Dark Age Britain - Evidence
Written sources and archaeological evidence
'Some historians have treated the destruction of the
Romano- British world and of the native population as virtually total.
Others have treated the Anglo-Saxon intruders as imposing little more than
the superficial veneer of a new language and a conquering elite on a British
population that remained basically in place, however economically depressed
and culturally deprived.' Myres (1986: 2)'
Myres questions why such different interpretations should occur. An
element of difficulty arises from the written sources. There seems to be
a general assumption that our knowledge of Roman Britain is good and that
difficulties begin because the post-Roman period does not provide us with
such detail. In fact, Roman written material is sparse, particularly when
it comes to the non-mediterranean regions. Moreover, few Roman writers
ever visited Britain. The truth is that the last years of Roman Britain
are virtually as 'dark' as the centuries thereafter!
However, as Myres points out, there is the evidence of Roman archaeology,
which appears much richer than later remains. This is because:
* Roman villas, towns, forts and other structures followed comparatively
standardised forms. They are easily recognisable for what we believe them
* Provincial Roman society was dependent on mass-produced goods
such as pottery, metalware and glass which have the dual qualities of being
durable and classifiable.
* The Roman economy required coinage, which was again mass-produced
and provides a dating system for the objects and sites it is associated
Non-standard, locally devised buildings, locally-produced wares made
of less durable materials such as wood and leather, and the absence of
coins make Dark Age archaeology far more problematic. It may not
be a matter of the evidence not being there, but our inability to recognise
it for what it is - and, just as importantly, when it was deposited. As
we shall see, the importance attached to 'Anglo-Saxon' remains, and therefore
Anglo-Saxon culture derives from the rather obvious nature of pagan grave
goods. Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon viewpoint is further reinforced by literature
written from the 7th century onwards by people with an Anglo-Saxon agenda
to serve. is a prime example.
Similarly, Martin Henig casts doubt on the interpretation of 'dark age' evidence such as the assumptions that
Anglo-Saxons were buried with grave goods and Britons were not (British Archaeology,
December 2002). "It is not satisfactory to describe, for example, the warrior buried at
Lowbury Hill in Oxfordshire as an Anglo-Saxon - as many have - simply because he possessed
a shield and a spear. His iron spear was enamelled, most unusually, in a Celtic style, and
he was buried with a hanging bowl also in Celtic style. It looks rather as if he wanted
to make it clear that he was British."
Wormald (1996: 131) contends that there were two significant events
which developed from the dark ages: the 'Making of England' and the foundation
of the Regnum Scottorum. In the first case, he remarks:
'What do historians do when confronted with what amounts
to a wall of silence (or, at best, a burble of distant and indistinct voices)?
One thing they can do is what Anglo-Saxon historians did until lately with
their equivalent problem, which is not the emergence of 'Engla Lond' but
the transformation of lowland Britain between the early fifth and sixth
He argues that the historians have taken every single piece of available
evidence and 'crammed' it 'into its place in an interpretative vessel so
crafted as to accommodate them all'. However, in doing so, they attribute
significance to the (written) material which it did not have for its authors.
Wormald goes on to state that:
'...we now tend to see the pre-conversion annals of the
not as a record of the conquest of Southern England
in the sixth century, but as some sort of explanation and legitimation
of the way it was ruled in the ninth.'
For an account of archaeological findings from burial grounds read:
by Heinrich Harke in
British Archaeology which indicates evidence for considerable inter-marriage
rather than extermination of the Britons.
Wormald, P. (1996), 'Emergence of the Regnum Scottorum: a Carolingian
hegemony?' in Crawford, B.E. (ed) (1996), Scotland in Dark Age Britain,
University of St Andrews, St. John's House Papers No.6, Scottish Cultural