Tuesday, March 04, 2008
Despite my long-standing interest in Celts and Anglo-Saxons, it took me a long time to get round to reading Stephen Oppenheimer's The origins of the British: a genetic detective story (2006). It is an alarmingly big book, and I had other stuff to do. When I finally read it, I found that appearances were deceptive. The book has a lot of diagrams and appendices, and the print (in the UK edition) is widely spaced, so the main text is not in reality all that long. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject. This does not mean I agree with Oppenheimer's conclusions. I was going to give a summary of his claims, but I find that a webpage here by Geoffrey Sampson already contains an excellent summary, which I gratefully borrow:
Overall, Oppenheimer is making the following claims about British prehistory:
Sampson also has some critical comments on Oppenheimer's claims. I will make a few comments of my own below the fold, but it is probably more useful to describe other recent work (mainly archaeological) on the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England ....
So far as Oppenheimer's genetic claims are concerned, the most interesting is point 2 in Sampson's summary. Unlike some authors, Oppenheimer does find a marked genetic difference between England and the 'Celtic fringe'. Whereas this would conventionally be attributed to the impact of Anglo-Saxon and Danish migration in the early middle ages, Oppenheimer believes that it goes back much further, to the Neolithic or even the Mesolithic period. Broadly, he argues that the western parts of the British Isles were originally settled mainly by people from the Iberian peninsula, using the Atlantic sea routes, while the eastern parts (i.e. most of England) were largely settled from across the North Sea, roughly from what is now Belgium. The genetic differences resulting from these different origins have persisted, and have only been marginally affected by subsequent migrations.
Now, I don't greatly care if my ancestors turn out to have been Belgian, so long as I don't have to put mayonnaise on my chips, but I am not yet convinced. In view of the importance and novelty of Oppenheimer's genetic claims, the evidence is presented surprisingly briefly. It does not appear to be based on any detailed peer-reviewed studies, but only on Oppenheimer's own unpublished analysis of haplotype data. Based on this, he considers that the 'English' haplotypes are more closely related to those of the Low Countries than to the 'Iberian' haplotypes which prevail in the 'Celtic fringe', but that the divergences from the Continental types must go back much further in time than the Anglo-Saxon migrations.
For all I know, Oppenheimer may well be right, but I would be cautious about accepting his claims until they are corroborated by other experts. Oppenheimer is not himself a geneticist by training. Neither am I, but then I am not making highly technical genetic claims based on my own research.
The boldest of Oppenheimer's claims is point 5 in Sampson's summary: that the inhabitants of eastern Britain already spoke a Germanic language long before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. This does have the advantage of avoiding the problem of explaining how a (supposedly) tiny number of Anglo-Saxons got the Britons to speak Old English. Otherwise, it has nothing to recommend it. There is no direct evidence that a Germanic language was spoken in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons (except for Germanic mercenaries in the Roman army), and there is a reasonable, if not overwhelming, amount of evidence from place names, etc, that a Celtic language was spoken. Most linguists also believe that Old English is far too closely related to the other Germanic languages to have diverged from them as long ago as Oppenheimer claims.
Reading Oppenheimer's book has also encouraged me to catch up on recent historical and archaeological work on the Anglo-Saxon migration period. A selection of studies is in the references below. Since there are very few documents from the period, most of the evidence is archaeological. Unfortunately, archaeologists suffer from an occupational vice of over-interpreting their evidence. It used to be the fashion to attribute every shift of style in pots (and other material remains) to the migration of peoples. Since the 1950s the fashion has swung wildly to the other extreme, and there is a strong prejudice against recognising migration at all. The conclusions that archaeologists draw from the evidence therefore need to be taken with a handful or two of salt.
So far as the archaeological facts are concerned, there seems to be a consensus that the Romano-British economy and society collapsed very completely and quickly soon after the withdrawal of the Roman army and administration early in the 5th century. Towns and villas fell into disuse, coins were no longer minted, and even pottery (that mainstay of archaeology) is very scarce. It is remarkably difficult to find any traces of the indigenous population. As Myres puts it (p.21) 'the sub-Roman Britons of the fifth and sixth centuries appear to have enjoyed - if that is the right word - a culture almost as completely devoid of durable material possessions as any culture can be.' Myres goes on to conclude that there must have been a drastic fall in population. This conclusion has not been so widely accepted. There is one strong piece of evidence against depopulation of rural areas: pollen analysis shows no widespread regeneration of woodland at the time. Across most of England the landscape would revert to woodland in a few decades if not regularly grazed or cultivated, so complete depopulation of large areas seems to be ruled out. (But I wonder how long regeneration of woodland could be prevented by grazing sheep and deer, without much human supervision?)
There has been disagreement about the date of the first significant Germanic migration to Britain. The documentary sources (Gildas, etc.) indicate the mid-5th century for this, but some historians, up to and including Myres, have believed in significant Germanic settlements in the late Roman period. This belief rests largely on the existence of metalwork and pottery from this period which appears to have been manufactured in late Roman Britain but in Germanic styles (described by Myres as 'Romano-Saxon'). This has been interpreted as made by Romano-British craftsmen for Germanic settlers. But recent archaeologists have tended to reject this interpretation, arguing that the supposedly 'Germanic' style was just a widespread late-Roman fashion. If this reinterpretation is correct, then there is little evidence for significant Germanic settlement before the mid-5th century. But the tide of archaeological opinion may turn again.
In reading the archaeological studies I was particularly looking for estimates of population numbers. Various estimates have been made for Roman Britain, but there is very little for the immediate post-Roman period. This is understandable in view of the shortage of evidence. It did however occur to me that it should be possible to form estimates of the relative numbers of Anglo-Saxon and indigenous people, based on the proportions of different types of burials. If all graves can be identified as 'Anglo-Saxon' or 'indigenous', then we can get such an estimate, admittedly subject to distortion by bias in preservation or discovery. Even if not all graves can be definitely identified, we might still get some reasonable outer limits for the estimate based on those that can be definitely identified.
Little work of this kind seems to have been done, but I was pleased to find that a bold attempt has been made in a series of papers by the British-based German archaeologist Heinrich Harke. (The 'a' should have an umlaut, but this will not show properly in all browsers.) Unfortunately two of the key papers are in German, which is not my favourite language, but I hope I have deciphered the gist of them.
5th and 6th century graves are of two kinds: burials and cremation urns. Cremation urns are found mainly in eastern England, and have long been recognised as distinctively Anglo-Saxon. But the majority of graves are burials. The important feature of Harke's work is that he believes he can distinguish reliably, at least in many cases, between Anglo-Saxon and indigenous graves. The main basis for this is the presence or absence of weapons (swords, seaxes, spears and shields) in the graves. Throughout eastern and central England, even as far west as Shropshire, bodies were often buried with weapons. Harke argues that this is usually a good indicator of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, his main points being:
a) weapons are not found in late Roman or Celtic burials of the period, though they are common in Germanic areas on the Continent;
b) the weapon burials are too common to be confined to people of very high status, so they are not just markers of a social elite;
c) weapons are often found in what appear to be 'family graves', which suggest an inherited ethnic status;
d) the skeletons in weapon graves are on average a few centimetres taller than those in weaponless graves, which is consistent with an ethnic difference between Germanic and British people. The difference cannot be explained by social status, because the taller skeletons are otherwise similar in nutritional history, as shown by growth interruptions, etc.
Harke does not make what seems to me the important point that an invading military aristocracy, facing a risk of rebellion from an oppressed indigenous majority, does not usually let the subject people wander around with weapons! The impression we get from early documents such as the Laws of Ine is that the indigenous people were reduced to a servile status (wealh = Briton = slave), so the Britons in areas ruled by Anglo-Saxons would probably not have weapons. Or if they did have weapons, they would hardly waste them by burying them with the dead.
Based on the assumption that weapon burial indicates Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, Harke attempts some quantitative estimates. He notes that some communities seem to be entirely Anglo-Saxon, including the women, while others were probably only Anglo-Saxon on the male side, others were ethnically mixed (as shown by mixed cemeteries), and others were enclaves of Britons. In southern and eastern England he estimates that the proportion of Anglo-Saxons ranged from a sixth to a quarter, while in northern England it was smaller, at 10 percent or less. Except perhaps in East Anglia (the stronghold of cremation urns) they were nowhere in a majority, but Harke argues that the Anglo-Saxon minority would be large enough, combined with its social and military supremacy, to give it a linguistic and cultural dominance. After the collapse of Roman civilisation, and in the absence of a Celtic alternative in most of England, the indigenous majority would be eager to throw in their lot with the new cultural elite and blend in as completely as possible.
I find this a plausible and appealing scenario, which is consistent with the genetic evidence as interpreted by Weale et al., and which helps explain the otherwise perplexing absence of Celtic vocabulary in the English language. If the Britons were anxious to assimilate to the culturally dominant ethnic group, and 'pass' for Anglo-Saxon, they would avoid giving away their servile origins by using Celtic words. Harke's thesis will however no doubt be controversial. I have not seen much response as yet from the anti-migrationists, but they will doubtless deny that burial rites are reliable ethnic markers. Fashions in burial do change, so it is not impossible that weapon burial would spread as a new imported fashion. But Harke has at least made a constructive and ingenious start by grappling with difficulties which other archaeologists have tended to brush aside.
References (umlauts in German titles are omitted):
C. J. Arnold: Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England, 1984
C. J. Arnold: An archaeology of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, 1988
A. S. Esmond Cleary: The ending of Roman Britain, 1989
Neil Faulkner: The decline and fall of Roman Britain, 2000
Heinrich Harke: 'Briten und Angelsachsen in nachromischen England: zum Nachweis der einheimische Bevolkerung in den angelsachsischen Landnahmgebieten', Studien zur Sachsenforschung, 11, 1998, 87-119
Heinrich Harke: 'Sachsische Ethnizitat und archaologische Deutung in fruhmittelalterlichen England', Studien zur Sachsenforschung, 12, 1999, 109-122
Heinrich Harke: ' "Warrior graves?" The background of the Anglo-Saxon burial rite', Past and Present, 126, 1990, 22-43
Heinrich Harke: 'Kings and warriors: population and landscape from post-Roman to Norman Britain', in The peopling of Britain: the shaping of a human landscape, ed. Paul Slack and Ryk Ward, 2002.
Richard Hodges: The Anglo-Saxon achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society, 1989
Michael E. Jones: The end of Roman Britain, 1996
Sam Lucy: The Anglo-Saxon way of death: burial rites in early England, 2000
J. N. L. Myres: The English settlements, 1986