent studies of ancient DNA tell a different story. It wasn’t until the Late Neolithic that the hunters and farmers finally bedded down together. But more of that anon.
And so . . . those arriving in Britain did so via the southern (Mediterranean/Atlantic) route, bringing with them grain, and clay-made ‘pots’, pigs and sheep and goats, and a somewhat smaller breed of cattle than the indigenous aurochs (the size of an elephant!). Moreover, the style of their flintwork differed from their predecessors—which makes it easier to find them via archaeological finds. Not everywhere has been blessed with highly visible long barrows and complex shrine-tomb-temples.
Even so, Saxlingham has some claim to the monumental.
Though yet to be excavated and dated, there is a hengiform earthwork, thought to be Late Neolithic. Worked flints dating to the Neolithic lay scattered across what was to become the villages of Saxlingham Nethergate and Saxlingham Thorpe. Various flint blades, several flint scrapers, flint axe-heads and one described as ‘a polished axe’, several flint cores with accompanying flakes, a ‘Late Neolithic rod’; a sickle of rare form, a few pottery sherds, and a flint roughout for a laurel leaf point. Which all points to a Neolithic settlement in these parts. We have no hope of recovering even a hint of their houses; wattle and daub, thatched, and sub-rectangular.
The distribution of finds clearly shows that beyond today’s kernel of habitation the land wasn’t yet cultivated. The same held true through later ages. Why? Because of that thick larding of boulder clay dumped by the glaciers, resulting in seasonal quag-lands, devilishly difficult to drain. Until late in the history of the village these clay-lands would best serve as wood-pastures for summer grazing. As a source of wood for the wood-burners in producing charcoal. For an abundant source of underwood for fencing, utensils, work implements. And, as required, for timbers for house building.
And so, in all likelihood, what was to become the parish boundary between Saxlingham, Hempnall and Woodton; the hundred boundary between Henstead, Depwade and Loddon; the estate boundary of an Anglo-Saxon family—itself inherited from a Roman predecessor; a boundary used in the Iron Age land divisions; these, too, inherited from the Bronze Age, was already there in the Neolithic.
Bronze Age (2350-700 BCE)
To understand the influences that weave through the Bronze Age, we have again to look eastward. Not to the Near East, but to the North Pontic Steppes. Here existed a semi-nomadic, horse-revering, horse-herding and rearing culture. The Yamnaya.
To snaffle a headline featured in ‘Science, Popular Archaeology’ earlier this year (21st Feb 2017):
Thousands of horsemen may have swept into Bronze Age Europe, transforming the local population
The article, written by Anne Gibbons, reports the conclusion of recent DNA studies; studies that take ancient DNA, from ancient burials—Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, and later. These studies show the average (modern) European is a combination of three peoples: Indigenous hunter-gatherers, Near Eastern Neolithic farmers, and these Steppe-herders, each contributing their genes at different stages. At first all is Indigenous. Then the Indigenous seem to disappear (no one yet has answered to where) and all is Near Eastern Farmers. But at some time during the Late Neolithic the Indigenous again make an appearance—in the farmers’ beds! The DNA of the period is now shown to combine the two. Then, wham! An overburden of MALE ONLY (or at least predominately male) DNA that was previously only known amongst these horse-herders of the steppes. It is thought, with good reason, that these sons of the Yamnaya carried with them the precursor of the Indo-European languages, including Germanic, Celtic and Italic.
But while they swept into Europe, in several waves from 3000 to 2800 BCE, spreading their unique culture of kingship, of wagon-burials beneath towering kurgans (round barrows), introducing a focus on the ‘polis’—a place of gathering, for feasting, for renewing or forming new alliances, for marriage arrangements, for tribute laying, an essential for a people who had been long nomadic—toting woven woollen garments fastened with distinctive bone toggles, and not forgetting their cult of the alcoholic beverage, best served in their (later adopted) beakers (perhaps koumiss, fermented mare’s milk)—all this, yet, like the Neolithic farmers, they stopped at the North Sea. It was yet at least another 200 years before they ventured across. By then their culture, as with their genes, had been added and blended to that of their host ‘Funnel-neck Beaker’ culture—those who, as in Britain, had buried their dead in megalithic long barrows.
Under the influence of these kurgan-building, ‘polis’-using people the ‘cult of the earthwork’—the first glimmers of which are seen in Late Neolithic (c.2600 BCE)—really takes off. It’s not just the round barrows, initially intended for single inhumations, later forming mini-cemeteries for the urn-held cremations. Henges now appear right across Britain, as they do across Europe too. With the quarry-ditch inside the raised earthen bank, it’s long been said the henge was not a defensive structure. And yet it was. The circle is used to ‘contain’. A circular ditch around a burial barrow is used to contain the deceased’s spirit within (we don’t want the ghosts to follow us home). Likewise, the circular ditch of the henge contains the sacred within—and defends the sacred from the pollution of the mundane without. The henge was a polis, used for a gathering for feasting the gods, for renewing or forming new alliances, for marriage arrangements, for tribute laying.
Two henges are found in the Henstead Hundred, one excavated, one known only from aerial photography. The excavated henge is sited close to the confluence of the Tas and the Yare, at Arminghall-Bixley. The other is at Saxlingham. Together, they bracket the last stretch of the Tas while also marking the northern and southern bounds of the (later) Hundred. Again, at both places are found round barrows, sufficient to form barrow cemeteries. At Saxlingham they stand on the ‘hillside’ above Broad Slough. Another two are found on the far side. Typically, barrow cemeteries are found hillsides, thought to serve as territory markers.
Away from the henge and the barrows, other Bronze Age finds shows a peopled landscape. Unfortunately, as with the Neolithic, no sign of a built domestic environment, no magnificent chiefly round-houses. A ring; a socketed axe-head; a spear; a rapier fragment dated to Middle-to-Late Bronze Age (1600-700 BCE); a Middle Bronze Age (1600-1000 BCE) chisel; dated to the same period, a palstave axe. All of which may not sound terrifically impressive. Yet these have turned up during ploughing, and building, fieldwalking and found by metal detectorists. There has been no organised archaeology here.
I find it interesting that some of these finds have been from land I know for a fact is downright claggy, even now. One wonders how they arrived there. Are there more barrows yet unidentified? Though, spears, rapiers and axe-heads suggest more a battle. They seem to be not the things to ‘lose around the house’.
Land Division and Ancient Fields
It long has been known that the dry-stone walls that run like widely spaced tramlines across what now is moorland, in and out of valleys, irrespective of hills and rivers, are the remains of an ancient land division that began in the Bronze Age. That division wasn’t restricted to Dartmoor; it’s merely that deteriorating weather coupled with the nature of those walls have allowed those to remain. Elsewhere, the original ditches, banks, fences and hedges of our Bronze Age ancestors have been lost beneath today’s ditches, banks, fences and hedges. They can still be seen, though much fragmented, in the long runs of field boundaries that extend obliquely, north-to-south, across the Hundreds, cut across by later roads, followed by footpaths where modern agricultural practices have grubbed out the hedges; slavishly followed by parish boundaries. This is one reason I use the first Ordnance Survey maps, published between 1881 and 1886. Drawing from them, studying them, I can better see those field boundaries. But fields . . . we think of them as arable while the incoming Indo-European speakers were herders. Grain was still grown, but these fields would have been primarily pastures.
Such land division requires either a governing body—a king or chieftain, or an ‘elite’, as today’s archaeologists and historians prefer—or the cooperation of the wider community. Which brings us back to the ‘polis’: the people’s meeting place. And those people now were plentiful. It’s estimated that the Neolithic population of Britain was never more than 50,000. Yet by 1600 BCE the population had topped a million, and that achieved in just a couple of centuries. If nothing else, that would have been incentive enough to clarify and harden land-use.
Those strips of land found on Dartmoor and similar places, are believed to have belonged each to one family. Their family homesteads would have been centred within them. And in Saxlingham? Saxlingham didn’t yet exist as a discrete unit. The present-day Saxlingham probably occupies three, maybe four, strips; but those strips go on cover the bulk of the Hundred.
Iron Age (800 BCE-42 CE)
The Celts did not arrive with the Iron Age, bringing with them their bronze and iron-ware of Hallstatt and La Téne design. Though those wares certainly did arrive. For the people who would later be known as speakers of a Celtic language—in this case the Britons—had already arrived. They had brought with them the henge and the round barrow—and a reverence that remains for horses. The Great Goddess, Apona.
Very little has been found in the soil around Saxlingham that can be safely dated to this period. Iron Age pottery, by its design, does not readily survive the deep ploughing required in clay lands. And iron, by its nature, tends to rust into nothing in damp conditions. The fields remain, incredibly not destroyed by the later drive for a common field system—which is not to say that system of communal farming did not arrive here. But, as they say, in Norfolk we do things differently. More anon. The story is different in Stoke Holy Cross, the parish that abuts the soon-to-be-planted Roman ‘venta’. Here, an abundance of cropmarks suggest an Iron Age settlement, with a round house and various accompanying enclosures.
It’s been estimated that more people lived in Britain on the eve of the Roman invasion (2 million), than lived here at the time of the Norman Conquest (estimated 1.5 million in 1086). So many people, so many mouths, so many bellies to feed. All that pressure upon the land, building since the middle Bronze Age. Now, in some areas, the soil was failing, losing fertility. In answer to this urgent need of new land, our Iron Age ancestors did what the Normans called ‘assarting’: they cut yet another field from the woodland that bounded their land. This was no longer primal forest—that had all gone before the end of the Neolithic. This was secondary, sometimes tertiary regeneration. And giving the remaining woodland the chop was made easier now with the new iron axes.
But there were reasons that land had been set aside for regrowth. It wasn’t for the various woodland products alone, nor for the good grazing provided there without impact upon the arable lands. It was that the land supporting those woodlands, in southeast Norfolk, at least, was claggy—cold and water-logged in winter, baked hard as iron in summer. No crop could grow there. Until now.
Enter the Iron Age plough. In the Neolithic period, the ard, or scratch plough, was used, pulled either by oxen or by man. Using the ard, the land was ploughed first in one direction, then in another at right angles across it. Such fields tended to be square. The Iron Age plough—or turn-plough—was fitted with a coulter, a major innovation. In short, the coulter cuts vertically into the ground just ahead of the share and the mouldboard throws the soil up and over. The result is the neat ridge and furrow commonly seen on our fields today. Such an innovation not only enabled the claggy interfluvial lands be ploughed—and ploughed deep—but those furrows helped to improve the drainage. But first, the tree cover must be cleared.
In Saxlingham that meant the land south of ‘Nethergate’ could now be put into arable production—before, it would have been pasturelands bordered by woodland. At the same time, the land to the east of Saxlingham Nethergate, latterly known as Saxlingham Green, could be made productive, the woodland that had long served as the boundary between Henstead and Depwade and Loddon could be assarted. Though apparently sufficient was left that the later Saxons named their nearby settlement Woodton.
Meanwhile, there was the matter of partible inheritance—i.e. all the heirs (usually sons) received a share of the deceased father’s land. So, say, a farmer has five sons. On his death, each will receive a fifth of his land. Now say he’d been farming a strip 1 mile wide by 5 miles long. Each son would receive for his portion one square mile. I’ll leave you to work out what would happen in the next generation, and the generation after that, and after that. Yet partible inheritance was the norm amongst Indo-European peoples—e.g. the Celts and the Germanic tribes—even into the Middle Ages. The result during Britain’s Iron Age was the further subdivision and sub-sub-division of the Bronze Age strips into a series of individually owned rather small fields. Another result was a linear spread of family farmsteads.
The Tasburgh Enclosure
The one notable Iron Age feature of the area lies beyond the parish boundary of Saxlingham. Even outside the Hundred (see map).
Variously tagged as Iron Age, Roman, and Saxon, the Tasburgh enclosure has so far defied archaeologists who would pin a date to it. That could soon change. In May of this year the enclosure was subjected to a geophysical survey (not the first, it was surveyed in the 1980s), and test pits were dug. The results are not yet published—or at least, I’ve been unable to find them on the internet. The team from Norfolk Archaeology Trust did hold a couple of sessions for the local community to reveal what had been found. But, alas, I was unable to attend.
According to the Norfolk Historic Environment online database, which classes the enclosure as an Iron Age hillfort while admitting the presence of Late Saxon fortifications could indicate a former Late Saxon burgh (oh, yea: Tas Burgh, that figures), finds to present at this ‘earthwork’ include Roman coins and Ipswich and Thetford ware pottery (Middle to Late Saxon) but nothing suggestive of the Iron Age.
But what would prove it as an Iron Age ‘fort’—and can we ditch that word and replace with ‘polis’. As an Iron Age place of assembly, what finds would there be? And those finds must be from the ramparts, and with clear stratigraphy, i.e. Saxon above Roman above Iron Age. Finds in the centre of the enclosure would prove only that someone here has had a picnic.
Whatever date the archaeologists finally assign it, that it was a site of considerable importance cannot be denied. It sits tight in the corner of three Hundreds: Depwade, Humbleyard and Henstead. It perches on the hillside above the sacred Tas. It declares itself strong and defensive to any enemy approaching from the west. It advertises its presence to traders arriving from the north via the river. It was the site chosen for one of the earliest churches in the area. A puzzle, yet to be deciphered.
Evidence of the cultural change about to be wrought by the Romans is seen first in a spread of coins minted by the Iceni.
Few are the people who’ve not heard of the Iceni, courtesy of Queen Boudica’s bloody revolt in 60CE. And seeing the Roman-named tribal civitas of Venta Icenorum a mere 4 miles north along the Tas (as the crows fly), it’s logical to assume the Iron Age tribe by that name inhabited land that included Saxlingham. But scholars of this period are now proposing a confederation of tribes from the northern parts of (today’s) East Anglia, the Iceni being but one. Though admittedly the most powerful of them. This fits with what’s known of Celtic society, and with what’s known of Roman policy. For example, in Gaul, at the time of their Roman invasions, Caesar made an example of the Namnetes for their alliance with the rebellious Veneti by extending the tribal territory of the Pictons (the later Pictou) as far as the Loire, thus giving the town of Rezé prominence over Nantes. The suggestion is that whatever the original name of the tribe in this part of Norfolk, they were given prominence over their neighbour by hosting the civitas which, in retaining the name of ‘Icenorum’ was a deliberate slighting of the rebellious, and now mostly slaughtered, Iceni. The exact placing of the Venta was probably dictated by the neighbouring Iron Age settlement at Stoke Holy Cross. Did this belong to the chief of this ‘other’ tribe?
One wonders the tribe’s name. The Segontiaci, Ancalites, Bibractes and the Cassi: the names given as part of the Cenomagni confederation which ‘submitted’ to Caesar when he made his early intrusion in BCE 54. Were the Segontiaci also known as the Tais?
There is evidence of a Romano-British settlement on the borders of (present day) Shotesham and Saxlingham. That shouldn’t surprise us, being so close to Venta Icenorum. It is known only through fieldwalking, metal detecting and aerial photography. Perhaps if it ever receives the full archaeology treatment it will reveal Iron Age roots.
Finds on the site include Roman nails, roof tiles, floor tiles, wall-flue tiles (for the under-floor heating), a corner of window glass, brick tesserae, all indicative of a Roman villa of some quality. Other finds include various metal pieces: horse harnesses, brooches, a bracelet, a finger ring, a pendant; dress fittings, e.g. a buckle and pins. As to the quantity and quality of the pottery found—several sherds Samian ware, sherds of British imitation Samian (i.e. Colchester ware); large sherds from wine amphorae from Spain; copious pieces of slip-decorated, colour-coated delicate drinking cups; sherds of British manufactured mortaria from Oxfordshire; more of the same from the Nene Valley; and plentiful sherds of local greyware (i.e. storage & cooking ware). All from fieldwalking and metal detectoring. Without doubt, this was an establishment of some importance. Maybe a descendant of the round house’s occupant at Stoke Holy Cross.
The villa culture didn’t take off immediately in Britain—perhaps quicker in the south with its previous contact with Romanised Gaul. Neither did the Brits much take to the towns—except a few ‘elites’ who jumped at the chance to climb the Roman social ladder. Like the owner of the Roman villa above. He would have held Roman citizenship and attended the council meetings at Venta Icenorum. Though, in truth, by the time the villa culture really took off nearly every free-born person had been granted that citizenship. The advantages? It was more a matter of the disadvantages if you happened to be one of the others, the peregrini: they couldn’t own land with a Latin title, could not inherit from a Roman citizen, couldn’t serve as a legionary in the army—though they could serve in an auxiliary unit and thus earn their citizenship. But who cared about the peregrine. They were, after all, only British peasants; why would they want citizenship?
The coins present around this site help to date it—no earlier than the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE). No surprise there. And sherds of shell-gritted ware, only made in late C4th, gives us an end-date in the late fourth century, maybe just into the fifth—which coincides with the terminus for the Roman culture. That’s quite late for the villa-culture.
A second, smaller site with Roman finds (sherds of greyware) has been identified on the opposite bank of Broad Slough. Perhaps the homestead of a retired Roman soldier?
And a third site, with a more impressive array of finds, south of the ruins of Saxlingham Thorpe church. Here were found coins issued by Carusuus and Allectus (287-296); sherds of parchment-ware, a piece of Samian ware, colour-coated sherds, sherds of mortaria, plentiful sherds of local red-ware, even more of the local grey-ware, a fragment of roof tile and two of floor tile. Also found were 2 brooches and a cosmetic palette. This wasn’t your average estate worker.
A Roman finger ring with raised blue glass intaglio bearing the impression of a bird, possibly an eagle, was also found, but alas, no map reference given.
But as we know, the Romano-British culture was not to last. And while historians and archaeologists still battle over exactly what happened next, at least the demise of that culture can be explained. The narrative provided by Dr Robin Fleming1 is the best I’ve encountered. And so, I end this post with a kind-of summarised version. I apologise for borrowing quite extensively in parts.
It begins with a recap of the situation back in the third century . . . Troubles usually have deep roots.
The Demise of the Romano-British Culture
For the Roman Empire outside of Britain, the third century was one of barbarian incursions, incessant civil war, endless military coups and ferocious inflation. When the situation stabilised—around the turn of C4th—a different Rome ruled, one of strong-armed emperors; of professional administrators who filled the cities, and where the rich had become yet richer. It was this new ‘despotic’ Rome that now governed Britain during a century that would cumulate in independence. But first, Britain’s economy.
Saved the political upheavals experienced elsewhere in the Empire, Britain’s C3rd crash was more economic. In short, the bottom had fallen out of the trans-Channel trade. For Britain, this was like an attack direct to its heart. Britain’s Roman-styled cities had grown rich on international trans-Channel trade, their suburbs dedicated to manufacturing industries with an eye to export—and, of course, supplying the army. In the early days of the province, approximately an eighth of the imperial army were garrisoned in northern Britain, yet Britain was only one of forty provinces. Now, as the fourth century began, there were no imports, no exports, the consumerism on which the earlier Romano-British culture was formed, had fallen flat. Thus we see, in the archaeological record, the industrial areas now given over to market gardening and orchards, while the former grandiose Roman features—the baths, the forum, the basilicas—are stone-by-stone dismantled. This is seen at Venta Icenorum; a second wall built to enclose a much-reduced space. Yet the cities didn’t yet fail.
Several factors were involved in the economic collapse. During the earlier years of the province’s Roman inclusion, imports had ‘hitched a ride’ on military supply ships, keeping shipment costs low, profits high. Now, with up to half the Roman military forces withdrawn, transporting wine and oil and Roman table-ware was no longer viable—not to mention the risks of crossing a Channel bedevilled with Frankish and Saxon pirates. Moreover, with Europe in chaos the manufacturing industries there were in decline. So, what was there now to import?
During the ensuing century (C4th), a new trend is seen: a rekindling of British industry in the form of Britons making Romanised products for the British market.
As this provincial economy emerged so too did new Romanised elite. Brits, now, not Romans from who knew where across the Empire. And they developed a culture that Jane Austin might have recognised, that of ‘doing the season’. One alternated the ‘town-season’—dwelling in elegant town houses where one attended elegant parties and showed off one’s (remaining) elegant Roman tableware and drank – ‘Where did you find that wine, darling?’ –if one had contacts, the best of wines whilst mixing with others of one’s own kind. Then, the ‘town-season’ done, one retreated to the cooler, calmer air of one’s equally elegant villa. This period saw a rise in the number of new villas, most situated within a half day travel of the now cleaner, less industrialised—regenerated—cities and towns. Our villa at Saxlingham falls into this class.
The period also saw a burgeoning of small towns—alongside the Roman roads, at river crossings, at road junctions (as with the small town later named Crownthorpe to the west of Venta Icenorum). These small towns provided a place to market the locally made craft-wares, the locally-grown fruits of the field, alongside the mass-produced Romanised wares. Here also assembled the available workforce, a central place to wait on employment. Here, too, was found an inn—essential for the overnight accommodation of the tax collector. For that’s something else that was found here. The state granary, required to store all those taxes paid-in-kind. For here, in the small towns with their shops and craftsmen, inns and state granaries, local products were turned into cash, into taxes, and, as importantly, into more manufactured, saleable goods. The cities were no longer at the heart of the Britain economy. Now it was the turn of the small town.
Dr Fleming gives 290 to 360 as the high water mark of romanitas in Britain, when Roman culture was embraced in some degree by everyone, when almost everyone had access to the British version of Roman goods. As she says, with its modest economy, organised industry, its small urban communities and quirky version of romanitas, Britain could have continued for centuries. So what happened? Why did it fail?
Consider these: the coffin nails . . .
During the fourth century, organised incursions of combined Pict and Scots forces four times seriously damaged Britain’s defences—that’s without counting the smaller raids that came between them. At each major incursion, Rome responded with additional troops. And while each breach, alone, was not enough to destroy Roman Britain, the repetitive cost of renewing defences, and of improving them, not only along Hadrian’s Wall, and the east coast, but also as protection for the towns, meant that money wasn’t available to spend upon goods. Which for Britain’s economy, based on consumerism, was a recipe for eventual disaster.
Meanwhile, the empire’s internal politics reached out across the Channel and drew in many of Britain’s major landowners, military officers and civilian administrators. In 353, for example, in the aftermath of a failed attempt by a British imperial pretender, Britain suffered a thorough political purge.
And the Spanish-born military commander of Britain, Magnus Maximus didn’t help but merely exacerbated the situation when, in 383, he set himself up as head of a breakaway Western empire. Not only did he withdraw troops that Britain could ill afford to lose, but he compounded the damage by heavily taxing his subject territories—which included Britain. In consequence, Britain’s most important families and imperial administrators were financially ruined—which in turned ruined the already failing economy.
In Dr Fleming’s words, a line was crossed in the late 360s, early 370s. The economy of Britain entered terminal decline. The villas, the highly Romanised elite, the economy of mass production, the local commerce, the heavy coin use, the urban communities, Britain’s association with the Roman world . . . all faltered. Then ceased.
At which point I’d best say, see next instalment. Enter the Scribes . . . coming shortly
1 Robin Fleming, Britain After Rome, 2010