The British Museum – ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’, and the newly reopened Room 41 (Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100)


Yesterday I went to London to visit the British Museum. As an adult this is only the second time I’ve been, with not living in London, which is remiss of me as most of it is free and it is even more impressive and welcoming now they’ve roofed over the courtyard with a beautiful light-filled dome.

I had booked to see the special exhibition on the Vikings (6th March – 22nd June 2014) but I also wanted to revisit Room 41, which has recently had a ‘major redisplay’ (as the Museum website / blog calls it). The Museum says it’s 30 years since they’ve put on a major exhibition about the Vikings. Since then our view of them has changed considerably ie we no longer focus just on the marauding and pillaging and violence. The view in Denmark has also changed – they don’t want the Vikings to be the only thing they are known for – so for your information they are also great on renewable energy (loads of wind farms which I think look great, but I like pylons too!), and they have lovely coastal areas, and nature reserves like the Wadden Sea (which I recently cycled around).

The Viking exhibition was put on with the help of museums in Denmark and Germany, and the main focus is the biggest Viking ship ever found, at an estimated 37 metres. There is lots of information on how their boats were constructed, seafaring and trading, and how we know about the boats (from stories, burials and shipwrecks etc). You aren’t permitted to take photos in the exhibition, but there is a detailed ‘catalogue’ (hardback £40, paperback £25) you could look out for online (I’m sure there will soon be copies on eBay!), or buy in the Museum shop. Personally I opted for the book on Viking ships as a memento of the exhibition – which I thought was very good value at £5. It is written by the British Museum curator who was involved in staging the exhibition, and includes quite a few images of objects and images I actually saw there.


I really enjoyed the exhibition – it reinforced and extended what I already knew, and I’m fascinated in this period of history in North Western Europe. However, I recently (last week) visited Ribe in Denmark with my boyfriend for a few days, where we went to the Viking Centre (with reconstructed Viking houses from different periods) and the Viking Museum. Beautiful Ribe is the oldest town in Denmark, and was a Viking trading town from the 8th century. At the Viking Centre ( one of the senior enactors, who described herself as something of a Viking era ‘geek’, told us she had seen the exhibition in Copenhagen before it came to England, and she thought there were some inaccuracies. She told us she was not impressed with the exhibition, but also admitted perhaps she knew so much already that it was not really aimed at her.


Well I don’t know enough about the Vikings to be able to spot those kind of inaccuracies, but I do have my opinions about the early Anglo-Saxon era, as you will know if you have read earlier entries in this blog. So while I was at the Museum I also dropped in at the newly improved and re-opened Room 41, which houses the Anglo-Saxon Britain permanent display – with a focus on the Sutton Hoo boat burial ‘treasures’ and other informative and often spectacular finds from pagan graves.

I wonder if the same British Museum curator responsible for the Viking Exhibition and the Viking ships book, ie Gareth Williams, is partly responsible for the content of these rooms too, as this seems to be his period of expertise, judging from his range of publications. Anyway, I was disappointed to find that the British Museum still goes along with the old mass migration after the withdrawal of the Romans explanation for the origins of the Anglo-Saxons.


Here are two photos I took of the new display boards. OK, so the invasion hypothesis has quietly been dropped, but how long will it be before the British Museum admits that this emphasis on incoming Germanic peoples may not be correct either?


We are constantly re-evaluating our views of ancient peoples, and new technologies available to archaeologists are increasing our knowledge, but there is a very slow filter down into the ‘story’ we the public are told. One problem is that the senior generation of archaeologists either a) don’t publish their research very quickly, or b) have too much power over the ‘story’, and aren’t ready to completely rethink their ideas, which in the case of the Anglo-Saxons is what is called for (even the name is not really appropriate in my view). It looks like the British Museum is also part of this cover-up – what a disappointment.

Of course all opinions on this blog are my own, and I may be entirely wrong! And don’t let this stop you going to the British Museum – it is brilliant and FREE. Everywhere you wander there are amazing things you’ve heard of and seen images of, and there they are (and often huge) – it is a really WOW place if you are into world history, archaeology, art and culture. When we were in Denmark we had to pay for the museums we visited, but in Britain they are paid for through taxes and sponsorship etc – though museums all push more and more for voluntary donations from visitors as their support lines are cut by a cash-strapped government.

Of course one problem with the British Museum is that it was built on the proceeds of the British Empire, quite literally, and furthermore many of its exhibits were basically plundered from ancient buildings abroad, like the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens that the Museum and the British Government have refused to return to Greece. This kind of politics is very much missing from the display boards in the Museum, or its website. No doubt there are people who want the Anglo-Saxon ‘story’ in Room 41 re-writing, but we the public are not likely to be privy to the machinations that go on whenever a new exhibition is staged or the permanent displays rewritten. What a pity – personally that makes it all so much more interesting! But of course ordinary people have more of a voice now due to the internet – we can add our comments to websites and write blogs like this one – so let’s celebrate that at least.


The Seafarer – find out about another wonderful Old English poem that will open your eyes on the period still mistakenly called the ‘Dark Ages’


The only surviving copy of this poem is in the Exeter Book manuscript, so, like ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ and ‘The Wife’s Lament’ which I looked at in earlier posts, this poem was written more than a 1000 years ago (and perhaps originally composed considerably earlier – the tenth century is the date of the manuscript, but we know nothing about how any of these poems came to be within it).

Once again the poem has a narrator, so we have a clear feeling that this lonesome traveller / pilgrim / exile is speaking to us across the ages. The poem contains the musings of a seafarer, currently on land, vividly describing difficult times at sea. The paradox is that despite the danger and misery of previous sea voyages he desires to set off again. Remember though, that there are other ways of interpreting/ translating this poem.

Most Old English scholars have identified this as a Christian poem – and the sea as an allegory for the trials of a Christian seeking his God. If you only read the first half of the poem you won’t come to this conclusion, as it appears to describe real sea travel, together with memories of the narrator’s lost time as an Anglo-Saxon warrior (well that’s one way of interpreting these lines). From about half way through the poem the narrator starts to refer to his Lord/god, and we begin to view the first half of the poem in a different light.

The last part of the poem contains a more conventional homily praising the seafarer’s (Christian) god and advising followers how to conduct their lives in order to reach heaven. This ending seems quite different in tone (and originality and hence poetic quality) from that which goes before – early translators often excluded this part from their translations of ‘The Seafarer’, considering it to be a separate poem.

I do appreciate the religious side of the poem, although I am not ‘religious’ myself (like many 50+ people in Britain I was brought up within the Christian tradition – I love cathedrals and old village churches, rituals like harvest festival, the Bible with its wonderful language and stories, hymns we sung at school as a child etc). However, what I really love about this poem is the images of the sea and the birds, and how the seafarer shares his memories, feelings and longings with the reader. It makes you want to know more about the poet, and the character in the poem that he speaks through.

In this poem there is no church, no tradition, no priest telling you what to believe – it’s a time when Christians were in a minority and followers were genuine pilgrims searching for ‘truth’ and this appears to be one aspect of the poem, but a love of the sea and nature also comes through very clearly. You want to know more about this person, and about the poet. As usual with the Old English poems ‘The Seafarer’ leaves you with many questions that will never be answered, but this means you have a chance to reach your own conclusions on what it’s about – like all good poetry.

The poem is 125 lines long – I have included all of it here but you’ll have to do a bit of scrolling to get through it (first in Old English, then in translation into modern English). As in my previous posts I’m using the edition of the poem from The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records edited by G.P. Krapp and E.V.K. Dobbie in 1936, and the translation from Richard Hamer’s 1970 anthology, A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse. You’ll find if you look at other translations that each one of them provides a different interpretation of what is happening, and hence a very different poem / story.

The original manuscript has no punctuation as we understand it (a few random dots are scattered about, but modern editors have identified no purpose for them) and no capitals to signal proper nouns. It is not even set out in ‘lines’ of verse. Editors have to add these layers of meaning, and each editor makes different decisions.

There are also a few words that are indecipherable towards the end of this poem, where the manuscript has been damaged, so editors leave gaps or guess the words from the few letters they think they can identify (they use a lot of technology to examine the manuscripts – as you can imagine given the world we live in); translators usually fill in the gaps with what seems to make the most sense.

There are links to a couple of online versions here:
You could also try using Google Books or Amazon to look at some of the many books of Old English poetry, or even a library or a bookshop (not quite yet extinct!). You can listen to the poem spoken in Old English on YouTube, just to give you a flavour of the language – it sounds a bit like a cross between German and English.

(Untitled in manuscript)
Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
earfoðhwile oft þrowade,
bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela,
atol yþa gewealc, þær mec oft bigeat
nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,
þonne he be clifum cnossað. Calde geþrungen
wæron mine fet, forste gebunden,
caldum clommum, þær þa ceare seofedun
hat ymb heortan; hungor innan slat
merewerges mod. þæt se mon ne wat
þe him on foldan fægrost limpeð,
hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sæ
winter wunade wræccan lastum,
winemægum bidroren,
bihongen hrimgicelum; hægl scurum fleag.
þær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg. Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende fore medodrince.
Stormas þær stanclifu beotan, þær him stearn oncwæð
isigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal,
urigfeþra; ne ænig hleomæga
feasceaftig ferð frefran meahte.
Forþon him gelyfeð lyt, se þe ah lifes wyn
gebiden in burgum, bealosiþa hwon,
wlonc ond wingal, hu ic werig oft
in brimlade bidan sceolde.
Nap nihtscua, norþan sniwde,
hrim hrusan bond, hægl feol on eorþan,
corna caldast. Forþon cnyssað nu
heortan geþohtas, þæt ic hean streamas,
sealtyþa gelac sylf cunnige;
monað modes lust mæla gehwylce
ferð to feran, þæt ic feor heonan
elþeodigra eard gesece.
Forþon nis þæs modwlonc mon ofer eorþan,
ne his gifena þæs god, ne in geoguþe to þæs hwæt,
ne in his dædum to þæs deor, ne him his dryhten to þæs hold,
þæt he a his sæfore sorge næbbe,
to hwon hine dryhten gedon wille.
Ne biþ him to hearpan hyge ne to hringþege,
ne to wife wyn ne to worulde hyht,
ne ymbe owiht elles, nefne ymb yða gewealc,
ac a hafað longunge se þe on lagu fundað.
Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe, þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan.
Swylce geac monað geomran reorde,
singeð sumeres weard, sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord. þæt se beorn ne wat,
esteadig secg, hwæt þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað.
Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas, cymeð eft to me
gifre ond grædig, gielleð anfloga,
hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu. Forþon me hatran sind
dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif,
læne on londe. Ic gelyfe no
þæt him eorðwelan ece stondað.
Simle þreora sum þinga gehwylce,
ær his tid aga, to tweon weorþeð;
adl oþþe yldo oþþe ecghete
fægum fromweardum feorh oðþringeð.
Forþon þæt bið eorla gehwam æftercweþendra
lof lifgendra lastworda betst,
þæt he gewyrce, ær he on weg scyle,
fremum on foldan wið feonda niþ,
deorum dædum deofle togeanes,
þæt hine ælda bearn æfter hergen,
ond his lof siþþan lifge mid englum
awa to ealdre, ecan lifes blæd,
dream mid dugeþum. Dagas sind gewitene,
ealle onmedlan eorþan rices;
næron nu cyningas ne caseras
ne goldgiefan swylce iu wæron,
þonne hi mæst mid him mærþa gefremedon
ond on dryhtlicestum dome lifdon.
Gedroren is þeos duguð eal, dreamas sind gewitene,
wuniað þa wacran ond þas woruld healdaþ,
brucað þurh bisgo. Blæd is gehnæged,
eorþan indryhto ealdað ond searað,
swa nu monna gehwylc geond middangeard.
Yldo him on fareð, onsyn blacað,
gomelfeax gnornað, wat his iuwine,
æþelinga bearn, eorþan forgiefene.
Ne mæg him þonne se flæschoma, þonne him þæt feorg losað,
ne swete forswelgan ne sar gefelan,
ne hond onhreran ne mid hyge þencan.
þeah þe græf wille golde stregan
broþor his geborenum, byrgan be deadum,
maþmum mislicum þæt hine mid wille,
ne mæg þære sawle þe biþ synna ful
gold to geoce for godes egsan,
þonne he hit ær hydeð þenden he her leofað.
Micel biþ se meotudes egsa, forþon hi seo molde oncyrreð;
se gestaþelade stiþe grundas,
eorþan sceatas ond uprodor.
Dol biþ se þe him his dryhten ne ondrædeþ; cymeð him se deað unþinged.
Eadig bið se þe eaþmod leofaþ; cymeð him seo ar of heofonum,
meotod him þæt mod gestaþelað, forþon he in his meahte gelyfeð.
Stieran mon sceal strongum mode, ond þæt on staþelum healdan,
ond gewis werum, wisum clæne,
scyle monna gehwylc mid gemete healdan
wiþ leofne ond wið laþne bealo,
þeah þe he hine wille fyres fulne
oþþe on bæle forbærnedne
his geworhtne wine. Wyrd biþ swiþre,
meotud meahtigra þonne ænges monnes gehygd.
Uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen,
ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen,
ond we þonne eac tilien, þæt we to moten
in þa ecan eadignesse,
þær is lif gelong in lufan dryhtnes,
hyht in heofonum. þæs sy þam halgan þonc,
þæt he usic geweorþade, wuldres ealdor,
ece dryhten, in ealle tid.

The Seafarer
I sing my own true story, tell my travels,
How I have often suffered times of hardship
In days of toil, and have experienced
Bitter anxiety, my troubled home
On many a ship has often been the heaving waves,
Where grim night-watch has often been my lot
At the ship’s prow as it beat past the cliffs.
Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost
In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot
About my heart, and hunger from within
Tore the sea-weary spirit. He knows not,
Who lives most easily on land, how I
Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea,
Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile,
Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles,
While hail flew past in showers. There heard I nothing
But the resounding sea, the ice-cold waves.
Sometimes I made the song of the wild swan
My pleasure, or the gannet’s call, the cries
Of curlews for the missing mirth of men,
The singing gull instead of mead in hall.
Storms beat the rocky cliffs, and icy-winged
The term replied, the horn-beaked eagle shrieked.
No patron had I there who might have soothed
My desolate spirit. He can little know
Who, proud and flushed with wine, has spent his time
With all the joys of life among the cities,
Safe from such fearful venturings, how I
Have often suffered weary on the seas.
Night shadows darkened, snow came from the north,
Frost bound the earth and hail fell on the ground,
Coldest of corns. And yet the heart’s desires
Incite me now that I myself should go
On towering seas, among the salt waves’ play;
And constantly the heartfelt wishes uege
The spirit to venture, that I should go forth
To see the lands of strangers far away.
Yet no man in the world’s so proud of heart,
So generous of gifts, so bold in youth,
In deeds so brave, or with so loyal lord,
That he can venture on the sea
Without great fears of what the lord may bring.
His mind dwells not on the harmonious harp,
On ring-giving or on the joys of woman,
Or worldly hopes, or anything at all
But the relentless rolling waves;
But he who goes to sea must ever yearn.
The groves bear blossom, cities grow more bright,
The fields adorn themselves, the world speeds up;
Yet all this urges forth the eager spirit
Of him who desires to travel far
On the sea-paths. Likewise the cuckoo calls
With boding voice, the harbinger of summer
Offers but bitter sorrow in the breast.
The man who’s blest with comfort does not know
What some then suffer who most widely travel
The paths of exile. Even now my heart
Journeys beyond its confines, and my thoughts
Over the sea, across the whale’s domain,
Travel afar the regions of the earth,
And then come back to me with greed and longing.
The cuckoo cries, incites the eager breast
On to the whale’s roads irresistibly,
Over the wide expanses of the sea,
Because the joys of God mean more to me
Than this dead transitory life on land.
That earthly wealth lasts to eternity
I don’t believe. Always one of three things
Keeps all in doubt until one’s destined hour.
Sickness, old age, the sword, each one of these
May end the lives of doomed and transient men.
Therefore for every warrior the best
Memorial is the praise of living men
After his death, that ere he must depart
He shall have done good deeds on earth against
The malice of his foes, and noble works
Against the devil, that the sons of men
May after praise him, and his glory live
For ever with the angels in the splendour
Of lasting life, in bliss among those hosts.
The great old days have gone, and all the grandeur
Of earth; there are not Caesars now or kings
Or patrons such as once there used to be.
Amongst whom were performed most glorious deeds,
Who lived in lordliest renown. Gone now
Is all that host, the splendours have departed.
Weaker men live and occupy the world,
Enjoy it but with care. Fame is bought low,
Earthly nobility grows old, decays,
As now throughout this world does every man.
Age comes on him, his countenance grows pale,
Grey-haired he mourns , and knows his former lords,
The sons of princes, given to the earth.
Nor when his life slips from his body
Taste sweetness or feel pain or stir his hand
Or use his mind to think. And though a brother
May strew with gold his brother’s grave, and bury
His corpse among the dead while yet he lives,
Wishing them to go with him, yet can gold
Bring no help to the soul that’s full of sins,
Against God’s wrath, although he hides it here
Ready before his death while yet he lives.
Great is the might of God, by which earth moves;
For He established its foundations firm,
The land’s expanses, and the sky above.
Foolish is he who does not fear his Lord,
For death will come upon him unprepared.
Blessed is he who humble lives; for grace
Shall come to him from heaven. The Creator
Shall make his spirit steadfast, but his faith
Is in God’s might. Man must control himself
With strength of mind, and firmly hold to that,
True to his pledges, pure in all his ways.
With moderation should each man behave
In all his dealings with both friend and foe.
No man would wish the friend he’s made to burn
In fires of hell, or on an earthly pyre,
Yet fate is mightier, the Lord’s ordaining
More powerful than any man can know.
Let us think where we have our real home.
And then consider how we may come thither;
And let us labour also, so that we
May pass into eternal blessedness,
Where life belongs amid the love of God,
Hope in the heavens. The Holy One be thanked
That he has raised us up, the Prince of Glory,
Lord without end, to all eternity.

The East-West Divide: Stephen Oppenheimer’s ‘The Origins of the British’


Stephen Oppenheimer is an ‘Associate’ of the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, a popular science writer and a public speaker. In this book he drew on the research of many geneticists, archaeologists, historians, linguists, geologists, climatologists etc. He is a primarily a geneticist himself (his first career was in medicine and medical research) – and I’m sure it is the DNA data, that is only just starting to be uncovered, that is going to solve this riddle of what really happened in Dark Age Britain. I’ve seen Oppenheimer interviewed on television about his other important book ‘Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World’, where some of his ideas are new and hence controversial, as are his ideas about the origins of the British that I discuss here.

Stephen Oppenheimer’s argument in this book from 2006, as far as I understand it (and without all the nuances of his 600+ pages), is that Britain was re-peopled during the period since the northern ice sheets last retreated by different peoples from geographically separate areas of Europe.
Note: the end of the last glacial period was around 12,000 years ago – before that Britain was under a thick layer of ice and no one lived there permanently; and at that time and until about 8000 years ago it’s also important to realise that Britain was still attached by a ‘land bridge’ to Northern Europe ie to what is now Denmark, Holland and northern Germany, so it was not an island.

These different peoples that Oppenheimer proposes came to Britain had different cultures and presumably spoke different languages, and this latter is the aspect I am most interested in. Germanic people (whose language probably became English) arrived in the east side of Britain (possibly some even walked over the land bridge). People from the French south west coast and northern Spain migrated to the western side of the country and to Ireland. Oppenheimer suggests that the Celtic language(s) spoken in the west which eventually became Welsh, Cornish and the long extinct Cumbric (and Breton still spoken in Brittany in Northern France) may have arrived later with another group of peoples. Note: Gaelic and Irish and Manx form a different branch of the insular Celtic languages of the British Isles and may have arrived/developed separately.

Oppenheimer’s explanation is quite complex – languages and cultures may have arrived at different times, and over extended periods – but the basic idea is the same ie an ancient East-West divide of Britain, with peoples of different origins and languages present from early times. This probably happened thousands of years before the period of the Roman occupation of Britain, let alone that of the Anglo Saxons who ‘arrived’(?) in the fifth century when the Romans left.

The assumption has always been that all the peoples of Britain at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 spoke one language – Britonnic, a Celtic language. Thus the argument goes that the ‘poor’ native Britons who spoke this Celtic language must have retreated to the fringes of Britain – to Scotland/Cumbria and Wales and Cornwall – by the ‘nasty’ Germanic speaking Anglo Saxons who first settled in the East of the country and then moved further and further west – or so the story goes. However, all our history/pre-history books are wrong if Stephen Oppenheimer’s ideas about the origins of the British prove to be correct. Perhaps the British Celts were not so downtrodden, and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were not so oppressive as we have all been led to believe.

I could never understand how the Anglo Saxon ‘invaders’ could have brought English with them and imposed it on the indigenous Britons. My gut reaction has always been that this makes no sense. When I discovered this book by Stephen Oppenheimer it was a Eureka moment – and I couldn’t figure out (and still can’t) why everyone else wasn’t convinced by it, and why just about every history book or passing reference to the Anglo Saxon period continues to trot out the same old story (first told to us by Saint Bede in 731 AD in the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English people’).

Archaeologists have found no evidence of war or destruction at the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period – the native population was not wiped out, and there is evidence of continuous occupation of farming communities throughout the period eg at West Heslerton in East Yorkshire (I’ll be looking at this and other archaeological evidence in future posts). Yet the idea has persisted that there was an ‘invasion’ and this is how the English language arrived in Britain.

More recently some historians and archaeologists have started talking about an Anglo-Saxon elite, a small rather than mass migration, imposing their language on the native population. They’ve had to switch to this theory due to new DNA evidence, and the lack of a invasion evidence in the archaeology. According to this theory the Anglo-Saxon elite did not allow the native Britons to have children which is one way to account for new genetic evidence.

However, this seems just as unlikely as an invasion if you consider what happened when the Romans and the Normans came – both of which consisted of elites who took power. Think about this: a) when the Romans came in AD 43 they stayed for nearly 400 years but their language (Latin) didn’t stick; b) when the Normans came in 1066 they spoke French, which was used at court and by all people in positions of power in England and Wales for the next 400 years, but then English re-emerged – with lots of French and Latin now incorporated, but still basically English.

What is very interesting is that recent linguistic research (as I briefly mentioned in my first post on Francis Pryor’s TV programme ‘Britain AD’) shows that English was influenced by Celtic in its grammar. There is archaeological evidence in West Heslerton from the people buried in its cemeteries in the early Anglo-Saxon period, that a lot of people from the west of Britain were emigrating east – up to 50% were in-comers from western areas according to Powlesland’s research (based on teeth enamel evidence).

These internal immigrants probably spoke a dialect of Celtic, which may have been what caused changes to English grammar (when it starting diverging from other Germanic languages which use inflected grammar systems ie word endings change meaning rather than word order as in English). The proposal is that Celtic in-comers, who spoke English as a second language, struggled with the word endings, and eventually their ‘mistakes’ started to be used by native speakers, creating the next reincarnation of the English language.

English is a world-wide language today because it has always absorbed vocabulary from other languages, it has been adopted by different peoples, and now we learn it probably absorbed grammar changes from Celtic. Even in Britain today, the original home of English, there are many different regional accents and dialects – eg depending on if you are in Liverpool or Newcastle or London etc – which is one of the things second language speakers struggle to deal with when they come to live here. But we are a global community now and we need global languages – surely this is how a global language (a new phenomenon) could be expected to develop – no one owns it, and it changes and adapts – like any living thing.

I know when I write about Britain I talk about it in a very ethnocentric way – it’s hard to break out of that habit. But in fact I wasn’t born on this patch of earth, one of my parents is (or rather was, as he has recently died) American and his ancestors that carried my surname originally came from Bavaria (before Germany existed as a nation) to the US in 1851. So I am not British through and through, but I am a first language English speaker, and I suppose that’s where I feel I belong – part of a language community as much as a geographical one.

In my lifetime there has been the revolution of the internet and the world wide web, and then Facebook and blogging and other forms of social media, and we need global languages we can identify with in order to develop an exciting, creative and friendly global community. But we all know English speaking people have dominated empires and imperial world views over the last 500 years or so, and this is definitely a mark against the language. After all the Roman Empire and Latin similarly dominated until 1500 years ago, and look what happened to them.

In addition, we mustn’t forget that we need the history and ideas that are wrapped up in all of the 7000 or so languages that are spoken around the world today (plus the ‘dead’ ones like Latin and Old English, and those struggling to survive like Manx, Cornish and many others) – every language is so rich and exciting, and I so admire people who can speak/understand more than one (I have tried to learn lots and always failed!).

So what do other people think? I will be returning to these issues, including other research I have touched on here, and to Stephen Oppenheimer’s book, in future posts, but meanwhile I would be interested in anyone’s comments.

‘Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain’ by Francis Pryor


This review and discussion is on the UK TV Programme (first broadcast 2004), which was based on Pryor’s book with the same title (also published in 2004). Pryor wrote and narrated this series of three episodes, which are available on 4oD (Channel 4 On Demand – you can access these programmes via the website once you have registered – but be warned, you won’t be able to skip the adverts). There is a very clear argument running through these episodes, most of which rang true for me, though there are some aspects I’m not so sure about, as you will see below. Prior describes himself as a ‘pre-historian’, and his own archaeological research has focused on the bronze age in Britain, so in this series he talks to many archaeologists in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon period, and other specialists such as geneticists and linguists, rather than presenting himself as the expert on the period. And of course he walks about in front of various ruins and across various landscapes as he unfolds his argument, which is why TV is such an enjoyable medium when it is done well.

If you are a King Arthur fan there is not a lot of support for the historical existence of this person in the series, but Pryor does keep returning to the King Arthur myth to see what its significance and origins might be (especially linking it in episode 1 to religious practices where swords were deposited in sacred waters, which has occurred through thousands of years of history, though of course not just in Britain). However, I think Pryor has primarily used this title to entice people to watch the programme, which really concerns what happened in Britain during the Roman period and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon – in what has long been known as the ‘Dark Ages’ from 410-597AD. Pryor points out that the term ‘Dark Ages’ as applied to Britain in this period is completely inaccurate – that in fact this is when the light of creativity and intellectual thought was turned on in north west Europe, not turned off, of which more below.

I learnt a lot from these programmes about the west side of Britain during this period, whereas my own focus has always been the east side. In the second episode we learn that due to Britain’s natural resources, mostly to be found in the West – particularly tin in Cornwall, which was a valuable and scarce commodity in Europe at the time – trade still continued after the Romans withdrew at the beginning of the 5th century. Archaeological evidence shows that this trade was mostly with the Byzantine empire, with ships bringing amphorae of wine or oil, fine pottery and other goods from the Mediterranean to the west coast of Britain. Here, in West Britain at least, Christianity continued after the Romans left, and thousands of stones carved with classical Latin inscriptions of a high calibre (according to Latin scholar Dr David Howlett, interviewed in two of the episodes) testify to the educational ability of at least the elite in the native population.

There is also new evidence of impressively large timber halls being built in the mid 5th century on the site of Roman ruins (at Beadoswald on Hadrian’s Wall and in Wroxeter) – pointing to the existence of powerful rulers rather than the chaos we have been told must have occurred once Roman troops were pulled out in 407AD. In York pottery was still being manufactured in this period ie some people continued to live in Roman towns rather than returning to rural living and subsistence agriculture, and pollen analysis shows that fields did not revert to wild wood except in a very few areas. It’s time to ‘rewrite the history books’ according to Pryor, much of what we have been led to believe about this period is ‘rubbish’!

Pryor’s thesis in the first episode is that the Romans were not an oppressive occupying force, native Britons were not always ‘tragic victims’, and the invasion of Britain in 43AD ‘may not have been forced’ but by invitation of client kings looking for support against other local rulers. Often Romanised native Britons were allowed to rule in the name of Rome – these were the people who lived in the grand Roman villas of the 3rd and 4th century AD, whose mosaics portrayed a deliberate mix of Roman and native gods. This fits in with Pryor’s thesis (though he doesn’t quite seem to join the dots as I am doing here with these comments) as it means the British were not a helpless people left to marauding warriors from all points of the compass, as has often been assumed in the past. According to Pryor Britain ‘thrived’ on foreign influences and, what is more important, the instability that affected the rest of Europe when Rome went into decline did not reach Britain, which actually became a bastion of civilisation in the north west just as Byzantium (centred on Constantinople, now Istanbul) did in the East.

I personally think this argument is a little over-stretched, but it makes good television. Where is the centre of power that balances out Constantinople? The beach parties held in Cornwall between the traders and the natives that Pryor points to hardly seem sufficient evidence of a meeting of civilisations or an exchange of intellectual ideas. None the less I am sure he is right that there was no widespread chaos when Rome left, that the native Britons presented a strong face to the world, and were not invaded by anyone (there is no archaeological evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasion as Pryor points out – no war cemeteries or burnt buildings – unlike Boudica’s revolt in AD60, and the attacks of the Vikings starting in AD793).

In the third episode, Pryor visits one of the ‘Saxon shore’ forts which stretch along the south and east coast of Britain. There are new arguments (here presented by Andrew Pearson) that these massive stone forts built by the Romans may not have been defensive, but instead used to store grain, ie with an economic rather than a military purpose. The significance of this is that there were no attacks from Saxons and other Germanic tribes on Britain. I personally believe, from various throwaway comments I’ve read made by historians of the classical period, that this area could have been called the ‘Saxon shore’ by the Romans because the people who lived in this part of Britain spoke ‘Saxon’ ie a Germanic language (rather than Celtic as in the West of Britain), and had trade and other links with the Germanic tribes across the North Sea and the Channel, rather than being threatened by them.

The fertile flatlands of the east and south east of Britain were the grain basket of the land, grain which was no doubt needed to support the Roman armies scattered throughout Europe, and this valuable commodity was stored up ready to be shipped abroad from these forts. In the past the existence of these imposing stone forts (many of which still stand nearly 2000 years later), and their ‘Saxon’ label in a contemporary source, has led historians and archaeologists to assume that there was a huge threat from across the water, but there is no written record or significant archaeological evidence for such attacks, during or after the Roman era in Britain.

The idea of two languages / cultures sitting side by side in Britain at this time is not the conclusion Pryor comes to when he moves on to this topic in episode three of this series, and I have not heard it suggested by anyone except Stephen Oppenheimer, whose book and ideas I will be discussing in a future post. Pryor talks to Katie Lowe, a linguist, about her research into Celtic influences on Old English. Previously linguists have looked at the vocabularies of the two languages and found very little overlap, but Lowe has been studying the grammar and word order of English, and argues that the English language changed from an inflected language (grammar information primarily found in word endings) to one based on word order, which could have been due to Celtic speakers trying to learn English as a second language, and this would have had to take place over many generations to have caused these changes to English.

Pryor also talks to Dominic Powlesland who has been researching settlements in the Yorkshire Wolds around West Heslerton for most of his career. The evidence there shows peaceful continuity from Roman times through into the middle Anglo-Saxon period. Stable isotope analysis of teeth enamel shows that very few people buried in the early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the area came from abroad, but nearly half grew up in the west of Britain and thus would most likely have been Celtic speakers. However, Pryor skips over discussing how this Germanic language got to Britain. I would argue that this evidence could point to a form of Germanic already being spoken in the area, rather than being brought in by migrating or invading Anglo-Saxons – for which there is very little evidence. Then over several generations of West British immigration of Celtic speakers this language of the east English evolved into a new language that was distinctly different in grammar to the Germanic spoken on the continent – Old English.

My main disagreements with Pryor’s thesis are that Pryor treats Britain in the period he investigates in Britain AD as one country, though much of his evidence seems to point to clear differences between West and East, such as the presence or absence of Christianity in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Secondly he clearly chose not to delve any deeper into the origins of the English language, perhaps deciding that was taking him too far away from his own areas of expertise. There will be more on this and other issues raised by Pryor’s stimulating TV series in future posts.

Francis Pryor and some ideas about early English history and language


Francis Pryor is a British archaeologist and the period he specialises in is the Bronze Age ie what is known as ‘prehistory’, but his knowledge and interest stretches from the first humans who occupied Britain (recently evidence has been found that this stretches back 900,000 years), right up to the end of the middle ages (which included Chaucer but not Shakespeare, if you are of a literary rather than historical bent). Pryor has written archaeological books that cover British history across this entire range including Britain BC, Britain AD, Britain in the Middle Ages and a book about landscape history. This is the period that I myself have been exploring for the last few years, though my primary interest is the Anglo-Saxons. Pryor’s main focus is archaeology in landscape, and he lives in East Anglia, which I would point to as his landscape ‘centre’.

Conversely my main interest started with Old English poetry (eg Beowulf) and the Anglo-Saxon period when it was written, and Yorkshire, where I have lived since I was 14, is what I would describe as my landscape ‘centre’. From the starting point of poems like The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife’s Lament and The Dream of the Rood – which I came across about 15 years ago in a small anthology edited and translated by Richard Hamer – I’ve moved on to exlore archaeology and history, which never held much interest to me when I was young (I dropped history at school in favour of geography when we had to make our O’ Level subject choices). The reason that I discovered this poetry was due to my affinity with those words in modern English that have their roots in Old English, ie my interest in the origins of words (etymology). I was also fascinated by the Old English language that these poems are written in, though I have tried and largely failed to learn this precursor of modern English, having to rely on dictionaries, glosses and grammars if attempting to read the poems I mentioned above in the original.

My interest in the history of the English language has led me to my own theory about the Anglo-Saxon ‘invasion’ that is supposed to have occurred after the Romans left Britain, and a lot of my reading of archaeology and history of the period is bent on exploring the puzzle of where English came from. My personal theory is that the Anglo-Saxons cannot have brought the English language with them and imposed it on the native Britons because that isn’t how language works; the language and the people who spoke it must have been present on the east side of Britain even before the Romans came, perhaps arriving over the ‘land bridge’ 10,000 years ago that connected the east side of Britain with North West Europe. There are archaeologists and other experts whose ideas provide support for this theory, though they are still in a (now growing) minority, and one of these people is Francis Pryor (another notable name is Stephen Oppenheimer, whose ideas I came across first, and I will be looking at his book in a future post). I find this area of research very exciting, and it is the reason I have set up this category on my blog, to explore these ideas about the history of our land, its peoples and the English language, that the experts touch on in their books.

Three years ago I visited Flag Fen near Peterborough, which was, is and will be one of Pryor’s lasting contributions to educating us the public on the people who once lived in England. This includes a building erected over archaeological remains that are still in situ, a reconstruction of stone and bronze age houses, and a visitor centre, on the site of a bronze age settlement that Francis Pryor excavated in the 80s with his team of archaeologists. The main focus of Flag Fen is the causeways crossing the marshes that Pryor himself first discovered in 1982, but recently eight bronze age log boats were found a couple of miles away in a quarry, which are now being conserved at Flag Fen, so this venue has become even more appealing for visitors – as we the public have a deeper affection for boats than causeways (there are set times each day when you can watch the experts working on the conservation of the log boats – due to take two years).

So Pryor has written books (which I will look at in more detail in a future post) and set up a Bronze Age centre, but he has also contributed to TV programmes such as Time Team (which features a different archaeological dig each time, if you’ve never seen it), meaning he is a recognised media figure to those of us who watch archaeological history on UK TV. He has also written and narrated a series of three programmes about the end of the Roman period and the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period called ‘Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain’. This is available on 4oD (the UK’s Channel Four On Demand service) and I recommend it highly if you haven’t seen it. The last episode in particular focuses on the idea that there was a ‘cultural exchange’ of ideas and artefacts between areas of eastern England and North West Europe (Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, France) during the early Anglo-Saxon period, rather than an invasion. This is not an entirely new idea amongst archaeologists working today, but it is not what the textbooks say about the period.

Pryor’s approach, though clearly rejecting the invasion theory, is still quite tentative. In the programme he talks to different experts (eg a linguist) with different conflicting theories. I personally think that his private views are likely more decisive, but he is aware that because this is not his period of expertise, and the majority of Anglo-Saxonists still believe in the invasion theory or at the very least a taking of power by a migrating elite from the continent, he cannot tread on too many toes. It seems that none of the experts yet feels like putting their neck on the block and saying there was no invasion, there was no take-over, the Romano-British peasants became the Anglo-Saxons.

In my next post I will discuss the TV programme and Pryor’s ideas about the ‘Dark Ages’ in more detail, and over the next few months I am hoping to look at the ideas of some of the many other researchers in this field that I have managed to discover from my reading. But I am also hoping readers of this blog may know about unpublished research that I am not aware of (archaeologists are notoriously slow at publishing their work – sometimes it takes them twenty years of more – which is frustrating). I am also not able to afford the price of many of the new books that are coming out that focus on the ‘dark ages’ so if you have read them I would love to know about that too. I think this period is exciting because it is controversial – there will be lots of people who think my theory is flying in the face of the evidence, and I have to admit it was initially a gut reaction, an instinct – that the invasion theory couldn’t be correct. So we shall see! I’m hoping this will get sorted out one way or the other in the next few years (eg with the help of genetic data), and then I am expecting that all the history textbooks will have to be rewritten – which is what Francis Pryor argues.