If You Don’t Need It, Why Keep It? Urban Edition

One reason people assumed for so long that the period from AD 410 CE to 800 was an age of darkness and end of civilization was that in England, cities disappeared. A few of the Roman cities continued on, but most lapsed into disuse and faded from memory as other than a great place to find pre-cut rock for other things. More mainland Roman urban areas lasted through the Dark Ages/ Late Antiquity and into the Medieval period, far more. For English language historians [glowers at Gibbon], the conclusion was obvious: The end of Rome meant a dark age of poverty, hunger, ignorance, and barbarity until the slow, faltering rebirth of the Classical period in the Renaissance.

Besides Gibbon having a large bone—Columbian mammoth sized bone—to pick with Christianity, a lot of the assumptions made by early historians came from not knowing what they didn’t know. If you depend on government records, and you don’t have a literate government, well . . . Also, it was assumed that Rome had used all stone all over, like the cities in Italy or Gaul. Thus, the absence of evidence meant that nothing remained because someone had quarried the ruins, namely the benighted barbarians. The last assumption was that once founded, cities lasted forever because, well, they were cities. Cities don’t just go “poof” and vanish. People need cities. Right? Yes?

That is, until they don’t. In the past 50 years or so, more and more historians are working with archaeologists and climate people and physical geographers and realizing that, “No one needed that town/small city, so why keep it around?” If the garrison marches off to Rome never to return, are the suttlers and tavern-keepers and “professional ladies” going to stay around? What about the farmers who supplied Rome, and who had to pay taxes in grain, or wine, or fabric? If the market no longer exists, why produce for it when you can do better by farming or raising other things? Or by letting more land go fallow to regain fertility? If your national government stopped requiring tax payments of any kind, would you work as hard if you could make the same income in fewer hours? That’s what happened in Roman Britain, and other places on the fringes of the empire. In some districts, when the army was recalled closer to Rome proper, dependents, the government, higher clergy, and everyone else who could went with them. So who needs towns?

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes didn’t. They had a lower population density, and farmed. They collected “taxes” in animals, some grain, and so on. A lower population concentration didn’t need cities. If marginal trade routes had been abandoned, why put towns there? Especially when the plague of Justinian combined with sucky weather in the Northern Hemisphere in the 500s-600s to lower the overall population of the continent and Britain? Towns faded away. London, York, a few others continued but smaller, built with wattle-and-daub rather than stone. A Saxon lord’s “palace” was a large wooden hall, not a stone praetorium. Those don’t leave a lot of archaeological evidence, unless you realize that you need to look for discolored patches of dirt in a pattern. It can be very, very subtle. A hearth, loom weights if they were abandoned, post holes, lost bones from a meal, perhaps bits of pottery . . . That’s not a lot to go on. No wonder everyone focuses on graves and hordes! Metal is much easier to find nowadays.

So a lot of Roman towns and villages went away, abandoned gradually as the need for them faded. Rome didn’t come back, the new arrivals (when they arrived) didn’t need them, or the towns were in bad locations for defense. Many would revive later, in the 800s-900s, and after as trade increased once more and the weather became drier and warmer. London became a city with stone again, as did York and others. New towns and cities grew as needed, or as planted to take advantage of resources. The sea ate a few old towns, such as Dunwich.

In a way, we’ve seen the same thing in the US. The Great Plains and West had a lot more towns and villages before the 1930s, because people needed schools, post offices, shops, and government services within reach, and the population had not concentrated as much in urban areas. After the Depression and WWII, cities seemed to be where prosperity and trade flourished. Mechanization and then automated irrigation meant that each acre farmed needed fewer people. The Green Revolution of the 1960s-70s allowed fewer people to grow far more food. So the tiny towns disappeared, then the small villages, then the smaller towns . . . When the grocery store closed and the post office went away, that was often the death-knell. Now we can add hospitals and medical clinics to that list, thanks to events of the past 20 years or so.

A city unneeded goes away. And often gets recycled. Why not? We historians just didn’t realize that, because we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we’d never observed the process in our lifetimes. Now we know, and a lot makes more sense.

But it was still a pretty dark age if you were in the wrong (or right?) place at the wrong time.


Fort of the Spear Shafts

Dunpelder was the old name, the Cumbric name. Later people call it Traprain Law, Trefpren or Trefbryn, “hill by the farm of the tree” or “hill by the farm of the hill.” The older name means “fort of the spear shafts,” which tells you exactly what held pride of place atop the isolated, flat-topped hill. The hill, situated on a ridge, dominates the valley and land around it. The instant I saw it from the highway, I knew exactly what it had to be. And I became excited.

The hill, like a few others scattered around the edges of the Firth of Forth, is a laccolith, a bubble of magma that didn’t quite become a volcano. The core of the hill is made of phonolite*, a rather unusual-for-Scotland igneous rock. Part of the hill has been quarried away, and although you can, in theory, hike or climb up and down that side of the hill. it’s not smart unless you have a friend or two, ropes, and rock-climbing gear. The magma intruded during the Carboniferous, 358 MYA to 298 MYA, or the start of the Permian. Come the Ice Ages, the lump eroded to a crag-and-tail formation, similar to Edinburgh Castle’s rock and the lump in Sterling now crowned with the Wallace monument. The Law is about 360 feet tall, 720 feet above sea level, so not enormous but quite respectable, with relatively steep sides. Keep that in mind . . .

Because it was so unusual, and has a truly commanding view of the mouth of the Firth as well as inland, it has been used by people for a very, very long time. The most famous layer is an Iron Age (pre-Roman) fort attributed to the Votadini tribe. Apparently they got along with the Romans, and a hoard of 44 pounds(!) of Roman “hack-silver” was found on the Law in 1919. This is silver that was broken up and given away by the pound in order to reward [bribe] tribes to be friends of the Romans. The hill was abandoned in the 500s or so, and there is some thought that the people moved to Dun Eiden, or the Burgh of Eiden. The local people still sometimes call the hill “Dunpelder.” Dun means fort, pelder is related to the Cyrmic (Welsh) word for “spear shaft.”

The hill today is out in the very rural countryside of East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. The weather was mild with good visibility below a broken overcast and a nice westerly wind. Great weather for climbing up a steep, grassy hill. I bounced out of the car, sorted out the gate’s complicated latch and three-step entry process, and strode west along the base of the hill. Everyone else followed at a more dignified pace. The trail starts pretty flat and gentle, winds back and forth up the west end of the Law, and then doubles back. That’s where it starts to get steep. I’d guess a 10-15% grade. If the grass had been damp, it would have been very entertaining for the people watching me. As it was I probably sounded like a small steam-engine, huffing and puffing.

I think I can, I think I can . . .

This is where the story gets odd. As you would expect on a week-day with school still in session, the place was not busy. A family with a 4-5 year old was coming down after a lunch picnic, and I met a very fit lady hiker once I reached the top. Otherwise? Just me, the ravens and other birds, and the wind. The rest of the group looked at the first really steep slope and decided that staying on more level terrain was the better part of valor. Two and a half weeks before, I would have agreed with them, because I was so out of shape it’s embarrassing. On that day? No. I charged up the slope.

Why the rush? Because something was calling me. For lack of a better word, I felt like something wonderful waited for me and wanted me to come up and look around. There was a sort of euphoria that got stronger and stronger as I trotted up the slope and passed the remains of the prehistoric turf wall that formed one of the defenses of the hill-fort proper. Everything was right – the wind, the birds, the land around me. I didn’t get the mild to strong negative sensations I encountered at the Varus battlefield in Germany, or at the neolithic sites in the Kilmartin Glen. No, the Law liked me. Which sounds terribly strange, and doesn’t really get the feelings across, but it’s as close as I can come.

Half-way up or so, looking north. Did I mention that the Law dominates the landscape?

I’m sure some of it was the sheer pleasure of actually being physically able to climb the Law. I didn’t gasp or ache like I had back at Hadrian’s Wall, even though the slope was almost as steep. I literally trotted up the 360 feet or so of vertical elevation. I’d plodded, with multiple stops, up the Sill. The adrenaline was running, and had been since I launched from the car. Which, again, had not happened before.

The wind gusted around the hill, stirring the pony-cropped grasses and making the wild-flowers dance. Ravens glided below me, catching the wind as they launched from nests in the quarry face at the east end of the Law. Unseen songbirds chirped and warbled as well. To the west, I could see the blue-distant hills beyond Edinburgh, a dark, rumpled line separating the lush, grassy landscape around me from the blue and white sky. To the north, another Law stood between Traprain and the Firth, with more uplands lumping in an indigo line just beyond the shimmering, pale blue line of the Firth of Forth. The sky blended into the water as I looked east, the North Sea swallowing the horizon, quiet and mild for the moment. I smelled grass, and “clean,” no dust or smoke or other things. Bird song, raven caws, and the rush of the wind alone filled my ears. I walked above traffic noise, and soon above the ravens as well. My breathing, the birds, and the wind were the only sounds in the world.

Just outside the ghost of the old turf wall.

And so I reached the crest.

For someone expecting to find a reconstruction of a fort or something like that, the top would be a disappointment. I was thrilled. The foundations of the Iron Age fort are just visible through the grass, not far from a “wind cairn.” If you don’t know what you are looking at, it would be easy to mistake the ring of dry-stone wall**, not quite waist high on me, for the ruins. Instead, the lower, grass and woody-shrub covered oval of dirt and white rocks marks the ancient fort. Here, people feasted and planned for war, here chieftains received embassies and raised families, here people fled to for protection in times of danger, perhaps. The semi-wild ponies that crop the grasses and mug visitors for treats remained elsewhere that day, so I roamed unpestered. The wind made the plants and grasses dance, bowing to the east. It felt good, happy, welcoming. As if I belonged there.

The Iron Age fort, looking west toward Edinburgh.
The wind cairn and the North Sea.
The fort, and the Firth of Forth.

When I got ready to hike down, nothing urged me to linger. Whatever I sensed, it didn’t try to lure me or bother me, it didn’t whisper to me to stay. I stayed very happy, content, full of delight and joy . . . And wary of turning an ankle, because I wasn’t wearing proper hiking boots, and did NOT want to misstep on the way down. Down is always more of a challenge than up, at least for me. Gravity has never been my friend.

Of all the places I went, monuments I visited, ancient ruins and remnants I circled, Traprain Law . . . It moved me, touched me in a way I feel a bit sheepish trying to explain. That afternoon . . . was the happiest, most joy-full I felt on the entire trip. I’ve not had that sensation in a very long time. Wonder, excitement, mild awe, all the feelings that blend together into joy, a deep joy that lingered well into the evening. It almost felt . . . Almost as if that hike, and staring around from the top of the hill, was the whole point of the trip. Which makes absolutely no sense at all, but that’s the closest I can come to explaining what went through me as I stood atop that wind-washed hill, staring out at the North Sea as ravens and hooded crows glided below me.

*The name comes from the fact that some forms of it making a ringing sound when tapped with a rock hammer. It’s rare because you need a mantle plume or other hard-core hotspot to create. It has no crystals in it per se because of the lack of silica.

** Wind-cairns are to protect hikers caught in storms and so on. I can well believe that being atop the Law in any sort of rough weather could become dangerous very quickly.

From Rome to the Middle Ages and Back

So, after getting rained on and windblown at Vindolanda and the Sill, it was time for a museum. So the day started at the Roman Army Museum. The landscape around is pasture, some cultivated fields, and woodlots, and Hadrian’s Wall is not far from the museum building.

See the thing in the case behind his foot? We will come back to that.

The museum is a military history and organization museum, so if you know nothing about the Roman Empire, or the military, you would probably be a bit at sea. If you have some basic knowledge, it is a great look at how the auxiliary troops functioned, their organization, equipment, and what the Roman Army did in Britain. It was also full of waves of kids, which is good. Unless you are trying to read displays around (or in this case over) them.

Not quite as comfortable to carry as a backpack, but it worked.

The museum was put together by archaeologists and historians, with the help of reenactors. There are a lot of people who “do” Roman military life on weekends, and they test out the different ideas about how armor, tools, and other things worked. (I almost, almost got a monograph about Roman artillery on the frontier, but the weight of the book dissuaded me. But it looked soooooo interesting!) You go through the introductory area, which is about the organization and staffing of an auxiliary unit as compared to the standard Legion (smaller, different command structure, more variety in the type of soldiers in the unit). The museum is based on the career of an actual historical person, a young man from what is now Hungary who joined up, served on the Wall, and lived to retire back to Dacia with citizenship, a pension, and a family.

There’s a neat video about both Hadrian’s Wall, and about the soldiers who served there. They get the “joys” of military life, including being on night watch on the wall in winter, with a R&R camp behind the Wall in sight, while the protagonist is “standing here, on watch, with . . . Sevirus.” Sevirus is not the sharpest spatha in the armory.

Hey, Centurion, I found the Picts!

One of the really amazing things about Vindolanda and a few other sites was what got preserved in the water-logged depths of the moat/garbage dump. For example, ever wonder about the crests on top of the helmets? I always assumed that they were all horsehair. Not so.

It is made from a type of hair moss, a plant with long filaments that were used instead of horse hair for crests, and for wigs. This is the only example that I’ve ever seen.
One of several working models of Roman artillery. There was also a very nice obituary for the dedicated gent who did so much of the research into how these things might have worked, and how they didn’t work. He’d passed away recently. He wasn’t a professional archaeologist, but one of the dedicated amateurs who love figuring things out.

From here, we drove to Durham. The route runs along the crest of a ridge, giving you wonderful views of the land to the north and south. The clouds were breaking up, or at least thinning, so long strands of light shone down through the grey skies. The driver had Classic FM on the radio, quietly, and I realized it was playing “The Lark in Clear Air” by Ralph Vaughn Williams. There I was, in a beautiful English landscape, listening to one of my favorite English Romantic composers. It doesn’t get much better than that. Then the radio cued up “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. That also fit, since it is used at Remembrance Day ceremonies. It might have gotten a bit dusty for a moment in the Range Rover.

Outside the museum. Some things have not changed for two thousand years . . .
They shall not grow old as we grow old . . . The War Memorial Chapel/ Durham Light Infantry Chapel at Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral is on top of a steep hill, beside a castle, overlooking a river and road junction. It is built on older foundations, possibly going back to pagan (that’s uncertain, but would fit the pattern), and the shrine of St. Cuthbert goes to the 900s. His relics were originally elsewhere, but there was a little Viking problem, so he was moved inland. St. Oswald’s head was later found with St. Cuthbert, to the mild surprise of some people. The church we see today was started as Romanesque, and completed between 1093 and 1133. It was later modified to have Gothic elements as well. Among other things, it has the oldest surviving stone vaulted ceiling that we know of.

Durham also has some of the very few medieval church paintings still extant, as you can see below. Oliver Cromwell and his supporters are credited/blamed with doing in all the other medieval art. This is in the Lady Chapel, where the Venerable Bede is also buried. (He’s now St. Bede of Jarrow, but everyone still calls him Venerable Bede.)

As you go around the interior of the cathedral, there are a series of history panels, half pre-Norman and half Norman. It is wonderful to compare and contrast the accounts of events and people. And then there’s St. Oswald. Although they overlapped to a small extent, there wasn’t a direct link between St. Cuthbert (634ish-687) and St. Oswald (604ish-642). St. Oswald was a Northumbrian (Anglian or Saxon) king who converted to Christianity, beat up on pagans, and died in battle in 642. There is a summary of the saint’s life available for those who are unfamiliar with him. The author was/is uncomfortable with the idea of a warrior saint who converted people by defeating them in battle. I was somewhat—not amused exactly, but—puzzled perhaps by the author’s difficulty. It was a different time, a different place, and the local people felt that Oswald was a good example and miracle worker, so they honored him, as did the local church. *shrug*

Did I mention the Gothic part of the cathedral? This is from the choir, shooting toward the Lady Chapel. Note travelers* for scale.

The Chapel of the Nine Altars is behind the shrine of St. Cuthbert, and has altars to Northumbrian saints, including active altars for Margaret of Scotland, Hilde of Whitby, and Aidan, with space remaining for others. There’s also a tiny little architectural oopsie in one corner . . .

Um, Aethelwulf, something looks a little off here . . .

The floor of my choir loft is not this nice. [Pouts in Chorister] Neither is the seating.

Down in the main market square. Down is the operative word. The hill is steep.

On the way back to Hexham we visited the foundations of a Roman bridge and small army camp. We had the place to ourselves, since it was 45 minutes to closing time, chilly, and damp. The lady in the tea shop was glad of company and quite chatty about her old house (1600s-1700s), restoring it, the bits of Hadrian’s Wall in her back pasture, and so on. It was about 60 F, breezy, and damp, and hot tea was very, very good. Oh, and the RAF did low-level training overhead. As in 500 feet and below.

It was a good day.

*Travelers, per Alex, our driver and arranger-of-logistics, are people who go places to learn new things, who are curious, and who can roll with changes and complications. “Tourrists,” hissed with a considerable amount of venom, are the problem people who, oh, complain about being interrupted once an hour in York Minster by the chaplain asking for quiet while he offers the prayer of the hour. “Why are they praying here?” was the dead-serious demand. No, I did not turn around and whap the individual with a Psalter. Or the people who can’t/won’t understand why an early-medieval castle doesn’t have an elevator, and get unhappy about that, despite all the signs and warnings and the nice lady at the gate warning people about it being stairs or nothing. *Facepaw*

Celts or Kelts? Or why Archaeologists don’t love Enya

Quick, when I say “Celtic,” what comes to mind? Green stuff, knot-work, Ireland and Wales, a certain basketball team (if you are from Boston), music with Irish or Welsh harps or Enya and Clannad, maybe Loreena McKennet or Patrick Ball, St. Patrick, the Book of Kells, redheads, W.B. Yeats . . . In short stuff from the far western end of Europe. If I told you that the Celtic heartland is in Switzerland and Austria, what would you say? Because “Celt” in popular understanding is not archaeological Celt, at least not in Central Europe. Ever hear of Hallstatt? Continue reading

Mining or Looting or Archaeology?

Most of the gold that circulated in Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and 1522 was recycled. Aside from Ireland, Europe doesn’t have many easily-reachable gold deposits. Some gold came from Africa, but the Islamic conquest made that source harder to access. It was far easier to go to the nearest mound, dig, and hope you found treasure. You know, mining the easy way. Earlier peoples did it, after all, so why not? Archaeology didn’t exist yet, and the dead didn’t need the stuff. Especially if they were pagan dead, not Christian. Pagans weren’t virtuous (most of the time) and didn’t count. A priest could bless or exorcise the place or the gold and bronze, just in case.

I started thinking about this because of an aside in a (generally pretty decent) program about the effects of the LIDAR scans of Mayan sites in Central America (basically outside of Mexico). The archaeologist mentioned the problem of weighing “release all the data!” against “don’t tip off pot hunters!” The black market for preColumbian artifacts is considerable, and looting of sites is a major problem. If people don’t know where to dig, they won’t tear up sites before they can be documented and properly excavated. At least, that’s the hope. Most of the data I’ve seen either has the location scraped off, or is of places like Tikal that are already very well protected and monitored. Pot-hunting and looting is a big problem in the American Southwest, and people who have sites on their property are very, very wary about word getting out. I’ve encountered this in my own academic work, and had to promise to scrub all specifics out of archaeological reports that I used, just in case.

This is a pretty new idea. Especially in Europe, graves of earlier peoples were seen as mines. Dig, find metals, and reuse them, especially gold. At least three generations of archaeologists have lamented this. Scythian and Celtic sites especially, because what we have found in un-looted burials has been impressive, and has shifted a lot of thinking about trade, technology, and other things. We lost almost all of the non-metallic stuff from the looted grave mounds because it deteriorated quickly after contact with air and water, or was taken and used (pots, textiles) and disappeared. Granted, we have that same problem with a number of sites excavated in the 1700s-1800s, because they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and they were digging for “good stuff,” not bits of burned grain and fragments of textiles. Look at the first excavations of Pompeii, for example.

The archaeologists down in Peru and Ecuador had success bringing local peoples into the digs, and explaining that “these things were made by your ancestors. Would you sell your grandmother’s bones?” Now, I’m sure a few people would do just that if they were desperate enough, or she were enough of a harridan, but a number of the local communities said, “No, show us how to do this right.” And they became the caretakers and excavators of the great sites, keeping strangers away and gaining skills in archaeology, tourism, and so on that people can use to get better jobs. Give people a stake in the story, and they stop digging up things to sell to random, cash-waving strangers. At least for now.

But this is a somewhat new idea. Either you left graves and mounds alone, because Bad Things Happened to people who didn’t, or you dug in there and sold what you found, since the dead didn’t need the stuff anymore. In some cases, you protected your ancestors’ graves, and dug up their ancestors’ graves, to eliminate their claim on the land you now possessed. Ah, prehistoric people. So like our own people, even though we’d prefer not to admit it some times.

Book Review: The White Horse

Miles, David. The Land of the White Horse: Visions of England. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019)

“We’ll run the course/ From Stonehenge up to Uffington,/ On a white chalk horse we’ll ride . . .” So sang the band Uffington Horse. The real thing is not quite as mythical, perhaps. It is world famous, and is set in a very, very old landscape, one where people have been leaving traces for tens of thousands of years. The horse is prehistoric . . . or is it? Continue reading