The Origins of Political Order and the
Stuart Brookes* and Andrew Reynolds*
Recent excavations in advance of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at Saltwood, near Folkestone (Kent), have revealed important evidence for a meeting place. In the late fifth to seventh centuries some 219 pagan Anglo-Saxons were buried across four plots, three of them focussed on a bronze Bronze age Age barrow, either side of an iron Iron age trackway. Some four centuries later the site was recorded as the meeting place of the local Domesday hundred, Heane (Heane Wood Barn still stands less than 250m to the south-west), consisting of the medieval parishes of Saltwood and Postling. Very probably, therefore, this coincidence records the transition from a pagan-period cemetery space used by at least four communities, to a hundred meeting place which continued as a centre of local administration until at least 1279.
Given some of the judicial functions of meeting-places one archaeological correlate we might expect to find is the association with Late Anglo-Saxon execution burials and medieval gallows. Archaeological evidence for execution burials has recently been collated by Andrew Reynolds, who has shown that such sites were separate from, but in the viewshed of, meeting-places – and the same appears also to have been the case with regards to gallows sites.
Running behind with this as with much else, it would seem: on 29th April the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research renewed for this term with a paper by Andrew Reynolds, of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, entitled, “Assembly Sites and the Emergence of Supra-local Communities in Early Kent”, and I was there. I know of Dr Reynolds mainly as a convenor of the Institute of Archaeology’s own seminars, to which I wish I could make it more often, but his own work is also really interesting and he has a new book out entitled Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs which looks to be full of interesting stuff especially if you’ve shared my own passing interest in that sort of thing. Here, however, he was trying to look at how the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England might have come to be, by looking for local unities in the archæological record (defined broadly and including place-names, field names and so on) and trying to distinguish differences and development.
Gold, silver and garnet composite disc brooch, probably early seventh century, found in grave at Saltwood, Kent
In particular, he was trying to look for assembly sites, not so much the big royal ones but the steps down from there, and most especially the old English territorial units known as hundred. These are well-recorded in Domesday Book, but of course that leaves one wondering how much older than Domesday Book they are. In fact, very few even of those that can be located have been dug, but the recent building of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link through Kent has laid bare a completely arbitrary trench of archæological potential through one of the key areas for the development of royalty in England, whereas we normally get to investigate only dispersed sites known to be of interest for some reason. Of course, that trench might have passed through nothing of moment, but in fact, and in particular, at a place called Saltwood it went through a complex of cemeteries, which Dr Reynolds believed represented four different communities, three of whom were burying with various levels of deliberate layout around Late Bronze Age barrows and one who apparently got there too late to have a barrow and had to have the fourth quarter. The site is at what appears to be a crossroads of old trackways (one of which was on the line of digging and produced fill with ceramics of this early date in it). The point of all this for the thesis is that the local hundred meeting site was at Heane Wood, all very close by, and the apparent focus of multiple communities burying here is very suggestive when linked to that later focus here of the whole region. Need more of a link? The cemetery sites are full of short-term cooking pits of the late seventh through to twelfth centuries, pretty much when the burial sequence stops onwards. These pits were not in long-term use and there’s no evidence for structures, so it looks as if people were coming here, eating and then going away again.
This is obviously a bit complex. There are shades here of the meals with the dead ruled against in church canons from the Continent studied by Nancy Caciola, and it’s hard to say whether the fact that the cemeteries were apparently remembered linked to the fact of the nearby meeting place with any certainty. I would wonder (and asked) whether it wasn’t equally possible that they weren’t remembered as burial sites of these people’s ancestors, but just as sites with obviously visible barrows, which might have had a much older significance more or less reinvented by those gathering. But if one removes the burial link then obviously you need another reason why people gather here, and the hundred provides an obvious one. Then you have to ask if the burial comes first (because of the crossroads?) and the hundred sets up here because there are already gatherings there, or if the burial is put here because even in the sixth century this is where four communities territories meet? The causation is really all up for grabs. But it’s interesting, isn’t it?